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…
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:
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
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.
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!
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