Apple Should Require Developers to Make Their Apps Accessible

Club AppleVis MemberMember of the AppleVis Blog Team

Apple's commitment to accessibility has made life easier for large numbers of visually impaired and other disabled people. Gone are the days of buying a Nokia phone and having to send it away and wait weeks for Talks to be installed. We have devices that we can use immediately after buying, without installing an expensive screen reader. Our devices include accessibility settings to accommodate several different disabilities. Many app developers have admirably taken on the challenge of making their apps not just minimally accessible, but easy to use with VoiceOver and other accessibility settings.

These are all huge steps forward, and we shouldn't forget the progress we've made, or the hard work it has required. Even so, the accessibility of Apple devices is not perfect, and so long as there is still room for improvement, we should speak up when things aren't working quite as they should be. In that spirit, I want to suggest what I think would be a natural next step for Apple: they should include some accessibility requirements in their app store guidelines. They should require developers to meet minimum accessibility standards, not just for VoiceOver users, but for other disabled users who require apps to be designed in a particular way.

Apple reviews each app before it is released to the app store, and their requirements, described on their guidelines page, are stringent, covering design and content as well as safety and legal issues. If Apple are going to exert such tight control over what goes in the app store, they should use that control to promote accessibility.

It wouldn't be realistic to expect all developers to instantly make their apps fully accessible. I would suggest introducing the new rules gradually, so that new apps are required to meet accessibility standards, and then extending them to updates to existing apps. The new rules should be phased in by category, so, for example, they should apply to productivity apps early in the transition process, and to games later on. The general idea would be for these requirements to apply first to apps that can easily be made accessible, and those that are essential in people's lives, and only later to the less essential apps and those that are more difficult to make accessible.

What about apps that can't be made accessible? Aren't some apps visual by nature, and so it isn't possible to make their core functionality accessible to blind users? Yes, that is true of some apps, but perhaps not as many as you might think. Remember that most of us used to think it wouldn't be possible to make a touchscreen accessible to the visually impaired. And where an app can't be made accessible, this should be made clear to users. Apple could require developers to write a short statement explaining why the app could not be made accessible, and that statement could be made available for users to view before downloading.

Wouldn't this rule change have the biggest impact on smaller developers, who might not have the money to make their apps accessible? If this is a problem, it could be accommodated in the transition process, by giving such developers longer to meet the new requirements. But in fact it will be easier and cheaper for them to design their apps with accessibility in mind from the start, rather than adding it in later and potentially having to redesign the app.

Is it worth making such a big change for a small number of users? Making apps accessible is the right thing to do, not only because disabled users should have equal access to technology, but because access to apps means access to other parts of life: books, information on public transport, smart home devices, and many other things that, for visually impaired and other disabled people, would be difficult to access without apps. In addition, accessibility features, although primarily intended for disabled users, sometimes benefit other users, too. For instance, presenting information in textual form, as well as or instead of using audio or images, has benefits not just for deaf or blind people, but for everyone, because, for example, it makes the information easier to search. More accessible apps will mean better apps for everyone.

Thanks to Apple's review process, I can be sure that anything I download from the app store will be safe and won't contain viruses. But I can't always be sure that the apps I download will be usable. The guidelines page says that "Customers should know what they’re getting when they download or buy your app", and that "Apple customers place a high value on products that are simple, refined, innovative, and easy to use". Disabled customers have the same expectations. I hope Apple will take on board this idea, so that we can all be sure that any app we download will either be accessible, or will have a note on it's app store page clearly stating that making it accessible is not possible. I don't expect all apps to be made accessible overnight. The transition process would probably take several years. But Apple could start taking steps towards making this a reality. . Even if we can never live in a world where all apps are accessible, we could be a lot closer to that ideal than we are now.

