The Incurable Gonz Blinko: The Hands That Feed Us

By Chris Hofstader

Yesterday, I was talking to my friend and Serotek CEO, Mike Calvo. He enthusiastically told me about a device that the people at the Disney Magic Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Florida gave him to use for his visit there on Sunday. According to Mike, a guy who knows a whole lot about accessibility, it looked like a little box with headphones. The information provided directly into his ears provided a step by step narrative of the park and described what he would have seen if he hadn’t been blind on the rides and during the shows.

“I’m 44 years old,” said Mike, “I’ve been going to Disney since I was three. This was the first time I got to really enjoy it all.”

Last year, the American Federation of the Blind (AFB) gave Disney one of its prestigious Access Awards for the excellent accessibility of their theme parks. Also, last year, three blind American individuals filed a class action  lawsuit against Disney for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) for having certain portions of their web site inaccessible to people with vision impairment.

I tend to support using lawsuits as a tactic to force companies to stop discriminating against people with disabilities by presenting an inaccessible web site. Web accessibility isn’t too hard to do if the site’s developers just follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)  available at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) web site and certainly a company like Disney can afford to do so. At the same time, I accept that our community must first warn a company before filing a lawsuit and, furthermore, we should offer our services as accessibility experts to these companies before we start tossing around litigation. I understand that American Counsel of the Blind (ACB) takes the “try niceness first” approach to solving web accessibility problems, a tactic for which they should be commended.

Disney, with the excellent accessibility of their theme parks, should also make their web sites fully accessible to people with vision and other print impairments but, given that they have demonstrated that they are willing to provide profoundly greater access to their parks than any other such organization (Six Flags, Busch Gardens, Universal, etc.) lends me to believe that, if properly made aware of the web issues, they would likely take action to remediate their site in a reasonable amount of time. I’d add that a company like Disney would also likely hire blind contractors to help them test their accessibility as they try to roll it out.

So, why file a lawsuit against Disney while letting organizations that are much worse off of the hook?

One might assume that the three individuals who filed the suit acted impetuously and, as they don’t represent any of the advocacy organizations, they really do not represent the class of people with vision impairment. Unfortunately, this practice of using aggressive legal tactics and publicity against companies who do a better job with accessibility seems built into the culture of some so-called advocates. Even worse, some companies who have web sites with loads of accessibility problems get applause from some groups claiming to represent the community of people with vision impairment.

Last July, the National Federation of the BLind (NFB)at its summer convention passed a resolution “condemning and deploring” Apple for the sin of not requiring that everything sold in its app store be fully accessible. While I agree that having such a requirement would be nice, Apple has done vastly more than its operating system rivals Google, Microsoft and all flavors of GNU/Linux to promote accessibility. Also, Google and Microsoft have their own app stores with no requirements for accessibility either.

Before I launch into the politics that seem to have led to the NFB resolution, I will provide a few  examples that demonstrate Apple’s overwhelming lead in providing systems accessible to people with vision impairment. Since introducing VoiceOver, the utility people with print impairments use to hear the contents of the screen spoken or sent to a refreshable braille display, Apple has sold 100 million devices that are accessible to this community. Additionally, every product in an Apple retail store that has a user interface includes VoiceOver. A blind person can go to an Apple store and try out everything they sell except the iPod Classic which hasn’t had a software revision in a really long time. I can use any Macintosh, iPhone, iPod Nano, iPod Shuffle, iPod Touch and more sold in the past few years without installing any extra software. Meanwhile, I would need to spend nearly $1000 extra to use Windows on a “standard” computer if I want to use the most popular screen access utility for that platform. Android from Google includes a screen access tool called “TalkBack” which is, in my educated opinion, years behind the out-of-the-box experience provided by Apple and the costly add-ons required by Windows.

When counting accessible devices, Apple’s more than 100 million is more than all of the software and hardware sold by the access technology  industry since its formation more than 30 years ago. People in nations ignored by the AT biz now enjoy unparalleled access if they can get a used iPhone 3GS which can be had for much less than JAWS, the leading Windows screen reader from Freedom Scientific.

Why then did NFB choose to single out the leader in affordable out-of-the-box accessibility while celebrating Google’s tremendously sub-standard access?

At the NFB convention in 2010, they gave Apple one of their accessibility awards. In 2011, Apple decided that because of its upcoming Lion operating system release that they would not attend any of what we in the blindness biz call “the summer shows” – including the national NFB convention, the ACB convention, Sight Village in UK and various smaller conferences. Apple representatives explained to NFB that they needed to focus on the accessibility of their new OS release and of numerous smaller initiatives they were preparing for autumn 2011.

Curtis Chong, head of NFB in Computer Science, the portion of NFB responsible for computing issues decided to threaten people at Apple with a resolution of condemnation if they didn’t attend the convention. Then, at the convention, he pushed through a resolution deploring the company that has provided an excellent out-of-box experience that is years ahead of their competition. It seems that Curtis did this because his feelings were hurt or some other completely childish motivation for biting the hand that feeds us best.

