Jonathan Mosen's accessibility blog

I pay for premium news half a world away. But the NZ Herald shuts me out

, posted: 30-Aug-2019 07:47

I’ve had a life-long fascination with news.


When I was a kid, totally blind since birth and before the Internet was a thing, I was fortunate to have three older sighted siblings who would read the newspaper to me. We grew up in Auckland, so The New Zealand Herald has played a big part in my life.


From the moment I purchased my first modem in 1986, I could see that going online had the potential to give me access to a vast array of information. I could tell some horror stories about spending way too much on CompuServe’s Executive News Service, simply because it gave me access to some newspapers electronically for the first time in my life.


Technology has changed everything. It’s now possible for a blind person like me who uses screen reading software on their computer or smartphone to read the world’s newspapers, either by having the material spoken or by reading it with a Braille display. And I’m happy to pay.


Every evening, I open the fully accessible app for The Guardian on my iPhone and catch up with the latest episode in the enthralling Brexit drama. Their premium content is high-quality and fully accessible to me. The equally accessible New York Times catches me up with the unpredictable and unbelievable world of US politics. That’s worth paying for as well.


In an age where anyone can be a publisher and where social media can take us to a dimension of reality-field distortions, I’m pleased to pay up and support well-researched quality journalism.


But there’s one caveat. A newspaper’s website and app need to be designed with some simple guidelines in mind to ensure that they're accessible to screen reader users. These are the equivalent of ramps in cyberspace. Not only is it the ethical thing to do in the same way that thinking about one’s carbon footprint or animal welfare is ethical, it makes business sense. After all, I’m never going to buy a hardcopy newspaper, so an inaccessible website or app for a newspaper is revenue foregone.


While I pay for newspapers half a world away, and do so willingly, I don’t pay for the NZ Herald’s premium content because its site and app contain serious accessibility flaws.


The accessibility problems with the Herald’s site are not new but are worse since their most recent redesign. In the past, I’ve worked around them and prioritised other advocacy issues where there is no such work-around. The work-around involved using the Herald’s RSS feeds. Using RSS and a fully accessible iOS RSS app called Lire, I’ve been able to enjoy access to all the Herald material I want to read without having to hassle them about their awful website and app.


The trouble is, there’s no NZ Herald Premium RSS feed. I’m not clear about why this is. The feed could simply point to the premium article. You’d see the full article if you were logged in, and the short preview if you were not.


Nevertheless, no such feed exists, so if I want to access the Herald's premium content, I need to use the website or app.


The website is fairly well-structured. It makes good use of headings denoting each article. This helps a screen reader user to navigate between articles. However, if I read an article on the website, it’s interrupted by ads. I can be reading a news story, and literally in mid-sentence, the reading will stop and I’ll be told about some beautiful character home in Blockhouse Bay. I’ll restart the reading, only to be interrupted in a few seconds by another ad, usually real estate. I must stress that this doesn't typically happen on most websites. Ad-supported content is common, and I don't find any other site I use regularly interrupts itself like this. There is something odd about the way these ads are appearing that is upsetting screen readers.


My preferred way of engaging with news is via an iOS app. Like many people, I lead a busy life and often catch up with news when I'm on the treadmill or in the back of an Uber. Sadly, the app is not much better and is far from compliant with Apple’s simple-to-follow Accessibility Guidelines. It contains several buttons that are images only, no text labels have been assigned to them. In situations like this, VoiceOver, Apple’s screen reader, tries to tell me what the button does based on the file name of the image. Using this technique, I can tell where the Menu button is at the top of the screen. But VoiceOver is unable to detect the function of several other buttons. All VoiceOver can do in this situation is speak “Button, Button, Button” as I scroll through them. Hardly informative.


I frequently receive “404 not found” messages in the app, and unless I navigate the menu in a precise way, I’m not able to navigate to another section. This is just lazy, inconsiderate coding, and it’s hardly enticing me to part with my money given that it’s so finicky to access.


