Good things might not last: American Heritage Dictionary is no longer accessible at all
It feels like losing an old friend. Or perhaps losing one's love of life. But American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language was my friend in the world of iOS apps and my love in the world of dictionaries. So going to bed one night with an awesome dictionary which ticks all check boxes in terms of accessibility and getting up the next morning, hearing about the app's takeover by a new developer, re-paying for and downloading it, and finding it an absolute mess in terms of accessibility is nothing but a huge blow to one's morale. And the story doesn't even end there...
Why is an accessible dictionary such a big deal?
Ask a word fiend this question -- I mean someone who basks in knowing words like "sesquipedalian," and you'll get some slap-in-the-face answers. But, seriously, if you're into reading and words, you know that using the built-in iOS dictionary isn't easy. You first have to select a word somewhere which, depending on the app at hand, might be very difficult or impossible, and then use the Look up/Define option from the Edit menu, if such a menu even exists for your app, via a couple of Rotor gestures. So the built-in iOS dictionary doesn't allow you to look up words by typing a word into it manually. Moreover, it's not as comprehensive as some of the full-fledged third-party dictionaries out there in that it doesn't offer audio or phonetic pronunciations, etymologies, synonym distinctions, derivatives, inflected forms, etc.
Those facts aside, the problem with many dictionary apps on the App Store is that their so-called Definition area consists of words which are actual hyperlinks. This way, users can easily look up words inside the Definition area text box, but VoiceOver adds the word, "link," to each and every word there, making it excruciatingly painful and time-consuming to read, comprehend or even navigate the Definition area. As such, an accessible interface to a dictionary should do away with links so that each definition can appear in its separate control. Even worse, some dictionaries, such as Dictionary.com don't make their Definition window or text box visible to VoiceOver at all, taking accessibility issues to an entirely loathsome and new level.
A truly worthwhile dictionary became accessible, and even became an AppleVis pick of the month
almost four years ago I published a blog post on AppleVis titled A truly worthwhile application is to become accessible soon. There I mentioned that I went on a purchasing spree and spend money on seven reference titles. But all of them were plagued by a wide range of access issues. I was lucky that the developers of my all-time dictionary, American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, instantly agreed to make their $24.99 app accessible. Needless to say, reading their message made me ecstatic as the developers of other dictionary apps hadn't even found it worthwhile to reply to my accessibility requests and complaints. But Enfour -- later known as English Channel, the developers of American Heritage Dictionary, did, even after I got a refund from Apple. And it was 2012, when accessibility in the arena of iOS and touch-enabled devices was a novelty. Let me quote one of the messages I received from them to indicate what I mean. Over the past few years I've been in contact with Enfour's head of customer support, Tracey Northcott, and the following is her message:
Accessibility is a very important issue for us. This is not for any financial reasons but that it is our responsibility as a developer of reference tools, to make them as accessible to as many people as possible.
If you are willing, we would like to work with you to enhance our accessibility. To that end, we would like to send you a code for a free app and ask you to answer some questions for us and do some testing from time to time.
We are looking at the hyperlinking for the next update, but for the initial testing, can you please tell us what happens for you when the text is slightly different - eg when the syllable marks are showing on the headwords. Or when the text is italicised?
We are working on a new update now that is for separate downloading of parts so this is coming.
Let stay in touch and work together to make a useful application for everybody.
This awesome collaboration continued and a couple of months later I published another blog post titled Good news for dictionary devotees: American Heritage Dictionary 5th Edition is accessible. Essentially VoiceOver users could go to the Settings window of the app located here and select the Accessibility check box to make everything VoiceOver-compatible. AHD 5 even managed to become an AppleVis pick of the month for September 2012.
But my four-year romance came to an abrupt end, and it couldn't have been more tragic
Over the past few years AHD 5 was the first application which would find its way on my new iPhone purchases. I even purchased its $24.99 equivalent -- the one which didn't require an in-app purchase option -- few months ago for ease of device transfer. I even managed to translate its interface into Persian for the developers -- a change which was also reflected in the rest of their dictionary offerings.