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22 Comments

#1 I disagree

The best accessibility often comes out of individual developers who have chosen to make their apps accessible. It may not have been their original intention, but they have realized that implementing accessibility has its benefits. They have gone through a process of discovery in which their minds have been opened to the possibilities and benefits of making their apps accessible. There is nearly always no such sentiment in people who have been forced to implement accessibility by force. Just look at how many people are supporting H.R. 620--and that's not even people who have to implement accessibility.

Now, let's look at this from a developer's point of view. Some developers have never understood why accessibility is important, and it is likely that they never will. Under this change to the developer guidelines, many will either implement the absolute bare minimum, or they will stop putting apps into the App Store. I don't think that individual developers or small developer teams or companies should be required to think about accessibility. Would you go down to your local Italian or Chinese restaurant and berate them for their inaccessible website? No? Then why would you berate a lone developer who has an inaccessible app in the App Store?

Imagine what that would look like for Apple as thousands of developers would be saying their goodbyes because they don't want to make their apps accessible. Apple would be the laughing-stock of the tech community. They would be losing developers at an incredible rate.

#2 Re: I disagree

Club AppleVis MemberMember of the AppleVis Blog Team

I very much doubt there are many people who don’t want to make their apps accessible. Most people want to do the right thing. Of course, there are people who will find it difficult or impossible, but that’s why I’m suggesting introducing the requirement gradually, and accepting that some apps can’t be made accessible, as long as we’re told about that before downloading. I also doubt that people would stop making apps for Apple if this was introduced, so long as they had reasonable expectations of which apps can be made accessible and how long it will take. Apple developers are used to having to meet strict requirements before they can get into the app store, so one more isn’t going to make them leave. Some might ask whether the app store and the review process should even exist, and that’s a separate issue, and a debate I didn’t want to get into in that post. If Apple stopped reviewing apps and said that anyone can release whatever they like, I wouldn’t be asking them to monitor for accessibility. But since they do review each app, I’m saying they should consider accessibility as part of that process.

#3 Agreed ... To A point

Hi, a well put argument, however, I think that the final objective of all apps being completely accessible is unachievable. Some apps, by nature, fit with specific user scenarios and, whilst I understand that most apps serve a function (social connectivity, entertainment, productivity) or work as a process (Image or audio capture, object identification), without severely straying away from the apps primary objective, accessibility may be impossible to implement.

Rather, I suggest that Apple require proof of 'reasonable' steps to implement accessibility, so that requirements doesn't strangle advancement.

As you say, start simple ... Just requiring that buttons be labelled would be a great start, and then on from there, but, of course, not all apps have a UI entirely based on button presses and feedback suited to audio.

Good discussion though.

#4 Re: Agreed ... To A point

Club AppleVis MemberMember of the AppleVis Blog Team

I agree with everything you said here. I understand that some apps can’t be made accessible, and I accept that, so long as people are taking reasonable steps, as you say. I like your suggestion of starting by requiring buttons to be labelled and then taking it from there, and asking for proof of reasonable steps.

#5 ...

interesting... apple must first make all their own apps accessible, then they'll have the moral authority to make such demand, and frankly i don't think apple has earned such moral authority.

there is a simple thing apple can do, that is to add some accessibility check to their SDK so apps don't satisfy certain requirements won't get approved or even compiled, apple won't even do that. it's a shame because i think that would be very helpful to developers. in my personal experience, i've never known a developer intentionally don't want to make their apps accessible if they know how to do it.

as a society, we do need some regulations for the greater good, such as banking and telecom. people don't have access to these will be left behind, so it is reasonable to require these providers to make their products and services accessible, and frankly, these companies do have the resources to comply; but i'm not sure about pop-and-mom developers, many of them don't make any money. and i i said, even for those who don't make any money, my experience is that they would make their apps accessible if they know how and it doesn't cost them a lot to do it.

#6 Maybe carrot rather than stick?

Maybe a good way of encouraging all developers to get involved is to offer incentives, promoted apps, top accessible app of the week ... Rather than going down the road of disallowing apps that, for whatever reason, are unable or simply do not conform to accessibility standards.

#7 Maybe carrot rather than stick?

