Keeping with tradition, Apple this week celebrated Global Accessibility Day yet again this year by announcing a bevy of new accessibility features and services for customers with disabilities. In a press release published Wednesday on its Newsroom webpage, 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 industry-leading features that make Apple products customizable for all users.”
“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,” Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s senior director of Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives, said in the press release. “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.”
The headliner feature is the introduction of AssistiveTouch to watchOS. A mainstay of iOS (and iPadOS) for years, AssistiveTouch is itself a suite of software tools that allow users with motor delays to control their device(s). With a tap, users can take a screenshot, open Control Center, and more on their iPhone or iPad; the AssistiveTouch menu is customizable, so users can adapt it suit their needs or preferences. The idea behind AssistiveTouch is many users lack the dexterity (and/or cognition) to perform relatively elaborate gestures like swiping or repeated taps on a touchscreen. The “one-click” nature of AssistiveTouch consolidates complex movement into a single motion.
AssistiveTouch on Apple Watch is conceptually identical to its iOS brethren; the implementation, however, is radically different. The end result is something that perfectly encapsulates Apple’s “signature move” so to speak. In a clever interplay of hardware and software, AssistiveTouch on the Watch utilizes the device’s on-board sensors like the accelerometer and gyroscope in order to, according to Apple, “detect subtle differences in muscle movement and tendon activity.” This enables actions to be triggered through gesture such as a pinch or clench, allowing users with limb differences to do things like answer a phone call or summon Notification Center. There is a how-to video on YouTube that demonstrates AssistiveTouch on the Watch.
A second marquee feature is a customer service option called SignTime, which launched Thursday coinciding with Global Accessibility Awareness Day. The service enables Deaf and hard-of-hearing people to communicate with AppleCare and Apple Retail staff in sign language. Customers also can request ASL interpreters when visiting brick-and-mortar locations without advanced booking. SignTime is launching first with support for American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL), and French Sign Language (LSF). Support for additional countries is coming later.
It’s worth noting Apple’s retail presence in the Washington DC area have ASL-speaking staff, as DC is home to Gallaudet University, the preeminent collegiate institution for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. SignTime mimics that support specific to stores in the DC region, but obviously broadens the addressable market to a significantly larger swath of people.
Elsewhere, there are several other notable enhancements:
Eye-Tracking on iPad. Apple has added eye-tracking support on iPad, slated to arrive later this year. Compatible MFi devices will be able to detect a person’s eye gaze when their face is looking at the screen; a persistent look will trigger a touch event like a tap. The eye-gaze technology is a natural expansion of the Made for iPhone program, which in accessibility’s case, has long supported third-party hearing aids and switches. Speaking of hearing aids, Apple says the Hearing Accommodations feature that debuted with iOS 14 will support custom audiograms. Users will be able to take a printed or digital copy (PDF) of their audiogram from their audiologist and import it into Hearing Accommodations. 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 whom have sensory limitations related to certain sounds—the company is adding new sounds to help “minimize distractions and help users focus, stay calm, or rest.” Sounds include rain, ocean, and stream; these backgrounds sounds will play under (or mix into) other audio in the operating system.
Better Image Exploration with VoiceOver. Building upon the work in iOS 14 to beef up the artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities of VoiceOver, Apple is enhancing the venerable screen reader with even smarter image recognition. “Users can now explore even more details about the people, text, table data, and other objects within images,” according to Apple. New functionality includes navigating receipts and understanding who and where family members are positioned in photos.
Sound Actions for Switch Control. Designed for non-verbal people who have limited mobility, Sound Actions replaces tactile switches with mouth sounds. These include a click, pop, and “ee” sounds.
Per-App Display & Text Settings. Users now have the ability to configure display and text preferences on a per-app basis. While Dynamic Type sets everything system-wide, including third-party apps that use the Dynamic Type API, this new functionality gives people more granular control. The idea here is that perhaps larger text is needed in one app, but not another.
Memoji Representation. A wider range of diverse disability-oriented aids such as cochlear implants, oxygen tubes, and soft helmets can be added to one’s Memoji for greater authenticity.
Along with the splashier user-facing features, Apple, as is customary on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, is showcasing a number of accessibility-focused content across its various digital properties. Among them: there is a talk and workout on Fitness+ by trainer and adaptive athlete Amir Ekbatani, who discusses how the service is made accessible and inclusive; the TV app is highlighting the “Breaking Barriers Collection” in which disability representation in Hollywood is shown; and Today at Apple is offering increased Accessibility sessions at stores through May 30.