How ac­ces­si­ble are Ap­ple’s prod­ucts?

What is Ap­ple do­ing to make its de­vices easy to use for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, and is there still more to do?

Mac Format - - CONTENTS - writ­ten by ALEX BLAKE

For a num­ber of years now, it has felt like Siri has been strug­gling against its ri­vals. Ama­zon and Google seemed to be run­ning away with the ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence game.

Then along came WWDC 2018, and with it a new Short­cuts app. This app, a key part of iOS 12, lets you cre­ate work­flows that can be trig­gered by a spe­cific phrase ut­tered to Siri.

This could be the shot in the arm that Siri so des­per­ately needs, mak­ing it much more flex­i­ble than it has his­tor­i­cally been. But it also comes with a ben­e­fit that per­haps wasn’t im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous: it could be great for ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

That’s be­cause you can spec­ify a phrase of your choos­ing. If you have a speech im­ped­i­ment or find it tricky to say cer­tain things, Short­cuts lets you say some­thing eas­ier to achieve the same goal. If a dis­abil­ity makes it dif­fi­cult to carry out a long­winded task, you can string sev­eral tasks to­gether and carry them out with a sim­ple phrase, let­ting you do things that would nor­mally re­quire tak­ing mul­ti­ple ac­tions, per­haps even in mul­ti­ple apps.

The Short­cuts app is an ex­am­ple of Ap­ple build­ing ac­ces­si­bil­ity fea­tures into its ecosys­tem, and there are plenty of oth­ers. In fact, Ap­ple has of­ten made a point of in­creas­ing the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of its prod­ucts, with Tim Cook say­ing in a re­cent in­ter­view with TechCrunch that the com­pany be­lieves ac­ces­si­bil­ity is a “fun­da­men­tal hu­man right”. Let’s see what else Ap­ple is do­ing.

Fac­ing the chal­lenge

There were other fea­tures an­nounced at WWDC 2018 that could have ben­e­fits for those in need of ac­ces­si­bil­ity aids. One was the way Face ID works. When the iPhone X was re­vealed, Ap­ple ex­plained that you can set it to re­quire you to look at the screen to un­lock the de­vice – se­cu­rity against you ac­ci­den­tally un­lock­ing your phone. But if you’re blind or par­tially sighted, you may strug­gle to con­vince the iPhone X you are giv­ing it your full at­ten­tion, and thus may not be able to un­lock it.

In a re­sponse to ques­tions on this topic from Jonathan Mosen, an au­thor and ad­vo­cate for the blind, Ap­ple ex­plained that “The iPhone X has been de­signed with a num­ber of ac­ces­si­bil­ity fea­tures to sup­port its use. For VoiceOver users, Face ID will prompt you as to how to move your head dur­ing set up in or­der to com­plete a scan. If you do not want Face ID to re­quire at­ten­tion, you can open Set­tings > Gen­eral > Ac­ces­si­bil­ity, and

dis­able Re­quire At­ten­tion for Face ID. This is au­to­mat­i­cally dis­abled if you en­able VoiceOver dur­ing ini­tial set up.” VoiceOver is a func­tion in iOS and macOS that gives you au­dio de­scrip­tions of on-screen el­e­ments and gives you hints to help you get things done. It’s ideal for blind or par­tially sighted peo­ple, so it’s in­ter­est­ing to see Ap­ple tak­ing it into ac­count in a head­line fea­ture of iPhone X.

Ap­ple has his­tory in this area. Back in 2004, for ex­am­ple, the com­pany in­tro­duced Spo­ken In­ter­face for Mac OS X. This let users nav­i­gate through the op­er­at­ing sys­tem us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of speech, key­board nav­i­ga­tion and audi­ble cues. More re­cently, at its iPhone launch event in 2016, Ap­ple kicked the show off with a video high­light­ing some of the ac­ces­si­bil­ity fea­tures baked into its prod­ucts. The video was edited and nar­rated by Sady Paul­son, a video ed­i­tor with cere­bral palsy.

In fact, ac­count­ing for ac­ces­si­bil­ity needs has be­come in­grained in the way Ap­ple de­signs its de­vices. Sarah Her­rlinger, Ap­ple’s Di­rec­tor of Global Ac­ces­si­bil­ity Pol­icy and Ini­tia­tives, de­scribed it this way: “We look at ac­ces­si­bil­ity as some­thing we in­te­grate within the de­sign process. It’s the same as ev­ery­thing else: the goal of mak­ing prod­ucts that are re­ally in­tu­itive and easy to use.”

Ed­u­ca­tion

While there is a com­mon per­cep­tion that Google has Ap­ple beat in the class­room thanks to its in­cred­i­bly cheap Chrome­books, writer and ac­ces­si­bil­ity ad­vo­cate Steven Aquino says that’s not so when it comes to ac­ces­si­bil­ity. “The [iPad’s] multi-touch user in­ter­face is far more in­tu­itive, and more im­por­tantly, iOS is built with ac­ces­si­bil­ity in mind,” he writes. “From VoiceOver to Dy­namic Type to Switch Con­trol and more, an iPad (or an iPod touch, for that mat­ter) can pro­vide a far more ac­ces­si­ble and en­rich­ing learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for many stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties than a Chrome­book.” While much of the anal­y­sis of Ap­ple’s suc­cess or fail­ure in class­rooms fo­cuses on pure numbers, its ac­ces­si­bil­ity nouse is of­ten passed over.

