Not because it’s easy or profitable but because it’s the right thing to do.
It’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day (#GAAD) and Apple is using the occaision to highlight just how fundemental and important the technology is — for everyone.
That includes the new videos embedded below, as well as new interviews with Apple CEO, Tim Cook.
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) May 18, 2017
Apple’s commitment to accessibility, though, is nothing new. At the yearly keynotes where Apple introduces new versions of iOS, the company has repeatedly made sure to feature accessibility on stage and in video. Apple has been honored with the Hellen Keller Achievement Award for VoiceOver. The company also honored developers with Apple Design Awards for how they implement ccessibility.
App Store has regularly run features for Autism Awareness Month, for VoiceOver, and for the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Apple’s constant and consistent advocacy and implementation of accessibility is also front and center on apple.com, complete with support section, a public resource page, full documentation for developers, and even a terrific tips and tricks page dedicated to it as well.
More than just features
The camera is an example of the approach Apple takes to accessibility. Instead of simply scratching it off the list as something those with low or no vision won’t use, Apple tries to make it the camera something they can use.
To help take pictures, the built-in Camera app uses facial recognition to announce how many people it detects in a shot and even where they’re positioned on screen. The Photos app will announce the date a photo was taken, whether it’s portrait or landscape, and even whether it’s crisp or blurry, low or well lit.
That’s in addition to Siri voice control, the system-wide VoiceOver technology, built-in Braille support, selection and screen reading, support for descriptive audio, and the plethora of vision enhancement features like inverted colors, black and white, labels, outlines, and more.
The latest iPhones even have a mode where, instead of giving you more pixels, they magnify the size of the pixels, effectively showing you an iPhone SE interface scaled up on an iPhone 7 and an iPhone 7 interface scaled up on an iPhone 7 Plus. That can make the entire device easier to read and navigate.
For those with low or no hearing, there are options to use the LED Flash for visual alerts, custom vibrations for tactile alerts, close captioning for media, and built-in FaceTime for communicating with sign language. (Because FaceTime has end-to-end encryption, it’s even used in therapy for new recipients of cochlear implants.)
Motor skills are supported with switch controls that can use the camera or an assistive device for input, as well as custom gestures. There’s also AssistiveTouch, which provides virtual, on-screen controls for when hardware buttons aren’t accessible enough, and a wide range of customization options for multitouch and Home button input.
All of these features not only help those with special needs but children picking up computing for the first time, and seniors whose sight, dexterity, memory, hearing, or other skills are no longer what they used to be.
There are a host of other features as well, and more coming with iOS 9 this fall. There’s Guided Access for those on the autistic spectrum, and even full, system-wide support for right-to-left languages, because Accessibility is also about making sure everyone is included.
Over the years, a majority of people with accessibility needs have turned towards Apple products in general and iOS-based products in particular. That’s an incredible responsibility and one that Apple has to work to maintain and improve every day of every year.
In previous years, Apple has showcased the blind enjoying the wilderness for the first time thanks to the iPhone, and back in June they showed kids experiencing music for the first time as a tactile sensation. The company has highlighted messages being spoken, sign language being seen, and communication being enabled for the first time.
When Apple Watch was announced, it had accessibility features ready to go at launch. Same with Apple TV. Same with Touch Bar on MacBook Pro.
It isn’t just that Apple considers accessibility. It’s that the company considers it to be table stakes for its product. Not just in abstract terms in some distant and conceptually convenient future — but from day one.
No other company has provided as constant and consistent support for accessibility Apple, including driving awareness in the most prominent and public ways possible.
It’s not magic. It’s the result of building it into the corporate culture. It’s being willing to invest by having teams whose only job is to ensure the accessibility of the system software and frameworks, and people in the company and community who care enough to propose, approve, and promote accessibility even when it’s not, strictly speaking, their job.
Accessibility should be a point of pride and something that’s highly competitive between companies. Every platform should feature it on stage every year, feature the best apps on every store, participate in national and global campaigns, and do everything possible to make the devices we use every day easier for everyone to use.
Accessibility for everyone
It’s easy to think accessibility only matters for a few people. But the truth is anyone can be injured and need to rely on accessibility features for a period of time. Anyone can trip or fall, hurt an eye or damage hearing. And everyone gets older and needs easier ways to see and interact with our devices.
Moreover, making software, hardware, and services more accessible by definition makes them more usable for everyone. Text that is easy to read, buttons that are easy to push, notifications that are easy to feel and hear are easy for *everyone**.
There’s still a lot of work to do. Everyone, including Apple, especially members of the activity community, will tell you that. Buttons could have more affordance. App Store and iTunes Store could be more accommodating. And the lists go on and on.
But I’m confident Apple will prioritize getting there. And that’s due to a top-down commitment from executives and an engineering department staffed by people with the very accessibility needs the company is designing to address.
One of my favorite Tim Cook quotes comes from an investor meeting in early 2014:
When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI
I’d love every company to not just feel this way but to show us in the messaging and their products that they feel this way.
Every keynote, every OS release, every new product launch. Ultimately all of this is about making our lives better and very few things make life as far-reachingly better as accessibility.