Apple and Lenovo are dropping the ball for visually impaired users

Accessibility features help everybody… and one day, you might need them too

Companies big and small are dropping the ball when it comes to UI design and the support of customers with visual disabilities. Here is why you should care, even if your eyes are fine.

Blind people use computers a lot. They are an amazingly helpful tool, able to read letters and signs to you, find places, and give directions. FOSS OSes lag badly in this, but even so, FOSS tools are becoming a big part of the story.

Today, almost all computers can speak thanks to tools called screen readers. Windows has a built-in tool called Narrator, but it's not much use, and the other packages mentioned in that article get expensive very fast. These days, though, FOSS comes to the rescue thanks to an excellent free screen reader called NVDA.

For many years, Apple has had a big lead here as both Macs and iDevices come with built-in screenreader called Voiceover. That's why Stevie Wonder paid tribute to the mortally ill Steve Jobs in 2011.

Youtube Video

Because it's an integral part of macOS, iOS, and iPadOS, users can turn it on as soon as the machine comes out of the box, without needing the assistance of a sighted person. That kind of independence is a big deal for anyone with a serious disability.

Sadly, though, that commendable attitude to accessibility seems to be disappearing, to judge from David Goodwin's recent polemic on AppleVis. Since macOS 11.1, Voiceover users may find their Mac freezes up for arbitrary periods, when they are using Safari or any other app powered by Apple's WebKit rendering engine. The problem is intermittent, which the blog post acknowledges is the hardest kind of problem to troubleshoot, but it has now persisted across three major releases of macOS.

This would be annoying even if you could see an on-screen busy indicator. It's worse for those who can't, and compounding the problem, you can't switch away to another app. The Reg FOSS desk has worked with a number of visually-impaired computer users, and can affirm that they're generally even more sensitive to responsiveness and performance than are sighted users.

The post's title sums it up: We Deserve Better from Apple: Why I Can No Longer Recommend a Mac to Fellow Blind Computer Users.

Fun with Fonus

Apple is not alone in this. Customer service people can be a particular problem, as Simon Jaeger reported on Mastodon, trying to tell Canadian mobile telco Fonus that its website is inaccessible:

Jaeger: Still doesn't work. I'm an accessibility analyst, I know what I'm talking about here. I'm looking at the code for the webpage and you're using images to indicate whether each country supports data or calls. Those images don't have labels, so my screen reader skips them, and since I rely on it, I then can't get that information.

Rachel from Fonus: The website works just fine.

Jaeger: Yes… for you… as a person who doesn't use a screen reader… of course it works fine.

Rachel: Don't use screen reader.

Jaeger: OK, this may be a good time for you to Google "What is a screen reader" and save us some back and forth.

Lenovo found lacking

Blind Reg reader Ednun P. also reports this fun email from Lenovo customer care as he queried the sudden price drop on a new X1 Carbon he had just bought from the company. He told Lenovo:

Each time I send emails I get told to take screenshots, which is really silly because I have explained so many times that I am blind and I cannot take screen shots.

The world's largest laptop vendor replied:

Thank You for Contacting Lenovo Customer Care.

We have received your request of the price match for the order number # 123456789. Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused to you due to the delay.

We want to let you know that we have not received the screenshots for the price match.

Please provide a screenshot of the new price and it should contain the part number and all the specifications of the product.

Please take note that the URL, same part number, and same product specifications should all be visible in the screenshot

Kindly let us know if you need any further help.

Kind regards, Lenovo eCommerce Customer Care

He told us at some length of problems with Lenovo's customer support being unable to grasp the simple concept of a computer user who can't see.

A spokesperson at Lenovo sent us a statement:

"Lenovo takes customer satisfaction very seriously, and we recognize the inconvenience caused with Mr. Pourtahmasbi’s case and are taking immediate steps to ensure that such errors are not repeated in the future. In line with our terms and conditions, the 14 day price match period had already passed before Mr. Pourtahmasbi first contacted us. However, we will refund the price difference for this particular purchase as a gesture of goodwill."

It's the law

Making websites accessible to people with disabilities isn't just a nice thing to have. It's a legal requirement under UK, US, and EU law – for instance, in the UK under the Equality Act 2010. There are guidelines on how too.

This stuff might not matter to some of you personally yet, but 2.2 billion people have problems with their eyesight, of which about a third of a billion have moderate to severe vision loss. A couple of common categories are age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy — both especially prevalent in the over-50s and in the overweight.

Sedentary computer users, especially heavy users, and desk jockeys such as professional techies are at risk: yes, this means you.

Maybe you just aren't blind yet.

This doesn't just matter for people with disabilities. For instance, while computers are an amazingly useful tool for people whose vision is poor enough to cause them difficulties with reading, accessibility benefits everyone.

braille screen and computer keyboard

Blind man sues Dell over inaccessible website


If you can't see a mouse pointer, you can't use a pointing device. You have to use the keyboard. But ubiquitous, consistent, memorable keyboard shortcuts are a huge help for sighted people too. It's much faster to press a hotkey than aim a pointer at an on-screen button.

This is the other reason that accessibility matters for everyone: measuring accessibility is one of the best ways to look for excellence in UI design. A well-designed, considered, and thoughtful UI degrades gracefully, and can be accessed by people who can't see a screen, or who can see fine but can't use a mouse or trackpad, or who have other sensory or motor impairments.

But it's also better for those who have keen eyes and good coordination. Those who are able-bodied… so far.

The Register asked Apple and Fonus to comment. ®

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