However, few days ago I received a message from Tracey indicating that they were no longer the developer of American Heritage Dictionary. Rather, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had re-delegated the development task to MobiSystems. She even put me in contact with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's licensing manager to look into any potential issues.
With trepidation, I downloaded The new AHD 5 update, and unlocked it by paying $19.99. The moment I did it, my nightmare came true: the app was totally inaccessible: the infamous Definition area was invisible to VoiceOver. Moreover, the audio pronunciations were heavily downsampled, resulting in distorted and low-quality human pronunciations.
I immediately emailed my contact at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) and was promptly promised an investigation. This back and forth continued for a few days, and I finally got the chilling reply: the new app won't be enhanced for VoiceOver by MobiSystems. And the rationale was more depressing -- especially in 2016 and this day and age of accessibility. Let me quote MobiSystem's message to see what I mean:
Thank you for taking the time to send us your feedback and suggestions about VoiceOver. For now it is not in our development plan to add support of VoiceOver as this is significant development resource. We will monitor the customers requests and might reconsider in the future accordingly. I will forward your feedback about the audio pronunciations to our development. The reason to have worse quality is to reduce the size of the offline dictionary, which is very big and takes a lot of time to download. We appreciate your feedback and will be glad to hear your comments in the future as well.
For the record, MobiSystems is a huge name in the field of reference apps for iOS, Android and Windows Mobile. They develop and sell all Oxford dictionaries, too. As such, the fact that developing for VoiceOver might be such a resource-hungry task sounds bizarre to me. If they stick to Apple's standards and avoid their non-standard text box for the Definition area, they'll make all of their reference titles much more accessible automatically. But, alas, they're not willing to do it. Even my Houghton Mifflin Harcourt contact simply apologized and stated that they're not in a position to ask their developer, MobiSystems, to make AHD 5 accessible.
So what to do?
Very little I guess. I'm not usually this pessimistic, but what can we do when a huge education-oriented entity like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the most active reference app developer like MobiSystems aren't poised to make their offerings accessible? Of course, we, VoiceOver users, can bug them via our emails, but, at the end of the day, I'm not sure how many emails will be sent and how big an impact it'll have.
But if you want to complain and ask them to restore accessibility, please contact Toby Leith, HMH Licensing Manager, by sending an email to
or send a message to
where MobiSystems might pay attention to it.
In passing, I've reached the following conclusions: we must appreciate the efforts of developers who, despite not receiving financial benefits, feel it's a responsibility to make their apps accessible -- Workflow, Twitterrific and lire anyone? Why not thank them for their efforts via email or Twitter? Second, though we indubitably feel that accessibility is a right and, minor regressions aside, apps might not become totally inaccessible in a wink, that might happen quite easily and we might have nothing at our disposal to revert it. As such, it's of utmost importance that, even in 2016 and beyond, advocacy efforts in the field of accessibility be coordinated so that more developers become aware of its importance and don't simply view its implementation as a means to financial success or achievement.
Back to our own topic, so here I am with an inaccessible dictionary which happened to be my favorite go-to app for words and idioms. The older AHD 5 app will keep functioning but iOS 10 might break it, and its content won't be updated either. Even if it keeps working on iOS 10, it won't be optimized for the new iOS release. Maybe time to get over it -- life must go on. But I'm still grieving its loss.
Thanks for bringing that to our attention. I would have never known for I have not checked. It truly is a wonderful dictionary, and sad to see things end up this way. Let's keep pushing, and maybe we'll get more positive results. The former developer did it, why can't the new ones?
Hi Apple Khmer,
That's exactly the case. When the former developers with a couple of engineers could do it, why can't the new ones with more coders at their disposal achieve the same? I suggest that emails be sent to both HMH and MobiSystems, asking for the incorporation of accessibility into AHD 5. And therein lies another opportunity: if they do it for AHD 5, their famous Oxford dictionaries might very well become accessible, too, as they use the very same underlying dictionary engine for their multitudinous reference titles.
