How Apple has adapted iOS and MacOS for accessibility: 2021

Apple has consistently placed accessibility front and centre in all that it does and this continues with a string of new announcements from the company. 

AssistiveTouch comes to the Apple Watch

'AssistiveTouch' is a feature that helps anyone who has difficulty using the swipe and pinch gestures on their iPhone or iPad, replacing these gestures with taps, double-taps and long presses. Now the Apple Watch is set to receive an update that takes this to a whole new level.

Set for release “later in the year”, AssistiveTouch for Apple Watch is designed specifically for people with limited mobility, limb differences and limb loss.

The software update uses the sensors within the watch; the gyroscope, accelerometer and heart rate monitor along with some machine learning to detect the movements of muscles and tendons associated with different hand gestures and use these to interact with the menus on the watch.

You can, for example, answer incoming calls by clenching your hand, control a workout, with a pinch and move your wrist to move an on-screen cursor. 

Problems viewing the video in the embedded player? You can view the video on the Apple news page (opens in a new tab).

VoiceOver gets more descriptive 

VoiceOver, Apple's in-built screen reader is also set for an upgrade that enables users to explore images in greater detail. It builds on the previous improvements and introduces features such enabling things like receipts to be navigated by rows and columns, complete with headers.

VoiceOver will also be able to describe a person’s position within a picture (for example, “Slight right profile of a person’s face with curly brown hair smiling”) and their relation to other objects, as well as enabling markup on photos to allow users to personalise photos and add their own descriptions before sharing.

Cognitive differences

The accessibility features for neurodivergent individuals are also being increasingly explored by hardware and software developers. Apple has introduced “Background sounds”.

This feature provides simple, predictable sounds such as rainfall, or ocean sounds, as well as artificial bright or dark noise that can be used to help with focus and concentration or with providing a calming audio space.

These sounds can be played by themselves, be mixed in with system sounds and media, or put under media and notifications.

Hearing aid support

Apples MFi device support is set to add support for bi-directional hearing aids. These hearing aids act like Bluetooth headsets, enabling hands-free phone and FaceTime conversations. 

The update will also see support for audiograms (the graphs that show the results of hearing tests - pictured, right) and will enable you to adjust the audio of your phone to match the profile of your test, boosting or lowering frequencies so that the audio suits how you hear.

Example of an Audiogram graph - Hearing level in decibels on the left axis, with left ear and right ear readings marked on the graph - bottom axis showing 'Frequency in Hertz'

iPad eye control 

iPadOS is set to receive an update that will enable support for eye tracking devices. You’ll need certified (MFi) devices, but it’s likely that best known of the eye-tracking device makers will be on that list already.

Voice switch

Later in the year, a subsequent update is set to add voice-based switch control, enabling users with limited mobility and who may also not be able to communicate via speech, to use basic sounds. Apple give clicks, pops and "ee" sounds as examples to interact with a switch-style control in place of a physical switch.


Mimoji's are the cartoon-based representations of ourselves and something we've maybe only experienced when our mums discover they can include them as stickers in chats that "look a bit like them".

Apple has increased the customisation options for these to include elements that are more representitive of the diversity of its userbase, with examples including cochlea implants, oxygen tubes and a foam safety helmet.

I initially thought this was a nice thought; more important culturally than as a technical innovation or feature, but the interesting consideration behind this is that with many companies looking for solutions for hybrid working, the avatar is gaining traction. These simple yet highly personalisable representations of ourselves have the potential to offer a means of 3D virtual representation that is not going to hammer bandwidth in a virtual collaboration space... one to watch maybe?

3 mimoji examples a person of colour with a cochlear implant, an grey haired white lady with an oxygen tube under her nose and a person of colour wearing glasses and a foam safety helmet

Further resources

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