This article will explore Apple’s consistent attention to accessibility, and how other tech companies with commitments to accessibility, like Microsoft and Google, compare to Apple in their accessibility efforts. It also shows where these companies can improve their consistency, and that no company is perfect at being an Assistive Technology provider yet.
The trend of accessibility
In iOS 9, VoiceOver users are able to choose Siri voices to speak using VoiceOver, as an extension of the list of Vocalizer voices, and Apple’s Alex voice. One can now control speech rate more easily, and the speed of speech can be greater than previously possible. One can control the time a double tap should take, a better method of selecting text, braille screen input improvements, and braille display fixes and new commands.
Then, iOS 10 arrived, with a new way to organize apps, a pronunciation dictionary, even more voices, reorganized settings, new sounds for actions, a way to navigate threaded email, and some braille improvements. One great thing about the pronunciation editor is that it does not only apply to the screen reader, as in many Windows screen readers, but to the entire system speech. So, if you use VoiceOver, but also Speak Screen, both will speak as you have set them to. This is a testament to Apple’s attention to detail, and control of the entire system.
With the release of iOS 11, we gained the ability to type to Siri, new Siri voices, verbosity settings, the ability to have subtitles read or brailled, and the ability to change the speaking pitch of the voice used by VoiceOver. VoiceOver can now describe some images, which will be greatly expanded later. We can now find misspelled words, which will also be expanded later. One can now add and change commands used by braille displays, which, yes, will be expanded upon later. A few things which haven’t been expanded upon yet are the ability to read formatting, however imprecise, with braille “status cells,” and the “reading” of Emoji. Word wrap and a few other braille features were also added.
Last year, in iOS 12, Apple added commands to jump to formatted text for braille display users, new Siri voices, verbosity options, confirmation of rotor actions and sent messages, expansion of the “misspelled” rotor option for correcting the misspelled word, and the ability to send VoiceOver to an HDMI output.
Finally, In iOS 13, Apple moved accessibility to the main settings list, out of the General section, provided even more natural Siri voices, haptics for VoiceOver, to aid alongside, or replace, the sounds already present, and the ability to modify or turn them off. A “vertical scroll bar” has also been added, as another method of scrolling content. VoiceOver can now give even greater suggestions for taking pictures, aligning the camera, and with the iPhone 11, what will be in the picture. One can also customize commands for the touch screen, braille display, and keyboard, expanding the ability braille users already had. One can even assign Siri shortcuts to a VoiceOver command, as Mac users have been able to do with Apple Script. One can now have VoiceOver interpret charts and graphs, either via explanations of data, or by an audible representation of them. This may prove extremely useful in education, and for visualizing data of any type. Speaking detected text has improved over the versions to include the detecting of text in unlabeled controls, and now can attempt to describe images as well. Braille users now have access to many new braille tables, like Esperanto and several other languages, although braille no longer switches languages along with speech.
In Sierra, Apple added VoiceOver commands for controlling volume, to offset the absence of the physical function keys in new MacBook models. VoiceOver can also now play a sound for row changes in apps like Mail, instead of interrupting itself to announce “one row added,” because Apple’s speech synthesis server on the Mac doesn’t innately support a speech queue. This means that neither does VoiceOver, so interruptions must be worked around. Some announcements were changed, HTML content became web areas, and interaction became “in” and “out of” items. There were also bug fixes in this release.
In High Sierra, one can now type to Siri, VoiceOver can now switch languages when reading multilingual text, as VoiceOver on the iPhone has been able to do since iOS 5 at least, improved braille editing and PDF reading support, image descriptions, and improved HTML 5 support.
In MacOS Mojave, Apple added the beginning of new iPad apps on Mac. These apps work poorly with VoiceOver, even still in Catalina. There were no new reported VoiceOver features in this release.
This year, In MacOS Catalina, Apple added more control of punctuation, and XCode 11’s text editor is now a little more accessible, even though the Playgrounds function isn’t, and the Books app can now, after years of being on the Mac, be used for basic reading of books. Braille tables from iOS 13 are also available in MacOS. For step-by-step information and explanation on how to initially use VoiceOver on your Mac, check out GeeksModo’s Learn to use voiceover on your Mac: a beginners guideThe future of Apple accessibility
Time will tell if this new direction, no responsibility for not only other developers’ work, but also the Mac and work done by other developers and flaunted by Apple, will become the norm. After all, Apple Arcade is an entire Tab of the App Store; inaccessibility is in plain view. As a counterpoint, the first iPhone software, and even the second version, was inaccessible to blind people, but now the iPhone is the most popular smart phone, in developed nations, for blind people.
Perhaps next year, Apple Arcade will have an accessible game or two. I can only hope that this outcome comes true, and not the steady stepping back of Apple from one of their founding blocks: accessibility. We cannot know, as no one at Apple tells us their plans. We aren’t the only ones, though, as mainstream technology media shows. We must grow accustom to waiting on Apple to show new things, and reacting accordingly, but also providing feedback, and pushing back against encroaching inaccessibility and decay of macOS.
Now, though, many have moved to a new screen reader created by a Chinese developer, called Commentary. This screen reader does, however, have the ability to decrypt your phone if you have encryption enabled. For braille users, BRLTTY is used for braille usage. This level of customization, offset by the level of access which apps have to do anything they wish to your phone, is an edge that some enjoy living on, and it does allow things like third-party, and perhaps better screen readers, text to speech engines, apps for blind people like The vOICe, which gives blind people artificial vision, and other gray area apps like emulators, which iOS will not accept on the App Store. Users who are technically inclined do tend to thrive on Android, finding workarounds a joy to find and use, whereas people who are not, or are but do not want to fiddle with apps to replace first-party apps which do not meet the needs of the user, and unoptimized settings, find themselves doing more configuring of the phone than using it.
