On recent Apple events: putting our eggs in baskets we can't see
A few weeks ago, Apple's app review team dropped the ball by refusing to allow an update to a Hangman game for blind people, which eventually got resolved after tech news sites posted about it. About a week ago, we learned that Apple had disabled a few Siri commands that are important for blind people, and people in general even, that prefer to use Siri for checking voicemail, email, and missed calls. That too was reversed, as once Apple said that it was to get blind people to use VoiceOver. Now they say it'll be fixed in the coming weeks and months.
Story about the Hangman game
Disabled Siri commands
This post isn't a hate letter to Apple, although these two events were the straw that broke, and made me decide to deal with Android if it means having something I can loosely control. This is to remind myself, and the blind community, and anyone else who cares to read it, that if we depend on Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and other big tech companies, we depend on people who, for the most part, care nothing for us.
It's mostly our fault
As a community, we blind people seem, to me, more eager than most to lean on anything that claims to help us. Whether it be free government assistance or built-in screen readers and voice assistants from big corporations, we put our livelihoods into the hands of these people. Then stuff like this happens, or money mismanagement strikes government agencies, or good people quit, leaving us with poor replacements or unsteady leadership, or one careless ending to a feature leaves people with reduced functionality, and we're tempted to place all the blame on the people in power. And we should rightfully let them know our concerns.
When Assistive Technology instructors or service providers get calls throughout the week from elderly people, asking "What did I do wrong?" "What did I break?" Well, that's a problem. But then, we should ask ourselves: "Why did this happen? Why is it that these people rely on Siri, rely on Apple?"
We have placed all of our technical hope into a few big corporations. Of course, there's also Humanware, Freedom Scientific, and other such companies who thrive off of selling out-of-date technology at a very high price. And they're part of the problem too. But so many of us rely on Apple. So many of us use an iPhone as our *only* computer. Sighted people can get away with it because the big problems for them are usually visual issues or minor functionality problems. If we only use an iPhone for our job, though, the sometimes major issues could mean the difference between being able to confidently do a job, or finding so many workarounds that we aren't even competent at the job anymore.
So, why not just use VoiceOver? Why use Siri for all that? Because elderly people don't need all of the functionality on an iPhone, and shouldn't *have* to learn touch screen commands that, through bad memory or unsteady hands, they may not even be able to do. To ask them to use VoiceOver instead of the thing that has worked for them for years, is near the peak of privileged behavior, and should not be tolerated. But these are supposed accessibility experts, or Apple experts, representing a top tech company full of supposedly smart people. Surely they know what they're talking about, right? Right?
A hard solution
We need to build for ourselves. No one else will do it for us. We see this in so many areas, like the lack of a great and wonderful braille experience, which for now, across all operating systems, is bland, with no spatial separation for paragraphs and headings, and no formatting. We don't even have formatting info through speech changes, something the Emacspeak audio desktop has had for decades now, although Narrator is trying, but constrained by the rigid text-to-speech engine used. I know we can't affect services like Uber, Lyft, Walmart, Amazon, and other apps and sites. But the operating system and tools we use should work with us, and for us; never should they work against us. And more and more, as these big companies realize that they have us on their hook, that they've reeled us in, they'll take away what we need, whether by accident or on purpose. They take our freedom to do what we want with our devices day by day, some companies more than others. And yes, while Apple does give us image descriptions and stuff like that, we could do the same thing with open source Python libraries and tools if we wanted. We just have to stop giving ourselves away, and either make these companies work for our money again, or make stuff ourselves, so we never are beholden, and trapped under, them again.
What can we do?
As users, we can vote with our dollars. We can use more open platforms, like Android, Windows, and ChromeOS, and give feedback to these companies, rewarding them for giving us the option to use something other than what they allow on the device. We can give money to NV Access and other blind creators of software. We can raise awareness on social networks about how we use more open platforms, and what we can do with them. And, we can encourage the many talented blind developers by openly supporting, and funding, any of their work to create helpful, open software. If we can pay for Apple Music, Apple news, Apple Fitness Plus, and Apple Airpods Max, we can afford to give blind developers much more than what they get now. We could give NV Access enough money to hire a developer to work on a great braille experience, for example. Or a few Android developers to work on improvements to TalkBack, adding Braille support and improving its features.
Now, I know there aren't many of us, and even less blind people with money. But I'll begin doing my part, donating even more to NV Access when I have a bit more money, since I've canceled all Apple subscriptions. It's time we have a say in the technology that means the most to us. It's time we expect more from developers, from ourselves, and much less from big companies who hide in the shadows and expect us to hold them up. No more of that.