Thursday, March 19, 2015

"Mobile accessibility is touching every aspect of our life now"

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the US is very active in promoting accessibility of ICT, from mobile phones to the internet of things, passing by all that is mainstream information and communication technology. Motivated by the rapid technological development, the NFB has passed in July 2014 several resolutions that "call upon the developers of connected and connecting devices for the Internet of Things to extend their groundbreaking work to all users by providing speech and tactile feedback to put all users, including the blind, on an equal footing”. The NFB also clearly expressed their wish to work with the major companies in mobile communications in the creation and implementation of "policies, standard and procedures to ensure the accessibility of all apps […] and to ensure that accessibility is not lost when an app is updated”.

The MMF talked to Anne Taylor, NFB’s Director of Access Technology, Amy Mason and Karl Belanger, NFB’s Access Technology Specialists, and Clara Van Gerven, NFB’s Access Technology Content Specialist, about the accessibility of mobile phones, tablets and apps and what should be the next steps in moving mobile accessibility forward.

What does mobile accessibility mean for the National Federation of the Blind? 

Anne: Our approach is simple. We want to see equivalent use of products for both the blind and the rest of society, including deaf-blind people. We know that it is possible, because many manufactures have managed to do it and braille and speech support have become ubiquitous these days in mobile devices. I am not saying that every platform is equally accessible, but there is an opportunity for platforms that are inferior today to improve their interface as to not shut out blind users. Mobile is a very important area both in developed and developing countries.

So our approach is manifold: we do consumer reviews and educate the consumers; we share our feedback with the companies and have on occasion managed to get changes that resulted in better accessibility of the product.

In regards to barriers, I believe, only very few companies have really committed to design accessible products and in only a few companies accessibility is driven from a top-down approach. The issues is that many of the mobile operating system (OS) providers are very de-centralised and the development of new products starts from the bottom up. When this happens there is a risk of accessibility getting lost in the process - either intentionally or not. That is a huge barrier that we need to overcome. The companies should be able to say from the top-down that accessibility is mandatory and until we get that, we will continue to see fragmented quality in accessibility throughout the industry. Accessibility is also always the first thing to be cut when finance and money come into play.

Another barrier that is becoming more and more prevalent is open development on mobile platforms. This often results in app developers that have no idea about accessibility developing apps which are not accessible even if they run on platforms that are in general accessible. Then you see a lot of apps popping up in the apps stores and it is up to the users to do their due diligence and verify if the apps are accessible. That is a big problem, seen that 70% of the blind in the US are unemployed, and for them it is a risk to purchase an app not knowing if it is accessible or not.

Furthermore, accessibility is not maintained throughout the apps ecosystem. This is due to the fact that many app designers don’t really know anything about accessibility, and even if they know, the current apps authoring tools are not designed to warn or prevent against the uploading of in-accessible content. This lack of quality assurance is a big issue.

Amy: There is also the problem that a number of apps start accessible but then over time, due to software updates, they become less accessible or even in-accessible. In some ways, that is even worse, because you have come to rely on something and then it is gone.

Anne: That is why we are pushing hard to have some sort of accessibility rating of apps. The NFB has decided on a resolution calling upon the mobile OS providers to make accessibility a mandatory criteria for apps before they can be uploaded on an app store.

Another barrier, I would want to add here, is training. Because of the fragmented user interface within the mobile environment, interaction with the device is not standardised. For example, touch screen gestures on Android are different from iOS and different from Windows. There is a lack of training for consumers on how to use these technologies. Organisations like the NFB are trying to fill this gap.

Amy: Straight forward documentation is also missing. It would be important to have clear indications where you find the accessibility features and how to use them. However, for the moment information on accessibility features is a fragmented mess. In many cases, the user needs to know about the accessibility features so that he or she even has a chance to find them.

Anne: The pace of releases has gone up so fast that keeping accessibility documentation up to date is almost impossible.

Another barrier is the responsibility of telecom service providers. The support system for accessibility is still segregated, that needs to change. As blind or vision impaired persons, we need to be able to go into any shop by any operator and get the same service as our sighted peers. Accessibility support needs to become a mainstream initiative.

Amy: Store personnel and sales reps have no training in accessibility. They often don’t even know if the devices have screenreader or any other accessibility feature.

Anne: Another issue on the operator side, is that their public content, their websites, their own apps are often not accessible. It is very difficult for blind consumers to manage their own account with an operator.

The NFB also publishes the Access Technology Blog. What is the scope and reach of your blog? How do you select the topics? 

