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WWDC 2020: The Accessibility Review

Monday saw the announcement of the latest software and potential hardware improvements for upcoming Mac technology at Apple’s WWDC 2020 keynote presented by Tim Cook virtually from Cupertino.

While there are hundreds of online articles about the mainstream developments across all the Apple platforms, I want to share with you some of the key accessibility improvements that rarely make it to the main stage, or even mainstream conversation.

iOS14

One of the first accessibility improvements I noted was VoiceOver Recognition. While the details of how this will work are sketchy, the Apple website suggests that VoiceOver now has the power to identify elements on a web page, and even if they are not labelled or laid out correctly, VO can change them on the fly and make the websites easier to understand.

VoiceOver Recognition can also identify images and use artificial intelligence to go online and search the web for an appropriate description, which will come back as a full line of text. It can even detect text in images, and now relay those to the viewer. This could be great for those Facebook memes we always hear others laughing about – although will it be smart enough to understand the context of the image and the text? Probably not.

There are also new features coming to the iPhone via iOS14, which aren’t labelled or even designed as accessibility features, but certainly can work in that way. The addition of a new single-finger double tap and single-finger triple tap for use across the system as a customisable gesture could also add some additional function to the iPhone for blind users. Many Android fans love being able to use their Power Button to end a call, so maybe a single-finger double tap on the back of the device might provide that solution. There will be 23 potential actions you can choose for these gestures so you won’t be short of choices.

There are some major improvements coming to the iPhone in iOS14 for those who have hearing impairments. For those with partial hearing loss there are functions within AirPods Pro that will give users the chance to customise how the audio sounds in your ears. When watching a movie for example, you can customise how loud the sounds are in your ear from the voice to the background music. And with additional spatial sound options even those with hearing loss will still be able to enjoy the delights of surround sound thanks to a new way of delivering four-dimensional audio.

For those who are deaf and communicate using sign language, a new FaceTime feature means that if the phone detects you are speaking using sign the caller window will enlarge on the other person’s screen so you are always in focus.

WatchOS

There are some nice new features coming to the Watch in OS7 for those of us who use our Watch for activity.

Firstly the app itself is being renamed as Fitness and will include activities such as Dancing as well as other popular exercise routines. As always these functions and features are accessible to VoiceOver users as well with spoken feedback as well as haptic feedback on your wrist. In addition the new feature that detects you are washing your hands for the appropriate length of time (20 seconds) will also give audible feedback and a haptic tap on your wrist to let you know you have done it properly. While these features are pretty mainstream, the addition of accessibility means we can all enjoy these new ways of interacting with our devices.

MacOS

At the time of writing, there isn’t much to say about the Mac OS and accessibility. There hasn’t been any announcement as yet as to improvements in the Accessibility area but we imagine some under-the-hood improvements will come, and we will report on them once they are made public.

One small note of caution for low-vision users though; the core visuals of Mac OS Big Sur are what you might call blended. Instead of a well contrasted menu bar at the top of the screen, the bar is now translucent and will merge into the background. With rounded icons and images taking the place of text on screen which no doubt will bring the Mac more into line with the iPad layout, this could prove challenging for those who have low vision and need clearer contrast. However, I cannot imagine that the accessibility team haven’t thought of this and will add an option to reverse some of these features post installation.

One other point of note is that once you have installed Mac OS11 (Big Sur) you will be presented with an Accessibility screen that will allow you to immediately customise the Mac to your individual needs. Up until now it was only really VoiceOver that was an option, with other disabilities left out. Thankfully that has been addressed.

Conclusion

There are lots more announcements from the mainstream tech guys that you should be reading as well so I am not going to do their jobs for them over here, but I will say that the event overall was a very slick and polished affair – sadly without Audio Description on the main feed, which would have been nice. But overall the announcements show another evolution of Apple products, with not much revolution going on, except where the new Macs of tomorrow come in. The launch of ARM-based MacBooks and Mac desktops will truly revolutionise the speed and capability of Apple products while giving us excellent battery life. I really am looking forward to the ARM-based Macs and hope that accessibility continues to be as good, if not better, under these new systems.

I may sound complacent, but I think we as disabled people will be OK.

I just hope I’m not eating these words in the next few months!

Steven Scott View All

I am an absolute geek who loves technology. I also happen to be severely sight impaired and that has meant my journey with new technology has been challenging. What I've learnt is what I want to share with others and I do that on air in the UK on RNIB Connect Radio's weekly Tech Talk radio show and podcast, and on AMI-Audio's Double Tap Canada radio show and podcast. I'm also a very lucky husband and the owner of the world's coolest dog!

4 thoughts on “WWDC 2020: The Accessibility Review Leave a comment

  1. This was very informative! I can’t wait to try out some of the VoiceOver web features. Maybe I’ll get the public beta when it’s out. I know you shouldn’t always try these at home, but sometimes I can’t help myself anyway!

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