In May 2018, Ap­ple an­nounced that it would launch its Ev­ery­one Can Code school cur­ricu­lum in the au­tumn. Start­ing at eight schools in the US that sup­port “stu­dents with vi­sion, hear­ing or other as­sis­tive needs”, this would roll out to more schools around the world in due course, ac­cord­ing to Tim Cook.

Ac­ces­si­bil­ity is in­grained in the way Ap­ple de­signs its de­vices

Ev­ery­one Can Code is a frame­work to help chil­dren learn to code in a sim­ple and ap­peal­ing way. It’s com­pat­i­ble with Ap­ple’s VoiceOver tech, mean­ing you can learn to code with­out hav­ing to see the screen. As well as that, Ev­ery­one Can Code will al­low stu­dents to use FaceTime in or­der to cap­ture ges­tures and fa­cial ex­pres­sions, and it will in­cor­po­rate fea­tures such as Type to Siri, closed cap­tions, Mono Au­dio and LED Flash for Alerts (which fires your cam­era flash when you get a new no­ti­fi­ca­tion). It will also work with Made for iPhone hear­ing aids.

Ev­ery­one Can Code works with Switch Con­trol, which en­ables you to use your de­vice with joy­sticks, switches and other meth­ods. An in­put de­vice can be des­ig­nated as a switch, then be cus­tomised to have cer­tain ac­tions as­so­ci­ated with it. For ex­am­ple, you could set the space­bar to scan through a list of items on the screen when you press it. Press­ing another switch – which could be a dif­fer­ent key, or click­ing a mouse but­ton, for ex­am­ple – could then se­lect an item on the screen when the scan high­lights it.

Col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­forts

It’s not just Ap­ple that’s mak­ing progress – third par­ties are us­ing Ap­ple’s tech to de­velop their own so­lu­tions. In many cases, these in­no­va­tions wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble with­out Ap­ple’s hard­ware or soft­ware, or both.

For ex­am­ple, hear­ing aid com­pany Cochlear has worked with Ap­ple on de­vel­op­ing an im­plant that works di­rectly with your iPhone. The Nu­cleus 7 sound pro­ces­sor streams au­dio from a phone to the Cochlear im­plant, not only im­prov­ing the qual­ity of the au­dio but also mak­ing it very easy to ad­just the set­tings by us­ing the phone.

In May 2018, the USB Im­ple­menters Fo­rum (USB-IF) an­nounced a new stan­dard for Braille dis­plays. The USB-IF is a group of tech com­pa­nies such as Ap­ple and Mi­crosoft that works to sup­port the im­ple­men­ta­tion of USB tech­nol­ogy. Speak­ing of the stan­dard, Ap­ple’s Sarah Her­rlinger said: “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.”

These col­lab­o­ra­tions sug­gest that Ap­ple is keen to work with other groups in or­der to pro­mote the ac­ces­si­bil­ity ben­e­fits not only of its own prod­ucts, but of bring­ing greater ac­ces­si­bil­ity to tech­nol­ogy in gen­eral.

How can Ap­ple im­prove?

Of course, there is still much that Ap­ple can do. Aquino be­lieves that Ap­ple’s class­room strat­egy leaves room for im­prove­ment. “Ap­ple is ob­vi­ously – right­fully – build­ing [its] ed­u­ca­tional strat­egy to­wards main­stream stu­dents in main­stream classes,” he writes. The com­pany needs to com­ple­ment that ap­proach with an ex­panded toolset for teach­ers work­ing in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tional class­rooms, Aquino be­lieves, in or­der to make sure they are not passed over in Ap­ple’s ef­forts.

And while the Touch Bar is great for ac­ces­si­bil­ity by mak­ing short­cuts much eas­ier to use, Aquino also sug­gests that Ap­ple could make it even bet­ter by in­te­grat­ing hap­tic feed­back into it. That would pro­vide help to vis­ually im­paired users who may not be able to ac­cu­rately read the char­ac­ters on the Touch Bar given their rel­a­tively small size.

Still, Ap­ple has done a lot of good work in this area, en­sur­ing that ac­ces­si­bil­ity is a key part of the process when de­vel­op­ing new tech­nol­ogy and de­vices. Speak­ing in 2013, Ap­ple’s CEO Tim Cook ex­plained: “Peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties… fre­quently are left in the shad­ows of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ments that are a source of em­pow­er­ment and at­tain­ment for oth­ers, but Ap­ple’s en­gi­neers push back against this un­ac­cept­able re­al­ity, they go to ex­tra­or­di­nary lengths to make our prod­ucts ac­ces­si­ble to peo­ple with var­i­ous dis­abil­i­ties.” On the whole, that push seems to be work­ing.

In many cases, these in­no­va­tions wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble with­out Ap­ple

VoiceOver is built into macOS and can de­scribe on-screen el­e­ments to you. It also works on your iOS de­vice.

Cochlear’s Nu­cleus 7 hear­ing im­plant works closely with your iPhone to stream au­dio to you.

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