How PBS Kids is Making Children's Television More Accessible

During the parade of Hollywood A-listers at Apple's March services event the company brought on stage to hype their upcoming Apple TV+ shows, at one point Big Bird appeared to talk about the Sesame Street series.

Sesame Street, of course, has been running on PBS stations for decades. PBS Kids has long been recognized as the leader in educational programming for children—but their commitment runs far deeper than that. The network cares about making accessible entertainment for all children, of all abilities.

"PBS Kids aims to reach all kids, but we have a special focus on supporting those kids that need it most," said Lesli Rotenberg, Chief Programming Executive and General Manager for Children’s Media and Education at PBS. Rotenberg oversees pretty much everything in the PBS Kids ecosystem, from content production to digital development to educational product creation. "As a public broadcaster, we’ve always felt a deep responsibility to uphold representation and inclusiveness in our content, including how that content is accessed and consumed."

PBS Kids's target demographic is children aged 2 to 8, spanning toddlerhood through early elementary school. The goal with its programming is augmenting early education. Young children's brains, particularly the toddler end of PBS's range, are highly malleable. Which is to say, their brains are exceptionally primed at this stage of development to soak up information; this retention plants the seeds of a child's worldview, which obviously becomes more complex as time passes and their cognitive abilities expand.

While there's no substitute for physical, real-world hands-on experiences for children—play-based childcare centers are best—the content PBS Kids produces surely can supplement learning in a positive way. "We aim to produce content that provides audiences with useful tools to be ever-curious and kind as they experience and grow through successful interactions at home, in the classroom and beyond," Rotenberg said. "We are committed to reducing barriers and creating flexible learning environments where all kids can succeed."

The work PBS Kids has put into accessibility and its mission to deliver accessible media began in 1972, when Boston's WGBH began showing programs with closed-captioning. Rotenberg says everything her network produces adheres to tenets of inclusive design, noting that "every PBS Kids program on-air includes closed-captioning and almost all include audio descriptions." Furthermore, the PBS Kids app—available on Android, iOS, and Windows—supports closed-captioning, as well as an information screen where parents can submit feedback and questions for the developers.

On the web, Rotenberg told me the PBS Kids site has been evaluated by the design team for accessibility. The website is optimized to work with screen readers, text-to-speech, and contrast. This is all done, she says, using the guiding principles of the Universal Design Language (UDL) framework.

Aside from streaming video, PBS Kids also has pushed for accessibility and inclusivity in its games. Rotenberg says "adaptive and personalized games have a lot of potential, as they adjust to a child’s individual learning needs and behaviors and provide on-demand supports that the child can actively seek to enhance their learning." PBS Kids's games include titles such as The Cat in the Hat Builds That and Railway Hero. The accessibility features supported in these games cover a wide variety of domains, including physical motor, blindness and low vision, and the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Screen readers, audio descriptions, and closed-captioning are just a few of the technologies designed to support disabled gamers.

The work PBS Kids has put into making content more accessible to everyone has not gone unnoticed by parents and educators. "Parents and educators alike are excited to see their [children] successfully engage with content that complies with such high standards for accessibility," Rotenberg said. Representation has been important as well, as Rotenberg notes much of the feedback garnered has centered around a child's ability to see themselves in the on-screen characters "who present a range of situational, temporary and permanent disabilities." One example of this is Julia, an autistic preschooler introduced in 2015 who, Sesame Workshop said at the time, "does things a little differently when playing with her friends.”

At a macro level, the work Rotenberg and her team at PBS Kids is both laudable and necessary. Disability representation on television and other media has been pitiful forever, so to see PBS go to the lengths they do to provide better representation for children is not an insignificant development. It puts disability—and by extension, accessibility—at the forefront of the shows and of the overall user experience; this is also why Apple's forthcoming series See, starring Alfre Woodward and Jason Momoa, is so intriguing. The whole premise surrounds a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity is blind—this is a stark contrast to the usual role disability plays as a plot device: one of moribundity and adversity.

