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Apple’s VoiceOver: The Value of Accessible Mainstream Technology

A MacBook on a plain background. The screen shows software and a speechbubble displays words describing a selected tool. It reads "Colour Wheel, selected, button"

Today I’m talking about screen readers, specifically VoiceOver, which is the screen reader made by technology company Apple that comes free with their products: iPads, iPhones, iPod Touches, Mac computers and so on, which many blind and visually impaired people use.

But the point of this conversation, is not so much about VoiceOver or Apple specifically, but about the larger picture of mainstream technology companies providing decent accessibility, using Apple and VoiceOver as what I think is a very good example of this done well.

Most of the blind people who I know and know of, who have phones, have iPhones. There are large communities online such as Apple Vis, that support the blind VoiceOver using community. Many educational institutions use iPads as accessibility tools for visually impaired students.

Arguably, the main reason for this is VoiceOver. VoiceOver is a piece of software that allows a blind user to access the iPad, by speaking the information on the screen and changing the gestures so that they allow a blind person to access a touch screen. It works very well and I say that both from my own experience and from what I know of the blind community. You do not have to buy it as an additional piece of software that will run on an Apple product, it comes free and is automatically installed. All you must do is go in to settings, then general, then accessibility, then VoiceOver and turn it on and it works. Granted, you may wish to configure some of its settings to your liking, but you don’t have to go through an installation process.

You may wonder why I’m emphasising this at great length but I think there are two very important points to consider here, about why it’s so valuable and subsequently why so many people use Apple devices and why other companies should consider providing accessibility in a similar way.

The first is that what this gives the user, is a built in screen reader that they’re not going to have to pay extra for, like they would on other mainstream platforms. The two main arguments that people raise when you say this to them are as follows. The first is that Apple products are more expensive than those made by other companies, which is true. However, when you add in the fact that for other products you’re going to have to buy a screen reader, it generally evens out. So then it comes down to preference. Certainly in the field of mobile phones and tablets, while I can’t say mobile screen reading technology is anything near what I would consider an area of expertise, it seems to be the case that the majority of blind people use VoiceOver, which seems to be backed up by all the support material available online, which is considerably lacking for other alternatives. The other argument people seem to make, is that other companies do offer screen readers, with the most common cited example people give, usually people who don’t actually know about screen readers but do know about technology in general, is Microsoft’s Narrator. The problem with Microsoft’s Narrator is that it doesn’t work very well. I can say from experience that it’s a complete nightmare to use. While I haven’t used it for years, I am of the opinion that Narrator is what only the most generous of souls could call a functional screen reader. It may have improved since then, though I feel like the blind tech community is such that if it had drastically improved people would be talking about it on a pretty large scale. In fact, there has been much talk about how Microsoft’s accessibility is going down hill with Windows 10, something I have much unpleasant experience with, being the biggest example. Interestingly, I have heard some interesting things about what Google and Amazon are doing to make more of an accessibility effort, which is an exciting development for the future, but it certainly seems that Apple are ahead of the game by miles.

But there’s a second point to note about the significance of VoiceOver as a screen reader being built in to every device and that is this. I can use any Apple device, not just my own. Let me give you some examples of times when that’s been useful. Sighted people are always showing each other things, they’ll talk about a thing and invite the other sighted person to come look at it. Now, that works blind person to blind person, if you’re both using accessible technology but it doesn’t often work sighted person to blind person. But it can and it often does. A few months ago, I was at my writing group, it’s a perfectly ordinary writing group nothing disability specific, so I’m the only blind person. Another writer was telling me about something she’d done which there was a web page about which she wanted me to look at. Because she had an iPhone, she was able to load the page, put VoiceOver on for me and hand me the phone to allow me to browse, rather than having to read the whole thing to me or direct me to find the page for myself on my own device. It’s a simple little thing and I’m sure she’d have happily read it to me had there been a need for that, but it’s quite pleasant to be able to integrate with people on a level playing field to sighted people.

Similarly, early last year, a sighted friend was having difficulties doing something on her phone. Because she also had an iPhone, I was able to tell her to put VoiceOver on. I was then able to help her resolve the issue. While I was actually doing different gestures to the ones she would do without VoiceOver, she knew enough about her iPhone and was also able to still see the screen, for me doing what needed to be done and showing her to be educational to her as well as solve the problem.

So my point is, having a mainstream screen reader that you’re able to use that works well and is easily available on a device as standard, is useful, because you can use another person’s device which generally makes things more inclusive. I also think it would remove many access barriers if people didn’t have to pay for screen readers.

You could argue, why would a mainstream technology company want to do that? The answer to that, is that you get the share of the market that are customers who are blind. And I think in Apple’s case in the area of mobile technology, that has happened. I wouldn’t like to try to estimate what percentage of blind people use Apple iPhones or iPads but I feel like it’s pretty high. As I said, most of the blind people I know who have phones have iPhones. And while we’re not a large portion of the market, we are a portion of the market. So from a business point of view surely the more sales the better, right? But it’s not just blind people, I don’t know as much about accessibility for other disabilities as I do about access to technology for blind people, but I have also come across many an instance where Apple devices are used by people with other disabilities. A look through the accesibility section of the settings on my own phone presents me with a host of other features that I’ve never even tried, that are so varied I wouldn’t claim I knew what all of them did precisely, because I would probably get stuff wrong. But the point is, disabled people are a share of the market.

Business aside, I think as a society, we should make an effort to be inclusive. A lot of these big companies are making tons of money, it’s not much to ask for them to invest a little of it in to making their products accessible, which will then increase their sales anyway. We all live on this Earth together and making things accessible will only benefit people.

What are your thoughts on the accessibility of mainstream technology? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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