What Designers Can Learn From Apple’s New Accessibility Updates

May 31, 2021

In May 2021, Apple announced significant accessibility updates to all of its operating systems and many of its applications. As a whole, the updates represent a forward-thinking approach: Apple is introducing new tools and technologies that fit with the brand’s user-first design philosophy.

As we discussed last month, the enhancements were designed for people with disabilities, not tacked on after the fact. They’re designed to improve the experience for everyone, but the changes have been explicitly marketed as accessibility improvements. For developers, the changes— and Apple’s marketing of the changes — provide some useful insights for developing an accessible mindset.

We haven’t performed an exhaustive analysis of Apple’s accessibility updates, and major features often have unforeseen implications, good and bad. With that said, Apple’s updates are commendable, and many demonstrate a sound understanding of the principles of accessible design.

Give people options

When announcing the updates, Apple noted the enhancements were “designed for people with mobility, vision, hearing, and cognitive disabilities.” Importantly, the press release doesn’t make assumptions about the ways that people will use the new tech — the features are characterized as supportive innovations or as “enhancements.”

To accommodate a variety of different abilities and preferences, the enhancements give users options, rather than compelling them to use Apple’s technology in specific ways. Some of the features include:

  • Support for bi-directional hearing aids
  • Optional background sounds to mask unwanted environmental noise and minimize distractions
  • Customizable display and text size settings, which can be adjusted on an app-by-app basis
  • Introduction of AssistiveTouch for Apple Watch, which allows users to control the watch without touching it.
  • Eye-tracking support for the iPod.
  • Improvements to VoiceOver’s Image Description.

There’s a focus on customization, which is an excellent approach. People may interact with technology in different ways for a wide variety of reasons. For instance, a temporary injury after a surgery may compel a user to use text-to-speech tools for a short amount of time, or a person may develop visual or auditory disabilities as they age. In order to create accessible content, developers need to understand that disabilities are a spectrum.

Websites, mobile apps, and other digital media can use the same principles to improve accessibility while naturally improving usability for all users. By considering the different ways that people interact with media, developers can avoid some of the common mistakes that cause unintentional barriers. That often means giving users more control over their experiences.

Provide resources to help people learn about accessibility enhancements

Learning about new technology isn’t always easy, and Apple has introduced numerous learning resources for people with disabilities. On May 20, 2021, Apple introduced SignTime, which enables customers to communicate with customer service using American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL), or French Sign Language (LSF). The company also offered live, virtual sessions in ASL and BSL to teach iPhone and iPad basics, and iOS’s Shortcuts for Accessibility Guidelines provides guidance for discovering (and personalizing) many of the newly enhanced features.

Of course, smaller companies may not have the resources to provide extensive training sessions on accessibility initiatives — but there are other effective ways to showcase design enhancements. Websites, for example, can use accessibility statements to provide details about their commitment to real-world users. These statements can include links to pages explaining the enhancements, acknowledgement of known issues, and spaces for users to leave feedback. 

Add inclusivity beyond accessibility

Inclusivity and accessibility aren’t identical concepts, but they often share intersecting principles. Along with practical updates to improve accessibility and usability, Apple has announced new Memoji customization options that will allow users to add cochlear implants, oxygen tubes, or a soft helmet to their avatars. The company will also highlight creators with disabilities; the App Store, for instance, will include stories from TikTok influencer Lucy Edwards, who is blind, and the Apple TV app will celebrate authentic disability representation.

Those customizations improve representation in digital spaces; while a more authentic Memoji doesn’t directly change the way a user interacts with their device, it may make online interaction more comfortable. By adding options, developers can demonstrate that they care about users with disabilities (and, in turn, help to remove some of the stigma surrounding discussions of those disabilities).

The changes should make the web more useful and operable — if web and app creators embrace them

Apple’s accessibility enhancements are an important step in the right direction, and they’re also a savvy business move. About 1 in 4 adults in the United States has a disability, and some disability statistics suggest that the proportion of people with disabilities may increase over the next decade. For one of the world’s largest technology companies, shutting out these users doesn’t make sense.

Granted, no website or mobile app wants to limit its audience, and developing for accessibility yields enormous benefits over time. Designers and developers can do their part by prioritizing users with disabilities. That might mean cutting out barriers by providing additional customization options for people who use assistive technologies.

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