PBS Kids has taken the right approach, putting all children on a level playing field. "There is a major gap in accessibility in media, [and] children and families are finding that PBS Kids is leading the industry in making this space open to kids from all backgrounds," Rotenberg said. PBS Kids can be an invaluable resource to not only families, but to special educators and others in special education classrooms.

Kindle Paperwhite First Impressions

I know I’m extremely late to the Kindle party, but I finally made it.

On Prime Day last week, I saw that Amazon was selling the Paperwhite for $80 and decided I would grab one. I’ve had it for about a week now, but haven’t had much time with it due to other things going on at home recently. I took it with me on BART yesterday on a trip across the bay to visit family, and so far I am very impressed by the device. It’s pretty great.

The book I’m reading is John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, which chronicles the rise and fall of Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. I’d seen nothing but rave reviews for the book, so I figured it would be a good first book. As I write this, I’m three chapters in and loving it so far.

Here are some assorted thoughts on the Paperwhite thus far.

Size & Weight. The Paperwhite is much smaller and lighter than I expected, but I like it. It’s easy to hold and throw into my backpack. I got the black model, which is nice looking and well made, but the bezels make it look old. I have no insight into Amazon’s industrial design process, but I would love a Paperwhite with no bezels at all, kind of like how Apple got rid of the “forehead and chin” of the iPhone X.

The E-ink Display. The Paperwhite’s screen is great—text is sharp and easy to see at maximum brightness. As someone with low vision, I was curious to see how my eyes would acclimate to a different screen technology. In my brief time with my Paperwhite, I’ve had no issues with glare or eye fatigue.

The User Interface. I’ve found the Paperwhite’s touchscreen to be surprisingly responsive; I haven’t noticed any significant lag when tapping. The controls are thoughtfully laid out too. I like Amazon’s font choices and the slider for adjusting screen brightness and text size. As for page-turning, I don’t mind tapping the screen to go back and forth. I like the feeling of touching the screen and it does something; it’s natural.

Accessibility. Amazon has a slew of accessibility features for its products, including a screen reader, magnifier, text options, and more. For the Paperwhite, their VoiceView screen reader is supported, as are text options like font size and line spacing. If I discover more functionality, I will report back.

Overall, I’m enjoying the Paperwhite very much. I now see why Kindles are so popular. The Paperwhite is, in Alton Brown parlance, a unitasker—but the one thing it does, it excels at. There is a serenity about the device that is appealing; I don’t feel distracted or tempted to reach for my iPhone. I can focus on the reading experience in a way that’s more difficult on my iPad. Different devices for different things, but still. I’m happy I decided to finally take the plunge into Kindleland.

Apple Merges Machine Learning, Siri Teams

Matthew Panzarino, reporting for TechCrunch:

Apple is creating a new AI/ML team that brings together its Core ML and Siri teams under one leader in John Giannandrea.

Apple confirmed this morning that the combined Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning team, which houses Siri, will be led by the recent hire, who came to Apple this year after an eight-year stint at Google, where he led the Machine Intelligence, Research and Search teams. Before that he founded Metaweb Technologies and Tellme.

The internal structures of the Siri and Core ML teams will remain the same, but they will now answer to Giannandrea. Apple’s internal structure means that the teams will likely remain integrated across the org as they’re wedded to various projects, including developer tools, mapping, Core OS and more. ML is everywhere, basically.

As Panzarino notes, this move makes a ton of sense for many reasons.

'The Democratization of Communication'

AssistiveWare founder and CEO David Niemeijer wrote a terrific piece on Medium on how the App Store has revolutionized access for AAC devices. He writes, in part:

We saw an opportunity to democratize access to AAC. Our aim was to deliver AAC on a consumer device at a price within reach of those who did not have access to funding. In April 2009, we released Proloquo2Go, the first full-featured symbol-based AAC app on iOS. Combined with an iPod touch and a speaker case, total cost was below US$ 500.

