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Apple to Aid Blind Users — Again

September 29 2008 | by

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has been quite active in the last couple months. On Friday, the NFB, along with Massachusetts General Martha Coakley, reached an agreement with Apple Inc. to make Apple’s iTunes — the most popular music retail outlet in the U.S. — more accessible to blind and visually-impaired Internet users.

In September, Apple released, and was praised for, its 4th generation iPod Nano and iTunes 8, which is screen-reader friendly on both Macs and PCs. These new features let blind users manage their libraries as well as purchase and download content from the iTunes store. The new iPod itself is also equipped with talking menus and large font options. On a Mac, iTunes is compatible with Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader; on a PC using Windows XP or Vista, it’s compatible with GW Micro’s Windows-Eyes (and soon, Freedom Scientific’s Jaws for Windows) screen readers, which must be purchased separately for around $1,000.

But the NFB wasn’t impressed, and took Apple to task to come up with a solution to make iTunes accessible to all screen-access software by June 30, 2009. Apple agreed, and said it will install technology in iTunes that will allow blind consumers to turn on-screen information into either braille or speech so they can search iTunes using keyboard commands. For instance, iTunes will audibly speak whenever a user passes the cursor over important on-screen navigational prompts such as the file commands or movie, music, educational and television titles that are available for purchase and download.

Still, PC screen readers must be purchased separately, and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind has said that purchase discounts are available across the U.S. and that the commission itself has bought a large batch of the software and is supplying it free to the blind in Massachusetts. Oh, and Apple will donate $250,000 to the commission to help foot the bill.

Are companies afraid? The NFB already sued Target in August for failing to make its retail website accessible for blind users. Target had to pay $6 million in damages for blind users who were unable to navigate Target’s web site, and has agreed to make its website more accessible to screen-reading software.

It’s a shame that the NFB is turning so litigious. Apple had already made great strides with its latest versions of the iPod and iTunes. Let’s look at the positive side of this. Not only will blind users have more access to this popular social and educational vehicle, but it’s a boon for universal design. After all, most American consumers spend all day staring at a computer in the office. It would be nice if they had the option to operate their iPod with “eyes-free” technology such as spoken menus. This would allow them to use their iPods on the go, while driving, working out, reading, knitting, eating, working — the list goes on.

Perhaps this agreement will lead to more innovation among gadget-makers to consider all of their users, including those with disabilities. Then the voice-activated mp3 player might end up on next Christmas wish list (or the college syllabus).

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