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New Accessibility Features Coming to Apple’s Ecosystem

At WWDC, Apple introduced a slew of enhancements to its four software platforms: macOS, iOS, watchOS, and tvOS (see “WWDC 2016 Keynote Recap,” 13 June 2016). Although there was no mention during the keynote, Apple also has added new accessibility features aimed at addressing a wide range of needs.

Here is a rundown of the new accessibility features across Apple’s operating systems.

macOS 10.12 Sierra — macOS Sierra’s headline feature is the Siri voice assistant, which, in addition to being a convenience for all users, could also be enabling for those who struggle with navigating the Mac’s user interface. And Dwell Control, which connects macOS to head tracking devices, will give users with limited motor function more ways to control their Macs.

  • Siri: Siri is coming to the Mac, where it will provide users with limited typing mobility another tool for interacting with their computers. (All Mac users can already use built-in voice dictation to enter text into any app.) Along with helping users send messages and search the Web, Siri can find files, adjust settings, and look up information about the system.

    Users with motor impairments, due to conditions like cerebral palsy or repetitive stress injuries, will find Siri a boon. Simply asking Siri to adjust a setting, for example, could alleviate the need to use both the mouse and the keyboard, speeding interaction and reducing hand and finger stress.

  • Dwell Control: Intended for users with little or no mobility in their arms or hands, Dwell Control enables users to use third-party head-tracking hardware, such as the myGaze products from AbleNet, to move and click the mouse using head or eye movements.

    Dwell Control is essentially an enhancement to the existing Switch Control capabilities in 10.11 El Capitan. Switch Control enables users to mimic clicks, taps, and so on with a tactile switch, such as on a keyboard, mouse, game controller, or dedicated device.

    Dwell Control does more or less the same thing, but for users who have virtually no ability whatsoever to touch a screen or button. Instead, Dwell Control detects head and/or eye movements, usually via a connected headband, to interact with on-screen controls.

iOS 10 — With iOS 10, Apple has added two new important accessibility features: Magnifier and Software TTY. Both will be valuable additions for users with low vision and/or hearing impairments. iOS 10 also boasts a number of other new and enhanced accessibility features, including filters for those with color-blindness, a VoiceOver pronunciation editor, and more.

  • Magnifier: Using the camera on your iPhone or iPad, it’ll be possible to magnify objects with small print — medication labels, price tags, and serial numbers, for example — for easier viewing. (We use the Lumin app for this now.)

    A nice aspect of Magnifier (which Lumin also provides) is you can press a shutter button to fix the on-screen image in place, which is handy if you have unsteady hands or if you can’t see the screen well while magnifying the image (as can happen when trying to read a serial number on the back of a device). There’s also a lock button that freezes the focus.

    Anyone with low vision (or who has forgotten their reading glasses) will appreciate Magnifier. It’s all too common to encounter situations, such as reading an ingredient label at the grocery store, where a magnifier would be helpful. Apps like Lumin are available now, but Magnifier will be even easier to use thanks to its shortcut — just triple-press the Home button to bring it up. That shortcut works even when the iPhone is locked.

  • Software TTY: Deaf and hard-of-hearing users, or those with significant speech impairments will have the capability to place and receive phone calls without the need for dedicated teletypewriter hardware that turns speech into text. (iOS 10 also features a Hardware TTY option, which allows for connecting a TTY to an iPhone to make and receive calls.)

    When Software TTY is used, transcripts of conversations are archived in the Phone app. iOS 10 also provides a special software keyboard designed for TTY use, complete with abbreviations for common etiquette, such as “GA” for “Go Ahead,” which signals the other side that it’s okay to reply.

    Software TTY is an important feature for two reasons. First and foremost, it eliminates the need for a dedicated TTY. People in the deaf community will have a compelling reason to buy an iPhone instead of a TTY and enjoy all the ancillary benefits of a smartphone. Second, for children of deaf adults, it’s easier to communicate with loved ones using the iPhone rather than needing to buy a hardware TTY.

  • Color Filters: Color blindness is far more common than many people realize, so Apple is attempting to improve the perception of the iOS interface with color filters. To that end, iOS 10 includes filters for different types of color blindness, such as protanopia (insensitivity to red light) and deuteranopia (insensitivity to green light). Both are types of red-green color blindness. Jason Snell of Six Colors recently wrote an article on his experience with deuteranomaly and iOS devices.

    iOS 10’s color filters can also help improve contrast for people with other vision impairments. For example, Apple has moved the Grayscale option to the Color Filters menu. Choosing this option strips the display of all color, which is helpful to those whose eyes do not track as well in the presence of color.