I’ve reached out on Twitter to the NZ Herald account and to individuals who work there, but no one has followed up with me to get a detailed explanation of what the problems are and how to fix them, despite several promises that that would happen.


Meanwhile, Stuff’s website is considerably more accessible, all the content is available via RSS, they’re running an increasing number of good disability and accessibility-related news stories, and it’s free. RNZ’s website is exemplary when it comes to accessibility. NewsHub and TVNZ are pretty good. NBR Premium is accessible.


I understand that it’s tough for media outlets. I’m ready and willing to support them with my credit card. I hope one day the NZ Herald will permit me to do so by doing the decent thing and making its content accessible to all New Zealanders. If the Guardian can do it, if the New York Times and the Washington Post can do it, if many NZ sites can do it, then it’s time for NZME to do the right thing.


I also believe that being able to access news is a critical component of civic participation. Disabled people are on the periphery of New Zealand society. Excluding us from access to information about what's going on in our own country is hardly going to help us change that. So there is an important moral issue here.


Just as people make conscientious choices to buy free range, ditch plastic and go with fair trade, I hope people will consider withholding NZ Herald Premium subscriptions until this discrimination is remedied. I’m certainly not prepared, in 2019, to go back to the era when I relied on someone sighted to read the Herald to me.

My tax dollers help fund RNZ, but their social media is shutting me out

, posted: 7-Jul-2018 01:21

Update October 2018


Thanks to everyone who has expressed support for the issues I have raised in this post. I'm pleased to say that the issue is now largely resolved. RNZ is including descriptions of the images they tweet in most cases now. It's meant that blind people like me feel more included in the work of our public broadcaster which we help fund.


If the post has made you more aware of the needs of blind social media participants, you can still do your bit by ensuring that every image you post to Twitter contains a textual description. it only takes a moment, and it ensures you're not shutting anyone out.


Here's the post for historical reference.


Thanks, RNZ, for listening and doing the right thing.


I've been using social media since long before we called it that. As a totally blind kid who pestered his older siblings to read as much of the newspaper to him as they could stand, I'll never forget the sense of empowerment I felt when, as a teenager over 30 years ago, I logged into the NZ Micro BBS in Auckland, run by Selwyn Arrow, for the first time. The idea that I could communicate and access information independently using my computer that spoke what was on the screen or displayed text on a Braille display was incredibly empowering and liberating.

Cyberspace, (we didn't use that term 31 years ago either), is game changing in many respects for disabled people. We are free to disclose our disability or not. Not disclosing it when it isn't relevant to do so means our opinions can be taken at face value, without the taint of prejudice that a disability can sometimes engender. Disclosure, when relevant, can make people realise that disabled people are in all walks of life, and thus make us less invisible.

Having abandoned Facebook earlier this year as a matter of principle, Twitter is my social network of choice. I use it to communicate with friends, as a communication tool for my Internet radio show, and as a source of news, information, and debate on issues of the day.

Twitter was founded based on the good old SMS, which has a maximum length of 160 characters. So tweets maxed out at 140 characters, offering 20 characters for header information. The textual nature of Twitter made it attractive to someone like me who is totally blind and can't see pictures.

Technology moves on. Tweets are now a maximum of 280 characters, and many people attach images to their tweets.

This is Geekzone, so I know many readers here will be familiar with at least some basic accessibility principles, particularly the use of ALT text on websites. It's well known that when you upload pictures to a website, it's good practice to add a text description to an image, so screen reader users like me know what the image contains. It makes all the difference between being able to use a website effectively and not, and if you run a business, that means it makes all the difference to whether you'll get money from people like me, or whether we'll shop elsewhere on a site that is more accessible and considerate.

What many people may not know is that Twitter has its own form of ALT text, so images you upload don't exclude blind people like me. All it takes is for you to write a sentence or two describing what's in your image. It takes just a little extra time, and makes an enormous difference to those this feature is designed to help. Here's Twitter's official guide on how to enable the feature.

