Accessibility Implications of iPhone 6 Apple Watch Event

Today Apple announced the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, the Apple Watch, and a brand new ApplePay tap-to-pay system to replace credit cards. Separately and together there are enormous accessibility implications for these announcements, here’s what I’ve put together …

Firstly, I’m not going to list everything that was announced – for that you can watch the recording of the lifestream or read The 15 Most Important Announcements From The Apple Watch iPhone 6 Event. I’m just going to talk about the things that are relevant to accessibility in some way…

iPhone 6

The iPhone 6 was pretty much the most predictable part of this event, being an incremental change from the iPhone 5S.

It’s a little larger than the iPhone 5S and predecessors, which is good accessibility for many people – especially those with lower vision or problems with very fine motor control. @bmdtech wrote about What a larger screen iPhone means for accessibility. On the negative side of larger screen sizes, it can be bad accessibility for those who can manage very small movements but have trouble with larger ones. Way back in 2010, Paul Natsch wrote about Why the iPad Isn’t For Me which discusses some of the problems that larger devices can cause for those with a limited range of motion. Paul later became a happy iPad user, but the point about range-of-motion is still a valid one for some users.

@Preetbanerjee provided a good visual reference for the size difference between the current iPhone and iPad and new products:

Row of devices, all showing backs: iPad Air, iPad, iPad Mini, iPhone 6 Plus, a pop tart, iPhone 6, iPhone 5S
The Apple iPhone 6 Plus is slightly larger than a pop-tart …

Firmly in the good-for-accessibility column is a slightly longer battery life for the iPhone 6 – that’s good for everyone of course, but if your iPhone is an accessibility device it’s extra important that the battery lasts.

The iPhone 6 will run iOS 8 as soon as it’s released, and we’ve already written about accessibility improvements coming in iOS 8 – and there may be more that weren’t announced. This will definitely improve accessibility for all users. Finally, the iPhone 6 can also take advantage of the Apple Watch and Apple Pay integration I’ll talk about further down, both of which have even more accessibility implications.

iPhone 6 Plus

Three iPhone 6 plusses showing home screen.

The iPhone 6 Plus has all of the above changes in plus size – it’s even larger.

Additionally, the iPhone 6 Plus has a new “reachability” function: double-tap the home button and the top of the screen scrolls down, letting you get to elements at the top of the screen without stretching with your thumb too much. This will definitely help one handed users and those with range-of-motion issues, provided that they can double-tap the home button. I would anticipate that the current Assistive Touch functions will also include this Reachability function soon, to make it available to those who can’t manage a double-tap on the home button.

Apple Pay /  Pay

Apple Pay is a system that Apple want to replace your credit cards entirely, letting you use your iPhone (and optionally your iWatch) to pay for things securely.

There are big accessibility bonuses here – not having to mess around with physical credit cards, and not having to remember a PIN if you use TouchID as the security.

The iPhone used for Apple Pay needs to be touched to the NFC reader, so if your iPhone is mounted on a wheelchair or other device and can’t be lifted up to touch the reader your only option would seem to be the Apple Watch which can also be used for Apple Pay.

Probably the biggest issue here will be availability – Apple says that they’re “working hard” to make Apple Pay available internationally but at the moment it’s only available in the USA.

Apple Watch /  Watch

Lastly we have the Apple Watch, not due for release until early 2015, and a device that has left us with more accessibility questions than accessibility answers at the moment.


On the bonus side of the equation is “tactic” feedback via gentle vibrations on your wrist. This could be a really enormous bonus for many users, and the webpage also describes a “subtle audio” alternative for those who don’t want or can’t use vibrations.

Control via a “digital crown” – the button an analogue watch uses for setting or winding it – as well as a button on the side and touch-screen controls are both a plus and a minus in accessibility terms. Having a physical control mechanism makes things easier to use for some users but makes them completely inaccessible for others – users who can only use a stylus or mouthstick to access their iPhones and iPads won’t be able to manipulate a digital crown.

The Apple Watch will let you use Siri simply by lifting your wrist, or alternatively trigger Siri by pressing and holding the digital crown. None of the videos showed Siri responding verbally but since an Apple Watch can only be used in combination with an iPhone, verbal responses through the iPhone should be possible I would think.

Just having the Watch on your wrist is an accessibility bonus too – as I was writing this my phone rang and I dropped it as I struggled to get it out of my pocket fast enough to answer it. Being able to accept a call by touching my wrist would remove the urgency, and Apple says that the iOS 8 Handoff feature means I can still transfer that call to the iPhone as soon as I wrangle it out of my pocket if talking to my wrist isn’t my style.

Pulse monitoring is a big accessibility plus for me personally, too, since I have a disorder that frequently messes up my pulse rate and requires lots of pulse checking. I would think there are medical possibilities here too.

The watch bands look to be fairly good for physical accessibility in terms of taking the watches on and off – there are several options but mostly of them use magnets for closure so they are a lot less fiddly than a traditional buckle-up watch clasp.

Three apple watches with different bands.
The Apple Watch has a variety of different bands, all of them are fairly easy to do up compared to a traditional buckle-up watch.

On the big negative side, the Apple Watch is water resistant but it isn’t waterproof. For users who have memory or cognition problems that would prevent them realising they need to take it off, or users who have physical impairments meaning they can’t remove the watch and put it back on independently, this could be a big deal – especially since dunking a watch could set you back more than $350!

