Apple and WWDC 2019: Upping the accessibility stakes yet again

Apple's week-long World Wide Developer Conference 2019 kicks off in California next Monday (3 June) and it promises to be a bumper year for updates to the software that powers all their devices. A few rumours in particular, however, signal that the significance that Apple places on accessibility is once again second-to-none.

A long track-record of accessibilityPhoto of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs never did anything by halves. When asked by his father to paint their fence, he was then told off when he chose to also paint the back side which no one can see. His father complained that it was a complete waste of paint and that no one would even know it was there. Steve's reply was that he knew. For Steve Jobs that was enough, and he applied the same level of uncompromising perfectionism to all of Apple's products. 

Not that Steve Jobs was all-in on accessibility from day one. At first he reserved his passions for more mainstream concerns, but when he did embrace accessibility (now more broadly termed 'Inclusive design') he was, as ever, committed 100%. This is why Apple has always led the way on accessibility in the iPhone and iPad and, more recently, every other device across their entire product line. No other company is so thoroughly and comprehensively addressing inclusion across everything they touch - meaning that disabled people never need to wonder whether they will be included in the next big product launch or service announcement. It's just understood. We're not second-class citizens given a smattering of settings to support our specific needs. In every aspect of accessibility across every area of disability and impairment, Apple rolls up with a truly Rolls-Royce experience time and again.

Apple's complete commitment to inclusionPhoto of Tim Cook, Apple's CEO

Apple's now CEO, Tim Cook, has continued that commitment and, if anything, redoubled it. The usually soft-spoken and diplomatic leader gets really passionate when it comes to accessibility. In a famous earnings call (where powerful investors in Apple stock ask tough questions about their recent financial results and business strategy) he was challenged over money spent on accessibility. Tim Cook's response was; "When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, for example, I don't consider the bloody ROI." He could have given any number of very real reasons why inclusive design makes sense for a company's bottom line - from better usability for almost every customer in this age of extreme computing, to legislation demanding accessibility if you want to supply many thousands of devices to government or education sectors - but instead the response came from firmly-held conviction and real passion that accessibility is simply the right thing to do. 

This conviction drives Apple's agenda and it's why their products and services are so inclusive. This isn't a half-hearted attempt at compliance, a tick-box exercise or a dictat from the legal team that has yet to penetrate deep into every department. This is superior support for each disabled customer borne of belief and passion for diversity and inclusion at every level.

Give me some tangible examplesIphone screen showing Accessibility settings in iOS

You want examples of this commitment? Look no further than the myriad of market-leading adjustments that can be made in the Accessibility settings on an iPhone, for example - nicely brought together for you in our award-winning 'My Computer My Way' resource. Can't see? No problem - simply use the powerful and fully featured built-in screen reader called VoiceOver. Can't use your hands? Simply switch on switch support (a la Stephen Hawking) or else use iOS' eye-tracking to type, navigate and select items. Just squinting a bit when the sun's too bright? Easy - there's a dozen settings to change text size and style and foreground and background colours. Have dyslexia or reading difficulties? Again, take your pick of so many settings from viewing themes to text to speech that there will be a solution to help you read and write more easily and effectively.

But what'll be new in accessibility at WWDC?

That's a tough one. Apple's always played their cards very close to their chest, but we do have a couple of nuggets. Some rumours have it that iOS in all its flavours across iPhone, iPad, Apple TV and Watch will get a true dark mode. This might not sound like much of an accessibility feature but, for many with a vision or reading impairment, having a dark background with lighter text makes all the difference. iOS has had a smart invert colours feature since its last big launch in September but, being an accessibility feature, many apps did not take its imposed viewing changes into account and the inverted view included many odd colours and low-contrast issues as a result. Oh, that every developer took accessibility as seriously as Apple. Now, however, the true dark mode offering will have every developer rushing to their code to tweak and perfect it for this scheme that'll be easier on the eye for everyone and much, much easier to see for many.

Iphone screen showing Invert Colors option in iOS accessibility settingsIphone screen showing Invert Colors in use with Safari

There's also rumours that iOS 13 will better integrate hearing aid support. We have no more details here, so we'll just have to wait and see what that entails. There is already excellent support for a range of digital hearing aids (enabling them to have media and calls delivered directly to the device like a Bluetooth headset and a myriad of other customisations) so I for one am excited to see what this additional functionality will bring.

Probably the biggest demonstration of how much Apple prioritises accessibility, however, will be by the rumoured relocating of the Accessibility item in the Settings app from beneath General up to the main page. Whilst they aren't that much harder to find one level down, the message given by this position is that they aren't necessarily for everyone (or else they'd be on the main page of course). Putting them quite literally on the same level as security and privacy, for example, sends a strong message that accessibility is now a mainstream matter. 

So, let’s hope this is reflected at the corporate level. Security is never considered a ‘bolt-on option’ and neither should be accessibility.

There are also some features currently found elsewhere in Settings that are unarguably accessibility-related - most notably under 'Display and brightness' that allow the user to change screen brightness, text size and weight, and the ability to increase the size of all screen elements. The rumour has it that Apple will bring all these settings together into this new high-profile section. 

A new name for Accessibility?

Might they even change the name? Accessibility has historically been considered to be for people with disabilities. Nowadays we're all temporarily impaired on a daily basis by noise, jostling crowds, harsh viewing conditions or by having just a few brief moments to finish our task before the tube doors open. These extreme use-cases need extreme usability as I alluded to above. They also cry out for customisation and you, dear reader, would be mad not to check out how your device (whatever it is) can be made better for you - special, unique, you. And now that those settings are at the top level of your iPhone's settings, of course they're for you. So having said that, it's hard to think of what else they could be called other than 'Accessibility'. 'Inclusive design' is a better general term, but doesn't lend itself to this section of settings. I'm all for a rebrand that frees it from any historical baggage and makes it feel more relevant to every user but, unless someone has come up with a brilliant name for this new section of settings, it'll probably remain as 'Accessibility' - at least for now. So suggestions on a postcard please.

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