Accessibility and the iPad: First Impressions
As expected, at their press gathering this morning Apple announced their new product: the iPad. So what's an iPad? Will the iPad be accessible, and what will it mean for accessibility in general?
What's An iPad?
The iPad, at first glance, looks like an enlarged version of an iPod Touch or iPhone. It's 9.7 inches diagonally, compared to the iTouch's 4.7 inch diagonal screen so it's approximately twice the width and height (so four times the total area) but not thicker than the smaller devices.
Like the iTouch and iPhone, the iPad synchronises with iTunes and is not really designed to be anybody's primary computing device. Although it seems like you can do almost anything on this device, it's not designed to be a primary or only computing device - Apple expects you'll have a laptop or desktop computer as well.
The iPad runs the same operating system as the iPhone and iPod Touch, which means that all your existing applications should run on an iPad as soon as the devices are available - the existing apps will just look bigger on the iPad screen. And developers are already starting to develop iPad specific apps, which are designed for the larger screens and can take specific advantage of these.
What Accessibility Features Are Built In
All existing iPhone accessibility features will be available on the iPad. This means VoiceOver, screen zoom, white-on-black display, mono audio, and closed-captioned content will all be supported on every iPad. It seems from the iPad specifications that fewer languages will be supported, at least initially, which will impact some VoiceOver users.
What's New With Accessibility?
So what's new with the iPad which is relevant to assistive technology and use by people with disabilities?
- The iPad is bigger. I know this is obvious, but the implications are that people motor control problems such as cerebral palsy may be able to use this device more easily than the smaller ones, as less very fine motor control is needed for many tasks. Of course programs developed especially for the iPad will will need fine motor skills, but programs aimed at the iPhone and iTouch which can be used "zoomed up" on the iPad will all need less fine motor skills as all their controls will also be bigger. I would also expect that programs specifically for people with disabilities will surely be developed which use larger controls. This increased size will make the iPad a viable AAC device for a group of people who were not able to use AAC programs on the iPod Touch/iPhone because of their small size, making cheap and affordable AAC available to them for the first time.
- External Keyboard
- Although the existing on-screen keyboards will probably still be most people's primary text input method, the iPad can optionally be connected to an external keyboard which, it seems, will automatically work with any app which usually uses an on-screen keyboard. An external keyboard will be a huge boon to those who have trouble with a keyboard with no tactile feedback - especially blind users - and for those who have a hard time with a keyboard requiring skin contact, such as stylus and head pointer users. Compatibility with an external keyboard also gives us a possibility that alternative keyboard devices with different hardware could be developed for the iPad. Examples may be switch input devices which output keystrokes, like the TandemMaster Morse-2-USB device, or keyboards with different key arrangements designed to be ergonomic, brightly coloured, and so forth.
- The iPad comes with built in speakers. The videos of the iPad on Apple's website show people sitting on a sofa watching movies using sound only from the speakers, so these would seem to be significantly louder than the speakers built into the existing iTouch devices. [Ed: Note that the linked video is not captioned - Apple, please do better!] People using speech generating AAC programs on the iPad may be able to use the iPad without needing additional external speakers, which would be a boon.
- Simple Interface
- Existing tablet-based computers which run Windows already exist, but this tablet is different. One big difference is that the operating system it runs is more like the iPhone/iPod Touch system, not like an operating system you'd see on a desktop computer. This gives us cognitive simplicity. There's no confusing file system or remembering what you called something. There's no need to log in. You can put a website on the home screen and it works the same as a regular application. Only one thing happens at once. The touchscreen interface is also cognitively simpler than a regular computer: you touch a program to start it, if you want to activate a control you touch it. This is much simpler in mental terms than the "one step removed" system of using a mouse or keyboard where you move the mouse or press a key to make something happen on the screen. These things together may open doors for those who can't easily deal with with a regular computer due to with intellectual disabilities, brain injury, or other neurological and cognitive impairments to be willing/able to use the iPad more independently and to learn to use it more quickly. It also may give confidence to the older generation to start using the internet through an iPad because it doesn't look like a computer and so isn't as overwhelming to use.
What other possibilities can you see following from the iPad?
Apple are known for always updating and upgrading their devices, often quickly adding new and unexpected features. Remember the first iPhones with no VoiceOver, no copy-and-paste features, and so on? The features on Apple's websites won't be all that the iPad's second, third, and subsequent generations will deliver.
What do you most hope to see in an iPad? Is there a piece of hardware you'd love to see developed, a piece of software, a change of design? Leave us a comment!
- Ricky Buchanan