Interestingly enough, I just came back from the National Federation of the Blind’s 2016 national convention in Orlando, Florida, where I was honored and privileged to have been asked to present for the Trainer’s Division. The NFB is an organization that has done a significant amount of good for the blindness community over the years, and its support of Braille literacy and education and employment of the blind are areas I truly am behind and appreciate. It is an organization that has been on the forefront of advocating for the blind for many years, and I’ve personally attended many national and state level conventions as a vendor in the past and now as an assistive technology trainer.
It is not uncommon for resolutions passed by the NFB to be controversial and sometimes debatable among the blind. I can recall more than a few over the last twenty-five years that had left me shrugging or not quite sure exactly how I felt about them, or what was the honest purpose behind them. However, like any active and successfully productive organization, such resolutions are important and in the area of improving the life of blind people, they have certainly addressed some critical topics. Many have been necessary, and I have certainly applauded several when they have come along.
I am, though, quite troubled and even embarrassed by one of the resolutions passed in the 2016 convention on July 4. This is Resolution 2016-04. Specifically, for the fourth time, the NFB has passed a resolution that has been specifically directed at Apple and has singled them out among the other major mainstream companies who provide hardware and software used by the blind.
I’m not going to sum up or present the resolution in its entirety. In fact, I direct my readers to an article written by Michael Hansen of
Who, I believe, has a very in depth perspective on the resolution and shares many of my own personal thoughts and reactions to it.
I do not seek any kind of political debate nor am I criticizing or attacking the NFB or its members with this post. Besides being a member of the Trainer’s Division of the NFB, I have many friends and business associates who are members or hold offices in the NFB at both the state and national level. Furthermore, my respect and admiration for the organization and its members is something that has grown and expanded over the years. This resolution does not change those feelings at all for me.
To be honest, I do stay out of the whole NFB verses ACB world, and I will always prefer to avoid walking that road. I also believe that the American Council of the Blind has done a lot of good for the blind as well, and, thus, as a blind person, I don’t find it productive or helpful to be involved in organizational battles. I know there are some blind folks who have loyalties to either organization and take those loyalties and affiliations quite seriously. I respect that kind of commitment, and I admire it as well. I’d just prefer not to take sides or fight anyone else’s fights.
However, I cannot help finding the overall essence of this resolution to be unnecessary and even hypocritical. It is interesting to me that such resolutions directed against Microsoft or Google, who happen to have been represented at the NFB convention in the exhibit hall, seem to be missing as far as accessibility shortcomings goes. The reality is from someone who has had over 25 years of experience in the assistive technology world and who has witnessed many trends, many advances and many battles for accessibility, Apple has come along and completely blown The Doors off of Google and Microsoft with its commitment to accessibility and its VoiceOver product that comes free as part of all of their computers and devices. I’d go as far as to say that in eleven years, Apple has basically raised and set the bar for accessibility quite beyond that offered by Google and Microsoft in their products.
The reality is, software has bugs. As Michael Hansen points out in his article, the bugs effect both the sighted and blindness world. Nevertheless, you need not look any further than Windows access for screen readers and access to Android devices to see how misplaced and awkward this resolution is to specifically target Apple alone. When I see such resolutions directed and worded towards Google and Microsoft, among the other companies we, the blind, know have accessibility issues that, in some cases, dwarf those of Apple, I would find myself feeling such a resolution would be more fair and in line to “reality”. In other words, as far as Apple as come in the area of accessibility in the last ten years and despite the accessibility that is offered in all Apple products off the shelf, they are still being singled out for many criticisms that can be leveled at their competitors.
I had the rare privilege and thrill of a life time to have been contracted by Apple to work as a Quality Assurance analyst for them for about ten months. Let me tell you, gentle reader and assure you that the commitment to accessibility in Apple permeates from its upper levels down to the engineers and quality assurance people. I take issue with some of the content of Resolution 2016-04 in regard to quality assurance and Beta testing. While I was there, I also had the pleasure of meeting some of the accessibility people who work for Apple, and these folks are committed to their jobs and take it seriously beyond any way many blind users seem to even appreciate. They simply get it, and they take deep pride in their work, as they know how many people benefit from it. It is not just a job to them, and the mantra of accessibility was something that was being almost preached when I spent time in Sunnyvale as a Q&A analyst.
Will we see bugs in future releases of iOS and Mac OS? Of course we will. That is the reality of software development. It’s going to happen, and some users will experience it more than others. It’s the nature of the beast of new software, and that will never change.
Still, again, I point you towards Google and Microsoft and anyone else who tries to provide accessibility in their products for the blind and it is pretty much a mirror as far as the experiences of dealing with new versions of software occurs for the user. Thus, you may go right ahead and cast stones at Apple, but save just as many for the other companies and write your resolutions to be inclusive of them as well if you want to be unbiased and truly address the blindness community as a whole and our overall accessibility to the software and devices we choose. Single out one company when there are others that would fit your list of criticisms just seems out of place and, unfortunately, is only going to foster the accusations of politics being at the root of the resolution that critics of the NFB will sling. This resolution simply leaves a bad taste in my mouth and, unfortunately, doesn’t reflect well on the NFB for actually passing it.