On October 27, 2016 Apple made a choice. They decided to use their famous keynote platform and positioning in the industry to shine the spotlight on accessibility and technology. The entire keynote presentation started out with the accessibility commercial. That’s right, the whole thing opens with an acknowledgement that we need accessibility in all of our technology. It’s just that important. Here’s the ad in case you missed it:
You can also watch the full event on the Apple site, it starts with the accessibility ad.
I grew up with an early edition Macintosh computer on my desk. I don’t think there has even been a time in my life where I didn’t use a Mac in some form. So the announcement that Apple made during their October Keynote presentation is exciting for me. I’m especially looking forward to trying out the camera that will talk to you. I love taking photos, but I always skew things to the left because that’s where my vision is the strongest. Having a camera that will help guide me while I take photos could really help me out.
A Huge Step for an Industry Giant
Apple has long been a huge part of technology history, and their advancements set the tone for future directions in the field. If they focus on accessibility, that means it will be a big part of the digital conversation now. I for one am breathing a sigh of relief about this. I’ve touched on this in other posts, but I think that making sure technology is universally usable is extremely important. No one should have to beg and plead to have access to technology that other people take for granted. Making devices that are designed to be used by people everyone is something we all need in our lives.
As I mentioned, Apple made this announcement before anything else during their latest tech unveiling. These events are hotly anticipated and streamed across the world. They give people a peek into what the newest products look like, what they do, and why people will be lining up for hours to get their hands on them. When Apple chose to take time to put accessibility first they were telling the global community that this is important.
I’m admittedly a big fan of Apple, as I said their products have been a constant factor in my life. But I’m proud they’re taking this stance, because it validates my fight for accessibility. Technology needs to adapt to the user, not the other way around. As someone who spent years squinting at my tiny iPhone text, I know that things are much easier now that the developers have caught on and I can enlarge the font.
The market is catching on that inaccessible technology just isn’t ok. Technology that creates barrier is actively keeping brilliant people from learning and sharing their ideas with the world. Giving everyone an equal digital platform to create and innovate is crucial. How can we reach our fullest potential if we are knowingly depriving people of the tools that they need? Apple is taking steps to put an end to that issue, and that gives me hope.
The Financial Factor
Here’s my concern in all of this, and it isn’t something that’s easily solved – how accessible is accessible tech from a financial standpoint? I have medical insurance, but I still know that losing my vision is one of the most expensive things I will ever do, and that includes the cost of both of my university degrees. With people spending all of their hard earned money on their medical necessities, how are they going to have extra just lying around for first-rate devices that will give them the chance to use all of this accessible technology?
This is a genuine question, because even though people with disabilities have jobs that are well paying, our financial resources are often allocated elsewhere. I am painfully aware of how expensive it is to keep my eyesight stable. I need to pay some amount for every doctor’s visit, eye drop bottle, surgery, new contact, new pair of glasses, the list goes on.
I saved for a very long time to buy my current laptop, and as much as I’d like a shiny new Mac I just can’t justify it while I’m building up an emergency fund in case my retinas detach again. I don’t know if there is an answer to this question, but it seems pretty relevant considering owning this type of technology would be a game changer for a lot of people. How do we make it possible to get these new products to the people who could benefit from them most?
Apple’s Accessibility Website
One of the toughest things about accessible technology is figuring out the features. I know that unless they are clearly laid out, the only way for me to find out what visual accommodations are available is to stumble on them or dig around in menus and test out various settings. Apple has a detailed accessibility website that focuses on the helpful features their products have. Keep reading to see how Apple is incorporating accessible features into their popular product ranges.
Each Apple device on the market now comes with accessible features to help make their products easier to use. Even if you do not have a disability, these helpful components of the technology can change the way you use your devices. Here is an overview of some of Apple’s accessibility features that are now installed on their devices (please note that some features exist across all platforms and this list isn’t comprehensive, it’s just some of the highlights):
I’m typing this on a Mac right now. When I’m done, I’ll push command+F5 and have the text-to-speech program read the post back to me so I can edit it. I’m still getting the hang of this feature because I just started using it a few months ago, but it’s saved me from publishing plenty of mistakes I made in my initial writing. Macs will also now come with:
- Switch Control – Working with a Mac used to require a lot of very precise finger movements to use the trackpad. Not anymore! Users will now be able to use a switch to control their computer navigation, keyboard, and more.
