Inaccessibility of mobile apps and ebooks

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2011 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: Accessibility

I recently wrote an article about the new iPhone 4S accessibility. Having continued to use it I am still impressed by its accessibility features. However – how often is there a however! – the accessibility of the platform is only of limited use if the apps are not accessible.

Accessibility of apps is a topic for a major report but I would suggest a few important features that mobile apps need to make them accessible. For simplicity I will use the iPhone as an example platform but the same issues will apply on other platforms including Android and Windows Phone 7:

  • All text must support VoiceOver (the Apple text to speech feature).
  • All buttons, graphics and images should support VoiceOver.
  • VoiceOver should read all the content in a logical order.
  • Applications should work in portrait and landscape mode.
  • Any video should support closed captioning.
  • App should support pinch zoom.

The sample of apps I have tried so far vary from nearly getting it right to not even trying. The biggest problem area seems to be ebooks and ezines. So far I have not found a really good example of accessible ebooks or ezines. One app that particularly disappointed me was Al Gore’s Our Choice. This ebook is his explanation of what we must do to mitigate the effects of climate change, an issue that is of vital interest to everyone and therefore needs to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

If you do not have a significant vision or hearing impairment I would recommend the book, firstly as a good read but also as an example of how to take advantage of the e in ebooks. It has multimedia, photos, videos and also charts that enable you to dig into the detail if you want.

The problem is that the technology used to create the book and its content does not support accessibility:

  • VoiceOver is not supported at all, so it is not usable by anyone with a vision impairment, and of limited use to people with dyslexia.
  • None of the videos have closed captions, so anyone who is hard of hearing will not have access to videos and, in particular, to the video tutorial that explains how to use the ebook.
  • The app only works in landscape mode. People who cannot hold the device need to put it into a clamp and prefer that it is kept in one orientation.
  • Pinch zoom does not work.

I am so disappointed by this because I would have hoped that a new technology would have had accessibility built into it. But it seems we will have to start the fight for accessibility all over again.