Apple has announced new software features designed for people with mobility, vision, hearing, and cognitive disabilities. The company says these next-generation technologies “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.”
Later this year, with software updates across all of Apple’s operating systems, people with limb differences will be able to navigate Apple Watch using AssistiveTouch; iPad will support third-party eye-tracking hardware for easier control; and for blind and low vision communities, Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader will get even smarter using on-device intelligence to explore objects within images. In support of neurodiversity, Apple is introducing new background sounds to help minimize distractions, and for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, Made for iPhone (MFi) will soon support new bi-directional hearing aids.
Apple is also launching a new service on Thursday, May 20, called SignTime. This enables customers to communicate with AppleCare and Retail Customer Care by using American Sign Language (ASL) in the U.S., British Sign Language (BSL) in the UK, or French Sign Language (LSF) in France, right in their web browsers. Customers visiting Apple Store locations can also use SignTime to remotely access a sign language interpreter without booking ahead of time. SignTime will initially launch in the US, UK, and France, with plans to expand to additional countries in the future. For more information, visit apple.com/contact.
To support users with limited mobility, Apple is introducing a new accessibility feature for the Apple Watch. The company says AssistiveTouch for watchOS allows users with upper body limb differences to enjoy the benefits of Apple Watch without ever having to touch the display or controls.
Using built-in motion sensors like the gyroscope and accelerometer, along with the optical heart rate sensor and on-device machine learning, the Apple Watch can detect subtle differences in muscle movement and tendon activity, which lets users navigate a cursor on the display through a series of hand gestures, like a pinch or a clench.
AssistiveTouch on Apple Watch is designed to enable customers who have limb differences to more easily answer incoming calls, control an onscreen motion pointer, and access Notification Center, Control Center, and more.
iPadOS will support third-party eye-tracking devices, making it possible for people to control iPad using just their eyes. Later this year, compatible MFi [Made for iPhone] devices will track where a person is looking onscreen and the pointer will move to follow the person’s gaze, while extended eye contact performs an action, like a tap.
Apple is introducing new features for VoiceOver, its screen reader for blind and low vision communities. Building on recent updates that brought Image Descriptions to VoiceOver, users can now explore even more details about the people, text, table data, and other objects within images.
Users can navigate a photo of a receipt like a table: by row and column, complete with table headers. VoiceOver can also describe a person’s position along with other objects within images. For example, Apple says that people can relive memories in detail, and with Markup, users can add their own image descriptions to personalize family photos.
In an update to the MFi hearing devices program, Apple is adding support for new bi-directional hearing aids. The microphones in these new hearing aids enable those who are deaf or hard of hearing to have hands-free phone and FaceTime conversations. The next-generation models from MFi partners will be available later this year.
Apple is also bringing support for recognizing audiograms — charts that show the results of a hearing test — to Headphone Accommodations. Users can customize their audio with their latest hearing test results imported from a paper or PDF audiogram. Headphone Accommodations amplify soft sounds and adjust certain frequencies to suit a user’s hearing.
In support of neurodiversity, Apple is introducing new background sounds to help minimize distractions and help users focus, stay calm, or rest. Balanced, bright, or dark noise, as well as ocean, rain, or stream sounds continuously play in the background to mask unwanted environmental or external noise, and the sounds mix into or duck under other audio and system sounds.
Apple says additional features coming later this year include:
- Sound Actions for Switch Control replaces physical buttons and switches with mouth sounds — such as a click, pop, or “ee” sound — for users who are non-speaking and have limited mobility.
- Display and Text Size settings can be customized in each app for users with colorblindness or other vision challenges to make the screen easier to see. Users will be able to customize these settings on an app-by-app basis for all supported apps.
- New Memoji customizations better represent users with oxygen tubes, cochlear implants, and a soft helmet for headwear.