Blog Date: 
Friday, July 11, 2014
Mark A. Riccobono

At the recently concluded annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind, there was much discussion about Resolution 2014-12, regarding the accessibility of apps for the Apple iPhone and other iOS devices. The issues raised in the resolution are not new. They have been discussed by members of the Federation for a number of years and the proposed resolution clearly reflected influence from prior debates. Although opposition to the resolution was expressed both at the meeting of the Resolutions Committee and on the convention floor, the resolution was passed by the convention and is now the policy of the National Federation of the Blind. The debate, however, has not ended. It is continuing on the internet and social media. Since the resolution has been duly passed by the ultimate authority of the National Federation of the Blind, its national convention, this blog post will not attempt to persuade those who opposed it. The resolution is and will remain Federation policy unless or until it is modified or rescinded by a subsequent resolution.

I thought the chatter around the resolution would fade away until some media reports made inaccurate assertions about the resolution, its content, and what actions the NFB will take to carry it out. Many of these inaccurate assertions have been fueled by a provocative and poorly reported article from the Reuters news service, linked here only for reference. Reuters has already been forced to correct the article because it reported, inaccurately, that the National Federation of the Blind once brought suit against Apple, Inc. This never happened, although a demand letter was sent regarding the accessibility of iTunes and iTunes U, and the Massachusetts Attorney General opened an investigation. Those actions resulted in a voluntary agreement with Apple that was a significant step in getting us the accessibility we experience today.

Let me start by laying out some background for the resolution. In the wake of its commitment to making iTunes and iTunes U accessible to blind users, Apple has gone far beyond the scope of that original agreement and made the vast majority of its products accessible to the blind. It has done so by incorporating VoiceOver, a powerful screen reader, into the majority of its products, including its Mac computers, the Apple iPhone and iPad, and Apple TV. The native apps on these devices are accessible, and Apple has set forth developer guidelines that allow third-party apps to be made accessible. Many of the 1.2 million (and counting) apps available in the iOS app store have a high degree of accessibility for blind users. Many more, however, are not. In addition, a recurring problem is that when apps are updated to new versions, blind users find that accessibility has been compromised, either deliberately or accidentally. With no way to revert to a previous version of the app, the blind user must simply hope that the developer rectifies the problem quickly. No one seriously disputes that these problems cause blind iPhone users a great deal of frustration, and that they sometimes result in real threats to a blind person’s education, productivity, or employment. Smartphones, tablets, and other portable devices are increasingly replacing desktop computers in educational and employment settings, making access to apps intended for such devices not merely convenient but often essential.

The National Federation of the Blind has been struggling with how to address these problems for years. Apple has done more for accessibility than any other company to date, and we have duly recognized this by presenting the company with at least two awards (including our annual Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award) and publicly praising it whenever the opportunity arises. We do not want to needlessly antagonize a company that has been such an outstanding accessibility champion. Nevertheless, inaccessible apps continue to proliferate, and blind users cannot update the apps on their iPhones without anxiety.

Many argue that the way to address these problems is to engage the vast community of developers who create iOS apps. This is a worthy, if challenging, endeavor, and nothing in Resolution 2014-12 precludes such engagement. In fact, our access technology team has engaged with many app developers and will continue to do so. Apple itself, however, is in the best position to influence its developer community, and has in fact made efforts to do just that. While Apple’s clear accessibility guidelines and training at developer conferences are appreciated and necessary, however, they have proven insufficient. So the National Federation of the Blind, through its national convention, has decided to ask Apple to do more.

The heart of any resolution is the section that begins “Be It Resolved.” This is the section that says what the National Federation of the Blind intends to do. Resolution 2014-12 says:

BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this fifth day of July, 2014, in the city of Orlando, Florida, that this organization call upon Apple to work with the National Federation of the Blind to create and enforce policies, standards, and procedures to ensure the accessibility of all apps, and to ensure that accessibility is not lost when an app is updated.

This is straightforward enough, but a lot has been read into it. People have asserted that we have thrown Apple under the bus, and are making demands and threats, including the threat of litigation. But none of this is in the text of the resolution. As President of the National Federation of the Blind, the individual charged with seeing that this resolution is carried out, I understand the resolution to mean exactly what it says: we are calling upon Apple to work with us. We are not issuing an ultimatum or a threat. We are not demanding anything. We are certainly not condemning Apple; there is much praise for the company in the many “whereas” clauses that precede the “resolved” clause. We have a good relationship with Apple, and it is our desire for that relationship to continue. In fact, I recently spent time at Apple’s headquarters talking about accessibility and critical concerns we have heard from blind people. We simply want Apple to continue to discuss with us what measures the company can put in place to ensure accessibility. The resolution does not state what measures we want, or demand that Apple implement any policy in particular. Obviously, it is our desire that the dialogue result in ensuring that apps are accessible, and we need not apologize for that. But exactly what will come from that dialogue remains to be seen. In many ways this is similar to the dialog we want to continue to facilitate with all of the players in this industry, including Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. 

Much of the debate about this resolution has centered on the use of the word “all.” It has been argued that not all apps can, or should, be made accessible. But I think the word is useful, because it makes clear that we believe accessibility to be a critical component of the user experience, not merely a nice feature to bolt on if the developer feels like it. The National Federation of the Blind has always believed that accessibility is necessary, not merely desirable, if the blind are ever to take our rightful place as equal members of society. We believe that it is, and ought to be, guaranteed by our nation’s antidiscrimination laws. We have always believed this, and that we have restated this belief in this resolution should surprise no one. As Dr. Marc Maurer said at the national convention, “The right to live in the world has to include the right to live in the digital world.” The word “all” reflects our belief that accessibility should be the rule rather than the exception. Perhaps there should be some exceptions, but we are not obligated to negotiate with ourselves and declare what those exceptions will be. If they are to exist, they should be carefully negotiated in discussions with Apple and with its developers. Besides, where might we draw the line of innovation? I was once told I would never be able to drive a car, but when we put imaginative engineers together with skilled blind people we created technology that empowered me to drive on the track at Daytona. Shall we decide today what is or is not possible in the innovations of the future?

I hope this post clarifies the resolution and illuminates how, as President, I plan to implement it. The discussion that this resolution calls for, however, must take place. The stakes are too high for the blind to settle for hit-or-miss accessibility. They are nothing less than whether the blind will be equal and included or isolated and excluded in a world driven by personal technology. Everyone agrees that the status quo is not acceptable. We must, and we will, try to change it.