App Accessibility in The Media: Dispelling Some Misconceptions

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

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.

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Comments

Submitted by sockhopsinger on Thursday, July 10, 2014

Great Blog post. I sort of remember the days when news was actually that, news, with just straight fact. Guess those days have gone the way of the dinosaur.

Submitted by Justin Ekis on Thursday, July 10, 2014

Another problem with the Reuters article, and most of what has followed, is the implication that the NFB is considering legal action. Such a thing can not be found in the resolution which was passed at the convention. If I remember correctly, it wasn't even brought up in the debate on Saturday. I think that this is arguably the most harmful of all the inaccuracies. It is really unfortunate that they took the statements of one individual and reported them as the position of the organization. I keep waiting for someone with actual authority to issue a clarification.

While I personally identify with NFB philosophy much of the time, I am not currently even a member. So it wouldn't do any good for me to comment on these articles to clarify anything. I really wish someone would. I was against this resolution as written, especially because it includes the term "all apps" and leaves no room for exception. I thought passing it was pointless, but over all I didn't expect it to be particularly harmful. We passed something very similar in 2011 and nothing happened. I contend that this storm of reporting that has sprung up after the fact, especially the inaccurate suggestion that we might sue, is doing more damage than the original resolution by far.

Submitted by Siobhan on Thursday, July 10, 2014

Hi. I read the paragraph put up, and though I disagree violently with the NFB's resolution, Am I wrong for considering that quote, granted taken out of context, not offensive? Let's be honest here: iPhones and Macs and iPads are not cheap. What if someone doesn't have the two hundred dollars U.S. currency to put down on even the smallest IOS device? Let's be honest here, it is true that some people may feel left out of the technology change, becuase it is so evolving, and is it reasonable to expect perfect compliance? No, I don't think it is. As I understand it, Michael you have a hearing impairment, so your issues need a bit more thought as it were. It all boils down to: I didn't take offense to this quote because in my view I believe it's a bit accurate, whether or not anyone wants to pony up the truth. Ami better because of I have two IOS devices, and a mac? Absolutely. However, would i be upset if Apple didn't come up with the phone, Voice over and the like? truthfully not, I would go back to either another screen reader, on Windows, or perhaps give up tweeting, Facebook, and happily use a sighted phone.

Submitted by Michael Hansen on Thursday, July 10, 2014

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Hi Siobhan,

First, no, I do not have a hearing impairment; I think you may be confusing me with someone else.

My issue with the quote is not that it was offensive (what Tim Cook said is accurate), but that the Reuters author did not accurately represent Cook's true statement. The author took part of the quote and used it to fit the story. Had they chosen to include Cook's entire statement, well, that would have not gone along with the flow of the story because Cook was really talking about how hard Apple tries to make their products useable by everyone.

Submitted by dvdmth on Friday, July 11, 2014

Club AppleVis Member

Sorry to say this, but this doesn't surprise me in the least. A great many so-called news articles are written with only a partial understanding of the subject, along with a desire to attract as many potential readers as possible, with no regard for accuracy. The Reuters article is just another example of this, and it's a shame a lot of other news outlets are lazy enough to repeat what they read without any fact checking.

I found the editorial from Apple Insider to be very well written, giving a very clear account of the status of accessibility that contradicts the picture painted in the Reuters article. I strongly recommend that editorial to anyone here who hasn't already read it.

Submitted by Ekaj on Thursday, September 11, 2014

Hi. Thought I had posted here but no such luck. So here are my thoughts. First off, I read the entire piece from Apple Insider and I commend them for telling the truth. I also heartily commend Apple CEO Tim Cook for his quote. I realize I'm still rather new to Apple products, but it's so gratifying to know that they continue to work hard on the accessibility aspect. The inclusion of VoiceOver into Apple's main operating system, for one thing, is fantastic. I, too, try to steer clear of most news articles as they're so one-sided and inaccurate. I think Apple Insider did the right thing. Fwiw, I'm not much for politics mainly because so much of it is just arguing back and forth ad nauseam. But Tim Cook did the absolute right thing by responding the way he did when asked about Apple's ROI.

Submitted by Ahmed on Saturday, February 15, 2020

This is my problem with the Media’s coverage regarding assistive technology take the Orcaam My Eye2 They falsely assumed it’s the glasses could make us see. If mainstream Media’s is going to cover Assistive Technology they should cover it fairly and without any stereotyping being involved
If the Media is going to cover Assistive technology they must state the truth and stop with the many fallacies