Accessibility improvements announced at Apple WWDC

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Monday, 17 June 2013 11:27am

A number of new features announced at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) held in San Francisco last week reveals some potential improvements to the accessibility of Apple devices. Presenting to developers, Apple unveiled its new operating system (OS), called OS X Mavericks, and the latest version of its mobile OS, called iOS 7.

Mavericks will come installed on Apple’s desktop computers and laptops including the iMac, Macbook Pro and Macbook Air, while iOS 7 will come installed on Apple devices such as the iPhone and iPad.

The software for both operating systems is currently only available to developers. However, Media Access Australia has put together a list of features – some new and some old – that could impact the accessibility of Apple devices. While not all features mentioned in this list are accessibility-specific, the improved usability of the features could also enhance access for those with a disability.

Interface change

While the interface design is still being finalised for both OS X Mavericks and iOS 7, one area of interest from an accessibility point of view is the colour contrast of icons and graphics in iOS 7.

For the first time since its release, the design has moved towards a more ‘flat’ approach with transparent elements. The keyboard in iOS 7 is also transparent.  This could have potential impact for people with vision impairments as the contrast may affect the clarity of graphics and text on the screen.

Switch control: Apple has introduced ‘switch software’ to OS X Mavericks and iOS 7 so that switch access can be used with the device.  This is a form of assistive technology that enables a person with impaired mobility to control an interface through a single button. It is often used as an alternative to a keyboard or mouse.

In iOS 7, the app scans the screen for elements that are highlighted by a cursor. When an element of interest is highlighted, you can select or activate it through the switch (which can be paired to the iOS device through Bluetooth).

Update: An additional option added to the switch software allows users to control the interface with head gestures. When head gestures is switched on, you can turn your head left and right to make selections and return to the home screen. The feature uses the device's built-in, front-facing camera to detect motions. This is an essential feature for people with severe mobility impairments.

In OS X Mavericks, when Switch Control is turned on, it can be accessed through a menu on the top right hand corner of the screen. This is called the ‘Home menu’ and allows you to access the keyboard, mouse, apps, Dock and more using one button. Similar to iOS 7, Switch Control will scan the screen for elements and highlight these with the cursor.

A particularly interesting thing to note with this feature is that it also allows greater access to the mouse for people with limited mobility. When Mouse is selected from the Home menu, the app scans the page along an X and Y axis. The scanning is indicated by a bar that moves in the X and Y direction. When the bar moves over a part of the screen that is of interest, you can press the switch button to select it.  

OS X Mavericks for laptops and desktops

Closed captioning support: There is greater captions support in OS X Mavericks. An option in Preferences allows you to select ‘Prefer Closed Captions and SDH (subtitles for the Deaf and hard of hearing)’. This means closed captions are automatically provided whenever they’re available. You can also choose from different caption styles – default, classic and large text. You also have the ability to customise the colours used for captions for added comfort. The addition of this gives people with a hearing impairment greater access to audiovisual content.

Tags: This presents a new way of searching for files on your computer. It allows you to ‘tag’ files and items with keywords that can then be used to retrieve the file through the ‘search’ feature. This does away with the need to look for files through several folders and allows you bring up all files and items tagged with the specific word.

iCloud: This allows you to synchronise information such as website logins, credit card numbers, passwords, networks and account information between your Apple devices. Because this information is synched across devices, it could eliminate the need to continually enter text or numerals into form fields, which may present barriers for people with limited dexterity in their hands or who have a vision impairment.

iBooks: This app allows users to download and read electronic books. Because this is an app made by Apple it can be used with the inbuilt screen reader VoiceOver.

Maps: this is now built into Calendar, Mail and Contacts. Features such as directions, the ability to find alternative routes and view real-time traffic that comes with Maps can be accessed within these apps too. While Media Access Australia is yet to test whether these features are accessible via VoiceOver, they would benefit screen reader users by giving them access to added information.

Notifications: This has been improved in OS X Mavericks so that you can now interact directly with a task through the notifications window. For example, you can reply to a message that appears in the Notifications pop-up. This allows you to perform a task in a single step.

Improvements to multiple displays: In the past there were limitations with using several Apple device monitors at the same time. However, you can now connect two Apple devices together, for example a Macbook Pro and Mac, and have access to the Dock on both screens. There is no longer a ‘primary’ monitor as both screens allow you to access applications. The ability to connect another device to a device with a much bigger monitor could enhance screen magnification and assist those with vision impairment.

iOS 7 for mobile devices

Calendar: This app has been updated and is more responsive. You can pinch and zoom in and out to enlarge the screen and toggle between different calendar views.  

Made for iPhone hearing aids: This allows users to the adjust volumes and balance of your hearing aids.  

Assistive touch: The aim of this feature is to allow users with physical and mobility impairments to access features through a single button. Some essential features on iOS devices usually require several gestures to activate, however the assistive touch feature does away with these steps by presenting an alternative menu from which these features can be accessed. Users can also use assistive touch with add-on devices such as a joystick.

Turn-by-turn navigation: voice directions have now been added to the maps app when users are walking, as well as driving. This could help blind and vision impaired users get around.

Release date

An official release date is yet to be announced. However, many speculate the software updates will be available in September.

Media Access Australia will provide a full review of the accessibility features in OS X Mavericks and iOS 7 when it becomes available.

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