It feels like losing an old friend. Or perhaps losing one's love of life. But American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language was my friend in the world of iOS apps and my love in the world of dictionaries. So going to bed one night with an awesome dictionary which ticks all check boxes in terms of accessibility and getting up the next morning, hearing about the app's takeover by a new developer, re-paying for and downloading it, and finding it an absolute mess in terms of accessibility is nothing but a huge blow to one's morale. And the story doesn't even end there...
Why is an accessible dictionary such a big deal?
Ask a word fiend this question -- I mean someone who basks in knowing words like "sesquipedalian," and you'll get some slap-in-the-face answers. But, seriously, if you're into reading and words, you know that using the built-in iOS dictionary isn't easy. You first have to select a word somewhere which, depending on the app at hand, might be very difficult or impossible, and then use the Look up/Define option from the Edit menu, if such a menu even exists for your app, via a couple of Rotor gestures. So the built-in iOS dictionary doesn't allow you to look up words by typing a word into it manually. Moreover, it's not as comprehensive as some of the full-fledged third-party dictionaries out there in that it doesn't offer audio or phonetic pronunciations, etymologies, synonym distinctions, derivatives, inflected forms, etc.
Those facts aside, the problem with many dictionary apps on the App Store is that their so-called Definition area consists of words which are actual hyperlinks. This way, users can easily look up words inside the Definition area text box, but VoiceOver adds the word, "link," to each and every word there, making it excruciatingly painful and time-consuming to read, comprehend or even navigate the Definition area. As such, an accessible interface to a dictionary should do away with links so that each definition can appear in its separate control. Even worse, some dictionaries, such as Dictionary.com don't make their Definition window or text box visible to VoiceOver at all, taking accessibility issues to an entirely loathsome and new level.
A truly worthwhile dictionary became accessible, and even became an AppleVis pick of the month
almost four years ago I published a blog post on AppleVis titled A truly worthwhile application is to become accessible soon. There I mentioned that I went on a purchasing spree and spend money on seven reference titles. But all of them were plagued by a wide range of access issues. I was lucky that the developers of my all-time dictionary, American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, instantly agreed to make their $24.99 app accessible. Needless to say, reading their message made me ecstatic as the developers of other dictionary apps hadn't even found it worthwhile to reply to my accessibility requests and complaints. But Enfour -- later known as English Channel, the developers of American Heritage Dictionary, did, even after I got a refund from Apple. And it was 2012, when accessibility in the arena of iOS and touch-enabled devices was a novelty. Let me quote one of the messages I received from them to indicate what I mean. Over the past few years I've been in contact with Enfour's head of customer support, Tracey Northcott, and the following is her message:
Accessibility is a very important issue for us. This is not for any financial reasons but that it is our responsibility as a developer of reference tools, to make them as accessible to as many people as possible.
If you are willing, we would like to work with you to enhance our accessibility. To that end, we would like to send you a code for a free app and ask you to answer some questions for us and do some testing from time to time.
We are looking at the hyperlinking for the next update, but for the initial testing, can you please tell us what happens for you when the text is slightly different - eg when the syllable marks are showing on the headwords. Or when the text is italicised?
We are working on a new update now that is for separate downloading of parts so this is coming.
Let stay in touch and work together to make a useful application for everybody.
This awesome collaboration continued and a couple of months later I published another blog post titled Good news for dictionary devotees: American Heritage Dictionary 5th Edition is accessible. Essentially VoiceOver users could go to the Settings window of the app located here and select the Accessibility check box to make everything VoiceOver-compatible. AHD 5 even managed to become an AppleVis pick of the month for September 2012.
But my four-year romance came to an abrupt end, and it couldn't have been more tragic
Over the past few years AHD 5 was the first application which would find its way on my new iPhone purchases. I even purchased its $24.99 equivalent -- the one which didn't require an in-app purchase option -- few months ago for ease of device transfer. I even managed to translate its interface into Persian for the developers -- a change which was also reflected in the rest of their dictionary offerings.
However, few days ago I received a message from Tracey indicating that they were no longer the developer of American Heritage Dictionary. Rather, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had re-delegated the development task to MobiSystems. She even put me in contact with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's licensing manager to look into any potential issues.
With trepidation, I downloaded The new AHD 5 update, and unlocked it by paying $19.99. The moment I did it, my nightmare came true: the app was totally inaccessible: the infamous Definition area was invisible to VoiceOver. Moreover, the audio pronunciations were heavily downsampled, resulting in distorted and low-quality human pronunciations.
I immediately emailed my contact at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) and was promptly promised an investigation. This back and forth continued for a few days, and I finally got the chilling reply: the new app won't be enhanced for VoiceOver by MobiSystems. And the rationale was more depressing -- especially in 2016 and this day and age of accessibility. Let me quote MobiSystem's message to see what I mean:
Thank you for taking the time to send us your feedback and suggestions about VoiceOver. For now it is not in our development plan to add support of VoiceOver as this is significant development resource. We will monitor the customers requests and might reconsider in the future accordingly. I will forward your feedback about the audio pronunciations to our development. The reason to have worse quality is to reduce the size of the offline dictionary, which is very big and takes a lot of time to download. We appreciate your feedback and will be glad to hear your comments in the future as well.
For the record, MobiSystems is a huge name in the field of reference apps for iOS, Android and Windows Mobile. They develop and sell all Oxford dictionaries, too. As such, the fact that developing for VoiceOver might be such a resource-hungry task sounds bizarre to me. If they stick to Apple's standards and avoid their non-standard text box for the Definition area, they'll make all of their reference titles much more accessible automatically. But, alas, they're not willing to do it. Even my Houghton Mifflin Harcourt contact simply apologized and stated that they're not in a position to ask their developer, MobiSystems, to make AHD 5 accessible.
So what to do?
Very little I guess. I'm not usually this pessimistic, but what can we do when a huge education-oriented entity like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the most active reference app developer like MobiSystems aren't poised to make their offerings accessible? Of course, we, VoiceOver users, can bug them via our emails, but, at the end of the day, I'm not sure how many emails will be sent and how big an impact it'll have.
But if you want to complain and ask them to restore accessibility, please contact Toby Leith, HMH Licensing Manager, by sending an email to
or send a message to
where MobiSystems might pay attention to it.
In passing, I've reached the following conclusions: we must appreciate the efforts of developers who, despite not receiving financial benefits, feel it's a responsibility to make their apps accessible -- Workflow, Twitterrific and lire anyone? Why not thank them for their efforts via email or Twitter? Second, though we indubitably feel that accessibility is a right and, minor regressions aside, apps might not become totally inaccessible in a wink, that might happen quite easily and we might have nothing at our disposal to revert it. As such, it's of utmost importance that, even in 2016 and beyond, advocacy efforts in the field of accessibility be coordinated so that more developers become aware of its importance and don't simply view its implementation as a means to financial success or achievement.
Back to our own topic, so here I am with an inaccessible dictionary which happened to be my favorite go-to app for words and idioms. The older AHD 5 app will keep functioning but iOS 10 might break it, and its content won't be updated either. Even if it keeps working on iOS 10, it won't be optimized for the new iOS release. Maybe time to get over it -- life must go on. But I'm still grieving its loss.