A Note To Our readers
Mark Riccobono is the new president of NFB, that nation’s largest group advocating for people with vision impairment. I find him an interesting choice as president of the organization. This is a letter Ive drafted to him regarding NFB, technology and its recent resolution asking Apple to require accessibility for submission to its Appstore.
If you don’t know who I am, as a matter of introduction, I’ve been working in access technology and accessibility since 1998. I’m a former VP/Software Engineering at Freedom Scientific and have been something of an accessibility researcher, advocate, activist, gadfly, loudmouth and crackpot since. You can learn all about me by reading the blog where this letter has been posted and in the archive of BlindConfidential, the very popular blog I wrote for a lot of years.
To start, please accept my sincere congratulations on your election to the presidency of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). I’m highly encouraged that NFB now has someone at the top of the organization who seems (to me at least) to have a grasp of the world of technology, research and the tools that a blind person needs to compete in professional settings, in schools and to enjoy a connected life in the information age. I look forward to seeing how your insights effect NFB policy and actions as we move into the future.
I would also like to congratulate you on having successfully led the project that resulted in your being able to drive a car at Daytona. While I live in a big city and rarely need to get into a car for any reason, I recognize the profound level of freedom that could be accorded blind people if they could operate a motor vehicle independently. That NFB could work with Virginia Tech to make such an amazingly innovative system is, indeed, a tremendous achievement and I look forward to seeing it evolve into the future.
As I’m a technology specialist, I read the NFB resolution stating that it will work with Apple to improve the accessibility of third party applications on its AppStore with great interest. I also read the piece you wrote further explaining the resolution and found it informative as well.
Having read both, it is my understanding that the resolution states that NFB believes that Apple should require accessibility compliance as a condition of inclusion in their AppStore. I agree with this assertion entirely.
I was also happy to read the whereas clauses in the resolution and enjoyed reading how you summarized such in your article. It is heartening to hear NFB state publicly, in a resolution, that Apple is the clear leader in accessibility and that Apple has done more than any other OS vendor to accommodate our needs in their technology. I agree with these statements entirely as well.
If, however, I attended the NFB convention as a delegate (an incredibly unlikely event as I’m not an NFB member), I would, although I agree entirely with the language of the resolution, have had to vote against its passing. While everything the resolution says is excellent, the problems are with what it doesn’t say and how its passing was perceived in the community of blind technology experts.
If this resolution, instead of saying, “We resolve that Apple…” instead said, “We resolve that Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and all OS vendors with an online software store…” I would be writing an article celebrating its passing. Singling out Apple, however, even with the statements that they already do a better job with accessibility than any other vendor, is not in my mind an acceptable statement to make.
Specifically, this resolution asks Apple to ensure accessibility of third party applications at a level which NFB has not resolved to ask Amazon, Google and Microsoft to do for applications that carry their brand names. As the whereas clauses clearly state, Apple is already the best in this space and asking Apple to do something regarding software over which it has no control is, as I said above, an excellent idea but, in absence of insisting that the rest of the industry first reach parity with accessibility on the Apple systems for software over which they have complete control, I find raising the bar of requirements for Apple in exclusion of its competitors to do the same to be a statement that will, at best, cause confusion in the world of technology for people with vision impairment. The resolution, because of what it didn’t include, is perceived as a criticism of the best player in the game while ignoring similar and much worse problems at Amazon, Google and Microsoft.
Please also realize that this is 2014, a time in history where a long written resolution followed by an article explaining such by the president of NFB will be read by very few people interested in the subject. I write long form essays and I’m an accessibility nerd of the highest order, hence, I’m the kind of guy who actually reads such things. I’m sad to report, though, that few of my peers in the world of blindness and technology would take the time to read through such and or take the time to fully understand the nuances therein. This is the age of 140 character conversations and, while not true, the perception of this latest NFB resolution on Twitter is, “NFB slams Apple again” and “Riccobono doubles down on Apple slam.” I agree that these summaries are unfair but we don’t live in a fair world where everyone takes the time to read the details. perception is tremendously important and, speaking on behalf of other blind technology professionals to whom I’ve spoken in the past week, NFB has yet another major problem in the hearts and minds of this community. I don’t know how to fix this problem but it’s something about which NFB needs to be aware if it hopes to regain credibility among this admittedly elite class of blind professionals.
I believe that you can be an agent of change within NFB. I’m happy to hear that NFBCS has a new leader and I hope to see NFB improve its statements on technology as we move forward. While I may or may not agree with NFB resolutions that are passed in the future, speaking for myself and others to whom I’ve spoken, simply making NFB public statements consistent when addressing technology vendors will help substantially with this credibility issue. If you’re going to resolve that one technology vendor do something, please resolve that they all do it and you’ll find that some people like me, vocal critics of NFB in the past, will start paying attention and, perhaps, join and become active in NFB in the future.
In conclusion, I’m very happy to see you as the new president of NFB. I’m excited about progress on your automobile project. I agree with the text of the aforementioned resolution but I’m concerned with seeing Apple singled out for technological developments out of its control without a similar standard being applied to Amazon, Google and Microsoft for software entirely under their control. It seems very inconsistent to me and those to whom I’ve spoken. NFB has a perception problem among blind technology professionals and consistency in statements about technology would go a long way to allowing NFB to regain credibility in this community.
Chris “Gonz blinko” Hofstader