Apple’s new feature a step towards digital apartheid

To be honest, I don’t really have time to write this article. I’ve got loads of other things I should be doing. But it needs to be written. Now. So I’ve popped up my laptop on the bus and am angrily typing away.

Sign post saying disabled to the right and normal people to the left.

Sounds so serious…what’s going on?

So Apple just released a new accessibility “feature” called accessibility events. Here’s how they explain the feature:

Accessibility events allow websites to customize their behaviour for assistive technologies, like VoiceOver. Enabling Accessibility Events may reveal whether an assistive technology is active on your iPhone.

Here it is in action on an iPhone:

Toggle button turned on for Accessibility Events under settings in an iPhone.

So this feature lets web developers recognise when an assistive technology is active on the user’s device. Sounds great, right? Gives developers a chance to improve the user experience for people with disabilities.

But think a step further and you’ll realise that it’s actually a terrible idea.

Why?

Well, accessibility guru and screen reader user Marco Zehe explains it well in his article Why screen reader detection on the web is a bad thing. Here is the most important part in my opinion:

Letting a website know you’re using a screen reader means running around the web waving a red flag that shouts “here, I’m visually impaired or blind!” at anyone who is willing to look. It would take away the one place where we as blind people can be relatively undetected without our white cane or guide dog screaming at everybody around us that we’re blind or visually impaired, and therefore giving others a chance to treat us like true equals.

– Marco Zehe

Another accessibility guru Léonie Watson also wrote a great piece on this topic: Thoughts on screen reader detection. In it she argues that screen reader detection could lead to her and others being directed to text-only versions of sites:

I don’t want to be relegated to a ghetto. We’ve spent years encouraging people to move away from text-only websites, and with good reason. If there is one thing that history should have taught us by now, it’s that social segregation is a bad idea.

– Léonie Watson

From my own experience, one of the most common questions I get as an accessibility consultant is “Can’t we just create a special site for people with screen readers?” I say that you can’t, and even if you could it would be a really bad idea. Inclusive design is about inclusion, not separation. The problem is that with this new tool from Apple, well-meaning people with this common, but terrible idea of separate “disability-sites” now can implement it, whereas in the past they couldn’t.

The accessibility community is not pleased

Other accessibility folks are not impressed either:

I also discussed this accessibility events feature with my friend who is a screen reader user herself. She said it feels like it’s a first step towards a well-meant digital apartheid. To give you a magnitude of the impact this type of detection might have.

As if things weren’t bad enough…it’s on by default

First I thought users needed to opt-in on the setting. It would still be bad but tolerable. But alas! It’s activated by default! So users who just turn the screen reader on have it enabled. Yes, they can turn it off:

But everyone knows most users will be completely unaware of this feature.

There’s barely any information

This feature dropped like a bomb on the accessibility community and there’s basically no information out there on it. Nothing in the release notes, nothing on Apple’s site. It just appeared in the accessibility settings, and someone noticed and wrote a short article about it on Apple Vis.

My good friend Kolombiken (who writes the best accessibility newsletter out there, you should check it out) went searching for answers in a huge Slack group for accessibility nerds and found nothing:

I’m soo confused over this new “accessibility events”-thing in iOS. I came here to look for answers but seeing that people here are equally confused. But there must be some documentation somewhere? No?

Apple, you can’t just roll out a feature like this with no information! Come on, this is not like you!

Hopefully this is just a hiccup

I think it’s safe to say that Apple has some serious explanation to do here. Both around the feature and the non-existent documentation around it. Hopefully it’s just a mistake, wasn’t supposed to be rolled out or something similar.

Until that is confirmed though, I think it’s time for the accessibility community to protest rather loudly.

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