Everything else is still fairly unknown – will the watch be accessible to blind users? Will there be assistive touch alternatives for those who can’t manipulate the physical buttons? Will there be guided access alternatives? Low vision access options? My experience with Apple tells me that these things will all probably come over time, but they might not be there from day one, which is a big deal for disabled users who are as enthusiastic as anybody about Apple products and want to experience new technology. I sincerely hope that Apple informs us about these things as soon as possible, and has good answers!

– Ricky

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8 thoughts on “Accessibility Implications of iPhone 6 Apple Watch Event”

  1. Nice write up Rickey.

    I’m currently investigating the iPhone 6 as a replacement for my iPhone 4S. I would like the bigger one if possible. A few sort of bullet point comments below

    – The “Reachability”feature was an unexpected pleasant surprise. Although it’s meant to make one-handed use possible it’s actually probably going to have a major impact for me. As it stands now with my iPhone 4S any time I have to press something in the upper left-hand corner of the display I struggle because my hand hits my wheelchair joystick at the same time I have to interact with anything in that portion of the display. I can reach it well enough but there just isn’t enough room there for my joystick to be avoided. I solved this problem by simply switching the drive on the joystick to “tilt and recline” mode so I don’t make the chair accidentally lurch forward into a wall or something. With Reachability it seems like this won’t be a concern anymore no matter what size the iPhone. I would just use Assistant Touch to double tap the home button as I always do that a shortcut button for this there would be nice.

    – Apple Pay could be immensely useful for me for obvious reasons but with my phone mounted on my arm rest I’m not certain it would be feasible. This all depends on how close you have to be to the reader. My power wheelchair can maneuver in many ways, including up-and-down elevation, but I’m not sure that would be enough. This wouldn’t be a dealbreaker for me or anything but it would be nice.

    -Touch ID Is another potential problem for me. This was first available in the iPhone 5S so it isn’t new but I haven’t had to face the possibility of using it until now. Since probably every Apple mobile device from here on out will have it it’s time I look into this. If I understand correctly it still works like a regular Home button for anybody that wishes to use it that way so once again it’s not a dealbreaker. However, aside from Apple Pay, the thought of using it with something like 1Password seems really appealing to me. My knuckles is probably my only chance here so the best I can hope for is experimenting with one after I actually buy one.

    – Battery is no issue for me. My iPhone 4S is plugged directly into my wheelchair battery so it never runs out. I will have to buy a lightning compatible connector but other than that this shouldn’t change at all. It should also mean that the new “always listening” mode for Siri will be an option for me if I choose since that only works if your iPhone is plugged into something. This alone creates some interesting possibilities.

    – The Apple Watch is really slick but it would be completely useless for me because of the “digital crown” and my inability to use either of my arms well enough to reach over to the wrist of the other arm to manipulate something. I am okay with this though because I don’t think I would want one of these if I wasn’t disabled anyways. I’m still having a difficult time seeing the point of one of these when you have a smart phone that can do all the same things and more. So other than very specific use cases such as yours I think this is going to be something reserved for the very wealthy who have lots of disposable cash.

    If I end up getting one of the new iPhones I will be happy to share my experiences in getting it to work for me. I will keep you posted! 🙂

    • @Paul: You always leave me the best comments!! Thanks for this – there are some great points. I’m especially interested to know if you can figure out TouchID recognising a knuckle, that could be useful to many people.

    • I’m Glenn from Lawrenceville GA usa

      I used Apple Pay for the first time today. I ran into a little problem.

      I have a physical disability, cerebral palsy, which impacts my fine motor skills and coordination.

      Due to my disability it was difficult to hold my phone and finger steady at the same time. I tried laying my phone on the counter RIGHT next to the terminal but the phone was too far away. It was not until the nice cashier held my phone while I put my finger on the Touch ID did it work.

      Ideally, it would be great if we could adjust the signal range. Is this a NFC technology limitation or device setting limitation?

      • Glenn: I’m honestly not sure but I suspect the NFC limitation is a technology limitation. It’s not clear from what you’ve written but are you aware you can set up the TouchID so it takes a thumb instead of a finger? I found it’s easier to hold steady that way because I can curl my fingers under the phone, though obviously our disabilities are different so it might not work that way for you.

    • @Paul: How do you have your iPhone drawing power from your chair?! I use my phone both as an AT device and, well, a phone (I’m a professional coach and work with most clients on the phone)… the battery life of the iPhone 6 has been great so far, but I would LOVE the failsafe of having it draw from my chair!

      • Becky: I don’t know about Paul but I got an auto electrician who is familiar with wheelchairs to hook up a circuit from the batteries to a USB outlet, so I just plug in my phone that way. I got it done when my wheelchair was being initially set up for me, so it didn’t cost much – it needed wiring work anyway. I’ve heard there’s something you can plug into the joystick charging port but I don’t know how well it works.

        • Sorry it took so long to answer this but I had something similar to Ricky done on my wheelchair when it was being initially set up for me as well. I believe it was one of the options and it added two cigarette lighter ports (like the ones you find in automobiles) to the back of my wheelchair. Then all you need is the right kind of cable and you can plug any USB device into it.

          I have one that’s plugged directly into my iPhone and it reaches all the way to the back and plugs right in so I never have to worry about my iPhone running low on battery power. An unexpected benefit is the ability to use Siri with only the power of my voice. A new feature in iOS 8 allows you to use Siri without even touching your iPhone as long as it’s plugged in. This has come in handy for me quite frequently.

          I would call your local wheelchair provider (probably whomever you take your wheelchair to for repairs) and ask them about this.

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