June 20, 2013

Accessibility Every Day

The Loop > Magazine > Issue 2

By Steven Aquino

I’ve never been one to rave over commercials, but I’m a huge fan of Apple’s latest iPhone ads. Not only do I love the music, but I love the utter simplicity of the message: here’s what people do every day on an iPhone.

As is the case with all of Apple’s product marketing, be it on TV or online, the focus on real world usage elicits a strong emotional appeal. I love the new ads so much because I can identify with them: I, too, use the camera and listen to music on my iPhone1 every day. The scenes depicted in the ads reflect real life, in a tasteful and extremely well done manner. Psychologically, that’s powerful stuff.

For me, though, the allure of the iPhone goes far beyond just taking photos and listening to music. As a visually impaired user, I find iOS’s Accessibility features play an integral part in ensuring the experiences I have using my iPhone are as enriching as possible. For instance, I use the Large Text setting at 20pt, thereby making my emails and iMessages easier to read. Likewise, I set my display’s brightness to full blast so that I have the best vantage point from which to read said emails and iMessages.

While my vision is considerably worse than most, it’s also considerably better than many others with vision impairments. Thus, I’m grateful for the vision I do have. I could get by were iOS’s Accessibility features unavailable. That said, these enabling technologies allow my devices to be much more usable and, most importantly, enjoyable.

But it isn’t just my own use case that makes me appreciate iOS’s Accessibility options. I’m fortunate insofar that my unique perspective allows me to help other, non-disabled users discover the Accessibility features and learn how to use them. At the school where I used to work, my co-workers used my Apple nerd bend to their advantage, anointing me the unofficial IT guy when it came to setting up and troubleshooting the school’s iOS devices. As such, I had ample opportunities to teach staff how to navigate iOS, specifically its Accessibility features2. In addition, I have been able to consult with others on matters of iOS aiding the disabled. I have exchanged emails with professionals and parents alike, using my knowledge of early childhood development and iOS to guide a parent to find the best iPad apps for her severely disabled daughter.

Also, I’ve been able to help a professor at the University of Nebraska who’s mapping her state, and wishes to make her website accessible to the visually impaired. In both cases, helping others to learn about iOS and Accessibility is infinitely more rewarding than even using the features myself, because I know the underlying goal is to make devices like the iPhone accessible to everyone.

Yet, for as much as I—and others—champion the merits of Accessibility on iOS, the truth of the matter is, users like myself are a vastly underrepresented demographic. I feel strongly that developers have an obligation to consider all types of users when building their apps. It truly warms my heart whenever I come across an app’s release notes to find that the developers are announcing the addition of or improvement upon support for iOS’s Accessibility features.

That I am so happy to see developers show a commitment to these features is a reflection of the greatness of this admittedly niche set of options. The significance of this is far greater than simply technical (i.e., how to physically use, say, Zoom). Rather, when developers show their support for Accessibility, they are executing in the truest sense Apple’s vision of the iPhone or iPad being for everyone. This isn’t to say that all iOS apps are proficient in their Accessibility support—on the contrary, many aren’t—but the strides that have been made in this regard are truly remarkable. Of course, Apple deserves the utmost credit for creating the Accessibility hooks in the first place. The breadth and depth of these options is quite impressive. It’s a testament to, again, Apple’s ethos of making technology work for everyone.

The reason I am so passionate about Accessibility in iOS is precisely because I am one of the users who benefit so greatly from these technologies. The impact such features have on my daily life cannot be overstated. iOS’s Accessibility features are a huge reason why I get so much pleasure from using my iOS devices. They allow me to tweet, post to Facebook, send text messages, and surf the Web just as easily as my fully-abled family and friends do. In fact, the iPhone is so popular amongst the visually impaired that the Lighthouse for the Blind offers for sale a version of the official User Guide in Braille.

Even mainstream features like FaceTime play a role in Accessibility. For example, an increasing number of members of the deaf community areembracing FaceTime to video chat with loved ones. As someone with visual impairments and deaf parents, I can attest to the transformative nature of iOS’s Accessibility technologies, because I’ve seen firsthand how they put people like me on the same level as everyone else. This, in my opinion, exemplifies Apple’s goal of always being at the intersection of liberal arts and technology.

Ideally, it would be awesome if Apple ever decided to run another iPhone ad in the same vein as “Photos Every Day” and “Music Every Day” that included people with disabilities, doing things that people use their iPhones for every day. Not only would such a move highlight iOS’s Accessibility features, but it’d also give some richly-deserved exposure to a sector of the iOS user base that could use more attention.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going put a call in to the team at TWBA/Chiat/Day.

  1. Though not with the stock Music app. I’ve recently become an Rdio convert. 

  2. The biggest hit was Single App Mode, which one speech pathologist friend loves dearly. Pull-out sessions have never been the same since I introduced Single App Mode to her.