Apple delivered its 2021 WWDC keynote speech on Tuesday, giving us a world of exciting new things to look forward to, especially when it comes to accessibility.
Technology, particularly of the iVariety, has become so ingrained in our way of life that it’s imperative that it can adequately cater to those of us with impairments or disabilities. But unfortunately, for a long time it hasn’t been the case.
Thankfully, with each new software update, Apple seems to be further developing its features to be accessible to everyone.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at all of the accessibility wins that were announced at Apple’s WWDC 2021 event.
Live Text is hardly an original concept, with Samsung and Google already having their own alternatives, but this is a win for iOS users nonetheless.
The new feature will digitise the text in your photos, which opens a world of new possibilities, many of which are particularly helpful for the vision-impaired.
For example, if you take a photo of a phone number on a flyer, you will be able to instantly call it, rather than having to manually type it in.
Similarly, the new Translate app for iPad brings with it a number of helpful new tools for easily communicating with friends in another language.
The new Auto-Translate feature works without even having to press the microphone button — instead, it automatically detects when someone around you is speaking in a language other than the native device language and translates it for you.
Additionally, you can place the device between you and a friend and it will translate both parties conversations to the other’s preferred language.
Focus is basically an extended version of the already popular Do Not Disturb mode. It allows you to create different modes for work and home and will only show alerts relevant to what you’re doing at the time.
For example, if you’re in work mode, you will receive email alerts but won’t get an alert for that game you’ve been wasting too much time on.
This is obviously a win for those of us with ADHD or other conditions that impact our ability to focus, but it’s also handy for when you’re studying or just really need to get something done without being distracted.
You can obviously turn the modes on manually, but iOS 15 will also automatically programme them based on your location and time. For example, if you’re always at work between 9 and 5 in the office, Apple will learn this and adapt accordingly.
Apple also introduced a number of accessibility wins in WatchOS 8, including a new respiratory rate tracker, which is particularly useful if you have underlying medical conditions.
In WatchOS 8, you will be able to track how many breaths you take per minute (your respiratory rate). Additionally, Apple will notify you if there’s any significant trends detected in your breathing habits so you can go see a medical professional and get it checked out.
This will likely be a feature that works quietly in the background and feels like its not helping you personally, but it’s handy to know that Apple is quietly tracking your breathing habits and will be able to notify you if there’s something potentially concerning that you might not have noticed otherwise.
Although Apple didn’t give us the new AirPods we were hoping for, it did give us an exciting new feature for the pre-existing model — Conversation Boost.
The new feature makes it easier to hear people during audio calls while they’re out and about in busy (see: loud) places.
Additionally, AirPod users are able to adjust ambient background noises to make it easier to hear.
Users will also soon be able to programme Siri to read important notifications like it already does with iMessages and calls.
This is particularly helpful for people who are hard of hearing, or those who rely on audio notifications rather than visual messages.
FaceTime Spatial Audio And Voice Isolation
Similarly to the AirPods feature, FaceTime is getting an upgrade that makes it easier to hear and see who is talking during a group call.
For starters, spatial audio will emit sound from specific parts of your audio set up to mimic whoever is speaking’s on-screen position.
Additionally, the new voice isolation feature improvements will make it easier to isolate voices when you’re FaceTiming in a loud environment. Honestly, in a pandemic, this is a godsend.
Although we’re yet to get an Australian release date — or any concrete answer on exactly which features will be rolled out in Australia — there are a number of new Maps features that improve accessibility.
The major change, which seemingly mimics recent Google Maps upgrades, Apple will introduce more detailed maps with median strips, bus lanes and elevation, among other things.
While this doesn’t feel huge for most of us, it’s particularly useful for wheelchair users or people who need walking aids, who will now be able to plan their trips more efficiently.
AssistiveTouch For Apple Watch
AssistiveTouch has long been around on iOS devices to help improve accessibility, but now it’s getting a watchOS upgrade that is set to be a game changer for users with upper body limb differences.
Technically, this wasn’t announced at WWDC (it was announced back in May) but it’s worth a mention anyway because it’s now being implemented and will be super helpful for those who would otherwise struggle to use the device.
With the help of AssistiveTouch, Apple Watch users can reap the rewards of the device without ever actually having to touch the screen or side buttons with their fingers. Instead, the watch uses built-in motion sensors to allow you to move an on-screen cursor using your wrist and arm movement.
AssistiveTouch will allow customers with limb differences to read notifications, answer calls and more.
