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.
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.