Forgive the sensational headline. I did it on purpose. There! I feel better. Confession is good for the soul.
It seems someone has filed a class action lawsuit against Apple on behalf of visually impaired customers who are unable to use the company’s touch-screen point of sale (POS) devices to enter a debit card PIN number. What I’ve seen of the commentary on this subject today leads me to offer some clarifications for those of you who are neither visually impaired, or familiar with the accessibility options in Apple’s iOS devices. I check both of these boxes.
If you make a card-based purchase (debit or credit) at an Apple Store, the transaction will be processed on a modified iPod Touch, carried by an employee. You’ll be asked to enter your PIN on a touch screen, or to use your finger to sign your name, if you’re using a credit card. Now, all iOS devices, including the iPod Touch, have a number of nifty accessibility features, namely the VoiceOver screen reader, and magnification and invert colors options used by visually impaired (sometimes called partially sighted by those who are not) people. You can turn these features on for any iOS device you, yourself control, even the demo iPads in the Apple Store. Using Accessibility Shortcut, you can do it with a quick triple-click of the Home button. So far as I know, it isn’t possible for Apple employees to enable these options on the locked-down devices they carry.
A couple of pieces I read today compare Apple’s POS systems with those in grocery stores or other retail environments, suggesting that “all” such devices offer tactile buttons, because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires them, and that these buttons solve the problem for blind people who need to enter a PIN. In fact, I’ve used some POS systems that rely on non-tactile buttons, and many more that require the user to navigate a series of menus to choose the kind of transaction, request cash back, and approve the total purchase amount. Positioning, size, and color of these menus varies widely. For me, they’re just difficult to read, and I have been known to judge chain stores based on their card reader technology. For a blind person, these systems create real barriers, tactile buttons notwithstanding. So let’s be clear that the grocery store is not a happy, accessible fairyland, while the Apple Store is a big, blind-hating meanie. The difference is that though I may need assistance confirming the amount of my food purchases, I am often able to enter my PIN number unassisted, even though the menus suck.
Now, if you’re looking for topics to add to your “all outrage, all the time” talk show, I suppose this suit against Apple would be a fun one. I can hear the lawsuit haters revving up their dialing fingers now, ready to hold forth about how this guy probably wants to be paid for his inconvenience by separating Tim Cook from some of those Apple millions. But my intuition, and that’s all I’m relying on here, tells me that’s not what’s going on. Apple has the ability to solve the problem stated in the lawsuit by 1) making it possible for the employee to enable accessibility features like VoiceOver on the POS terminal, and 2) providing earbuds to a customer who doesn’t want the PIN to be broadcast throughout the store. Since I use Invert Colors on my iOS devices, I would like Apple to expose that option, too. Boom! Apple POS systems turn from cold, unfriendly, pieces of…glass back into highly accessible iPod Touches, making them far easier to for customers (and potential disabled employees) to use than my grocery store card reader.
Another reason to keep an eye on this suit, and whether Apple finds a way to diffuse it with adjustments to software, rather than with a tactile button attachment, or some other significant change to its POS hardware, is that iOS devices are popular in all kinds of retail environments. My favorite little Thai place has one, and I find the screen, as rendered by the POS software they use, impossible to read. And it infuriates me to know that the accessibility tools I use every day are right there, behind the POS screen and not available when I pay for my chicken fried rice.
The best outcome of this suit would be that Apple Store customers acquire the ability to complete transactions in an accessible way, and that the need to expose VoiceOver and other features in retail applications would translate into better accessible systems in any environment where customers buy things with mobile devices. That’s positive for anyone concerned about ADA compliance, and provides a competitive advantage for Apple over devices with less built-in accessibility.