I hope you'll consider making your tweets more inclusive by tagging your images. Not only will you be helping blind people already using Twitter to fully appreciate your tweets, but by setting a good example, you may be helping yourself down the road. Most people are not born blind like me, but instead develop vision impairments later in life due to conditions like age-related maculopathy. So if, in your senior years, you find yourself using assistive technology to continue using a computer or smartphone, you'll be glad you encouraged inclusive social media practices. Doing the right thing now creates a sort of e-karma.

Who does it well?

I'm sad to say that New Zealand really is a bit of an accessibility backwater, with a lot more inaccessible apps and websites than a country with our egalitarian, inclusive routes ought to have. This is a theme I'll be coming back to in future posts.

But one kiwi Twitter account that is exemplary is the one belonging to our Parliament, @NZParliament.

 Many of us used to think of Parliament as an austere, never-changing place full of traditions. Largely I believe thanks to the presence of Mojo Mathers for six years, Parliament took a good hard look at itself in terms of how inclusive it was of disabled people. One positive benefit of that process is that its Twitter account is exemplary. Every tweet sent from the account that contains an image includes a text description of that image. The taxes of disabled people help to fund Parliament's running costs so it's only right that the account be inclusive, but I'm still grateful that Parliament is setting such a fine example.

Our Public Broadcaster drops the ball

My taxes also help fund RNZ, a fact that I'm generally pleased about. I consider it a taonga.

When Radio New Zealand seriously started investing in its web presence over a decade ago, it's then webmaster, Richard Hulse, was a national leader in accessibility. He went beyond the basics and created an exceptional web accessibility experience. When I was asked to give talks about accessibility, something I do often, I used to demo RNZ as best-in-class.

To me, this epitomised the values that should be at the heart of everything RNZ does. Inclusivity, diversity, making every New Zealander feel that RNZ belongs to them.

This is why I am a supporter of RNZ using the Maori language during regular programming. But sadly, it seems that the sensitivity and courtesy it extends around diversity and inclusion no longer extends to disabled people.

Around a month ago, I was surprised to read a tweet from the @NZMorningReport Twitter account in which it published some feedback from a listener as an image. The important thing to note here is that this feedback was sent as an email, so it started life as text, which is accessible. Morning Report converted that text to an image, which a blind person can’t see, thus rendering accessible content inaccessible.

Since I’d not noticed RNZ doing this before, I thought it a one-off, perhaps thanks to someone temporarily running the account, and left it at that.

But a few days later, the same Twitter account published more listener feedback in the same way. This time, I sent the following tweet in reply.

“@NZMorningReport You may not realise, but when you attach images of content like this, it’s inaccessible to blind people using screen reading software. Not at all a good practice for our public broadcaster which should be inclusive.”

No one did me the courtesy of acknowledging my tweet, although, ironically, it did result in a useful dialogue with the new Head of Digital at MediaWorks.

A kind member of the public typed the listener feedback out for me to read.

If there is some good reason to convert perfectly readable text to an image, the least that can be done is to copy and paste the actual text into the description field Twitter provides for creating accessible images.

On Friday 8 June, both the Morning Report and main RNZ account tweeted a graphical image of a translation to English of the te reo Guyon used at 7 AM. It's ironic and disappointing that they would trumpet their diversity with a tweet excluding another minority.

There's been a high staff turnover at RNZ lately, and I wondered if accessibility best practice had got lost in the shuffle. So I wrote directly to RNZ's Chief Executive, Paul Thompson, politely pointing out the issues and how for years, RNZ has been the organisation I've pointed people to as an example of how to have accessibility in your corporate DNA.

In that email, sent on 9 June, I wrote in part:

"I’m hoping that, having raised this issue with you directly, you’ll be able to assure me that excluding people in this way isn’t the kind of RNZ you want. I’d suggest a clear policy stating a commitment to accessibility in online content, making specific reference to the use of images. It’s not difficult to do, but it makes the difference between some people being able to consume information and not."

A month later, I've not received a reply from Paul to that email.

I was able to have an email exchange a week ago with others at RNZ, but so far, the inaccessible images keep on coming.