If they are not willing to do the honorable thing and make the app accessible, I hope they at least refunded you your money. Or perhaps that is asking too much of them as well.
I asked for a refund, and Apple accepted it. I also published a 2-star review for the app on the App Store and tend to keep doing it with each and every update. My guess is that reviews like this, if published by many members of the community, will make a difference.
Maybe we should also ask Apple to say something to them as well..
Thank you, Amir, for such a thoughtful piece. I also own this dictionary and am sad to see it leaving our grasp. I hope that someone hears this call to action and reverses this misguided decision.
Amir, you might also try putting something on their Twitter page as I'd be willing to bet that will get more reaction than a review in the app store.
this is very annoying, luckily I have the dictionary still on my device and I have it downloaded in iTunes, I hope you can restore an old copy of the dictionary so you can keep accessibility even without updates.
To me this seems ridiculous given that it was already accessible surely they are not rewriting the dictionary from scratch, I suppose they must be changing the UI to reflect the style of other titles they offer.
One tip leave 1 star reviews not two, this is because according to another developer who got 1 star reviews for a new version of his app which he probably didn't deserve, but 1 star reviews reduce your over all star rating by a lot more than what 2 stars does, and I think it takes something like 10 or 20 reviews to recover your old rating. Maybe you should change that 2 star to 1 star.
Sure, Alex, you're right about 1-star reviews. Apple says a 1-star review means "I hate it," and I thought I'd avoid that. But, on second thought, I think that might reflect our position more fittingly.
I also have the app downloaded in my iTunes. However, another problematic issue I didn't touch in my post is that I used to brag about iOS having such a powerful 3rd-party accessible dictionary while Android lacks such a thing for the visually impaired. Now my friends who use Android say, jocosely, that I have no bragging rights to iOS having such an advantage.
Good idea, Sockhopsinger. Let's see what can be done. I'll also be sharing the URL to this post.
Apple Khmer, Apple has already brilliantly specified what developers can do to make their apps accessible. But Apple can't ask them to do something about the accessibility of their apps. Wish it could, though <smile>.
You're most welcome. I also hope someone can pay attention to such an outrageous change of course.
Obviously, these guys simply do not get it. If they restore VoiceOver support, more people would buy the app!
I have written the following letter to Toby Leith at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt asking him to take proactive steps to restore accessibility to the American Heritage Dictionary app.
I hope everyone here on Applevis, everyone in the connected, online blind community and those who care about us will do likewise.
July 15, 2016
I am writing to ask that you take a proactive stance on reversing the loss of VoiceOver accessibility of the American Heritage Dictionary app for blind children and adults.
It came to my attention through a blind community blog post that your company’s dictionary app, a model of accessibility for several years, recently became inaccessible with the change to Mobisystems at the helm of its development.
Please visit http://www.applevis.com/blog/advocacy-assistive-technology-ios-ios-apps-ipad-iphone-ipod-touch-news-opinion-reviews/good to review the blog post about which I am writing.
I strongly believe that this course of action on the part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is wrong on many levels. I will describe three.
First, by reversing course on the accessibility of the American Heritage Dictionary app, one that has become a critical educational tool, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has done nothing less than to take an educational tool away from blind children.
Second, there is no valid reason for failing to develop an accessible dictionary app. Apple makes development of accessible apps easy and it provides numerous support resources for developers to do so. Please visit http://applevis.com/developers for links to useful resources from Apple and others.
Third, deliberately developing an inaccessible app, especially when that same app was previously accessible, may be illegal in some contexts, both for your company and for many of your customers in the educational and government fields. At a minimum, it puts these educational institutions and government agencies in a position where they may no longer be allowed to purchase this app for their children, employees and teachers because it may violate numerous Federal and state laws covering the acquisition of accessible technology.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this email, I am asking you, as an employee of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to take a proactive stance in reversing the course of the American Heritage Dictionary app back to an accessible one.
