“Honestly, it’s not that great,” the sales rep told me last week. He was trying to make me go away.
This was at my local Apple Store, where I was hoping to try the accessibility features of the new Apple Watch. If the device turned out to be as life-changing as the iPhone, it would certainly be worth the price tag. The display models at Apple currently run a video loop, demonstrating — for those who can follow along visually — how the Watch’s features work. But for anyone who wants to use the accessibility features — VoiceOver, zoom, and voice commands — you need a fully-enabled Watch, tethered to a real working phone.
But this guy wasn’t selling anything; he would rather I walk away. When I asked for a fully-enabled version, as I’d read is available, he balked. He said they didn’t have anything like that at that store, and he could get someone to show me the demo version, but it wouldn’t be any good for me. “Honestly,” he said, “the accessibility features are not that great. It’s just VoiceOver, and a couple other things.” He obviously didn’t know what VoiceOver meant to many people.
Perhaps the Apple Watch wasn’t the right product for me — or anybody for that matter — but somebody else was not going to make that decision for me.
I was miffed, but resolved to try again a few days later. In the meantime, I got an emotional email from a blog reader, responding to our post from the week before where we reported that Apple wants blind people testing the Watch. This particular person had followed our instructions and called the Apple support line to see about scheduling an appointment to test the accessibility features of the Watch; but got no help at all.
“I was very embarrassed,” they wrote to me, still annoyed from their interaction with Apple, “the man that I spoke with acted like I didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Normally I would turn on my journalistic skepticism here, but after my experience the day before, this sounded all too familiar. Still, I was hearing conflicting reports. Multiple readers wrote in to say they walked into their local Apple Store, many without any appointment, and were taken through all the accessibility features, with no problems whatsoever. What explained this gap in treatment from place to place? For Apple being the biggest, most tightly controlled corporate chain in the world, it almost seemed like we were dealing with different companies.
A few days later, I was back at the same Apple Store. I asked a sales rep the same questions — could they please show me a fully enabled Watch? — and got the same, uncertain answer: Let me show you to one of our trainers, and they’ll show you the demo version. I allowed myself to be led over, and once I got to the different person, I asked again. She gave the same, canned response, but I kept my cool. This wasn’t her fault, she just didn’t know, I told myself. “I’ve been told that every store has a fully enabled Watch,” I suggested, “I read online that Apple wants blind people to be able to test the Watch.” She didn’t know about it, but I had checked my facts, so I kept asking, politely, and in different words each time.
Finally there was a tipping point. She paused, thinking more creatively. She thought for a moment and came up with a different answer.
“We have a workshop model…” she said slowly. She said it was for the store employees to experiment and learn with. That sounded like a better lead than any. “Let me go ask if it’s available,” she said.
She came back in two minutes with the workshop model, beaming, “I asked my manager if we could borrow the workshop model to show you accessibility, and he said,” — wait for it — “that’s exactly what it’s for.” All along, there was a simple solution, but having not yet encountered a blind customer, hardly any of the employees knew about it. I was vindicated, and she seemed relieved to have been able to help.
“We have all these guidelines that we’re given,” she admitted candidly, “but we go around them all the time.”
As for the Watch, it’s fun, but I can’t weigh in yet. The accessibility features are very similar to the iPhone, and if you’re already used to operating the phone without looking while it’s in your pocket, or under a table, strapping a new screen to your wrist does at this point seem a little redundant. Also, if you’re like me and the biggest pain about VoiceOver is taking ear buds in and out, you’d be much better off investing in a nice wireless headphone setup than immediately springing for a new piece of hardware like this one. I still need to be convinced that the Watch is a useful tool, and that might not happen until my friends start showing them off.
I tell this story not to advertise the Watch or disparage Apple, but to remind everyone that when it comes to dealing with the blind and visually impaired, most people are terribly ignorant. It’s not that they have a vendetta against the disabled, or a superiority complex, they’re just uninformed about how to reach the right solution. Even at Apple, one of the most tightly-managed shopping experiences in the world, there is still a widespread lack of understanding and training about how to treat those with disabilities.
To be served, we have to push. Not aggressively or with self-righteous assertions, but patiently, quietly and with purpose. The solutions are there, the answers are relatively easy, the gatekeepers just don’t know it yet.
Contact Will Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org.