Clara: The scope is pretty broad and is often based on questions that we receive, also on what we come across at conferences, and general items of interest. In terms of the reach, it depends on the topic. A while ago, we did a blog post on e-book accessibility and Kindle accessibility and things like that make it into mainstream sometimes. But for the most part, our audience is the blind and low-vision folks that have an interest in technology.

How do you evaluate today’s state of the art in mobile accessibility from the perspective of the blind and partially sighted community? Where do you see the greatest remaining barrier in mobile accessibility?

Anne: We feel that we have today more access on a day-to-day basis on mobile platforms than we had let’s say in the past five years. So much so that we even develop our own mobile apps. There are two you should be aware of: NFB-Newsline, an application where we distribute magazines and newspapers for the blind and print-disabled population in the United States. We upload around 300 publications of various types on a daily basis. The other application is the KNFB Reader, which got a lot of press. The ability to access printed text is still huge to us.

Mobile technology can bridge some of the access issues that blind people experience on a daily basis and we are also looking at new ways that technology can help blind people. For example, in the area of in-door navigation, image recognition, locating lost objects….

So the general feeling is very positive in regards to the accessibility of mobile computing. But we are very concerned about mobile computing in a professional and educational setting. In those two areas we are not were we need to be. Many colleges, universities and educational institutions have decided to adopt a mobile platform that was considered the most accessible one, and made the mistake of thinking because it was the most accessible platform everything else would then be accessible too. The procurement decision makers do not understand that apps on mobile platforms come from third party developers and need to be assessed separately for their accessibility. Also, the fact that Braille support is not ubiquitously provided across mobile platforms is a huge problem that prevents deaf-blind people to use their mobile devices in a professional setting. So the professional setting is a huge problem but overall we see tremendous opportunities in mobile accessibility going forward.

If you would like to have more information on NFB’s activities have a look here:

Access Technology Blog:

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Mobile World Congress: accessibility enters the stage

Two categories in the Mobile Awards, one mobile accessibility session on the main conference programme and a TV panel discussion on Mobile World TV - accessibility did get some room and attention at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week.

“Mobile Accessibility: The Business Angle for Improving the Quality of Life”

Chris Lewis kicked of the session on mobile accessibility with some impressive statistics: 1 in 7 people on earth are disabled. This is a huge number and while it gets lost in fragmentation, mobile technology now has become the unifying factor that can bring the market of 1 billion people with accessibility needs to the forefront. He was followed by three global technology providers - IBM, Google, Microsoft - explaining the importance and status they accord to accessibility and how they ensure internally that the engineers working on their products understand the needs of persons with disabilities.

Google gave a concrete example by demonstrating how TalkBack makes Android phones accessible for blind and visually impaired people, while Microsoft engaged the public by asking: “When you can neither hear nor talk, who are you?”. Answers ranked from “I’m under water.” to “I’m at a noisy airport.” and demonstrated in a beautiful way how disabling environments can be. IBM started from the core assumption that “accessibility is a business opportunity which is about understanding situational ability”. What people rarely realise is that IBM creates a lot of technology for in-house consumption and has for example years before it became mainstream created an in-house captioning service for deaf employees. IBM hired their first blind employee in 1914 by the way.

The presentations by the technology companies were nicely rounded up by the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF) presenting with GARI a source of information on available mobile accessibility solutions, and a presentation by Henry Evans who via a remote controlled robot and with a wonderful sense of humour demonstrated how smart technology is helping him to overcome the physical limits of his body.

Accessibility going mainstream

Strolling through 8 halls of showroom at the Congress displaying the newest smartphones and tablets, one thing becomes clear: accessibility has become an integral part of mainstream devices. Sure, the newcomers among device manufacturers may not have put much emphasis yet on making their devices accessible, but a look through the accessibility features on the devices of the more experienced brands shows that for some accessibility is now part of the personalisation menu - allowing the user to adapt the device to their individual liking.

Some of the features that picked our interest this year were:

  • interaction mode (allowing to activate/de-activate parts of the screen and make it possible to handle even large-screen devices one-handedly)
  • subtitels & captioning (allowing to display captioned video content)
  • shade mode (allowing to save battery life when the device is in voice control or screenreader mode)
  • glove mode (self-explanatory :-)
  • export/import of accessibility settings (allowing to share the acc. setting between devices)

However, as Chris Lewis stressed in his introduction to the accessibility session: "As we get digitally enabled, we need to educate people on how to use these technologies - especially older citizens…”. It would indeed be a pity if the people that can benefit most from these features do not know about them or how to use them.