Android, iOS and Accessibility

I’d like to clarify some things I wrote in “The Model T Syndrome” article I posted yesterday. First, I was discussing accessibility for people like me, those with profound to total vision impairment who use a speech based screen reader. Second, I, in no way, hope to discuss other disabilities, including low vision, as I’ve not the expertise with such access technology nor have I used such in about 15 years since my vision deteriorated to a point I couldn’t use magnification anymore. I’ve learned that people with low vision tend to prefer devices other than those from Apple, my mother, for instance, chose a Kindle Fire as it is the easiest for her to see. I’m writing about the things I like to use and I’m a total who uses a screen reader with speech. If you’re interested in features for people with low vision, I suggest you find a different blog as I don’t write about such but, please do come back soon as other articles might be of interest to you..

Truly Accessible Versus Usable

Yesterday, I posted an article here called “The Model T Syndrome Revisited” in which I had hoped to address the philosophical question, “What is the difference between the definition of ‘accessible’ versus ‘usable’ when discussing mobile technology?”

On Friday, September 20, Apple released the latest version of its mobile operating system, iOS 7. If a blind person, like me for instance, wants what Apple is selling, he can purchase an iOS device and find that, out-of-the-box, there are zero accessibility failures. A blind person who purchases an iOS device, can make his own decisions as to which features he wants to use as Apple provides accessibility to 100% of the features available to people who do not self identify as having a disability.

After posting the article yesterday, I received a lot of tweets and a couple of emails from blind Android enthusiasts. These people told me all of the cool things they can do with their Android devices, including launching accessibility out-of-the-box on some android units, something I had thought impossible when I wrote the article yesterday. If a blind person, let’s say me, wants what Google is selling, he will get a subset of the features available to our sighted friends. To me, if the OS vendor does not make 100% of its features accessible in the same way that Apple has with iOS 7, it may be usable but it’s not accessible. At the same time, I completely reject Google for having the hubris to decide what blind people do and do not want.

Google is an enormously wealthy company. They own their operating system and they control the apps they choose to ship on their devices. Google invented the Android accessibility API and has total control over the screen reader and the entire accessibility infrastructure and the ecosystem of its own Google branded apps. Nonetheless, it’s obvious to me as a career software engineer that Google has refused to include accessibility in its automated testing process and that accessibility is not enough of a priority at Google to even ensure that the apps over which it has complete control are accessible.

So, while a bunch of blind buddies of mine enjoy their experience with Android and, perhaps, you may want to explore it as well, they have not met the standard of 100% out-of-the-box accessibility in the way Apple has with iOS 7. As Apple has set the standard, it’s incumbent on all other vendors to meet or exceed said standard or, obviously, remain in the category of substandard accessibility.

While Android is usable by this population, I will not endorse it with my time or money or any influence I may have in this community until it meets the same standard that Apple provides in iOS 7. A single inaccessible app shipped from Google is tantamount to Google deciding what blind people do and do not want to use, a decision that Apple has left to the community.

Is iOS 7 Perfect?

One who reads my work may think that I believe that iOS is the be all and end all of accessibility. This is not true. I often have conversations with friends in the “human interfaces” (HCI) wing of the accessibility research community and we often talk about things Apple could do to make iOS accessibility better than it is today.

Specifically, as of this writing there is no way for a blind person to read equations expressed in MathML with VoiceOver. Hence, blind students cannot use an iOS device for their math studies and, to make matters worse, there is also no accessible way for a student to manipulate an equation to do her homework.

I can think of a dozen ways Apple could improve the accessibility of its Maps app and to lots of its other features. The job Apple has done with accessibility is the best in the world today but it can be improved dramatically and it is important that we, as consumers, keep pressure on Apple to continue pushing the state of the art in out-of-the-box accessibility.

Criticizing Android

I am most critical of Android accessibility because Google has the underlying technology to make everything on an Android device fully accessible. All that Google lacks to match the accessibility we enjoy on iOS is the will to actually make it happen. For Google to equal Apple’s 100% accessibility out-of-the-box, they just need to add accessibility to the criteria for final acceptance of any feature of an Android device. To me, a single accessibility failure that could be avoided, must be avoided. Would Google ship a device with features most people could not use? Of course not. Why then would we, as the community of people with profound to total vision impairment allow them to provide us with fewer features than are available to everyone else?

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Chris Hofstader

I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I podcast for Pod Delusion, , blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort.

2 thoughts on “Android, iOS and Accessibility”

  1. Chris: I very much like what you’ve written here. I saw reference to this post from John Gruber/Daring Fireball.

    I used to work in the Assistive Tech world: presented at Closing the Gap and CSUN for close to 20 years. I was the “Mac guy” and I did a lot of work for Apple in those days (retired now).

    I hope you’ll keep posting reviews/opinion pieces like this, it’s great to read something that’s not an infomercial for a particular piece of technology.

    Keep up the great work and thanks for a good read.

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