True to tradition, Apple celebrated this week World Accessibility Day again this year, announcing a host of new accessibility features and services for customers with disabilities. In one press release published Wednesday on its Newsroom web page, the Bay Area company described the additions as “next-generation technologies [that] showcase Apple’s belief that accessibility is a human right and advance the company’s long history of delivering cutting-edge features that make Apple products customizable for all users. “
“At Apple, we’ve long believed that the best technology in the world should meet everyone’s needs, and our teams work tirelessly to build accessibility into everything we make,” said Sarah Herrlinger, Senior Director of Policy and Apple’s global accessibility initiatives, in the press release. “With these new features, we are pushing the boundaries of innovation with next-generation technologies that bring the fun and function of Apple technology to even more people – and we look forward to sharing them with our users.”
Headlining is the introduction of AssistiveTouch in watchOS. A mainstay of iOS (and iPadOS) for years, AssistiveTouch is itself a suite of software tools that allow users with engine delays to control their device (s). With a single tap, users can take a screenshot, open Control Center and more on their iPhone or iPad; the AssistiveTouch menu is customizable, so users can tailor it to their needs or preferences. The idea behind AssistiveTouch is that many users lack the dexterity (and / or cognition) to perform relatively elaborate gestures like swiping or repeated tapping on a touchscreen. The “one-click” nature of AssistiveTouch consolidates complex movements into one movement.
AssistiveTouch on Apple Watch is conceptually identical to its iOS brethren; the implementation, however, is radically different. The end result is something that sums up Apple’s “signature move” perfectly so to speak. In an intelligent interaction of hardware and software, AssistiveTouch on the watch uses the device’s onboard sensors like the accelerometer and gyroscope to, according to Apple, “detect subtle differences in muscle movement and tendon activity.” . This allows actions to be triggered by gestures like pinching or squeezing, allowing users with different limbs to do things like answer a phone call or invoke the action center. There is a explanatory video on YouTube which demonstrates AssistiveTouch on the watch.
A second flagship feature is a customer service option called SignTime, which launched on Thursday coinciding with World Accessibility Awareness Day. The service allows people who are deaf and hard of hearing to communicate with AppleCare and Apple Retail staff in sign language. Customers can also request ASL interpreters when visiting physical sites without prior reservation. SignTime launches first with support for American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL), and French Sign Language (LSF). Support for other countries will arrive later.
Worth noting Apple’s commercial presence in the Washington DC area have ASL speaking staff, as DC is home to Gallaudet University, the college institution par excellence for deaf and hard of hearing students. SignTime mimics DC area store-specific support, but obviously expands the addressable market to a much larger group of people.
Elsewhere, there are several other notable improvements:
Eye-Tracking on iPad. Apple has added support for eye tracking on iPad, which is expected to arrive later this year. Compatible MFi devices will be able to detect a person’s gaze when their face looks at the screen; a persistent gaze will trigger a tactile event like a tap. Gaze technology is a natural extension of the Made for iPhone program, which in the case of accessibility has long supported third-party hearing aids and switches. Speaking of hearing aids, Apple says the hearing adaptation feature that debuted with iOS 14 will support custom audiograms. Users will be able to take a printed or digital (PDF) copy of their audiogram from their audiologist and import it into Hearing Accommodation. They can then customize their accommodations based on the results of their individual hearing test.
Background sounds. Apple will support background sounds. In a nod to the neuro-diverse community – many of which have sensory limitations related to certain sounds – the company is adding new sounds to help “minimize distractions and help users focus, stay calm or relax. to rest”. Sounds include rain, ocean, and stream; these background sounds will be played (or mixed with) other sounds in the operating system.
Better image exploration with VoiceOver. Building on the work of iOS 14 to bolster the artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities of VoiceOver, Apple is improving the venerable screen reader with even smarter image recognition. “Users can now explore even more detail about people, text, table data and other objects in images,” according to Apple. The new functionality includes navigation through receipts and understanding of who and where family members are positioned in photos.
Sound actions for switch control. Designed for non-verbal people with reduced mobility, Sound Actions replaces tactile switches with mouth sounds. These include a click, a pop, and “ee” sounds.
Display and text settings per app. Users now have the ability to configure display and text preferences for each application. While Dynamic Type defines everything system-wide, including third-party applications that use the Dynamic Type API, this new feature gives users more granular control. The idea here is that larger text might be needed in one application, but not in another.
Memoji representation. A wider range of various disability-focused aids, such as cochlear implants, oxygen tubes and soft helmets, can be added to his Memoji for greater authenticity.
In addition to the brighter features for users, Apple, as usual on World Accessibility Awareness Day, is showcasing a number of accessibility-focused content in its various digital properties. Among them: there is a lecture and workout on Fitness + by trainer and adaptive athlete Amir Ekbatani, which explains how the service is made accessible and inclusive; the TV application highlights the “Breaking Barriers Collection” in which the representation of disabled people in Hollywood is presented; and Today at Apple is offering enhanced accessibility sessions in stores through May 30.