We were a small company based in Amsterdam, Netherlands. We did not have a network of sales reps or a department to help with funding requests. The App Store provided us with access to a worldwide market. Within a year, we reached 40 countries and sold over 4,000 licenses, of which the vast majority were in the US.

This article ties in perfectly with yesterday's press release from Apple.

More Health Insurers Adopt Apple's Health Records Feature

Michael Potuck at 9to5 Mac reports on more health insurance companies who have adopted Apple's Health Records API, which allows users to view their health record on their iPhone. Potuck writes there are now 65 participating providers and users will start reaping the benefits of the functionality this fall—this is currently included in the iOS 12 betas, now open to the public.

This feature is exciting from an accessibility perspective. I'm a Kaiser Permanente member, and my health records are stored online when I log into Kaiser's website. The information is available, but it isn't very accessible. The interface isn't exactly user-friendly and my recordfs are presented in relatively small fonts, which makes them hard to find and hard to read. Hence, you can imagine why this Health Records feature is exciting from an accessibility standpoint. Should Kaiser ever bring it to Northern California members—it's available only to Oregon and Washington residents now—then I could use the accessibility features on iOS to make accessing my records more accessible. That's no small feat, especially considering many didabled people have complex health records they need to keep tabs on. The combination of Apple's API and iOS's accessibility features should, in theory, make this much easier and more convenient for them, and for me.

Apple's Rebuilt Maps

TechCrunch's Matthew Panzarino dropped a surprise 🔥 scoop this morning: Apple is overhauling its Maps app. According to his report, he spoke with Eddy Cue and "over a dozen" engineers on Apple's Maps team. Apple also let him ride in one of its Maps vans.

On the vans, Panzarino writes:

In addition to a beefed up GPS rig on the roof, four LiDAR arrays mounted at the corners and 8 cameras shooting overlapping high-resolution images – there’s also the standard physical measuring tool attached to a rear wheel that allows for precise tracking of distance and image capture. In the rear there is a surprising lack of bulky equipment. Instead, it’s a straightforward Mac Pro bolted to the floor, attached to an array of solid state drives for storage. A single USB cable routes up to the dashboard where the actual mapping capture software runs on an iPad.

[...]

When the images and data are captured, they are then encrypted on the fly immediately and recorded on to the SSDs. Once full, the SSDs are pulled out, replaced and packed into a case which is delivered to Apple’s data center where a suite of software eliminates private information like faces, license plates and other info from the images. From the moment of capture to the moment they’re sanitized, they are encrypted with one key in the van and the other key in the data center. Technicians and software that are part of its mapping efforts down the pipeline from there never see unsanitized data.

The new Maps will be included in the next iOS 12 beta and will be limited at first to the San Francisco Bay Area.

John Gruber on IGTV

John posted this item to Daring Fireball a few days ago, and I agree with his take on IGTV.

As I tweeted, reading his comments got me thinking about how I've really fallen out of love with Instagram. I still use it fairly regularly, but the ads and the algorthimic timeline, among other "features," have sullied the experience for me. I'll be 37 come September, and I admittedly feel old and curmudgeonly about this—it feels like the service has been skewing towards a younger audience (teen-to-20s) for some time now. In my usage, I follow a few hard rules that hearken back to the "good ol' days": I only post a single photo at a time, I never use Stories, and I do not share memes or screenshots (anymore). Oh, and my account is private; Instagram has always felt more personal to me than something like Twitter, which for me is an essential work tool for me (sharing and networking). For better or worse, this setup works for me and i'm sticking to it.

On New AirPods

Mark Gurman and Debby Wu, writing for Bloomberg:

The Cupertino, California-based company is working on new AirPods with noise-cancellation and water resistance, the people said. Apple is trying to increase the range that AirPods can work away from an iPhone or iPad, one of the people said. You won’t be swimming in them though: The water resistance is mainly to protect against rain and perspiration, the people said.

Slated for 2019, the earbuds will likely cost more than the existing $159 pair, and that could push Apple to segment the product line like it does with iPhones, one of the people said. Apple is also working on a wireless charging case that’s compatible with the upcoming AirPower charger.

