The National Federation of the Blind has done it again.
Earlier this week at its annual convention in Orlando, FL, members of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB)—a United States organization of, for, and lead by blind people—passed a resolution calling on Apple to "make nonvisual access a major priority in its new and updated software by improving its testing of new releases to ensure that nonvisual access is not limited or compromised." The resolution further calls on Apple to "work actively to incorporate feedback from testers who use VoiceOver during the beta testing phase of software development to ensure that accessibility for blind individuals is properly and fully addressed."
The full text of the resolution (Resolution 2016-04) reads as follows:
Regarding Apple’s Inadequate Testing of Software Releases
WHEREAS, Apple, Inc. has made VoiceOver, a free and powerful screen-access program, an integral part of many of its products, including the Apple Macintosh, iPhone, iPod Touch, Apple TV, and iPad; and
WHEREAS, when a significant software update for one of these products is released, there are often accessibility bugs that impact the usability of the product by blind users, causing them to lose their productivity or their ability to perform certain job duties when the use of Apple devices is required; and
WHEREAS, recent updates have included a large number of serious, moderate, and minor bugs that have made it difficult or impossible for blind people to perform various tasks such as answering calls, browsing the internet, entering text into forms, or adding individuals to the Contacts Favorites list; and
WHEREAS, for example, after iOS 9.0 was released, some iPhones running VoiceOver occasionally became unresponsive when getting a phone call, and there was no way to choose any option on screen; and
WHEREAS, although this issue was fixed in a new release of iOS, it would not have occurred if Apple had conducted more thorough testing with VoiceOver; and
WHEREAS, another example of inadequate testing by Apple involves VoiceOver failing to render the contents of the screen when a user attempts to add a contact to the Favorites list in the phone app and has multiple contact groups from which to select; and
WHEREAS, because Apple products and its accessibility tools are built by the same company, there is no need to share confidential information with partners that may affect the normal development of the software; and
WHEREAS, we recognize the efforts made by Apple to inform developers about the accessibility features built into Apple products and encourage the company to keep working in that direction; however several accessibility issues still appear with new software releases even when they have been reported during beta testing; and
WHEREAS, it is vital that Apple give priority to addressing bugs that have an impact on accessibility before releasing software updates: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this fourth day of July, 2016, in the City of Orlando, Florida, that this organization call upon Apple to make nonvisual access a major priority in its new and updated software by improving its testing of new releases to ensure that nonvisual access is not limited or compromised; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization call upon Apple to work actively to incorporate feedback from testers who use VoiceOver during the beta testing phase of software development to ensure that accessibility for blind individuals is properly and fully addressed.
If you knew only what was presented in that resolution, you would think that Apple was just another company who gave lipservice to accessibility, didn't really care, and just talked the talk to look good. A lot of other companies do it, after all.
But there is more to the story that the NFB, for whatever reason, doesn't appear to realize. In the course of my work with AppleVis, I've had the opportunity to provide very meaningful feedback directly to accessibility decision-makers at Apple. Everything I've seen suggests that Apple's Accessibility Team is a very dedicated group of professionals who really do want to deliver the best and most accessible products. All of my interactions suggest that accessibility really is a part of Apple's core (pun not intended), and that it isn't simply something talked about in the media every once in a while. Apple gets it, and they continually raise the bar that everyone else is measured by.
The thing is, because of Apple's rather secretive culture, we don't see much of the inner workings or all of the effort that goes into producing software releases and accessibility testing. Because Apple is Apple, we won't see them, for example, attempt to refute the NFB resolution point-by-point. And because Apple doesn't engage in back-and-forth with organizations like the NFB, resolutions like 2016-04 go unchallenged and thus are assumed to be fact by those who aren't better informed.
But just because we don't hear about all of the inner workings of Apple's accessibility strategy or beta testing, that doesn't mean that Apple isn't innovating or that blind users aren't testing the software and providing valuable feedback. Before all major software releases (and some minor releases as well, depending on whether Apple provides a beta), a large and growing number of very dedicated user-testers devote hours of their time to testing and reporting the accessibility bugs they find. We don't hear about the efforts of these people because beta-testers are not allowed to disclose information about the beta software—in particular, what bugs they find and file. Suffice it to say, though, that there are a lot of people working behind the scenes—from many different organizations and walks of life—to help ensure that the Apple software experience is as good as it can be.
So, why do people beta-test? I think, in part, that we beta-test because we testers share a desire for Apple's software releases to be the best possible, and that we see our bug reports being taken seriously by Apple. From one beta to the next, things people report get fixed. Does every single thing we report to Apple get fixed as soon as we report it? No. Do Apple and testers catch every bug before the software goes live? No. But, my experience has been that Apple is very good about prioritizing—and fixing—showstopping bugs; you just don't hear about a lot of these bugs because, in a majority of cases, they are resolved during the beta cycle.
This leads us to one of the bugs mentioned in Resolution 2016-04, a serious bug in early versions of iOS 9 in which, in some situations, it was impossible for a VoiceOver user to answer a phone call. There are a couple things noteworthy about that particular bug, the first of which was that, if memory serves me correctly, this bug was not discovered and reported until the very end of the iOS 9 beta cycle. It was also very difficult to reproduce with any consistency, and some people never even experienced it at all. Such is the nature of beta-testing software; some problems people never experience, while others see them all the time. And if you are one of the ones who doesn't experience a problem—or who experiences it once or twice with no rhyme or reason to link the occurrences to any other meaningful operating circumstances—generating a bug report that says anything other than "It doesn't work!" is very challenging.
