Lately, blind people and Apple products have been in the news—but mostly for all the wrong reasons.
Reuters recently published an article on the challenges of mobile app accessibility—and what individual users and organizations are doing about the problem. While the Reuters article was at least somewhat balanced, the overall sense of negativity, and the butchery of a quote from an Apple executive—as well as some other factual errors—left me feeling far from impressed.
In the article, the author included a portion of a quote from Apple CEO Tim Cook regarding people with disabilities. For context, I’m including the entire paragraph:
Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook in a 2013 speech at Auburn University described people with disabilities "in a struggle to have their human dignity acknowledged." He said, "They're frequently left in the shadows of technological advancements that are a source of empowerment and attainment for others."
The above quote works great in the context of the story, helping to paint a stereotypical portrait of people with disabilities as helpless in a world of inequality. Had that been all Cook said on the topic, the situation would be different. But Cook did say more, and by including only part of his statement, the author misconstrued Cook's words in the worst possible way.
When taken as a whole, Tim Cook’s statement about people with disabilities is a heck of a lot more uplifting and empowering than Reuters—and everyone else who copied and spun the original article, without bothering to first ensure that the quote wasn’t taken out of context—would have the reader believe. Via Cult of Mac, below is Tim Cook’s entire quote on people with disabilities and what Apple does to meet their needs:
People with disabilities often find themselves in a struggle to have their human dignity acknowledged, they frequently are left in the shadows of technological advancements that are a source of empowerment and attainment for others, but Apple’s engineers push back against this unacceptable reality, they go to extraordinary lengths to make our products accessible to people with various disabilities from blindness and deafness to various muscular disorders. I receive hundreds of e-mails from customers every day, and I read them all. Last week I received one from a single mom with a three year old autistic son who was completely non-verbal, and after receiving an iPad, for the first time in his life, he had found his voice. I receive scores of these incredible stories from around the world and I never tire of reading them.
And that is to say absolutely nothing of Tim Cook’s comment at a March 2014 Apple shareholder meeting, where he defined Apple’s commitment to accessibility even more clearly. While responding to a request from the National Center for Public Policy Research that Apple give an account of the costs of its energy sustainability programs and continue only those programs that were profitable, Cook said that a return on investment (ROI) was not Apple’s only motivation, in no uncertain terms:
"When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI," Cook said.
As if the inaccuracies perpetuated in the Reuters article weren't bad enough, several Apple news sites picked up on the story within hours. Unfortunately, these articles were even less balanced than the Reuters piece; all I really took away from a majority of these articles was (1) that the authors demonstrated a systemic lack of basic fact-checking, (2) that some of the reporting appeared to have been done for shock factor, and (3) that those writing the articles appeared to have a limited knowledge of the complex issues at hand. As someone who lives with vision loss and thus deals with accessibility—and accessibility issues—on a daily basis, reading such shoddy reporting is quite discouraging.
Thankfully, some people saw through the superficiality of the Reuters and other articles. In particular, Apple Insider’s Daniel Eran wrote a near-definitive editorial refuting the errors and omissions in the Reuters piece, point-by-point. If you’re interested in the real story on Apple accessibility and what the NFB is actually doing, give Eran’s piece a read, and also read this blog post from NFB President Marc Riccobono detailing the facts about the resolution discussed in many of those articles.
The problem with such one-sided (and factually inaccurate, in some cases) articles in the media is that they do no favors to blind people. Why authors choose to present only one side of a story in fact-based news publications has confounded me for years, but it probably has a lot to do with the fact that success stories just don’t “sell” the way negative stories do. While some contend that this kind of media attention is good because it brings awareness to the need for greater app accessibility, I find it hard to believe that any developer would find such articles motivating. Judging by some of the comments on this Apple Insider article based on the Reuters piece, it does not appear as though I am the only person who feels this way.
If the intention of Reuters and other news organizations was to highlight app accessibility and encourage developers to make positive changes, they have failed miserably. If, on the other hand, these organizations undertook the reporting on this story with their own biases about people with disabilities and endeavored to communicate them to the public, consider the objective achieved.
The reality is that contrary to what Reuters and other mainstream media outlets would like people to believe, blind users have never had more access to technology than what we enjoy today. To be clear, the playing field is not yet level, and there is much work yet to be done. However, the overall outlook is not bleak—in fact, it is just the opposite. Regardless of whether people want Apple to create and enforce regulations mandating iOS app accessibility; whether they would rather work with developers individually; or whether they feel that both approaches have a place in a successful advocacy strategy, the goals and ideal outcomes are the same: to improve the accessibility of iOS apps for all. As a VoiceOver user myself, I hope that developers see these slanted media accounts of the iOS app accessibility issue for what they are—one-sided...at best.
To those developers who have already made their apps accessible to VoiceOver users, you have my sincerest thanks for your efforts. To those who have not yet done so, I really hope you will give it serious consideration.