The company has also internally discussed adding biometric sensors to future AirPods, like a heart-rate monitor, to expand its health-related hardware offerings beyond the Apple Watch, another person said. The current AirPods will be refreshed later this year with a new chip and support for hands-free Siri activation, Bloomberg News reported.

My set of AirPods are still going strong. So delightful and so quintessentially Apple.

Apple Launches 2018 Midterm Elections Section in News

Apple PR:

The 2018 Midterm Elections section helps readers follow the latest on the elections with breaking news, exclusive highlights and analysis from reliable sources selected by Apple News’ team of experienced editors. Readers can quickly get up to speed on the most relevant topics and candidates by accessing the new section in the Apple News app from a banner across the top of the For You tab, as well as through Top Stories and the Spotlight tab.

“Today more than ever people want information from reliable sources, especially when it comes to making voting decisions,” said Lauren Kern, editor-in-chief of Apple News. “An election is not just a contest; it should raise conversations and spark national discourse. By presenting quality news from trustworthy sources and curating a diverse range of opinions, Apple News aims to be a responsible steward of those conversations and help readers understand the candidates and the issues.”

Like my buddy Stephen Hackett, I find it curious the New York Times is omitted from the initial crop of "diverse publishers" Apple is sourcing its coverage from. Maybe they'll be added over time, who knows. In any case, like Stephen, I'm not much of an Apple News junkie, but maybe this new section will change that. I'm definitely going to check it out.

AirPower's Delay Explained

The always-intrepid Mark Gurman, reporting for Bloomberg:

An executive at an Apple partner that manufactures third-party wireless chargers for iPhones, who asked not to be identified, said that the multi-device charging mechanism is challenging to build because it likely requires different sized charging components for the three types of devices, which would all overlap across the mat.

The AirPower charger is also more advanced than the current competition because it includes a custom Apple chip running a stripped down version of the iOS mobile operating system to conduct on-device power management and pairing with devices. Apple engineers have also been working to squash bugs related to the on-board firmware, according to the people familiar. They asked not to be identified discussing a product that hasn’t been released yet.

AirPower's failure to ship after close to a year must frustrate Apple executives. As for my expectations, I'm not particularly hankering for it at home. Where I think I'd definitely like one is for travel—the ability to simultaneously charge my iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods would relieve me from having to pack a trillion cables and charging stands in my baggae. I've been meaning to buy second sets of chargers to set aside specifically for travel, but buying one AirPower mat may be a better solution.

New USB Standard for Braille Displays Announced

Per a press release from the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF):

USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), the support organization for the advancement and adoption of USB technology, today announced a USB HID (Human Interface Device) standard for braille displays, representing a collaborative step toward greater technological accessibility for people who are blind or have low vision. The standard will make it easier to use a braille display across operating systems and different types of hardware. It will also simplify development, removing the need for braille devices to have custom software and drivers created for a particular operating system or screen reader.

“This is another great example of how USB-IF device class specifications can improve people’s lives,” said USB-IF President and COO Jeff Ravencraft. “With more than 1000 members worldwide, USB-IF brings companies together to improve access to technology and provide a seamless user experience.”

This is a positive development, with a push from Apple. The company's Senior Director of Global Accessibility Policy & Initiatives, Sarah Herrlinger, said in part, “We’re proud to advance this new USB-IF standard because we believe in improving the experience for all people who rely on braille displays to use their Apple products or any other device.”

Salesforce Tower in Downtown San Francisco Opens

Excellent story from BuzzFeed's Mat Honan:

As noon approached, an Orthodox priest, a rabbi, a Zen Center reverend, an imam, an Episcopal bishop, a Catholic archbishop, and a leader from the Brahma Kumaris Meditation Center stood on a stage in downtown San Francisco, clasped hands, and said a prayer: “Bless this magnificent edifice,” they intoned, “the Salesforce Tower.”

