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Whe it comes to accessibility, Apple continues to lead in awareness and innovation

TechCrunch TechCrunch 19/05/2016 Steven Aquino

Apple is often credited with upending and reinventing product categories by creating breakthrough devices that define their respective markets for years thereafter.

The introduction of the iPod in 2001 did this for MP3 players and digital music, but the canonical example is indisputably the original iPhone in 2007.

With its Multi-Touch user interface and, as Steve Jobs described it,”desktop-class software,” the first iPhone set the bar for smartphones, establishing itself as the phone against which all others are judged. It was a true revolution.

Tech writers and analysts tend to associate these revolutions, the Next Big Things, with hardware. The iPhone epitomizes this, but a strong argument can be made that Apple has also led a software revolution equally as transformative but without nearly the bang in terms of press coverage. With iOS, Apple has created a rich and diverse set of tools for people with disabilities that enable them to use an iPhone with as much ease and delight as their non-disabled peers.

It’s for this reason the accessibility features on iOS are widely regarded as the best in the industry. This is no small feat, one that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially if you remember what cell phones were like before the iPhone came along.

Consider someone with low vision. He or she may have struggled to use a “dumbphone” with a display the size of a postage stamp, and a Multi-tap keyboard. But then they buy an iPhone, and their whole world changes. They now have a phone with a touchscreen and tech like Zoom, features which make it easier to use the device.

Suddenly, they’re texting with family and friends, looking up directions, and more with a fluidity like never before. Thus, it isn’t hyperbole to say iOS’s accessibility features have been every bit as game-changing for the disabled as the iPhone was to the mass phone market.

Apple surely is aware of its impact here — customers tell them about it. So, as it does with everything it touches, Apple continually iterates and refines on iOS’s accessibility features over time.

The company’s investment in this area is emblematic of its ethos to make products for everyone; it’s also a prime example of Tim Cook’s oft-repeated mantra that Apple strives to create products that “enrich people’s lives.”

The accessibility software on all of Apple’s platforms empower those with disabilities, myself included, to partake in the experience Apple intends for all users. Put another way, Apple products are inclusive by design.

“We see accessibility as a basic human right,” said Sarah Herrlinger, Senior Manager for Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives at Apple.

The accessibility software on all of Apple’s platforms empower those with disabilities, myself included, to partake in the experience Apple intends for all users. Put another way, Apple products are inclusive by design.

“Building into the core of our products supports a vision of an inclusive world where opportunity and access to information are barrier-free, empowering individuals with disabilities to achieve their goals,” said Herrlinger.

It’s crucial, then, that accessibility be a regular and engaged part of the conversation surrounding Apple. Although people with disabilities represent a small subset of Apple’s total user base, it isn’t an insignificant group. This is why Apple’s work in raising awareness of and advocating for accessibility is so noteworthy and appreciated.

Apple’s massive reach lets the accessibility community be recognized and share the spotlight, and deservedly so.   It’s in this spirit that Apple celebrates Global Accessibility Awareness Day by showcasing accessibility-minded apps, movies, accessories, and more.

Braille on iOS and Meeting Haben Girma

iOS has supported Braille for several years. iOS supports Braille tables in more than 25 languages, and even has a Braille keyboard built in.

This obviates the need for a separate Braille keyboard for text entry. In addition, iOS is compatible with more than 50 models of refreshable Braille displays. (It’s worth noting, too, that Apple now sells Braille displays and other accessibility-focused third-party accessories, like switches.)

In broad terms, Braille displays work by converting regular text into Braille characters and then sending the output to the display, usually over Bluetooth. It’s possible to pair a Braille display with an iOS device, and then be able to control, say, your iPhone using VoiceOver.=

I recently had an opportunity to meet with Haben Girma, herself a Braille display user, to discuss, among other things, Apple’s accessibility efforts and the tools we use on our devices.

Girma is a deaf-blind lawyer and disability rights advocate.

She holds the distinction of being the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law, and she last year introduced President Obama at the White House at an event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Girma is a huge fan of Apple products, having used them since 2009. She says “they’re really fun,” and regularly uses a Mac, iPhone, and Apple Watch.

As for Apple’s accessibility features, Girma is especially fond of VoiceOver. VoiceOver, she says, has “revolutionized how the blind community accesses information.” Looking up street names and texting with friends is made easy with the screen-reading technology.