There are several steps Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ought to take in order to reverse this unfortunate course:
1. Direct Mobisystems to revise the American Heritage Dictionary for the English Language so that it, once again, fully supports VoiceOver and secure a commitment from the developer to insure its ongoing accessibility moving forward. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hired Mobisystems to develop the app, so it is the responsibility of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to direct this contractor to do the right thing.
2. If Mobisystems refuses to reverse course on the development of the American Heritage Dictionary app and refuses to add accessibility to any other Houghton Mifflin Harcourt app it may now be contracted to develop, fire Mobisystems and replace them with a conscientious developer who will do the right thing.
3. Revise practices, policies and procedures at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt so that everything the company creates, including its apps, is fully inclusive of and universally accessible to all customers, including those with disabilities.
I thank you in advance for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you, or from someone else with decision-making authority at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, within one week to follow up on this correspondence.
Thanks for writing such a comprehensive and eloquent letter!
I suggest that the letter either be posted to AppleVis or be placed immediately after the last paragraph of my blog post so that others can support it via their comments. That way, it can be a hub both for those of us who want AHD 5's accessibility restored and third parties like HMH and MobiSystems who want to view it to take action.
Once again, thanks for taking my post and elevating it to a more meaningful level.
I received a prompt response from Toby Leith. While I do not entirely agree with his response, I believe it to be well-considered.
I will continue this exchange with Mr. Leith in hopes we can find a way forward to a positive conclusion that results not only in the restoration of the accessibility of the American Heritage Dictionary app, but all the other titles developed by Mobisystems as well.
Let's all continue writing letters and exposing this loss of accessibility on social media.
I've got to believe there's a way to spin the possibility of taking an educational tool away from blind children into something that will get us the results we are seeking.
Good morning, Darrell –
Thank you for taking the time to register your protestations regarding the loss of Voice Over accessibility. My father lost his vision when I was 11, so for me, this issue is not an abstract, theoretical one.
You have proposed a very ambitious agenda particularly with regard to item #3. I will do my best to raise the awareness and to channel your passion into a productive discussion here, and in the greater publishing, mobile app ecosystem at large.
Regarding the MobiSystems app specifically: thank you for including their support team on this message. It is important that they receive this feedback directly, as they publish other apps, including dictionary apps that would benefit all from the implementation of Voice Over accessibility. With your help, I can continue to escalate this issue with them.
Thank you also for including the Apple accessibility team on your message. I hope that they are encouraged to promote, facilitate and support the routine use of Voice Over functionality in the app developer community.
The decision to withdraw the American Heritage apps from sale and to employ a different developer in their re-incarnation was due to very serious business issues with the previous developer - issues as serious as the loss of Voice Over accessibility is for you. This was not a decision that was made lightly.
When Houghton Mifflin Harcourt acquired the Webster’s New World dictionary product line from John Wiley & Sons in late 2012, the MobiSystems partnership was assigned to us as they had developed and maintained the associated mobile apps. Placing the American Heritage dictionary apps in their care was the only option available to us given the constraints of time and resources.
One cannot simply “fire” a business partner of long standing. We can work with MobiSystems to promote Voice Over accessibility across their entire product line and yes, in time, absent a substantive commitment from them, we can seek alternatives within the scope of our contract with them.
Thank you again for your email. Your concern is well noted and very much appreciated.
Licensing Manager, HMH Trade Publishing
I don't agree with all of the points he mentioned either -- he basically reiterated what he told me few days ago. However, at the very least, we need a timeline which would specify when, if at all, an effort will be made to restore AHD 5's accessibility. Despite all of these nice words, MobiSystems still remains loath to implement accessibility in its reference titles -- including AHD 5, and HMH can play a big role here by revoking the contract if they truly think accessibility is not just an awesome word in their dictionary.
Since this app is highly used in the educational community, I thought it might not hurt to let the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights know about this change. At the very least they could let institutions using this app know about the change.
I sent the following letter to the OCR:
I am writing to inform you that the American Heritage Dictionary iOS app, which is commonly used at k-12 schools as well as post-secondary institutions; is now inaccessible to Voiceover users. This occurred with a recent update to the app after the owner, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; switched the app to a new developer named Mobisystems.