- Dictation Commands – Tell your computer what you want it to do instead of having to type it in. With the new OS there are over 50 verbal commands you can use to edit or format your text.
- Flash Notifications – When you’re hard of hearing, sound alerts aren’t what you need. Instead, screen flashing will let you know if there’s an alert you should address.
- Mono-Audio – I think this one is cool because there are a lot of instances in which you don’t want audio that is played differently in each ear. While this is specifically designed for people who are deaf in one ear, I can imagine using this feature too. I have been in situations where I only want to have one earbud in, but the gaps in the music are too distracting because of the dual audio issue.
- VoiceOver – As a person who uses a screen reader, this is probably going to be the feature I use the most. Apple describes it best saying, “VoiceOver is unique because it’s not a standalone screen reader. It’s deeply integrated in macOS and all the built-in apps on Mac.”
The iPhone is pretty much like holding a computer in the palm of your hand. I was starting to get discouraged by how often I mistyped on my phone due to the tiny virtual keyboard until I realized I could enlarge the font. iPhones now come with these other great accessibility features:
- Hearing Aids for iPhone – Using iOS 7 and specific hearing aids, you can pair them with your device to hear it more clearly.
- VoiceOver – Your phone will read text to you, it’s just that simple.
- Reading Support – Learning disabilities can make reading text tough, but the Apple innovators created helpful features that help to promote literacy.
Using an iPad helped me to earn my graduate degree. That’s not an exaggeration, it’s just a fact of my life. I was able to load relevant texts and PDFs on my iPad, take notes, and zoom in on text. I didn’t need to squint at tiny text on printed pages, and I could easily find the information I needed. Now, the iPad is even more helpful:
- Touch Accommodations – A lot of the predetermined touch commands aren’t useful for people with mobility issues. Even if you break your arm or have another situational disability, using standard touch controls can be impossible. This feature allows you to assign new touch commands to control different functions on your iPad allowing you to choose motions that are simpler for you to use.
- VoiceOver Braille Keyboard – Braille Keyboards can be pretty expensive, so this feature is great to have. Instead of needing to pair a dedicated Braille keyboard with your iPad, you can use VoiceOver instead!
- Guided Access – “Guided Access helps people with autism or other attention and sensory challenges stay focused on the task (or app) at hand. With Guided Access, a parent, teacher, or therapist can limit iPad to stay on one app by disabling the Home button, and limit the amount of time spent in an app.” With iPads becoming more common in classrooms, this feature can be hugely helpful to every teacher.
I’m not an Apple Watch user, but I have several friends who are pretty obsessed with them. The accessibility features actually have me considering if I should pick one up.
- Taptic Engine – Your watch will tap you to let you know if you have a new message or email.
- VoiceOver – Yeah, I mentioned it before, but I was surprised to see it was a feature on the watch too. With the ability to use this feature in over 35 languages, I can imagine how handy having the watch could be for other people with low vision.
One thing that is missing with the watch is motor and physical accessibility. While they promote Activity and Workout Apps with special accessible workouts, I’d say there is still a gap here. I know the watch is small, and I don’t have any revolutionary suggestions about how to make it more accessible for motor impairments. But I hope they develop this aspect of the watch more in later iterations.
Well, they stuck with this one, and it’s a good thing they did from an accessibility standpoint. The overview text is pretty compelling, “Apple TV comes with assistive technologies that open up the future of television to everyone. Catch every word of a comedy without needing to hear it. Know what’s happening in every scene of a movie without needing to see it. Or stay up late to binge-watch your favorite series, even if you never pick up the remote.”
Closed captioning, switch control, and audio descriptions are all features that you can now use with Apple TV. I think people often forget that television can be tough for people with disabilities to access, and can make daily watercooler talk impossible. I’m glad that Apple considered this and extended accessibility options to this product as well.
It’s a Great Start
We’ve come a long way in the technology industry and there are still a lot of advancements to be made. As someone with a degenerative eye condition, I am extremely happy to learn that Apple is taking the needs of people with disabilities seriously. I sincerely hope that this is just the beginning, and that we can all expect other tech companies to follow suit and develop technology that is accessible for everyone.