Thursday, October 9, 2008

Apple Accessibility

I enjoy writing about Apple Inc., and its products because I know them, and because I follow the news and rumors from Cupertino pretty closely. The Mac blogosphere, however is pretty well heeled territory, and is populated with plenty of characters that are funnier, more diligent and more talented than I am. The sheer volume of what gets written about Apple, Mac and the iPhone is just so great that I usually don’t feel like I have much to add to the record.

Occasionally, however, I do stumble on an interesting tidbit that slips by everybody else, or doesn’t get covered nearly as well as I think it should. A recent example of this was as agreement reached recently between Apple Inc., the National Federation of the Blind, and the State of Massachusetts to make iTunes and the iTunes store more accessible to people with visual disabilities. It’s a little dry, to be sure, but the agreement, along with accessibility improvements in Leopard, and the addition of spoken menus in the 4G Nano, is part of a real and welcome push by Apple to make it’s core products more friendly to the disabled.

Happily, most users of Apple products don’t have the need to use any accessibility functions, but that fact has made the issue of usability for the disabled a dark corner that hasn’t been well addressed by the press, the blogosphere or, sadly, the company itself. Historically, the Mac OS has lagged seriously behind Windows for disabled usability. The Windows world has had for years, a variety of different screen reading, optical character recognition and other software that (with varying degrees of convenience) help the blind to do most of what the rest of us do on our computers everyday. The Mac side, for the most part, didn’t go much beyond some gimmicky voices that were supported sporadically and some very basic navigational ability in the OS. iPods, with the exception of the Shuffle, have been pretty much unusable to the blind since they were introduced, and the iPhone, because it is almost completely lacking in physical buttons that the blind rely on, is the most inaccessible cellular phone on the market for blind users. Perhaps most troubling, though, was the fact that Apple’s most used piece of software (iTunes for Windows), was impenetrable to Windows based screen reading software to the point of making it all but unusable to disabled users who were comfortably using most other software on their computers.

To be fair, the gap between blind accessibility on the Mac OS, and Windows wasn’t entirely Apple’s fault, nor did it really demonstrate a commitment my Microsoft.* Straight out of the box, Windows hasn’t historically been any more usable for the blind than the Mac OS. Most of the software that make Windows based computers usable by the blind is made by third party developers like Freedom Scientific, not by Redmond. In that sense, usability on the Mac has been the victim of low market share, which makes software development in general less desirable for the platform, since the user base (and potential customer base) is much smaller. I don’t have any numbers on it, but I also think that the historically higher price (or the perception of higher prices) on the Mac scared off the state agencies that often help fund computer equipment for the disabled. In short, accessibility software for the Mac has been scarce for the same reasons that most large, complicated and/or specialized software haven’t been available for the Mac--lack of sufficient financial incentives and bureaucratic intransigence.

Having said that, accessibility on the iPod wasn’t an afterthought, it was given no thought at all, and iTunes and the iTunes store weren’t much better.

Thankfully, that has been changing in the last couple of years. Apple has made great strides in filling the gap left by developers with VoiceOver, and the “Alex” voice included in Leopard is better than anything I’ve heard on the Windows side. Likewise, the new spoken menus option available on the 4G iPod Nano are a welcome addition.** The aforementioned agreement between Apple, the NFB and the state of Massachusetts is also encouraging because it promises to finally address the accessibility problems with iTunes on the Windows side, and to finally open up the iTunes store to the visually disabled as well. The latter will be particularly welcome, as it should allow the blind to independently access the audio content from iTunes U and purchase audiobooks from the iTunes store.

Apple’s journey to accessibility isn’t over, it hasn’t even achieved parity with Windows yet, but hopefully the positive steps we’ve seen recently are an indication of things to come.

*Amusingly, and I think indicative of the relative tone-deafness of each company, Apple’s accessibility options are in a preference pane called “Universal Access” whose icon is a standing and wide armed figure, apparently freed from constraints, while the Windows control panel in question is called “Accessibility Options”, and is indicated by a person shackled to a wheelchair.

**Interestingly, the spoken menus on the Nano don’t work the way most screen reading software does. Usually, the software will “read” text on the fly and translate it to spoken audio, but with the 4G nano, all text is basically pre-read on the computer that the Nano is tethered to, and a spoken audio file is produced and then attached to the .mp3 or aac file that it describes and transferred to the Nano. As a result, none of the “extras” on the iPod, like calendar, notes, clock, or perhaps most frustratingly, battery level can yet be used by the blind on the iPod. Also, if your iPod is tethered to a pre-Leopard version of the Mac OS, then you’re stuck with those gimmicky sounding voices--No Alex for you!

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