App DeveloperClub AppleVis Member

I like the idea of most apps should be accessible but I think part of the problem for developers (including me) is the learning curve to understand what can be done to make an app accessible. There are some resources, but without the help of communities like AppleVis it is challenging.

One thing Apple insist on is that for an app to be featured it must be accessible.

https://developer.apple.com/app-store/discoverability/

(under Getting Featured)

Now, I don't know if they enforce this rule as I haven't checked featured apps for accessibility. It might be something the community can do if they find a featured app which turns out not to be accessible, then flag it up to Apple.

Personally, rather than enforce, I agree with Oliver and I would like to see Apple increase an app's discoverability if accessibility has been well implemented. This would be a good incentive for the developer.

#8 Preach it

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Thanks for this great post, Lizette.

Regarding small developers, i'd like to comment that I'm a software developer myself. In my experience, apps become non-accessible when developers take extra steps to create a non-standard user interface with custom controls. If they would simply yuse stock or vanilla controls, their apps would require less development time and would be accessible more or less by default. Let me make this clear: app developers spend more time when they develop apps that are not accessible.

Regarding the carrot and stick solution, perhaps Apple could change its reimbursement policy so that developers get the full amount due to them if their app meets accessibility guidelines, while developers get a fraction of that for sales of apps that don't meet such guidelines.

Frankly, I am concerned about the accessibility guidelines themselves. Many app developers, programmers, and web page designers meet existing guidelines and standards, and the result is pretty poor accessibility. Take, for example, the morass of keyboard shortcuts available on websites like mail.google.com, facebook.com, and twitter.com. Ugh. I pity the poor blindie that uses all three of those web pages and must memorize their often conflicting palette of hotkeys. If this is accessibility, kill me now.

I'll wrap this up with the following thought: It does occur to me that the largest corporation on the planets ought to be able to devote a team of engineering resources that, at the very least, ensures their own software is accessible. If Apple won't or can't do this, then we're in serious trouble.

#9 I'm for it

Hello! I'm all for it. While I know some apps just cannot be made accessible, I love this idea. I think if Apple had resources available for devs where they can be easily found, then great! Plus, I also think that you can't really tell if an app is accessible without actually testing it. Unless you are blind, or have another disability, you can't really tell if your app is accessible or not. If Apple had links to comunities such as AppleVis, where devs could go, spread the word about their knew app, or redisigned app, or whatever the case may be, and get people to test it. If devs had a way for accessibility to be tested, then maybe they'd have a better understanding. Plus, being responsive and fixing bugs would be nice too. Have a way for people to contact you, and let you know about a bug, whether it'd be email, or Facebook or some other means of contact.
I agree 100% with all points made in this article. Great blog post.

#10 Thoughts

App Developer

Well written post. As stated, I think the reason most app developers do not include accessibility by default is simply because they haven't been exposed to it. Simply labeling buttons can be tricky too, as it happens that without proper knowledge of what you're actually doing, it's also easy to do it incorrectly. Then there's the problem of testing. When you enable accessibility features, the phones interface changes drastically and confuses most unaware app developers. You could say they could go out and ask for testing, but if they're not aware or know any blind or otherwise disabled people, then they won't know where to ask. XCode could have basic accessibility audits as part of their standard UI testing routines, I think that already would make a lot of things easier.
Also, saying that developers spend more time building inaccessible user interfaces isn't always true. There are many toolkits and SDK's for writing software for iOS that come with their own UI toolkits like Unity,Corona and several others that generally don't mind accessibility and use none of the default apple UI toolkits for cross platform support on different systems like iOS and Android, which makes it harder for people developing those engines to truly conform to either the one or the other accessibility standard since they're quite different. Of course, Unity has different assets in the store now for creating user interfaces, however the guidelines for publishing those in the App Store might be different and definitely an issue for Apple to correctly audit or test at scale.
Encouragement is the best way, and to encourage people need to be told and made aware. I've recently downloaded an app that had completely mislabeled buttons and upon telling the developer he seemed surprised. So there still must be points where Apple's documentation on accessibility can be skipped or seem uninteresting to people making apps for what they assume a device completely off limits to people with disabilities.
This is a difficult issue and I'm surprised that we see as many apps being accessible as we do. But then, in the case of Telegram for example, the developers stated multiple times that they would not focus on implementing accessibility, even after being made aware. So the problem of people not caring and probably giving up on that platform if they can't get their app published is a real thing.
This is a difficult road but we've come a long way. All we can do is continue our support to the app developers that do take it into consideration and offer help to those that don't know. Especially for games it's a much bigger issue, so I wouldn't say we'd get anything like that anytime soon since there accessibility has to be part of the core design. When I start a game for example I start it with the full knowledge of producing an accessible game, and the entire development, design, the whole process focuses on mainly this aspect first.