Eye-Tracking Support For iPad
An update to iPadOS included in iPadOS 15 will finally support third-patry eye-tracking devices for use with the iPad, which means users will be able to control the device by simply looking at it.
Compatible MFi (Made for iPhone) devices will be able to track your eyesight and allow you to move an on-screen cursor with the power of your own gaze, while prolonged eye contact will act as the “tapping” option.
VoiceOver Image Explorer
In addition to recent improvements to the VoiceOver software, Apple has recently announced a new Image Explorer feature that will allow vision-impaired users to find out more about an image’s contents, such as text, people and objects contained within it.
The new software will help users to read receipts or describe details in photos using VoiceOver technology.
Additionally, users are able to add their own alt-text descriptions to images using MarkUp, which will personalise the experience by allowing descriptions to add details that the AI can’t pick up on.
Digital Keys in Wallet
Apple will add support for digital IDs and house keys in its wallet later in 2021, in an effort to essentially turn your “phone, wallet, keys” check as you leave the house into a simple “phone” check.
Not only is this helpful for those of us who lose our keys all the time (me), but it’s also particularly useful for people with issues with their fine motor skills, who may struggle to quickly access these items at a moment’s notice.
Additionally, it makes life easier for people with memory loss or other cognitive disabilities, allowing them to have a one-stop-shop for these essential items. Rather than having to focus on where you left your phone, wallet and keys, people will only need to remember where their phone is. And with the help of Find My iPhone, that has become easier than ever.
Login with Biometrics
Remembering your passwords and logging into streaming apps is difficult and tiresome at the best of times, let alone if you have a physical or mental impairment that makes things even harder.
Thankfully, tvOS is now implementing the ability to log into streaming apps using your iPhone’s Face ID or Touch ID, which streamlines a process that previously required visiting websites, scanning QR codes and two-factor authentication.
This is one of those features that will likely become a staple for all of us, and we’ll look back six months from now wondering how we ever lived in a society in which we had to manually type our Netflix password.
Made For iPhone Hearing Aids & Support
A major win for hearing impaired Apple users will drop later this year, with Apple adding support for bi-directional hearing aids that will allow hard of hearing users to use hands-free phone functions.
The new software upgrade comes ahead of a number of next generation MFi hearing aids coming later in 2021.
If that wasn’t enough, Apple is also introducing new technology that allows users to customise their headphone settings to match the data shown in audiograms (aka hearing test results).
Using this function, users will be able to boost softer sounds and change the frequencies of certain noises to make for a more pleasant and accessible hearing experience.
Your iPhone is basically set to become a white noise machine with the new Background Sounds function.
The world is noisy and often that can be distracting – especially for neurodiverse users – but thankfully, the new background noises will help to drown out external noise by playing a number of non-distracting noises to help you concentrate.
More Display And Text Size Settings
Apple is set to introduce more customisability when it comes to text size and display settings, which will make things significantly better for vision-impaired users.
We’ve long been able to change text size in iMessage, but now these features will be able to be tweaked on an app-by-app basis.
Sound Action Controls
Another helpful feature coming later this year will allow non-speaking users to programme different sounds to activate functions. For example, users can say “ee” or make a mouth pop noise instead of clicking a button.
This is a particularly niche function that likely won’t be adopted by the masses, but will have a tremendous impact on those who need it.
This may sound trivial, but it’s a real game changer if you’ve never been able to create a virtual avatar that actually looks like you. New Memoji customisations coming later in the year will include oxygen tubes, cochlear implants and soft helmets to help make your Memoji actually, you know, look like you.
Unfortunately, we don’t know if or when SignTime will be coming to Australia, but it’s a pretty huge feature so we’re going to talk about it anyway.
SignTime launched back in May, allowing customers to communicate with AppleCare and Retail Customer Care using sign language.
So far, the programme has been rolled out in the US (American Sign Language), the UK (British Sign Language) and France (French Sign Language) for use online and in-store.
Customers can access the service from their web browser, or can sign-in to the service in-store to use a sign language interpreter. The best part? You don’t even need to pre-book.
“At Apple, we’ve long felt that the world’s best technology should respond to everyone’s needs, and our teams work relentlessly to build accessibility into everything we make,” said Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s senior director of Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives. “With these new features, we’re pushing the boundaries of innovation with next-generation technologies that bring the fun and function of Apple technology to even more people — and we can’t wait to share them with our users.”
It’s unclear when or if we’ll get this service in Australia, but we can only hope because it is set to make things significantly easier for hard of hearing shoppers.