Commentary: Accessibility in Business Should Be More Than An Afterthought

Commentary written by guest writer Tyler Bachelder

Did you know that businesses are letting over $8 trillion slip right through their proverbial fingers? Me neither. But Caroline Casey, an Irish disability activist does, and she wants to show them the money. That sum is the estimated amount of disposable income possessed by approximately a billion people with disabilities worldwide. She believes that with the right insight and guidance, businesses can begin tapping that money for their own gain. But this isn’t just a naked appeal to greed. It’s also good citizenship. It starts with a consideration for disabled consumers in the boardroom. She wants companies to know that they need to do more than pay mere lip service to accessibility. To her, this is a win-win situation. Businesses cater to the needs of disabled people, and in return they get loyal customers who feel appreciated and valued, plus the wallets that come with them.

Take a look around and you can see this ethos already paying off. The go-to example that most blind people would likely jump to is Apple. Apple has, through the entirety of its design process, considered the needs of disabled people, and it’s been revolutionary for us. Their suite of accessibility tools is comprehensive. The iPhone has screen magnification, LED flash to notify deaf users of alerts, image recognition to describe photos, the ability to type in Braille on the phone, shaped buttons for color blind users, guided access to minimize distractions for users with cognitive disabilities, and so much more. And those tools are generally replicated on a Mac. Apple is something of a prestige brand. Consumers pay a premium for its products. Often, disabled people don’t have as much money individually, due to lack of inclusion in the workforce. But, limited income aside, blind people flock to Apple devices no matter the cost. Why? Because Apple cares about their needs. For a lot of us, Apple is the brand, not a brand. Imagine, for a moment, what that means for this segment of the market. Apple has it largely on lockdown.

And that leads us to Casey and her mission. She imagines a world in which companies consider accessibility at all levels of operation, from supply to design to service to the built environment. That sort of consideration can engender a lot of loyalty from a demographic that often feels underserved and neglected. It’s also a clear win for public relations. Search Google News for Apple Accessibility and you’ll witness journalists frothing over how thoughtful, how philanthropic, and how cool Apple is for doing this work. What company doesn’t want that kind of public goodwill?

Let’s also remember that accessibility can benefit everyone, not just disabled people. How many times have you taken an elevator when stairs would work? Be honest, I won’t tell. You’ve had a bear of a day at work, the commute home is a nightmare, your feet hurt, all you want is to, for a second, be at rest. So into the elevator you go, and you’re grateful right? That elevator is intended for wheelchair users, but I’ll bet what’s left of my eyesight that you’re thankful for those precious thirty seconds of stillness, aren’t you? That’s accessibility at work.

Casey wants companies to realize that the investment of time and money into accessible products and services pays dividends both financially and in the court of public opinion. Too often, due to a lack of education about what it means to be disabled or what it would take to improve the status quo, businesses neglect it altogether. If informed at all, they’re usually misinformed, mistakenly believing that these considerations would be prohibitively expensive. For instance, minor changes like high contrast colors in design, larger signage, appropriate lighting, products that feature tactile elements, websites built with screen readers in mind, digital versions of manuals, TTY phone numbers, most of these things are insignificant changes with very little cost attached. And it’s much less expensive to design while considering accessibility, rather than retrofitting something later, because often if you change one small feature, others must change to make way. I’m thinking here of buildings built before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, specifically, but the principle applies generally too.

So Casey plans to travel to Colombia and ride horseback across the country, all the while documenting her journey on social media. The #valuable campaign is meant to educate, rather than cajole. At the end of her journey, she will beseech over 500 companies to consider their lost money. Let’s hope this effort can create at least one more Apple in the world. The changes won’t happen overnight, but there is momentum. I’ll be in the elevator, waiting for the doors to open on a brighter future.

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Commentary: On 10 Years of the iPhone

Commentary: On 10 Years of the iPhone

On January 9, 2007, the Apple iPhone was unveiled by the late Steve Jobs in front of thousands of curious spectators. The launch of this new and entirely touch-screen operated cell phone changed the way in which people across the globe interact with technology. For me and countless other individuals with vision loss or other disabilities, the iPhone and similar mobile devices not only gave us greater access to technology, but they also afforded us more independence that previously seemed impossible.

My brother and several friends were among the lucky ones to own that first iPhone from 2007. I always heard excited chatter from them about the cool features it had. “I can even check the weather,” my brother told my relatives in Mexico. At the time touch-screen devices like the iPhone were completely inaccessible to those of us with vision loss, so I could only dream of enjoying that technology. That all changed in 2009 with the launch of the iPhone 3GS, when Apple incorporated Voiceover, its screen-reading software into this and future versions of the iPhone.