  • Pronunciation Editor for VoiceOver: In iOS 10, VoiceOver users will be able to tell the screen reader how words are pronounced, which is already possible in El Capitan.

    iOS VoiceOver users can access the pronunciation editor by going to Settings > VoiceOver > Speech > Pronunciations. Once there, tap the + button to add a pronunciation. Enter a phrase, and then either spell out or dictate a substitution. This feature is useful for names or words that VoiceOver doesn’t pronounce correctly, which can sometimes cause confusion.

    In addition, VoiceOver will support multiple audio sources; it’s now possible to keep VoiceOver running while sending other audio, like music, to an external speaker.

  • Speak Selection and Speak Screen Improvements: In an effort to support bimodal learning (i.e., audio/visual learning simultaneously), iOS 10 includes an option to highlight sentences and words when either Speak Selection or Speak Screen is used.

    Both can be enabled in Settings > General > Accessibility > Speech. To use Speak Selection, select some text and choose Speak from the popover. To use Speak Screen, swipe down with two fingers from above the top of the screen.

    Additionally, Speak Screen and Speak Selection now extend to the keyboard, where individual letters and predictive typing suggestions can be read aloud.

  • Control other iOS devices’ options in Switch Control: If multiple iOS devices are signed into the same iCloud account and on the same Wi-Fi network, a new option called “Control other devices” appears in the Switch Control menu. When that’s selected, a Switch Control user can control an Apple TV via a switch connected to an iPhone, alleviating the need to pair and re-pair switches with multiple devices.

  • Rest Finger to Open: In iOS 10, Apple has replaced the old “Slide to unlock” message on the lock screen with “Press home to unlock.” The idea is Touch ID is so fast on the iPhone 6s that many people miss seeing notifications on the Lock screen. Therefore, deliberately pushing the Home button gives enough time to skim any messages.

    But people with fine-motor delays (such as low muscle tone in their fingers) may have trouble physically pressing the Home button, so iOS 10 lets users revert the Home button behavior to its traditional approach, where you just rest your finger on the button to unlock the device. Just enable Rest Finger to Open in Settings > General > Accessibility > Home Button.

watchOS 3 — The big accessibility feature for watchOS 3 is that the Activity app’s stand reminders can be tailored for wheelchair users, so they receive alerts to roll instead. Taptic time notices and complications for the extra-large watch face will also be appreciated by the vision impaired.

  • Wheelchair Support in the Activity App: In watchOS 3, Apple has updated the Activity app so that it’s accessible to wheelchair users. (You specify wheelchair use during the initial pairing process, in the Apple Watch app on the iPhone.) The app is optimized so that it tracks a person’s movement as they push their chair around. Notably, the “Time to stand!” notification has been replaced by the more appropriate “Time to roll!” when the watch alerts the user to move.

  • Taptic Time: Aimed at VoiceOver users who have trouble seeing the screen, Taptic Time allows people to feel the time instead of hearing it. That may be useful for anyone in situations where audio is unwelcome, such as meetings, but it will be especially beneficial to those who have trouble both seeing and hearing.

    Taptic Time provides three options for telling time: Digits, Terse, and Morse Code.

  • Complications on the Extra Large Watch Face: Apple has added support for showing complications on the Extra Large Watch Face.

  • SOS: Although not explicitly considered an accessibility feature, watchOS’s new SOS capability could be particularly welcome to users with vision or mobility disabilities who need emergency help. With SOS, pressing and holding the Apple Watch’s side button calls emergency services. It also sends your location to your emergency contacts.

tvOS 10 — With the new accessibility features in tvOS 10, watching TV should be both easier and easier on the eyes.

  • Switch Control: Those with limited motor capabilities will be able to control an Apple TV using switches. As mentioned previously, you can even control your Apple TV with just an iPhone, eliminating the need to re-pair head-tracking hardware or purchase multiple devices.

  • Color Filters: People who suffer from color blindness and other visual disorders will appreciate the color filters that Apple is adding in tvOS 10. These filters should improve screen readability and generally improve the viewing experience.

  • VoiceOver Pronunciation Editor: As on iOS, the Apple TV will include an option to tell VoiceOver how to pronounce certain words correctly. In addition, tvOS 10 includes high quality voices, as well as the audio routing option for listening to VoiceOver and TV audio at the same time.

  • Dark Mode: As with SOS, dark mode in the Apple TV isn’t intended as an accessibility improvement, but for those who have brightness sensitivities, it should be a welcome improvement.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of overlap in the new accessibility features in Apple’s four operating systems, but that’s a good thing, since it makes for a more consistent experience across multiple Apple devices.

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