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Why It's Important That Apple's Software Updates Were 'Designed for People with Disabilities'

Jun 1, 2021

In accessibility articles and presentations far and wide, it's often told that many accessible features (like captions) and design choices (like dark mode) were built for people with disabilities and ultimately help everyone. In recent years, the fast-paced advancement of voice assistants (like Siri and Alexa) have been among the go-to examples. It's true that these generally-helpful tools can be particularly useful in improving accessibility, but the reason this message needs to be taught is because accessibility features haven't always been marketed as such, at least not primarily. Apple's May 19 press release leaves no question about their upcoming software enhancements, which were "designed for people with disabilities."

That's important, as Apple:

  • Is leading with the message of accessibility, not tacking it on after.
  • Is positioning the updates as positive and deliberate, not a burden.
  • Is among the most valuable and influential brands in the world, so others will notice.

Included in Apple's news release was the announcement that a new service called SignTime would launch the next day in celebration of Global Accessibility Awareness Day. SignTime enables customer service to AppleCare and Retail Customer Care through sign language. Occasionally over the last year, commercials and ads for video communication products would show people signing, but that usually wasn't the primary focus. SignTime, on the other hand, is a service specifically available for customers who use American Sign Language, British Sign Language, or French Sign Language.

Apple's senior director of Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives, Sarah Herrlinger, said:

"At Apple, we’ve long felt that the world’s best technology should respond to everyone’s needs, and our teams work relentlessly to build accessibility into everything we make. With these new features, we’re pushing the boundaries of innovation with next-generation technologies that bring the fun and function of Apple technology to even more people — and we can’t wait to share them with our users."

Although they won't all be available until later this year according to Apple, there are a ton of updates in this announcement. Another big one is the introduction of AssistiveTouch for Apple Watch, which lets people control the watch without touching it.

"Using built-in motion sensors like the gyroscope and accelerometer, along with the optical heart rate sensor and on-device machine learning, Apple Watch can detect subtle differences in muscle movement and tendon activity, which lets users navigate a cursor on the display through a series of hand gestures, like a pinch or a clench," explains the press release.

Without question there will be people who are physically able to touch the controls who will find it cool and convenient to enjoy the watch's robust functionality without touching it. However, this is a clear accessibility feature that is being introduced as such. If brands continue to market these kinds of enhancements for what they are, this can go a long way toward reducing the stigma and confusion around accessibility.

Representation is also important in that effort and later this year there will be new Memoji customization options available: oxygen tubes, cochlear implants, and a soft helmet.

Also included in Apple's announcement: eye-tracking support for iPad, VoiceOver Image Description improvements, updates to Made for iPhone (MFi) hearing aids and audiogram support, background sounds for better comfort and focus, and more.

Kudos to Apple for these promising updates, their purposeful marketing, and for helping more people break free from common accessibility myths, like that accessibility only benefits people who are blind.

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