#11 not all apps

This subject comes up fairly often. I think that common sense should be used. For example, a jigsaw app should not be required to be made accessible to the blind, nor should an app that is for painting or creating sught oriented artwork. A deaf person cannot get the enjoyment of music creation. I personally hate these suggestions of "blanket accessibility", because they are unrealistic.

#12 You're doing more harm then good here.

The resources for the developers can be right in front of your face, but if you don't know about Voice over, or switch control, or guided access, how does that help you? If you make the app "accessible", is it really? I think it's great, someone over here doesn't like how it speaks so much or so little, take your pick. If you ask for testers, you'll get the I want something for nothing, a lot of which I see here. When someone asks, sure it's great you get fifty replies, but most of them are along the lines of, I'll help, or I want to test. even if you're explicit enough to say, email, whatever at whatever.whatever. And, let's say for some crazy reason this goes through? Developers on here have said how long it takes to get an update to us, add to the fact that time will probably quadroople when the engineers are going through the apps. You can't have your cake and eat it too. Apple is a mainstream company, pure and simple. We are a submarket that Apple does recognize, and does what it can with each release to ensure we can use their products. I agree with Charles, blanket accessibility is pointless.

#13 as long as no abuse

I even think the idea that devs putting a brief statement explaining why apps are inaccessible is a good idea. However, I could also see how that could be abused. I'm sure that Apple will do what it can to ensure that the system doesn't get abused. I know that there will always be people who abuse the system, no matter what. But, if a way to flag those devs was in place, great.

#14 If Microsoft can allow

If Microsoft can allow developers to put in their store that apps are accessible, then so can Apple. I agree with the original post, because it is /not/ a blanket statement. He allows for developers to say that their app cannot be made accessible. We've come a long way, yes, but most we stop now that what we have is "good enough?" Why not ask for better?

#15 In reply to Charles and Siobhan

Club AppleVis MemberMember of the AppleVis Blog Team

Of course some apps can’t be made accessible, but we should still get as close as possible to universal accessibility, even if we can never go all the way. Blind people can’t be taxi drivers, but we should still expect to get as close as possible to equal employment opportunities, even if absolute equality of opportunity for work will never be possible. I’m not saying access to apps is as important as access to jobs, but the principle is the same.