It was a bit ridiculous. But the Salesforce Tower itself, which opened to the public on Tuesday, is no joke. For San Francisco, it is a literal monument to the wealth and power of tech, and its grand opening brought together a nexus of powerful forces in modern-day California: the technology industry, Democratic politics, and the housing crisis.

As I said on Twitter, I have close friends and family who work at Salesforce. Upon further reflection, however, the more upset I am by this. Not by Honan's story, but by the sheer idea of the Tower. As I also said on Twitter, San Francisco is a city "in real shit shape," as Honan wrote, yet Benioff and other company executives expect people to come and gawk at this architectural monstrosity that cost over a billion dollars to build. Even worse, they get religious figures to come and bless the fucking thing? It's absurd. Then Benioff has the gall to wax on about helping the city by combatting homelessness and so forth. Honan was right on: This whole farce is and was Dickensian indeed.

Microsoft's New Accessible Xbox Controller

Chelsea Stark and Samit Sarkar, writing for Polygon:

The world of video games is not particularly welcoming to individuals with disabilities. Game makers and platform holders have made some strides in this area in recent years, but for the most part, they’ve left the hard work to third-party organizations. The Xbox Adaptive Controller is the strongest, clearest expression yet of Microsoft’s commitment to reaching people with disabilities, and it sprang in part out of a controller that’s on the opposite end of the accessibility spectrum.

[...]

“We cast a really inclusive map of partners and individuals to help us build this, in a much bigger way than we have normally for our products,” said Kumar. In addition to groups working in the gaming accessibility field, like AbleGamers, SpecialEffect, the veteran-focused charity Warfighter Engaged and accessory manufacturers, Microsoft consulted with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and Craig Hospital, a Denver-area rehabilitation center for brain and spinal cord injuries.

This new controller from Microsoft is a big deal for the video game industry and for Microsoft. As Dan Moren writes at Six Colors, it's heartening to see the other big players in tech make such a pronounced move in the accessibility space. Apple surely leads here—although they aren't doing anything hardware-wise—but it's great to see others follow their lead in acknowledging and supporting the disabled community. Huge kudos to Microsoft for their efforts here.

'The Art of Autism'

In celebrating Autism Acceptance Month, this is a terrific project:

Over the last few weeks, participants have been creating new forms of art on iPad Pro. Though some had previous experience with iPad, most artists had not previously worked with Apple Pencil to create art. Through one-on-one sessions at Apple stores, drawing apps, and other support from Apple these artists gained confidence with the new method and learned how to maximize their creative potential. The participants have differing abilities, and are of different genders and ages ranging from 15 to 53.

The Art of Autism is very excited to lead this series for artists of all abilities. We are grateful to Apple for their support and to the artists for sharing their art and insights. The Created on iPad art exhibit highlights the diversity of art and the creativity of many on the autism spectrum in visual art — and how technology can enhance their experience.

Though I am a fan of the Mac, I don't think there's any question that, generally speaking, an iPad is a far more accessible computer than something like a MacBook. This exhibit is one reason why.

Giving Tweetbot a More Accessible Design

For many years, I was a diehard Tweetbot user, the popular indie Twitter client for iOS and the Mac. Everything about the app’s design delighted me: I adored the sounds, the way fonts were rendered, and just the way the user interface looked. It was—and remains—a beautiful app. Tapbots, Tweetbot’s developer, does exquisite work. It’s no wonder the app is so beloved.

Somewhere along the way, however, I moved away from Tweetbot and gravitated towards Twitter’s official first-party app. I don’t exactly know why I made the change, but I soon came to realize that the official client is actually well done in its own right. Despite its proclivity for inserting ads and promoted tweets into the timeline, among other annoyances, I can appreciate the niceties the official app offers such as the Search tab, Moments, threaded replies, and—best of all—the dedicated GIF button.

And one other thing: Accessibility.