I appreciate that when a mobile journalist is out in the field dealing with a breaking news story, it may not always be possible for every image to have a text description, even though typing something brief doesn't take long. But when social media account managers in the office are tweeting images to accompany a story, a public broadcaster like RNZ, which I am helping to fund, should be as inclusive as our Parliament.

What you can do

I believe most kiwis believe in a fair go. Many of us buy fair trade or free range or try to refrain from plastic because we care about the welfare of others. If you believe our public broadcaster should be inclusive, I encourage you to let them know, particularly on Twitter.

You can also show your solidarity by being inclusive yourself, and typing out a quick description of images you're uploading to Twitter and including them in Twitter's recommended way.

I believe it's in our values for New Zealand to be an accessibility leader, so please join me and be the change we want to see in the world.

Let's go Shopping!

, posted: 10-May-2012 19:27

I was born blind, so as a kid when my mother would drag me around the supermarket, it bored me out of my brain. Imagine just walking, walking, walking, not being able to see all the delicious treats you were passing. It was monotonous, although I did, of course, lobby pretty hard for some treat or other. As an adult in a pre-Web world, if a blind person needed to get supermarket shopping done, we'd either ask a paid reader who we'd hire to go through the mail and run other errands, or walk into the supermarket and ask if a staff member could be spared to help us do a shop. In either case, we realised we were taking someone else's time, so we'd generally not be too fussy about what we ended up with. I believe it was around 1995 that the Woolworths Home Shopping site came online. Initially, there were one or two accessibility issues with the site, but the site's developers couldn't have been more willing to work with blind users to get the wrinkles ironed out. When they were, I was simply astounded. I honestly had no idea how much choice people were confronted with on a daily basis on such seemingly mundane matters as what type of bread of cereal to purchase. For the first time ever, I had a concept of the true depth of selection in a supermarket. We use the now rebranded Countdown Online Shopping site regularly. It's empowering, it's life changing, it's fully accessible, and it makes a huge difference. Here's a bit about how it works, why it works, and how we use it. JAWS, the software I use to verbalise and display in Braille what's going on in Windows, is known as a screenreader. However in some instances, it no longer reads the screen, since there are better ways of getting at the needed information. In Internet Explorer, Firefox, and more recently Google Chrome, JAWS loads the HTML directly into a buffer that I can navigate. This has a number of advantages. First, it allows the page to be presented in a way that makes more auditory sense. If, for example, you have a page in nice, neat columns, then it wouldn't make sense for that page to be read in a linear fashion, left to right, top to bottom. Second, because I am interacting directly with the HTML, I can use a range of hotkeys to jump around the page. I can easily navigate by heading, form field, table and much more, all with simple key presses. It's very efficient, particularly when the page is well designed. When I log into the Countdown site, all of its links have clear, sensible text labels. The site makes good use of heading tags in the HTML. This makes it easy to move between search results, and to other key parts of the site such as the aisles, and the trolley so I can be sure I haven't blown the budget. Pressing a single key places me in the edit field so I can type what I'm looking for, and pres Enter to activate the search. It's a great experience, and it sure beats wandering around the aisles with someone who'd most likely rather be doing something else. From reading newspapers independently, to doing all kinds of shopping, to banking with privacy and dignity, the Web has meant there's never been a better time in history to be blind. And the good news is, for web developers, it's not hard. Just follow practices of good web design. Use real tables, real HTML headings, give links a text label...all things that benefit mobile devices and other use cases too. Well done to Countdown for getting it right.

Why does Universal Access seem not to be a part of 2Degrees Company Culture?