Like most of my friends who were blind, I was skeptical and didn’t know if the iPhone would work for me. The thought of being able to use a touch-screen without sight seemed daunting and impossible. It was not until 2012 that I decided to switch to an iPhone after constantly hearing rave reviews from my friends, who were extremely pleased with the accessibility. Their feedback did not disappoint. For the first time in my life, I was able to send and receive text messages on my own thanks to the iPhone. I could also check the weather and email on the go, something that my family and friends took for granted.

Today, the iPhone not only helps me stay in touch with the world, it also gives me more independence. Apps like LookTell Money Reader and TapTapSee allow me to identify things without needing someone’s assistance. With the Bard Mobile and NFB NewsLine apps I can download books, newspapers and magazines in a matter of seconds to listen on my iPhone. The kNFBReader app quickly scans printed documents and reads them out loud to me. Thanks to Voiceover and the built-in accessibility of the camera, I can even take pictures! Finding last minute transportation has become easier thanks to apps like Lyft and Uber, and I can easily find my way to unfamiliar locations with the phone’s GPS.

Without a doubt, the iPhone and other mobile devices have dramatically enhanced the lives of everyone, but even more so for people with disabilities. Technology has changed significantly since 2007, the time when I and other people with vision loss could only dream of being able to use these devices. Kudos to Apple and other manufacturers who are constantly trying to make their devices accessible to everyone. The possibilities with technology are endless, and I am sure it will only continue to help people with and without disabilities connect to the world and live more independent lives.

Built-In Accessibility in Mainstream Products: A Benefit for All!

When I first heard in 2009 that Apple’s latest iPhone would be accessible to the blind and visually ipicmpaired, I was very skeptical. I had seen the iPhone’s touch screen, and could not figure out how on earth I could use it without being able to see. A lot has changed since then, and using touch screen devices has become more common among the blind and visually impaired. Best of all, people no longer have to purchase special software or hardware to be able to access the devices. Companies like Google and Apple are working tirelessly to make sure their products can be used by everyone.

Touch screen devices have become accessible to blind and visually impaired users thanks to screen-reading technology. This software speaks out loud the apps and reads emails and text messages. Apple’s Voiceover and Google’s Talkback are among the most popular screen-reading programs designed for mobile devices.

Before 2009, the majority of blind and visually impaired cell phone users had to purchase screen-reading software in addition to their phone. These programs could cost a minimum of $300, and were only compatible with certain devices. Two of the most common programs were Talks and Mobile Speak. Prior to these programs, blind and visually impaired people were not able to read or send text messages independently. Not everyone could afford both the phone and software, and many of us settled with having a phone that had buttons that were easy to tell apart. At least that way we could answer the phone and make calls.

I finally got my iPhone in 2012 after hearing from my blind friends how accessible it was. To say that I was thrilled with the phone’s accessibility is an understatement. For the first time I could browse the internet, send and receive text messages and even know who was calling me thanks to the built-in accessibility! Best of all, I loved the fact that the phone was completely accessible right out of the box. By simply turning Voiceover on I could begin using it – I no longer had to buy additional programs just to be able to use my phone.

More products have become accessible out of the box ever since 2009. In addition to the screen-reading capabilities, people with low vision can make text larger and even change the screen colors for better visibility.

Individuals with physical disabilities are also benefiting from built-in accessibility. Thanks to programs like Apple’s Siri and Android’s Google Now, they can do things like dictate text messages and even open specific apps without having to physically touch their phone or tablet. While Siri and Google Now were not originally designed for people with disabilities, they have been tremendously helpful to this community. Additional built-in accessibility features also help people who are deaf and those with learning or cognitive disabilities use their mobile devices independently.

Designing devices to be accessible out of the box is not only the right thing to do, it is also good for business. Just like anyone else, people with disabilities will by products that are usable and that meet their specific needs. I applaud companies like Apple and Google for their continuous efforts to make their products accessible for everyone, and I hope more manufacturers will follow their lead.

This accessibility has opened more opportunities for people with disabilities in many ways. In future blogs I will discuss how these features combined with other apps have allowed disabled individuals to use mobile devices for many purposes. What off the shelf products have you found accessible as a blind or visually impaired person? Do you have additional suggestions for readers? As always, thanks for your comments and feedback!