Many nerds like to shit on the official Twitter app for being an abomination, mainly due to the algorithmic timeline, but the truth is Twitter’s iOS client is worlds better than Tweetbot for accessibility. The UI design is much higher contrast—Twitter for iOS even acknowledges when you have the system’s Increase Contrast setting enabled, as I do. And, crucially, the official client natively supports alt-text, which allows users to append image descriptions for the blind and low vision before tweeting.

I’ve spent the last several weeks back on Tweetbot, because I still have great fondness and respect for it. More to the point, however, I wanted to revisit the app and see how it compares to the official app. I’ve identified a few bullet point enhancements Tapbots that would greatly increase its accessibility. Such as:

  • Higher contrast iconography and support for Increase Contrast
  • Support for adding alt-text to images prior to tweeting
  • And just for fun, add an integrated GIF button

One thing Tweetbot does extremely well, accessibility-wise, is with sounds. The sounds you hear when a new tweet is sent or retweeted or a mention comes in, are helpful audio cues that the action in question occurred. This creates a bimodal sensory experience where someone like me, who has low vision, can see and hear my interactions with the app. The sounds are undoubtedly a nod to Tapbots’ robot-y branding, but in reality they also are an unintentional assistive tool and it’s great.

I have no idea where Tapbots is in development on version 5, but wherever they stand, I hope they consider improving the app for accessibility. It’d make it even more delightful for me (and others) who rely on accessibility to get the most from our apps.

Apple: The New Mac Pro is a ‘2019 Product’

TechCrunch’s Matthew Panzarino was given exclusive access by Apple to what the company calls their “Pro Workflows Group.” This is the team who are working on the redesigned Mac Pro, which Apple confirmed to Panzarino is slated for release next year.

Now, it’s a year later and Apple has created a team inside the building that houses its pro products group. It’s called the Pro Workflow Team, and they haven’t talked about it publicly before today. The group is under John Ternus and works closely with the engineering organization. The bays that I’m taken to later to chat about Final Cut Pro, for instance, are a few doors away from the engineers tasked with making it run great on Apple hardware.

“We said in the meeting last year that the pro community isn’t one thing,” says Ternus. “It’s very diverse. There’s many different types of pros and obviously they go really deep into the hardware and software and are pushing everything to its limit. So one thing you have to do is we need to be engaging with the customers to really understand their needs. Because we want to provide complete pro solutions, not just deliver big hardware, which we’re doing and we did it with iMac Pro. But look at everything holistically.”

To do that, Ternus says, they want their architects sitting with real customers to understand their actual flow and to see what they’re doing in real time. The challenge with that, unfortunately, is that though customers are typically very responsive when Apple comes calling, it’s not always easy to get what they want because they may be using proprietary content. John Powell, for instance, is a long-time logic user and he’s doing the new Star Wars Han Solo standalone flick. As you can imagine, taking those unreleased and highly secret compositions to Apple to play with on their machines can be a sticking point.

This story is a terrific follow-up to last year’s Mac roundtable one.

Apple’s Sarah Herrlinger Joining AFB Board of Directors

Per a press release put out by the American Foundation for the Blind:

The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), a national nonprofit that creates a world of no limits for people with visual impairments, today announced the election of a new, distinguished trustee to its national board: Sarah Herrlinger, Director, Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives, at Apple, Inc. Herrlinger was elected during the February 2018 Board of Trustees meeting.

"Sarah Herrlinger is an outstanding addition to AFB's board," said Kirk Adams, AFB President and CEO. "Ms. Herrlinger and Apple's commitment to making technology accessible to everyone reflects AFB’s mission of removing barriers and creating a world of no limits as we approach our 100th year and beyond."

As I wrote on Twitter, Herrlinger acts often as the “public face” of Apple’s accessibility efforts. She’s generally the one who represents Apple at awards ceremonies and appearances, such as her attendance at SXSW last month for the Everyone Can Code program. At Apple, Lisa Jackson oversees Apple’s accessibility initiatives as part of her duties, but it’s really Herrlinger who’s one of the big drivers, internally, of new features, partnerships, and the like pertaining to accessibility across the company.