Multiple voiceover users have contacted Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and have not received an encouraging response regarding future plans related to this app’s accessibility. For more information on the specific accessibility issues and the response by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to these users please refer to http://www.applevis.com/blog/advocacy-assistive-technology-ios-ios-apps-ipad-iphone-ipod-touch-news-opinion-reviews/good.
It would be very helpful if someone from the OCR or Department of Education could contact Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and reiterate the possible implications this lack of accessibility poses to their company and their federally funded customers.
Excellent letter, Aaron! I suggest that at least a couple of AppleVis users who live in the USA send such a letter to the U.S. Department of Education. That may really help.
I two will email mr leeth regarding accessibility. One thought I have regarding the letter to the department of education, you don't explain what VoiceOver is, and the fact that blind people use it, and that its built into all ios products. remember we are in a sighted world and most people don't have a clue about VoiceOver.
For what it's worth, I also sent off an email to the parties in question.
It's very sad to me when an app that is so important to so many people suddenly regresses like this. I'm not one who uses the app on a daily basis, but many blind students do, and now, because of this lack of understanding, these kids will have to rely on something else, possibly not as robust. The problem is that 99% of the population looks at VoiceOver as a cool thing, it's like that wow factor. They don't need it, so it's not going to resonate with them. We as blind people actually need VoiceOver to be there so we can make use of their app and have equal access. I've read the statement from app developers so many times I could resite it back in my sleep...sorry, but VoiceOver is not on our roadmap. or, I will ask the team and see what they say. When they say this, it's like they're saying well, you're really not that important to us. If these developers were only better educated I think they would hopefully realize what a huge mistake this is.
You raised very important points. Here, however, we also have Houghton Mifflin Harcourt which supports, or at the very least doesn't make an attempt to challenge, a developer, MobiSystems, which is unwilling to take accessibility and VoiceOver support into account.
I wish we could prepare a petition or make a coordinated effort so that we're heard more loudly and clearly. Also if proper government agencies are contacted, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt might backtrack.
Seems their main reason for hesitating is their contract with the developer.
Although I appreciate Mr. Leith's well-considered response to my letter, I believe it ultimately comes down to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt making excuses rather than decisively getting it done for accessibility.
While I understand the reasons why Mobisystems can't be fired on the spot, I do believe that, if Mr. Leith strongly believed in accessibility, he could ask the CEO of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to write a letter to the CEO of Mobisystems insisting that they develop Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's apps in ways that comply with accessibility best practices, guidelines and standards, unequivocally stating that the company's ongoing relationships hang in the balance moving forward.
I am in the process of working on such a request of Mr. Leith, after completing a bit more research.
If someone else would like to help with this aspect of things, please go right ahead.
Again, I would ask that everyone copy the letters they send to this post, along with their responses.
I wonder if someone could contact the CEO directly? I'm not saying that's the answer to all the problems but the more people you get in on this the better it might be.
That sounds a bit difficult, Toonhead. I don't have their CEO's email or Twitter address. But I also think that can yield better results. Maybe I should go check their website to see if those contact addresses are listed there.
I do agree with you, Darrell. They say they were not in a position to negotiate over the new app's accessibility, but I bet they didin't know that their old app was accessible. Even worse, they didn't know that the new MobiSystems app breaks or slashes accessibility. So the claim that negotiations were pointless is, well, just a bold claim IMO.
I'm thrilled to report that I received a good peace of news from Toby Leith, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Licensing Manager, regarding American Heritage Dictionary's accessibility. While the work is as yet unscheduled, MobiSystems has communicated to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that they plan to deploy VoiceOver in all of their apps. It's expected that this functionality is implemented in the coming months.
While this means we've taken a good step forward, it's of utmost importance that we not stop here. That is, we should ask them about this promised support at least every month or so.
Thanks to everyone who helped with their messages, replies and letters!
That is great to read. Thanks for all. A great community here.
But still, many regard accessibility as a luxurious Feature. No Company would publish a Software with graphical issues like a black Screen.