Third party offerings, like launchers, mail apps, web browsers, file managers, all have variable accessibility, which can change from version to version. Therefore, one must navigate the shifting landscape of first party tools which may sort of be good enough, third party tools which are accessible enough but may not do everything you need, and tools which users have found workarounds for using them. Third party speech synthesizers are also hit or miss, with some not working at all, others, like Eloquence, being now unsupported, and more, like ESpeak, sounding unnatural. The only good braille keyboard which is free hasn’t been updated in years, and Google has not made one of their own.
Because of all this, it is safe to say that Android can be a powerful tool, but has not attained the focus needed to become a great accessibility tool as well. Google has begun locking down its operating system, taking away some things that apps could do before. This may come to inhibit third party tools which blind people now use to give Android better accessibility. I feel that it is better to have been on iOS, where things are locked down much, but you have, at least somewhat, a clear expectation of fairness on Apple’s part. Android is not a big income source for Google, so Google does not have to answer to app developers.
The future of Google accessibility
Now, we have UI Automation, which is still not a very mature product, as screen readers are still not using it for everything, like Microsoft Office. GW Micro, makers of Window-eyes, bonded with AI Squared, producers of the ZoomText magnifier, which was bought by Freedom Scientific, whom promptly abandoned Window-eyes. These days, JAWS is being taken on by NVDA, Nonvisual Desktop Access, a free and open source screen reader, and Microsoft’s own Narrator screen reader.
In Windows 8, Microsoft began adding features to Narrator. Now, in Windows 10, four years later, Narrator has proven itself useful, and in some situations, helpful in ways that all other screen readers have not been. For example, one can install, setup, and begin using Windows 10 using Narrator. Narrator is the only self-described screen reader which can, with little configuration, show formatting not by describing it, but by changing its speech parameters to “show” formatting by sound. The only other access technology which does this automatically is Emacspeak, the “complete audio desktop.” Its braille support must be downloaded and installed, for now, but is still better than Android’s support. Narrator cannot, however, use a laptop’s trackpad for navigation. Instead, Microsoft decided to add such spacial navigation to touchscreens, meaning that a user must reach up and feel around a large screen, instead of using the level trackpad as a smaller, more manageable area.
Speaking of support, Microsoft’s support system is better in a few ways. First, unlike Apple, their feedback system allows more communication between the community and Microsoft developers. Users can comment on issues, and developers can ask questions, a bit like on Github. Windows Insider builds come with announcements by Microsoft with what is new, changed, fixed, and broken. If anything changes regarding accessibility, it is in the release notes. Microsoft is vocal about what is new in accessibility of Windows, in an era when many other companies seem almost ashamed to mention it in release notes. This is much better than Apple’s silence on many builds of their beta software, and no notice of accessibility improvements and features at all. Microsoft’s transparency is a breath of fresh air to me, as I am much more confident in their commitment to accessibility for it.
Their commitment, however, doesn’t seem to pervade the whole company. The Microsoft Rewards program is hard to use for me, and contains quizzes where answers must be dragged and dropped. This may be fun for sighted users, but I cannot do them with any level of success, so they aren’t fun for me at all. Another problem is the quality of speech. While Apple has superb speech options like Macintalk Alex, Vocalizer, or the Siri voices, Microsoft’s offline voices sound bored, pause for too long, and have a robotic buzzing sound as they speak. I think that a company of Microsoft’s size could invest in better speech technology, or make their online voices available for download for offline use. Feedback has been given about this issue, so perhaps the next version of Windows will have more pleasant speech.
Windows has a few downsides, though. It doesn’t support sound through its Linux subsystem, meaning I cannot use Emacs, with Emacspeak. Narrator does not yet report when a program opens, or when a new window appears, and other visual system events. Many newer Universal Windows apps can be tricky to navigate, and the Mail app still automatically expands threads as I arrow to them, which I do not want to happen, making the mail app annoying to use.
The future of Microsoft accessibility
This does not excuse them for the decay of Android and Mac accessibility, and the lack of great speech options on Windows. It does not excuse them for Apple Arcade’s lack of accessible games, or Microsoft Rewards’ inaccessible quizzes. We must give honest, complete, and critical feedback to these people. After all, they do not know what we need, what will be useful, or, if we dare tell, what will be delightful for us to use, unless we give them this feedback. This applies to all software, whether it be Apple’s silent gathering of feedback, Microsoft’s open arms and inviting offers, or open source software’s issue trackers, Discord servers, mailing lists, and Github repositories. If we want improvement, we must ask for it. If we want a better future, we must make ourselves heard in the present. Let us all remember the past, so that we can influence the future.
Now, what do you think of all this? Do you believe Apple will continue to march ahead regarding accessibility, or do you think that Microsoft, or even Google, has something bigger planned? Do you think that Apple is justified in their silence, or do you hope that they begin speaking more openly about their progress, at least in release notes? Do you like how open Microsoft is about accessibility, or do they even talk about accessibility for blind users enough to you? I’d love to know your comments, corrections, and constructive criticism, either in the comments, on Twitter, or anywhere else you can find me. Thanks so much for reading!