, posted: 7-May-2012 14:18

Most of us know obvious examples of businesses not living up to their legal obligations when it comes to providing services to disabled people. A blind person gets refused service in a restaurant, because someone on staff doesn't know that a guide dog can't be refused entry. A building fails to be wheelchair accessible, preventing someone from entering or making it difficult and humiliating. The Internet, for many, is a much less familiar or clear-cut area. A few years ago, I took an airline to the Human Rights Commission, because they required disabled people to phone the call centre to complete a booking. Everyone else could complete it online, meaning that disabled people were being provided with a lesser service online by virtue of their disability. That issue went to mediation, and because of the way our Human Rights legislation works, there really isn't any case law. But the issue I want to recount is just as aggravating to me as if I were refused entry to a public place because of a guide dog. I've been watching 2Degrees closely since its launch in 2009, and in fact rushed down to pick up a bunch of prepaid sims to switch our family over. Kiwis love an underdog, the little guy who takes on the big duopoly, and they haven't disappointed in terms of the way they've shaken up the market. Even if we're not 2Degrees customers, we owe them our thanks, because we're all benefiting from their entry. Ultimately, we ported back from 2Degrees in those early days for three reasons. Edge was a little restricting,(there was no 3G in those days) and data at 50C per MB was pricy. We had issues sending texts to 2Degrees numbers internationally. I travel a lot, and have an AT&T SIM so I can work effectively when mobile in the US. Simon here on Geekzone really went out of his way to help when he certainly wasn't obligated to - a great experience. We found Vodafone Family really suited our usage patterns at the time. The first two issues have a solution now. 2Degrees has 3G, and with iMessage, texting is irrelevant. 2Degrees monthly plans would suit me very well. Sometimes, I'm out of the country for over a month at a time, meaning that I pay for minutes I haven't used. 2Degrees offer rollover minutes, so when I'm back home, I can chat up a storm with my family, friends and business associates because I've got plenty of minutes in the bank. Data is reasonably priced, with some plans applying to periods longer than a month. Again, I'm a perfect fit since there'll be some months when I use no data at all when overseas, and other months where I want to go crazy with the data. Now, in a move that has many of us on other carriers salivating, you can share data across devices on 2Degrees. Fabulous! I could use my laptop on my mobile data plan with out draining my iPhone's battery, by firing up my data card. 2Degrees gets more and more compelling. The trouble is, my experiences with them suggest that universal design and accessibility is simply not a part of their company culture. When I first became a customer of 2Degrees, the pivotal link on their site, the one that takes you to the Your 2Degrees section, had no text label. So as a blind person, I couldn't find how to log in, choose my number, etc. When there's no text associated with a link, all my screen reader can do to try and help me out, is read the URL of the link, or the name of the graphic. After a lot of trial and error, I worked out which graphical link got me to the Your 2Degrees section. This particular issue has long since been addressed, so good on them for that. When 2Degrees unveiled their pay monthly plans, initially, the only way you could sign up was if you had a driver's license. Now, obviously there are enough idiots on the road as it is without a blind guy getting behind the wheel, at least, with today's commercially available technology. Watch this space. So once again, I was keen to sign up, but thwarted. This too has been addressed, I can now use my passport. But why launch in such an exclusionary manner? this issue affected more than just blind people. Many people cannot, or choose not to, drive for all kinds of reasons. Of course, this issue is not unique to 2Degrees. We have to be careful that driver's licenses aren't turning into a state ID by proxy. In the driver's license case, I went through their call centre, and finally got to their legal department. They did genuinely seem concerned, and they have fixed it. There is one outstanding issue which remains unresolved, despite me bringing it to their attention repeatedly, and it's not a trivial one. I can visit Telecom, Vodafone, and all the virtual network operators, and peruse their plans at my leisure, making comparisons about what they're offering and which plan is right for me. But 2Degrees have always displayed their monthly plans as a graphic, rather than as a standard HTML table. I have no idea why, but it shuts me out. I can find no way on the site, anywhere, to read a textual description of their plans, how many minutes you get, and how much they cost. I've pointed this out several times on Twitter, but sadly, the majority of the 2Degrees tweets that come up on my timeline are retweets of customers saying how marvellous they are. I had a great conversation with Stuart Maxwell of Choice Mobile, who couldn't have been more helpful. He took the time to write a list of plans and their costs. You never forget someone who goes out of their way like that, and if I ever do switch to 2Degrees, it will be through Choice Mobile as a thank you. He too indicated he had passed on the issue of the inaccessibility of the plan data to 2Degrees. That was in December of 2010. The plans have changed since then. The practice of using an image has not. I struggle to see why coding a bit of HTML, why doing it properly in a way that's universally accessible, is such a big deal. 2Degrees is using spectrum in part owned by iwi, people overrepresented in unemployment statistics and low disabled people. How is it that this carrier, aimed in part at the budget-conscious end of the market, can repeatedly introduce products and services without thinking through principles of universal accessibility? For example, has their Snapper app been tested with the screen readers available for Android? Now before I get the obvious questions, full disclosure. I have kids who can see. It's easy enough for me to fire up the browser and ask them to go through the data with me. But that's not the point. 2Degrees is effectively saying to me that my business isn't important. I'm an informed consumer. Just as some people won't buy battery farm poultry, or clothing manufactured by exploited workers, I can't in good conscience support a carrier that continues to drop the accessibility ball. And I would like to hope that it matters to other kiwis too. Not only is universal design good for all of us in terms of maximum browser/device compatibility, but you never know if you might be a blind person in the future. Age-related vision loss is extremely common. I was motivated to write this, when I was so delighted to read about 2Degrees shared data plan, and for that matter their innovative work with Snapper, only to feel locked out by not being able to read the data about their plans independently. What 2Degrees is doing is game changing. I really am glad they're around. Let's hope they will now change their website, and commitment to accessibility, for the better.

