I enjoy Twitter. I use it daily to hear about news in science, skepticism, secularism, humanism and other interests. I also follow lots of friends and I’ve developed online relationships with a lot of people around the world. For one like me who spends his days at a computer, Twitter provides a fun way to participate in a virtual global community and I enjoy it.
Yesterday, I saw a tweet that pointed to a BBC article about a lawsuit filed in German court by Samsung challenging the iOS version of VoiceOver, in my mind the single most usable screen reader on any OS ever. I tweeted that people with vision impairment should boycott Samsung as Samsung is threatening the legal status of VO. I didn’t think this would cause much controversy among blind people – a win in the German court can possibly result in a ruling that could stop Apple from shipping VoiceOver in Germany and, perhaps due to WTO IP regulations, in the entire world. Killing VoiceOver is a highly unlikely outcome but, it is a possibility and I objected to Samsung putting an essential technology at risk.
I then received a tweet from a person who identified himself as “an accessibility tester for Samsung.” I do not know if this person is a Samsung employee or a volunteer beta tester and I do not believe that he speaks on behalf of the corporation. Please do not assume that his statements reflect the opinion of Samsung as I’m fairly confident this person was speaking only on his own behalf. I think Samsung and all Android accessibility is at best third rate and that Samsung seems to invest little in improving it. So, I have problems with Samsung but I don’t think the individual with whom I debated yesterday is representative of the corporation.
The first few tweets I received from this person said that he talked to someone inside Samsung and that they told him they weren’t threatening VoiceOver. I replied by saying that Samsung’s public statements say nothing about protecting accessibility for people with vision impairment. I said that I believe that he talked to a person within Samsung who reassured him but that there is no public statements from Samsung to this effect. He told me to accept his word on the matter and I said that I will form my opinion based upon all of the actual evidence and not based on hearsay from a random guy on Twitter quoting an unnamed source within Samsung.
Obviously, this person didn’t know me or my history as he then suggested that I didn’t understand patent law. I admit, I’m not an IP lawyer nor one who has studied the subject formally; I am, however, along with my friend Richard Stallman, the co-founder of the League for Programming Freedom (an organization that folded itself into the Free Software Foundation campaign to end software patents a few years ago). I have held the positions of president of LPF as well as a member of its board for its entire history. During my tenure at LPF, we filed briefs in numerous court cases, including cases before the Supreme Court. Philippe Kahn, founder of Borland, Starfish, Lightsurf and, most recently, Full Power) credits our work at LPF with their victory over Lotus in front of the Supremes. When it comes to software patents, user interface copyright and other bad ideas in IP law, I have as much experience as any non-lawyer.
The tweets continued from our friendly, blind, Samsung tester. I stated that VoiceOver was “essential” technology. Then, rather than defending his position, he responded with the ad hominum, “Well, Apple is bad on IP too,” and, “Apple tried to stop Samsung from using multi-touch gestures.” I agree, Apple’s IP strategy is deplorable but that doesn’t excuse Samsung from their misdeeds.
At this point, I thought our conversation had ended. He thinks that the Samsung suit is purely about IP; I think it’s about accessibility. Then, I made the mistake of continuing the discussion by stating that multi-touch gestures were not essential but that VoiceOver was, indeed, a fundamental requirement for a population of users.
My Twitter antagonist then stated that he felt multi-touch gestures were essential, implying that they were as important as a screen reader. I pointed out that many, many people used smart phones successfully before such gestures were added but that 0% of people with vision impairment can use a mobile device without a screen reader. I then asked him to define “essential” but he refused.
At this point, I was certain that the discussion had ended as the individual with who I was debating refused to answer simple questions Germain to the discussion. I sent a tweet that said, “Nice chat, I’m going to have my lunch now,” (or something to that affect).
I then saw more tweets from my antagonist. The first said, “blind people like you who complain are just filled with hot air,” and, perhaps the most offensive thing a blind person ever said to me in earnest, “All blind people like you do is want. Want, want, want…”
I replied by saying that I found this statement highly offensive. I stated that all I want is the same civil rights as anyone else. I asked how he could hold such a position. He replied with continuous ad hominum attacks on me and Apple, he showed us a whole bag of logical fallacies in his argument and, in my opinion, must be a self-hating blind person who, somehow, doesn’t believe we deserve full access to technology.
Perhaps, this pathetic soul is tainted by his work as an accessibility tester for Samsung. Of course, he hears tons of complaining from Android users as Android accessibility is, at best, third rate. Sure, he thinks other blinks just, “want, want, want” because we want, want, want iOS quality accessibility as a minimum standard.
With VoiceOver, first on Macintosh and, in the past few years, on iOS, Apple has set the bar for out-of-the-box accessibility. The Macintosh version of VoiceOver isn’t great compared to powerhouses like JAWS or NVDA but for an out-of-the-box solution, it is profoundly better than anything on any other OS.
Meanwhile, the iOS version of VoiceOver may be the best accessibility tool ever built for people with vision impairment. I can understand how a guy who spends all of his time using Android might think we just “want, want, want” – because we want something that already exists but he works on a team that delivers poor to mediocre accessibility and he has to hear the myriad desires that an blind Android user may have that would be easily fulfilled on iOS. It must be sad to be a blind user working for a third rate accessibility shop having to watch we happy iOS users on the other side of the fence.
Removed from the context of yesterday’s discussion, though, the statement that “all blind people do is want, want, want,” becomes even more offensive, especially when uttered by an screen reader user. Technology inequity is the twenty first century version of a whites only” sign. Now, that every OS and web sites have solid standards and guidelines for accessibility and universal design is taught in universities and at lots of professional seminars, there is no excuse for not providing 100% compliance with such standards and guidelines. Apple comes close to this in iOS and I haven’t found an iOS app written by Apple that isn’t accessible. Google, Microsoft, Adobe, PeopleSoft, Oracle and others who have made a verbal commitment to accessibility have not come close to actually providing Apple’s level of support.
As an IP freedom advocate, I deplore Apple’s IP strategy; as an accessibility advocate, though, I stand and applaud the terrific job they’ve done with iOS accessibility.
For a blind person to say that we only “want, want, want” when all we want, want, want is an end to segregation is an active apology for the crap accessibility provided by Samsung. Saying we just “want, want, want” is tantamount to endorsing a future with continued technology segregation.