I don't think there is anyone who would disagree that, in an ideal world, it would be best if bugs like the phone call bug were found, reported, and fixed before the software was released to the public. But we don't live in an ideal world, and it's worth remembering that sighted people are affected by serious usability bugs from time to time as well. The most recent example of this is the initial release of iOS 9.3.2, which, before it was later resolved, caused some 9.7-inch iPad Pro devices to become unusable. Think that one was bad? Before it was very quickly pulled, iOS 8.0.1 disabled iPhones' cellular capabilities. The point here is not to rehash software releases gone amiss, but that, blind or sighted, high-impact bugs sometimes make it into shipping software. This isn't Apple not giving priority to accessibility bugs, but rather the very nature of using any kind of software.
On a more personal level, I take serious issue with Resolution 2016-04 because the inspiration and supporting details appear to have been drawn heavily from AppleVis' iOS and OS X Accessibility Bug database. When we launched our bug database, we envisioned it as a centralized place for VoiceOver users to find information about and discuss workarounds for accessibility bugs in Apple software. As the discussions of bugs on AppleVis are scattered in various forum topics and blog posts (such is the nature of this kind of site), we wanted a central place where people could come and quickly determine, "What's the status of accessibility bugs in the latest release of iOS and macOS?"
Perhaps naively, we never conceived of a situation where the NFB would come along, take what we genuinely intended as a positive and productive resource for the community, and use it to further their "our way is the only way" agenda. And as one of the creators of the bug database, I am embarrassed and feel at least somewhat responsible for the passage of Resolution 2016-04.
It is at this point that I must pause a moment to acknowledge what I feel are very valuable services and functions that the NFB performs, lest I be seen as yet another person who totally dismisses the value and work of the Federation. In terms of advocating for the wrights of blind Americans in Congress, the NFB instantly and very deservedly comes to mind. I also greatly appreciate the NFB-NEWSLINE® service, KNFBReader, the Federation's advocacy for blind students, their promotion of braille literacy, and their tireless work to ensure equal employment opportunities for blind people. The NFB does some great work, and comments totally dismissing or condemning the Federation fail to recognize that improving the lives of all blind people is a collective effort.
And yet, despite my appreciation for all that the NFB does, these type of resolutions frustrate me on a very deep level. I suppose some of my frustration stems from the fact that this isn't the first time the NFB has passed resolutions critical of Apple:
- In 2014, Resolution 2014-12 was passed, calling on Apple to require that all iOS apps be made accessible. This included stock iOS apps developed by Apple, as well as a desire for a requirement that accessibility would not be lost during an app update.
- In 2013, Resolution 2013-12 was passed, urging Apple to fully expand accessibility to the iWork productivity suite--specifically Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.
- In 2011, Resolution 2011-03 was passed, expressing the organization's "frustration and deep disappointment" with Apple for allowing the release of inaccessible apps on the App Store. The resolution further urged Apple, "in the strongest possible terms," to work with the NFB to develop a set of guidelines that would establish a minimum required level of accessibility for an app.
(It's worth noting that, in September 2009, the NFB presented Apple with a special award for its work making the iPhone accessible. With that said, it does appear as though the NFB's attitude towards Apple has shifted in recent years.)
But as frustrating as it is to see the NFB pass what I believe is yet another anti-Apple resolution (especially when convention sponsors like Google and Microsoft are not also called out for accessibility issues in their products), I've come to the realization that NFB resolutions are only truly important to those inside the Federation. Outside the NFB, life will go on, and the impact of this resolution will probably be minimal. After seeing this a time or two before, I know better now than to think that Apple will be influenced by the NFB's attempts at advocacy, and I know that Apple's commitment to accessibility is stronger than ever before. I know that Apple will continue to take and appreciate constructive feedback about how its software can be improved, and that Apple's commitment to accessibility for all will not be influenced by a few vocal naysayers. Blind and low vision users need not worry that the NFB's resolution—or giving Apple feedback about issues in its products—will somehow result in a de-prioritization of accessibility. Accessibility is at the heart of Apple's ethos, and that isn't going to change.
The other thing I've come to realize is that extremes of any ideology are very rarely a good thing. The NFB methodology is not the only way, and the Federation's views on blindness—and how a blind person should live—are not the only respectable views to hold. In May of this year, I moved to Friedman Place, a supportive living apartment building for adults with visual impairments in Chicago, IL. Here, I have the freedom and support to live the life I want—being as independent as I possibly can be, but having access to assistance if and when I need it. As blind people, I think our community is too small—and the challenges we still have to overcome are too great—to let minor philosophical disagreements get in the way of working toward the things that really matter.
Looking ahead, Apple will soon begin a public beta testing program for iOS 10 and macOS Sierra. The Public Beta Program allows end-users the chance to test pre-release software and provide meaningful feedback directly to Apple. If you have a secondary device—or are an experienced user willing to put up with the quirks of beta software—and have an interest in being part of the solution, one of the best things you can do is beta-test and report your findings to Apple. All VoiceOver-related feedback submitted through Feedback Assistant will be routed to the right people, and rest assured that your reports are being read, taken seriously, and followed-up. Resources aren't infinite, of course. You might report a bug and it still make it into the final release, especially the later on in the beta cycle you report something and the less severe the issue is. But every report helps, and the best way to be part of the solution is to report issues directly to Apple. Telling Apple that something doesn't work—or how something could be improved—won't make Apple less-inclined to support accessibility features, but it might just get your issue fixed and improve the software experience for everyone. So please do join me, and let's work with Apple to make the upcoming releases of iOS 10 and macOS Sierra the best yet for blind and low vision users!