Apple's commitment to accessibility has made life easier for large numbers of visually impaired and other disabled people. Gone are the days of buying a Nokia phone and having to send it away and wait weeks for Talks to be installed. We have devices that we can use immediately after buying, without installing an expensive screen reader. Our devices include accessibility settings to accommodate several different disabilities. Many app developers have admirably taken on the challenge of making their apps not just minimally accessible, but easy to use with VoiceOver and other accessibility settings.
These are all huge steps forward, and we shouldn't forget the progress we've made, or the hard work it has required. Even so, the accessibility of Apple devices is not perfect, and so long as there is still room for improvement, we should speak up when things aren't working quite as they should be. In that spirit, I want to suggest what I think would be a natural next step for Apple: they should include some accessibility requirements in their app store guidelines. They should require developers to meet minimum accessibility standards, not just for VoiceOver users, but for other disabled users who require apps to be designed in a particular way.
Apple reviews each app before it is released to the app store, and their requirements, described on their guidelines page, are stringent, covering design and content as well as safety and legal issues. If Apple are going to exert such tight control over what goes in the app store, they should use that control to promote accessibility.
It wouldn't be realistic to expect all developers to instantly make their apps fully accessible. I would suggest introducing the new rules gradually, so that new apps are required to meet accessibility standards, and then extending them to updates to existing apps. The new rules should be phased in by category, so, for example, they should apply to productivity apps early in the transition process, and to games later on. The general idea would be for these requirements to apply first to apps that can easily be made accessible, and those that are essential in people's lives, and only later to the less essential apps and those that are more difficult to make accessible.
What about apps that can't be made accessible? Aren't some apps visual by nature, and so it isn't possible to make their core functionality accessible to blind users? Yes, that is true of some apps, but perhaps not as many as you might think. Remember that most of us used to think it wouldn't be possible to make a touchscreen accessible to the visually impaired. And where an app can't be made accessible, this should be made clear to users. Apple could require developers to write a short statement explaining why the app could not be made accessible, and that statement could be made available for users to view before downloading.
Wouldn't this rule change have the biggest impact on smaller developers, who might not have the money to make their apps accessible? If this is a problem, it could be accommodated in the transition process, by giving such developers longer to meet the new requirements. But in fact it will be easier and cheaper for them to design their apps with accessibility in mind from the start, rather than adding it in later and potentially having to redesign the app.
Is it worth making such a big change for a small number of users? Making apps accessible is the right thing to do, not only because disabled users should have equal access to technology, but because access to apps means access to other parts of life: books, information on public transport, smart home devices, and many other things that, for visually impaired and other disabled people, would be difficult to access without apps. In addition, accessibility features, although primarily intended for disabled users, sometimes benefit other users, too. For instance, presenting information in textual form, as well as or instead of using audio or images, has benefits not just for deaf or blind people, but for everyone, because, for example, it makes the information easier to search. More accessible apps will mean better apps for everyone.
Thanks to Apple's review process, I can be sure that anything I download from the app store will be safe and won't contain viruses. But I can't always be sure that the apps I download will be usable. The guidelines page says that "Customers should know what they’re getting when they download or buy your app", and that "Apple customers place a high value on products that are simple, refined, innovative, and easy to use". Disabled customers have the same expectations. I hope Apple will take on board this idea, so that we can all be sure that any app we download will either be accessible, or will have a note on it's app store page clearly stating that making it accessible is not possible. I don't expect all apps to be made accessible overnight. The transition process would probably take several years. But Apple could start taking steps towards making this a reality. . Even if we can never live in a world where all apps are accessible, we could be a lot closer to that ideal than we are now.