What Do We Know About Apple Watch’s Accessibility?

Apple announced their forthcoming watch in September and since then they have let tantalising trickles of information slip about what we have to look forward to. The Apple Watch is a device that has left us with more accessibility questions than accessibility answers just now. Here’s what we know so far …

New information is now available – see also: Apple Watch Accessibility Details Revealed.

Inputs and Controlling the Watch

Control of the watch 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.

Apple Watch - Digital Crown

The touch screen is only single-touch, not multitouch, but that’s not an issue given its size – you couldn’t fit more than one finger there – and it makes up for that by distinguishing between a light tap (without pressure) and a press (with pressure) in a similarly way to how the new TouchID-enabled home buttons on some devices do. Will we be able to control how much pressure is required for the watch to register a press?

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 via the watch but since an Apple Watch can only be used in combination with an iPhone, verbal responses through the iPhone may be possible.

For those who have speech difficulties which preclude using Siri, the Apple watch does not have a built-in keyboard. There isn’t really space for a keyboard on such a teeny screen so this isn’t surprising, and Apple describes pre-organised responses that will presumably be set from your phone, but those who can’t use speech will probably be at a disadvantage here.

Minuum is a pretty cool keyboard but it's still very hard to fit it onto a watch face. These watches are running Android Wear.
Minuum is a pretty cool keyboard but it’s still very hard to fit it onto a watch face. These watches are running Android Wear.

Haptic/Taptic feedback

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

Ariel Adams from A Blog To Watch describes the taptic sensations thus:

It is an evolution of the vibration feature found in many devices, which causes the rear of the Apple Watch case to literally tap you. It is gentle, although clearly noticeable, especially when compared to a vibration.

Pulse and Fitness Monitoring

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.

Visible light and infra-red sources and sensors on the reverse of the Apple Watch will monitor your pulse.
Visible light and infra-red sources and sensors on the reverse of the Apple Watch will monitor your pulse.

Location and Apple Pay

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.

And of course it’s pretty hard to drop a watch that’s strapped to your wrist. I keep my iPhone in one of those enormous protective cases because I fumble and drop it every few days at least and I’ve broken things more than once even with this protection. With a watch, though, as long as it’s on me it’s unlikely to be dropped.

Having the watch on your wrist will also be a bonus for those using Apple Pay. Touching your wrist to an NFC reader to complete an Apple Pay transaction is easier, physically, than getting out a phone and touching that to the reader. This may mean that users who can’t physically handle wallets and money can independently make payments with the Apple Watch.

Watch Bands

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 will be.

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.

Apple has also designed their watch bands to be easy to swap, and I would anticipate a big ‘third party band’ industry will quickly spring up. If you look at the part of the watch band on the “Milan Loop” style metal bracelet, it appears to have loop sections attached to the watch which would be ideal for attaching your own band with. The watch I am wearing right now has a home-made velcro-and-cotton band which suits me better than a buckle – it doesn’t seem stylish enough to use with an Apple Watch, but I could definitely fit it onto those loops if I needed to.

Waterproofing … or not

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!

One of Apple's own videos does show this man wearing an Apple Watch while splashing water on his face.
One of Apple’s own videos does show this man wearing an Apple Watch while splashing water on his face.

I would be very surprised if Apple doesn’t work hard on waterproofing and also general toughness for the watch in coming versions. Especially for the more expensive versions, being able to ruin your watch by accidentally wearing it in the bath or while swimming is a really big negative for anybody.

Battery Life and Charging

Battery life is a usability issue for any Apple Watch user, but especially for users whose disability means they can’t put the watch on and take it off independently it becomes an accessibility issue too. Apple haven’t made direct statements about this but my feeling, echoed by Ariel Adams again, is that charging the watch once a day is what we should expect. Battery technology precludes a much longer life than that, and I can’t believe that Apple would consider a watch up to usable quality if you had to stop at lunch time to charge it too. Since you’re probably charging your phone once a day anyway, that shouldn’t be a big problem.

MagSafe charger attached to the reverse of this white Apple Watch Sport.
MagSafe charger attached to the reverse of this white Apple Watch Sport.

The magnetic charger which Apple has displayed attaches easily to the wrist side of the watch, requiring considerably less dexterity or strength than attaching a lightning cable to your iPhone already does.

Accessibility Unknowns

Unfortunately we still have huge accessibility unknown with the Apple Watch!

To list just some of the things I’ve wondered and that people have asked me since the Apple Watch was announced:

  • Will the watch be accessible to completely blind users, for example with something like VoiceOver screen reader?
  • Will there low vision access options such as reverse video, greyscale, or zoomed screen?
  • What will the options be for users unable to use Siri via speech?
  • Will there be assistive touch alternatives for those who can’t manipulate the physical buttons?
  • Will there be guided access alternatives, for example to lock users into a single watch app?

My experience with Apple tells me that these things will all probably come over time, but they might not be there from day one – the iPhone didn’t have a screen reader at first, it wasn’t added until the iPhone 3GS model. Not having accessibility for the start is a big deal for disabled users who are as enthusiastic as anybody about Apple products and want to experience new technology too!

I sincerely hope that Apple informs us about these things as soon as possible, and that the answers are the ones we want to hear.

New information is now available – see also: Apple Watch Accessibility Details Revealed.

– Ricky

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