How Apple built accessibility features into the middle of the iPhone, iPad and Mac

Apple played a revealing video at the beginning of its last event – suggesting a new focus 

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The Independent Tech

When Tim Cook took to the stage for Apple’s last keynote – meant among other things to address a growing and worrying disquiet about the future of the company – he introduced a video. But it didn’t feature Apple’s usual white rooms, grand claims and swooping shots of its products.

Instead, the gathered tech elites watched a video highlighting the different kinds of accessibility features that have been wrapped into Apple products. As with all of its products, the focus wasn’t so much on the technology as what it does. It closed with the realisation that many of those same features had been used by young video editor Sady Paulson – who is living with cerebral palsy – to actually make the film.

“When technology is designed for everyone, it lets anyone do what they love,” Ms Paulson says in the video, which she also narrated with the help of Siri. “Including me.” 

Alongside that video came a re-designed accessibility website. The company hopes that doing so will help set its products apart and sell more of them, of course – but it also served as a call for the rest of the technology world to embrace a concern that has been long neglected in the fast-paced and feature-focused business of phones and computers.

That concern is simple: who can use that stuff and how can they use it? But it’s also perhaps the most complicated question that anyone can ask about a tech product, testing the central principles of design, user experience and marketing.

Ms Paulson's video took centre stage at an event that would go on to detail the release of the MacBook Pro – Apple’s first major redesign in years of its most important computer, and a product pitched in part to address criticism that its computers were becoming slower to update and less interesting when they did. But the video and the computer that followed it weren’t so far apart from each other, according to Apple; they serve as two parts of a design philosophy that is built around ensuring as many people as possible can use (and buy) its products.

“Accessibility is something that has been incredibly important to Apple for many years,” Sarah Herrlinger, Apple's senior manager for global accessibility policy and initiatives, tells The Independent.  “We consider it to be one of our core values.”

The expression of that comes in a number of different forms. Apple’s focus on accessibility has led to everything from small, helpful features such as the ability to zoom in on smaller text to big, core ones that can completely change the way people use their tech. 

Such technology includes Switch Control, for instance – the kit that Ms Paulson uses to edit her videos, including the one showed off at Apple’s events. That feature is built into all iOS devices and allows them to be controlled using two buttons that Ms Paulson can tap with her head. That allows the standard iPhone and iPad controls to be used by people who might have difficulty doing so otherwise – whether that's for work or play.

“I think one of the best stories I can tell is the moment I realised how powerful the built-in accessibility tools were for me,” Ms Paulson tells The Independent over email. “For years, I had been watching my friends and family playing games on their phones. Games such as Angry Birds. I thought there was no way I would ever be able to do that. There was no way I could drag and release.

“So the first day they showed me Switch Control on the iPad and iPhone I practically jumped out of my chair. I now could play games like Angry Birds! Within five minutes of getting hooked up with switch control, I was playing Angry Birds. Within 15 minutes I had already completed the first levels. I knew then that I had to power to do so much more!”

And Ms Paulson has been having similar experiences for much of her life. Ms Herrlinger’s reference to Apple's commitment over “many years” to accessibility isn't just empty rhetoric; Ms Paulson says she was first won around by the Mac more than 10 years ago.

“I have been using Mac computers since the first time I went to Technocamp in 2004,” she wrote over email. “When I first started using an old iMac with iMovie and SwitchXS by AssistiveWare, I was hooked. I knew that technology was the key for me to access everything in my life. I use everything Apple in my life.”

But Apple doesn't think that it’s finished, even despite that long history, and doesn't think that anyone else should think themselves finished either. The work of accessibility requires constant refinement; all of the new updates that have been added to Apple’s products – of which perhaps the most high-profile new one is the addition of a mode letting people who use a wheelchair have their activity tracked by the Watch – are a recognition that they weren’t there before, and that presumably someone was missing out on the features they needed.

“Accessibility is a forever iterative process,” says Ms Herrlinger. “You’re never really done. There are constantly new ways of supporting other individuals.”

The mission sounds a lot like those espoused by other Apple executives: constant refinement, a suspicion of being finished and a commitment to broadening their appeal and use in every possible way. And that's not even slightly a coincidence – Apple says that  part of its success in accessibility is because it views it as a central part of the design process from the beginning, done with a commitment to the same ultimate goal.

“We look at accessibility as something we integrate within the design process,” says Ms Herrlinger. “It’s the same as everything else: the goal of making products that are really intuitive and easy to use.”

Much of Apple’s work now is focused on ensuring that those same features are built into the apps that developers make for their products. It’s all well and good building in helpful features to everything from Apple Watches to Macs – it doesn't mean a great deal if none of the apps built for those platforms actually make use of them.

Doing so is mostly a matter of making sure that engineers, designers and developers are doing their best to bundle in those accessibility features from the very beginning. They shouldn’t just be added on right at the end, Ms Herrlinger points out, but should be as much a part of the process and begin as early in it as any other part of the design.

“It’s about having people understand up front that building your app in an accessible way isn’t just about saying, ‘Oh, I have to support this person’. When you include it from the start, there’s great benefits that happen for everyone.”

Much of the work done by Apple, its rivals and the company is done in that way – quietly, slowly and by small gradations. But by making its accessibility features on a par with those more flashy, celebrated ones, technology might be getting closer to the dream that it has long espoused but not always found its way to: computers that everyone can use. As Ms Paulson’s video showed, we might be getting there already; we might be there without you knowing it.

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