An Introduction

, posted: 6-May-2012 19:16

I've been lurking about on Geekzone, making the odd forum post now and again, for a few years now. I finally decided it was time I wrote a few things in this section of Geekzone, on issues not often talked about on the site. I was motivated by a specific issue I want to cover later in the week, but before doing that, thought it would be polite to introduce myself, and preview the kinds of entries I'll be writing here. I work in the IT field in product management. I design concepts, work with developers to see those concepts turned into reality, market those concepts and give presentations at some fairly large international conferences. The company I work for is based in the US, so I travel a lot. Telecommunications and mobile technology are therefore an interest of mine because I'm such a veracious consumer of them. Although middle aged in chronological terms, I guess I am officially elderly in technology terms, dating back to the Apple 2E days, and the era of bulletin boards, Fidonet, Echomail, and terms most of you haven't heard of. When I think of the money I blew accessing the Compuserve Information Service, it's pretty damn scary, actually. There are a few names here on Geekzone I remember from those days though. Formerly, I worked in commercial radio, and now work with a team of over 40 broadcasters internationally on an Internet station I set up as a fun hobby, Mushroom FM. It's called such, because it's the home of the fun guys, you see. I also produce a monthly podcast for the company for which I work, from my home studio. I'm married, with four kids and a mortgage. So all in all, a pretty regular life. But I also happen to be totally blind, and have been from birth. Because this is my reality, I'm still surprised by how many people don't realise that blind people can even use a computer, let alone use one in a way that allows them to be productive, efficient students, employers, or employees. How that's possible is, no doubt, fodder for some other posts. On Geekzone, we have a community of many of New Zealand's best and brightest in information technology of all kinds. Many of you are movers and shakers. You make a difference. So it's my hope that these posts, in turn, will make a difference through you. It's my aim to share with you some of the ways in which IT has transformed my life as a blind person, to give you a better understanding of how a blind person interacts with technology of all kinds, and to share some of the challenges that poor design and lack of forethought can cause. But because there's nothing more of a turn-off than constant complaining, conversely, to celebrate good design and forward planning too. One thing I will get out of the way in this first post, because it's a common misconception. I typed this. I didn't dictate it. For most blind people, the issue is getting information out of the computer, not putting information in. Look at a good touch typist typing, and you'll notice they don't look at the keys. It'll be fun to share some thoughts, and exchange information. Hope you'll stay tuned.

jmosen's profile

Jonathan Mosen
Grenada Village
New Zealand

Jonathan Mosen is an accessibility consultant, assistive technology designer and product manager, author and podcaster.