“Apple’s dedication to VoiceOver has played a crucial role in my success in law school and beyond,” Girma said.

Accessibility Featured in the App Store and iTunes

Aside from the accessible accessories Apple now sells on its online store, the company also recently announced two new additions to the App Store and iTunes Store meant for people with disabilities.   For the App Store, Apple has updated its Apps for Accessibility collection with more apps that span a wide range of needs.

Apps are categorized by need, including vision, hearing, speech, and what Apple calls “Accessible Home with Siri.” Like it does with its other app collections, Apple refreshes the accessibility one periodically. Importantly, these updates help spread the word about developers who offer great, albeit specialized, apps. This new collection features apps by companies such as AssistiveWare and Voice Dream.

While these apps are esoteric, it reinforces the idea that a big part of the iPhone’s (and iPad’s) value proposition is accessibility, made possible in part by the App Store ecosystem.   Regarding iTunes, there’s a new section that features a number of films that are enhanced with support for descriptive audio. (In fact, iOS supports this as well for video. There’s a toggle under Accessibility > Media > Audio Descriptions to turn it on/off.) Titles include Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Martian, and Inside Out.

Third-Party Developers Have a Role, Too

For as much as this article praises Apple for leading the way in assistive technology, they’re not alone in this.

Indeed, developers with apps in the App Store have just as much responsibility to ensure their software is available to people with disabilities. Fortunately, with help from Apple’s tools, developers can be sure their apps are approachable to anyone.

As with Apple’s apps, developers’ apps should be built with accessibility in mind right from the start.   Here’s one example of a highly accessible app. I love podcasts, and my favorite app for listening to them is Marco Arment’s Overcast.

What makes Overcast so great for accessibility is it has great VoiceOver support, Dynamic Type, and gigantic buttons on the Now Playing screen. Marco has long been a proponent for accessibility, and Overcast’s design is clearly evident of it. (Full disclosure: I’ve been part of the beta since before 1.0 was released in 2014.)

Overcast’s accessibility was made even better in the 2.5 update, which shipped in mid-March. The marquee feature was a new dark mode. I like dark mode so much that I use it all the time. It looks great, but what sets it apart for me is the boost in contrast. Text jumps off the screen, making it easy for me to read titles, show notes, and even how much time is left in an episode. Couple dark mode with Dynamic Type, and Overcast provides a first class experience for my eyes. It’s delightful.

Another great App Store app for accessibility is Be My Eyes.

The idea is simple: give people who are blind or low vision another set of eyes. Imagine this scenario: a blind person goes into the kitchen for a glass of milk. The milk smells kind of funky, but there’s no way to read the expiration date on the carton.

The person can open the Be My Eyes app on their phone to connect with a sighted volunteer via video chat, who can see the date and tell the person what it is. It’s a very clever solution.Be My Eyes

Be My Eyes is available to everyone, as a sighted person who’d like to help can sign up as a volunteer within the app.

When someone needs help, the app will send a push notification alerting the helper. If that helper isn’t available at the moment, the app will route the call to another person.

Final Thoughts  

Advocating for accessibility isn’t just about standing up for people who need accommodation. If you step back and look at the big picture, the reason why raising awareness is so critical is because it educates everyone else.

Doing so dispels misconceptions about what people with disabilities do, and improves society’s understanding of who we are. It’s why Global Accessibility Awareness Day exists.

Haben Girma puts it well: “As more communities strive for inclusion, they struggle with the question, ‘How?’

How does a deaf family share a conversation over the phone? How does an app developer ensure that blind clients can access her content?

Apple provides solutions that answer many of these questions. Tools from FaceTime to VoiceOver have created numerous opportunities. It’s exciting to imagine what’s next! Keep exploring, keep innovating, and keep moving us towards a world where everyone has equal opportunities.”

On a personal level, Apple’s dedication to accessibility is a huge reason why I’m a fan of the company. Products like the iPhone are not only cool, but as a person with disabilities, it’s clear to me Apple cares about the experience I have.

Given Apple’s stature as the biggest company in the world, sitting on a war chest of unfathomable size, that they do this work in spite of “the bloody ROI” is truly admirable.   In many ways, Apple’s efforts in accessibility captures the essence of being at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. I like to think Steve Jobs would be proud of how Apple has continued to push humanity and technology forward.

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