Accessibility has long played an integral role at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, and it certainly had its presence felt in 2018. There are some constant elements of the week, such as the labs, sessions, and mid-week social that brings together members of Apple’s Accessibility group, developers and others interested in the disabled community to celebrate inclusiveness and accessible design.
This year had a different vibe. After attending the keynote and speaking with numerous people at Apple during the week, one feeling that has resonated with me is that accessibility, conceptually, has become a mandatory part of not only how Apple designs its products, but of the Apple ecosystem at large. To be mindful of accessibility is now, more than ever, an expectation.
Several student scholarship winners I spoke to eagerly expressed their desire to learn more about what accessibility is, how it works and how to best incorporate it into their apps. They truly want to build tools for everyone.
The announcements made this year were less about discrete features for accessibility’s sake and more about how the new features, as Apple designed them, are inherently accessible. The Apple Design Awards, for instance, has included an accessibility category the last few years, but not so this year. In fact, accessibility has always been part of the criteria for selecting winners, and Apple says this year’s winners have support for accessibility built in. Calzy, a calculator app from indie developer Raja Vijayaraman, supports Dynamic Type.
As a disabled reporter who has covered the last several Apple media events, I’ve attended enough now that I’ve come to realize there is an interesting (to me) accessibility angle to how the company structures its events and how it supports attendees with disabilities. That is another story for another time, but I found myself thinking about it during Monday’s keynote address.
The slides Apple showed were the most readable I’ve seen yet. As someone who has low vision, this is critically important. The white, bold San Francisco typeface set against the black background made for such high contrast that I had no problems seeing every slide — even the word-cloud ones listing ancillary features. This made my job covering the news easier, because I wasn’t straining my eyes in order to get important information.
Accessibility-wise, Monday’s keynote slides were infinitely more visually friendly than the ones used at the March event in Chicago. As pretty and appropriately themed as they were, I found those slides difficult to see; I liked WWDC’s much better.
The lesson here is in how pervasive and dynamic accessibility can be. Accessibility is everywhere, and the relevance in this case is that it extends way beyond any new software features.
Accessibility for everyone
There are a handful of new mainstream features across Apple’s platforms that the company feels has great potential in an accessibility context. This epitomizes the idea of accessibility for everyone—software not built expressly for accessibility, but designed in such a way that users of all abilities can benefit.
One such feature is Group FaceTime in iOS 12. Apple famously included deaf users in an iPhone 4 commercial many moons ago, and FaceTime has remained a popular method of communication for many users in the deaf community.
Whereas previously the feature was essentially a one-on-one conversation, the arrival of iOS 12 this fall will make it possible to converse with up to 32(!) people at once. For the deaf and hard-of-hearing, the ability to include one’s entire family (or friends or co-workers) should make FaceTime an even more compelling technology for deaf users.
Another example is the Walkie-Talkie mode in watchOS 5. I’ve seen chatter on Twitter that it seems like a frivolous addition, but in actuality it can be practical.
Imagine you’re someone who’s a caregiver for a person with severe physical impairments (or simply elderly) and both of you have an Apple Watch. With Walkie-Talkie, you can “radio” each other from separate locations in a home or care facility right from your wrists. No need to iMessage or make a phone call or ring a bedside call button. All you need is your Apple Watch and the Walkie-Talkie mode.
Lastly, Siri Shortcuts. While Apple’s marketing materials are pitching Siri Shortcuts in iOS 12 as a time-saving, convenient way to get things done, there also are key accessibility ramifications as well.
The ability to, for instance, order coffee at Starbucks or Philz without needing to remember to do it—or, crucially, how to do it in an app—can be streamlined with Siri Shortcuts. This has major implications for alleviating cognitive load and stress (in addition to being a time-saver), and has enormous potential to positively impact executive function for users who have certain cognitive delays.
But it’s more than just cognition; the automation that Siri Shortcuts provides can also benefit those with limited fine-motor skills, who may struggle with the rigor of multiple taps and swipes.
In addition to the features above, there is a host of others whose accessibility promise excites Apple. The new dark mode in macOS Mojave, for example, boosts contrast considerably, which should help Mac users see better and guard against eye fatigue or screen glare.
AirPods with Live Listen
There was one notable hardware-specific feature not announced during the keynote. As I reported this week, Live Listen — a feature previously only available to compatible Made for iPhone hearing aids — is coming to AirPods with the release of iOS 12.
The addition of Live Listen is noteworthy because it will allow someone with limited hearing to better hear speakers in noisy environments or from across a room. This functionality isn’t meant as a full replacement for a professional-grade hearing aid, but it certainly is a huge deal for the hard-of-hearing who want to use AirPods. Now they can use Live Listen to hear better without having to spend additional money on dedicated hardware.
Apple says Live Listen is included in the first developer beta of iOS 12, so anyone curious about it can test it out now.
Unlike past years, there aren’t any all-new discrete accessibility features across Apple’s platforms this year. This follows with the theme that accessibility is interwoven into the banner features Apple is promoting in their marketing copy.
Nonetheless, there is a smattering of enhancements across Apple’s platforms that are worth mentioning. Notable ones include the ability to use the Siri voice on iOS as the voice for Speak Selection, where you highlight a body of text and have Siri read it aloud. The Siri voice is now set as the default.
Another enhancement, pertaining to the Smart Annotations feature announced for iWork in March, is OCR support for handwritten notes, which will read them aloud. Blind and low vision users can now hear text markup in documents if they can’t see it.
Finally, the Touch Bar. VoiceOver users with Touch Bar MacBook Pros now have the ability to create custom automator scripts right from the Touch Bar with VoiceOver turned on.
The work Apple has put into making accessibility a focal point of the conference the last few years is bearing serious fruit this time around. Developers heard the message.