#16 Making Accessibility a Requirement

This is a good thought, however its never going to happen considering the scope of this task and the way that accessibility lawsuits have ended in court. Apple would have to have internal testers to ensure that every app is accessible. The amount of time it takes to audit or test an app depending on its size and scope can be tremendous: days, weeks, etc. There are thousands and thousands of apps in the store and the amount of back log that would create, or the number of developers it would turn away would be astounding. This is never a requirement I could see actually holding weight and being enforced. Why would Apple of all companies have to be held to this standard? Shouldn't Microsoft and Google have to follow the same type of guidelines? IN the public sector this has been dealt with on a case by case basis and many companies can skate around accessibility and ADA requirements by saying an alternative service is available. Lets take a pizza ordering app for instance. People have tried to file a lawsuit saying that a pizza ordering app should be made accessible. The solutions found in court are that you can pick up a phone dial a number and order a pizza therefore the app does not need to be made accessible if there is another alternative means available.
On the other hand,, section 508 was created for the Federal Government to ensure that information technology is made accessible. Even as a law there are so many ways around it, push back on making things accessible, a tremendous back log of items that need to be checked for accessibility, etc. Section 508 is supposed to be enforced, but is often a self checked and enforced analysis. I cannot honestly see this taking off in the public sector. Yes Apple has done a tremendous job on accessibility and will continue to do so, but making this a requirement is completely unreasonable and not something only Apple should be held accountable for. The best method is to reach out to developers in hopes that they will work to make their apps more accessible in future releases. Forcing requirements on developers is not the correct approach to solve this problem and as I have previously indicated there are so many ways to bend accessibility rules and hold out on implementing changes. Others have indicated this above with making certain apps accessible that we know are unreasonable that are completely visually based.

#17 Release notes for apps

You get this requirement such as it is, and now, beyond the backlog of apps the previous person posted, you will have this. Anyone get updates, and all you read is, "Bugs fixed and performance enhancements?" You do? Good because I'm sure that any app will suddenly start saying, "made accessible", not caring if it's for vision, the deaf or other persons with a disability. Let's not forget the engine, Unity, wherein it was made plain, there is no way this engine can be made accessible. I forget which game it was, but therein lies another work around, as the previous person mentioned. So I as a coder, don't want to make my game accessible, boom! I can use unity so I don't "Have too. And what happens? My game is ok because well, that's a visual platform, and as someone just said, not all apps can be made accessible. Plus antoehr commenter, I suspect might be an NFB FREAK judging by their euality and opportunity post of earlier. Yeah, I might've judged wrong, but that's why I can do that. ;) Yall are just wicked nuts sometimes with this stuff. If you want it, good luck

#18 Calling someone an NFB Freak? Really?

Club AppleVis Member

... ... Title says it all. Everyone is entitled to their opinions.

#19 Campaigning for hard change is good

Hey, so yeah, I think we do need people who demand that all apps are accessible and who push for it. A hard stance will result in a soft implementation, it always does, compromises have to be met and if it increases the accessibility of just some apps whilst making other apps accessible at all, then it's worth it.

Being a moderate, as I tend to be, or playing devils advocate as some in this thread are doing (which is fine, it examines the underlying argument), does not inspire change. It is the people who stand and shout and demand the impossible and, though the impossible cannot be achieved, a change for the better will.

#20 Incentive, not Force

I disagree quite strongly with this. I don't think forcing the issue is the way to go. That route leads to half-hearted attempts. Rather, I would propose giving incentives to do it. Recognition is, after all, a good advertising tool.

#21 Incentives

Club AppleVis MemberMember of the AppleVis Blog Team

To Jennym and others who are suggesting giving incentives for accessibility rather than making it a requirement, I’m open to that idea, if it would result in better accessibility across more apps. However, I want to point out that when Apple want software developers to design their apps in a particular way, their policy is to make it a requirement for inclusion in the app store, and some of the app store requirements are things that, even if good to have, are not that important. Maybe Apple shouldn’t have any app store requirements, and they should just give incentives for good software design. A good case could be made for that view. But either way, Apple, and the people commenting on what they do, should be consistent. Apple shouldn’t have the kinds of very specific design requirements that appear in the current app store guidelines, while only giving incentives for accessibility and not making at least minimal accessibility a requirement.

#22 Proposal for Visual VoiceOver development tool

I think it would be very helpful for sighted developers to have a Visual VoiceOver tool. When vision is available, it takes precedence over all other senses. A person with sight has difficulty turning off the need to see the need for vision, and visualize dimensionality through hearing. Seeing a replica of what VoiceOver says would help a sighted individual understand the way the various elements are presented via VoiceOver, without the headaches of trying to see one thing and hear something else.

I agree that Apple should begin to require some accessibility standards. One way to encourage devs might be to implement an accessibility rating scheme that would be available with the app description.