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The Growing Pains of Universal Access

Anyone who has followed my views on access tech knows that I tend to be fairly moderate in my stances. I try, to the best of my ability, to see the big picture of an issue and find the middle ground between extreme positions. It is my sincere belief that reality is usually in the gray.

I’ve seen a lot of chatter online recently about how various companies choose to address the accessibility needs of their users. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the comments, frustration, and anger being expressed stem from either a knee-jerk reaction, or simple ignorance. As much as we, by which I mean the visually impaired community in particular, may wish it to be otherwise, things are not so black and white.

My thoughts here are primarily focused on accessibility for the visually impaired, but can probably be largely applied to other disabilities as well. All opinions are simply my own, and I have no doubt that some will disagree. Hopefully, however, they will give those who are just parroting the views of others, or hitting the RT button in their Twitter client, food for thought.

The two incidents that brought this topic to mind recently were the controversy surrounding Fleksy’s decision to temporarily split its iOS app into two versions, one with VoiceOver support and one with experimental features for sighted users, and Audible’s apparent development of two websites, one of which would be optimized for screen readers.

On the surface, the outrage over these may be understandable. Technology, thanks largely to the efforts of Apple, has been moving toward an ideal over the last several years that accessibility should be baked into a product from early in its development. That idyllic state of affairs grows closer every day, but it is important to understand that we are still in a state of transition, and the ideal is not always going to be practical, or even possible, until the technology reaches its full potential.

This is especially true with website accessibility. While things have improved, and will doubtless continue to do so, there are still major problems with setting accessibility standards. Arguments about implementation abound, and the process has largely been slowed by bureaucracy. This issue, incidentally, is not exclusive to accessibility standards for web content; it is simply necessary to point out that accessibility is affected by it every bit as much as all the other moving parts are

From a business perspective, companies, especially those in the tech space and related fields, are constantly under pressure to deliver a more cutting edge experience to users. We can argue the merits of that from here to doomsday, but that is the reality of the situation. Sometimes, being on the cutting edge means delivering a superior experience to the end user, and sometimes it just means an excess of flashing lights and glitter. The end result doesn’t matter, ultimately, because the market is what it is. No amount of railing against human nature is likely to have a meaningful change in the short term.

It is precisely this need to stay ahead of the curve, and the fact that accessibility standards for web content are lagging behind, that create a conflict of interest for companies like Audible. Blind users want what they want; they want Audible to embrace the ideal of a one website for all without taking into account how this might impact their business, or if it is technologically practical, or even possible, to align these opposing interests.

Computer platforms, especially those like OS X and iOS, are further along in many respects than the web in terms of accessibility, because the standards have been largely set and maintained to keep up with the changing technology. It is far, far easier to create a rich, modern experience in an app that is accessible, than the same on the web. This is further compounded by the fact that different screen readers will implement different parts of ARIA and web accessibility standards in different ways. Some parts of the standards, particularly those which are not finalized, may not be implemented at all.

I believe the unified approach is the ideal we should be striving for, and we are far closer to that ideal today than we ever have been, but this is still a time of transition. It isn’t as simple as snapping your fingers and suddenly you have an experience that is just as rich for the sighted user as it is for the visually impaired one. Should we strive for this ideal? Yes. Should we encourage it? Absolutely.

What we should not do is attack companies, like Audible or Fleksy, when they make decisions like this. Audible, for instance, has done a tremendous job of baking accessibility into their iOS application. This is not a company who has a history of shunning accessibility for the visually impaired. Instead, try to understand the complexities and direct the criticisms toward, for instance, the somewhat flawed and broken system of how we develop web standards. Technology and user expectations are outpacing the current system’s ability to keep up.

The above does not mean you give these companies a free pass if they drop the ball, but in both of these cases in particular, it is not that difficult to understand, from a technical standpoint, what likely led to these decisions.

Both Audible and Fleksy have clear, easily visible track records of commitment to accessibility. I doubt that these decisions were made without careful consideration. They may not be what visually impaired users think they want right now, but we are not their sole concern, either. They have a delicate balancing act to maintain between various groups of users with opposing needs, as well as the responsibility to grow and maintain the health of their business.

All of this boils down to a plea for people to really think before lashing out. Few, if any, decisions like these are being made inside a bubble. It is one thing to voice concerns, and another to respond to businesses with venom. I see little of the former and much of the latter. In these two specific cases, it isn’t even like these companies are not addressing the needs of visually impaired users; what people are angry about is that they’re needs are not being addressed in exactly the way they think they want them, right at exactly this moment in time. That is neither helpful nor productive.

It is human nature to want to lash out when things aren’t the way you think they should be. But it is the human ability to reserve judgment until we understand the complexities of a situation that, among other traits, sets us apart from the other creatures of the world.