Apple gets more inclusive with improved Accessibility tools for iOS 15 and watchOS 8

Amid the many announcements made during Apple’s WWDC21 keynote, you may have missed the upcoming iOS and watchOS Accessibility features that support users with hearing, mobility, visual or cognitive challenges

Since 2020, though the tech industry has grown more inclusive and accessible, there are still areas that require specialised attention. The spectrum of disability is vast, from visual, hearing, mobility, and speech to aspects such as learning impediments and other similar conditions. It is a lot of ground for tech companies to cover.

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That said, though Apple has not felt the need to revamp the UX design for both iOS 15 and watch OS 8 too much, there has been a groundswell of Accessibility features for Apple users announced during Worldwide Developer Conference this past week.

Read More | Top 10 takeaways from Apple’s WWDC21 keynote

On Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Apple had actually pre-announced a few of these features coming to iOS 15 and watchOS 8. But here, we take a deep dive into the scale of new features that support users with hearing, mobility, visual or cognitive challenges.

For a long time, Watch users with limb differences had to bop their nose on the Watch screen to interact with the device. Enter Assistive Touch, which supports individuals with limb differences such as amputees.

Assistive Touch is controlled through gestures such as double-clenching their fist, pinching their index finger to their thumb, hovering over the screen, shaking your hand, and so on, for assigned tasks on the Watch. These can also be done in combos – similar to gaming – where a routine of actions can be rounded up.

With VoiceOver, users can explore more details about an image with descriptions, such as “Slight right profile of a person’s face with curly brown hair smiling.”

With VoiceOver, users can explore more details about an image with descriptions, such as “Slight right profile of a person’s face with curly brown hair smiling.”
| Photo Credit:
Apple Inc

Visual aid tools

VoiceOver, though an existing feature in iOS and iPadOS, has been modified for watchOS 8. This built-in screen-reader for watchOS 8 has an option for hand gestures, which mirror what is going with Assistive Touch and becomes a tool for the visually-impaired community. So what does this actually do? This mimicks the experience of a visually-impaired individual using a cane or a service animal as they commute through a space. While this feature is unlikely to entirely replace these tools, it does serve as additional functionality for this group of users.

VoiceOver will also be used for image descriptions on iOS and iPadOS. This combines Apple’s machine learning systems to provide intricate descriptions. When you select a photo in your Photos app, the device will read out a description for the user who may be visually impaired. For example, it will state in the Siri-selected voice: “A group of people smiling and laughing, posed in front of a house. Maybe Akash.” Wait, where did the name come from? One of the existing Photos features is the ability to assign identical faces to a contact, so VoiceOver will be integrated to use that feature in Accessibility too.

Additionally, iOS 15 will allow you to go into Image Explorer Mode, letting you hover over certain elements in a given picture, and VoiceOver will read out detailed descriptions such as “a girl with long brown hair wearing sunglasses, smiling” or “a streetlight.”

These are for everyone…

  • Background Sounds is another new feature where users can stay familiar and calm with certain ambient noises, such as that of the ocean, wind, dark noises, etcetera. This can be implemented when a media is playing to block out external noises for more focus. These sounds will be quite subtle, thankfully.
  • One of the biggest overhauls for iOS 14 and 15 have been custom app settings. For the new queue of OS, Apple is introducing Per App Settings. For example, a user can customise their Calculator app to have larger text, invert colours, and other such customisations.
  • Those who tuned into the WWDC21 keynote would have noticed the huge number of Animojis and Memojis, which have become an adorable staple for Apple. In the space of Accessibility, people can customise their Animoji or Memoji with an oxygen tube, a cochlear implant, a soft helmet and more elements for a more personalised experience.

VoiceOver will work with an Alt Text as well, so users can manually put in descriptions of their own for a photo such as, “Avantika Kumar at her 17th birthday in front of her cake from Theobroma Bakery, in Mumbai.” This can be accessed in the Markup feature for a given photo. So when the image gets sent to another person, they are able to see the Alt Text description too, as it gets saved as part of the asset’s metadata.

For better mobility

Individuals with severe motor limitations can look forward to an enhanced Switch Control, which – through Switch Access – use their device. This should be a robust feature for sure, as it lets users have full use of their device with the help of ability switches and other adaptive devices. Launched with iOS14, this feature sees items on the screen be sequentially highlighted and activated through a range of motions such as tapping, moving one’s head in front of the front-facing camera, or pressing adaptive switches. Users can also use point scanning and the aforementioned gestures, such as pinching to zoom. Plus, users will be able to use multiple switches.

For iOS15 sound has been built into this part of Accessibility. In the case of a user not being able to verbalise a voice command, they can use assigned sounds or phonetics such as ‘mmuh’ or ‘paa’ for certain navigations and actions.

As mentioned, users can use external switches but a new one is game controllers. With the ongoing success of Apple Arcade, it seems Apple wants gaming – just like Xbox and Sony – to be as accessible as possible. There are gaming controllers in the market – such as Xbox’s adaptive controller – built for those with limited mobility. When users link such devices that would already be lying around at home, they can make these their primary switch to avoid moving or unplugging devices.

Additionally, Voice Control, which lets users control their Apple devices verbally through English and dialects of Spanish, will be available in French, German and Chinese. Though India remains a massive market for Apple devices, it seems they have a lot of ground to cover in terms of vernacular accessibility here.

Background sounds, such as ocean, rain, and stream sounds, help minimise distractions and help users focus, stay calm, or rest.

Background sounds, such as ocean, rain, and stream sounds, help minimise distractions and help users focus, stay calm, or rest.
| Photo Credit:
Apple Inc

Apple will soon also support Eye Gaze systems, one of the world’s pioneers in advanced eye-tracking tech. And, yes, this is a third-party through Apple’s MFi (Made for iPhone, iPod, iPad) programme. This signals Apple will be working with more organisations for Accessibility features across the board.

Hearing enhancement tools

Apple will also introduce Headphone Accommodations, which lets users with hearing impairments customise how a sound comes through their device into their earphones or earbuds. At the moment, AirPods Pro, AirPods (2nd Gen), AirPods, Powerbeats and Powerbeats Pro support this facility. This customisation option gauges what sorts of tones work best for a user. Headphone Accommodations also feature audiograms, even paper audiograms. The latter lets a user use optical character recognition through custom settings.

In the later part of 2021, those with hearing impairments can look forward to support for a new type of MFi hearing aid: the bi-directional hearing aids, wherein the mic in the hearing aid can be used as a principal mic turning the aid itself into a hands-free device.

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