Blog Date: 
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Charlie Cook

One of the reasons that the Access Technology team ensured we had a presence at the Consumer Electronic Show this year was to spread the message to other companies and organizations about the importance of access for everyone, and some of the simple steps they could take to ensure that their products could be enjoyed by the blind, as well as the sighted. We were pleasantly surprised by many organizations. Some had already seen the potential applications of their products for blind users, even if access features weren’t entirely in place yet, these organizations were excited by the place their technologies could have in the lives of blind consumers. Snapkeys intends to add features that would increase their usability by blind people, or just sighted folks who are in a position where they can’t look at their phones, and Vitallink already is working in a number of low vision enhancements, while exploring their options for adding text-to-speech functionality to their product.  Other organizations, like Savant (home automation iOS app developers), presently do not have any accessibility built into their products, but seem genuinely interested in working with us to rectify the situation.  Still others are on board with the message of access for the blind, and have been for a fairly long time.  We have long admired the work of organizations like Carnegie Mellon who have worked on ensuring access for everyone in many of their research projects and initiatives, and we hope to continue seeing exciting advancements from them and others like them.

Sadly, not everyone shared this enthusiasm for our message, and we believe that it is important to share the names of these organizations with you, our loyal readers, so that we can all help these companies to understand the importance of considering access for blind folks, and the additional benefits this access can mean for the rest of their users.  So, without further ado, we present you with the 2012 CES Access Technology Hall of Shame.

Dishonorable Mention: Nokia's Smartphones

We hesitate a little to put Nokia on the list, which is why it doesn’t receive a full inductee’s status, but instead, something of a “runner-up” or “dishonorable mention” award.  Here’s the setup:  Nokia has partnered with Code Factory to create a screen access package for their non-Windows Phone 7 based phones, or at least some of them.  Truly, this is an exciting development that we would all like to know more about, especially because Nokia is providing this screen access suite for free from their app store for compatible phones.  We were hoping to learn more about the exciting development of the Nokia Screen Reader, and which devices the application would be available for, as well as any other details we could get on the project, which is where the nomination for the Hall of Shame comes in.  Nokia was so wrapped up in the launch of their Windows Phone 7 devices (which are completely inaccessible, and do not yet even include hooks for access software to employ) that no one at the booth even knew what we were talking about.  We spoke with no fewer than three different booth workers, and to be honest, I’m not sure that they were even aware that Nokia is still selling non-Windows Mobile 7 devices, much less the state of access technology available for those devices.  The upshot of all of this is that it’s hard to trust the future of an organization’s involvement with a project if they are not even aware of its existence at a major event. This is a concern for the future of the otherwise laudable strides that Nokia has made to ensure that blind people can continue to enjoy their devices, and we hope that they can turn this around and remember the partnerships which helped to make them so invaluable to blind users as some of the first really accessible smart phones on the market. 

Universal Remote’s iOS App

Seeing exciting projects all over the CES floor, many of which contained access opportunities via iOS apps set our minds to spinning with possibilities, so we made it a point wherever possible to try the iOS apps for everything we could get our hands on at the show.  Where we found apparently accessible apps we made note, commended the creators, and hope to do some further testing so we can confidently share our discoveries with the blindness community at large.  Where we found flaws, we attempted to bring this to the attention of those manning the booths and get contact information for members of the organization who develop the apps, so that we could help them add in the accessibility components to make their products more usable and interesting to blind people.  Some organizations were interested in our feedback, and admittedly, we won’t know if they took it to heart until we see changes in their products, but at least they had the common courtesy to hear what we had to say.  Not so with our “friends” from Universal Remote.  The gentleman who condescended to speak with us, told us that we were not the first people to come to him during the show and discuss accessibility for blind users in their iOS remote app, but that it really couldn’t be a priority since they were on a deadline to get the app out the door, and perhaps, they could add it into a future release of the product.  Here’s the thing, the buttons were already navigable via VoiceOver, and they just weren’t labeled.  This is not a difficult fix to implement, and honestly, if he had chosen to talk with us as if we were equals, we could have even understood the concern of needing to get the first release out the door before enhancing the product even with such a simple fix.  However, the tone of voice and dismissive demeanor screamed louder than words ever could that this man was going to forget that we ever had visited his booth as soon as we turned away.  The apathetic contempt for our message, especially after we were not the first to express it, is painfully disheartening, and it makes for a needlessly contentious attitude from all parties in the future.  I would rather deal with a developer who is interested, but unsure of the possibilities any day over one who is so smugly certain that it just isn’t important to consider, even though they know it would be trivially easy to implement accessibility features in their products.

iHealth’s Glucose Meter

Making a glucose meter driven by an iOS app accessible is relatively painless and free,  and with that in mind we approached iHealth Labs’ booth with hope. Once we started a conversation it turned out that neither the simplicity of the fix nor the fact that a significant portion of their target demographic is losing vision made much of an impression on the iHealth Lab. Their representatives made it very clear that they were not interested in blind or low vision customers. The worst part? Their weight tracking app actually mostly works, and the iHealth glucose meter is mostly only lacking button labels. Some days it feels like the only appropriate response is to shake people. We didn’t – but we do encourage you to do what we did and speak up for access to a device that could so easily be made to work.

Invoxia’s Phone

Invoxia’s hardware really is an elegant solution – it turns any iPhone into a fully-fledged business phone with conferencing capabilities, and it lets the user group together regular phone service, Skype and any other VoIP. The phone can be docked or connected wirelessly, and the device has the option of adding other (wireless) handsets in addition to the corded phone that is included. It is a great device, and one that works well with VoiceOver…until you get to the dialing pad. There, the buttons are unlabeled. The French company which created this system (and won an Innovation Award for it) was glad to humor us and let us play with VoiceOver, but showed no interest at all in making the achingly small fix that would be needed to make this solution blind-friendly. Excuse us while we quietly boo them; and feel free to do the same.

We do understand that the Consumer Electronics Show is a big event that keeps booths very busy; but we also found that even some of the bigger companies, and most of the smaller ones, made the time and effort to at least dignify our few questions with a real response. Many found the time to identify the appropriate contacts, even at booths with waiting lines. We thank them; and wish their colleagues shared the same spirit.

Amy Mason
Clara Van Gerven