How do I know all of the back room wrangling that happened between the largest organization that claims to represent blind people and a notoriously secretive corporation? Because Curtis, in the most unprofessional move of this unfortunate incident, decided to release all of the correspondence between himself and our friends at Apple. This data dump included the names of individuals at Apple, their personal email addresses and mobile phone numbers and, yes, the people in Apple accessibility positions received some harassment from the NFB faithful but, likely to Curtis’ chagrin, comments on blogs that republished the correspondence defended Apple as, yes, the community knows which hands to avoid biting.

If this was the first time Curtis and NFB had pulled such a stunt, I could forgive it. One might say that Chong’s actions might have been an overly zealous reaction to his feeling disrespected by a company that received an award from his group only a year earlier. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time he did this.

A number of years back, Curtis attended an accessibility event on the Microsoft campus. Then, my friend Madeline Bryant McIntyre ran the MS Access Technology Group (ATG) and everyone in attendance, including me, signed a non-disclosure agreement. As we were under NDA, our friends in the MS ATG felt they could converse openly with us about their timelines, their plans for the future of their accessibility initiatives and secret under-the-hood aspects of the then unreleased Windows Vista. I can’t recall what angered Curtis that time but he took all of the correspondence and lots of other data covered by the NDA and dumped it out onto the Internet. Microsoft could have taken legal action but can you imagine the headline in the Wall Street Journal, “Behemoth Microsoft Sues Blind Advocacy Group” so MS couldn’t react to Chong’s violation of their agreement. My friends at MS can no longer trust Curtis and I doubt any NFB representative will be invited back o a private session, thus limiting NFB’s ability to advocate for our community.

At the time Curtis attacked Microsoft, the Redmond software giant was the leader in accessibility, a fact to which I testified in the DOJ’s antitrust case against MS.. Microsoft’s ATG continues to employ some of the most talented people in the field and I’m expecting some terrific things from them in the upcoming Windows 8.

Thus, while trashing Apple and going public with MS information, NFB also chose to file ADA based lawsuits against some companies for having web sites with lots of accessibility violations. The first such suit was against AOL and NFB chose to settle the case for a rumored $5 million award without AOL making any improvements in their then miserable accessibility.

The next suit was filed against Amazon whose web site contains many accessibility violations. Amazon hired New Hampshire based, Paciello Group (TPG) to help it with its defense against NFB. Mike Paciello, head of TPG, finds his way onto all sorts of accessibility standards groups and acts publicly like an advocate for accessibility for people with all sorts of disabilities but also accepts clients with reprehensible records on accessibility and, given the history of some of these outcomes,       his clients don’t seem to ever actually take accessibility seriously. I contend that he should work for clients who have actual plans of becoming accessible rather than adding the name of his highly respected company to the bad guys of web accessibility.

If you are thinking, “Everyone deserves a defense,” I must remind you that these cases are civil lawsuits and, in the US, only defendants in criminal cases  have a constitutional right to a defense. This community has seen Freedom Scientific, the largest and most wealthy company in the blindness business, file all sorts of harassing civil cases against smaller rivals who could not afford a defense so had to bow to the big guy’s wishes. I know this because, while I worked for FS, I participated in this harassment and, since leaving the company, I have been on the losing end of their harassment.

Amazon settled its lawsuit with NFB for an undisclosed sum of cash and, now, years later, the Amazon web site is still loaded with bad accessibility problems.

The next NFB suit was against American retail giant, Target. Once again, TPG was retained by the defense and, once again, NFB dropped the suit after Target gave them an undisclosed amount of money and, not surprisingly, Target’s web site continues to have major accessibility problems.

After settling its lawsuits, NFB made public statements congratulating AOL, Amazon and Target for taking steps to become accessible. As a user, I saw only minimal and patronizing attempts at accessibility by the defendants in these cases and NFB certainly did not represent the community of people with vision impairments actual needs and desires.

At last years NFB convention, ebay was the lead sponsor. Guess what? The ebay web site has dozens of accessibility problems . NFB took ebay’s sponsorship dollars while ignoring their poor accessibility. Those of us who would say that any group advocating for our community should require accessibility before rewarding a company by splashing its name all over their convention like they were a friend of our population.

While slamming Apple at their annual convention, they celebrated Google with lots of presentation slots for their Android system. As I wrote above, Android accessibility is poor at best but NFB probably got a fat contribution from Google and, as any advocate knows, money talks, accessibility walks.

Why does this community bite the hands that feed us while trying to coddle those who treat us as a nuisance at best? I really do not know. I will probably join ACB this year as, while they have their problems too, their approach to advocacy makes much more sense than NFB. I will continue my personal letter writing campaign to developers of web sites with poor accessibility  and continue to offer them my services as a tester when they start making their improvements. I will continue to use mostly Apple products and will continue to encourage my accessibility hacker friends at Google and MS to try to catch up with Apple.

Afterword

In the time since the July NFB convention, ebay has hired someone to coordinate its accessibility initiatives and they have made dramatic improvements to how people with vision impairment can access their site. I would like to thank ebay for this effort and congratulate NFB on successfully working with ebay to achieve  this important goal. Let’s hope this is a new direction for all involved.

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