Apple and accessibility: Pushing back against unacceptable realities

Accessibility is something that seldom gets the attention it deserves. Most of us go about our day without ever wondering how accessible an iPhone or iPad or Mac is to the blind or the deaf, to those with autism or motor disfunction, or how accessible the apps that run on them are. Yet there are people who do care deeply about accessibility. Those who need iPhones and iPads and Macs to be ever-more accessible, of course, and those working to make iPhone and iPads and Macs ever-more accessible. Among technology companies, Apple does a tremendous job not only implementing accessibility, but promoting it and prioritizing it as well. And it starts at the very top.

That's Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, receiving the International Quality of Life Award (IQLA) from Auburn University in December of 2013. At the 1:30 mark, he addresses the value of accessibility (emphasis mine):

People with disabilities often find themselves in a struggle to have their human dignity acknowledged. They frequently are left in the shadows of technological advancements that are a source of empowerment and attainment for others. But Apple's engineers push back against this unacceptable reality, they go to extraordinary lengths to make our products accessible to people with various disabilities from blindness and deafness to various muscular disorders.

Cook goes on to say:

I receive hundreds of e-mails from customers every day, and I read them all. Last week I received one from a single mom with a three year old autistic son who was completely non-verbal, and after receiving an iPad, for the first time in his life, he had found his voice. I receive scores of these incredible stories from around the world and I never tire of reading them.

We design our products to surprise and delight everyone who uses them, and we never, ever analyze the return on investment. We do it because it is just and right, and that is what respect for human dignity requires, and its a part of Apple I'm especially proud of.

It's a part of Apple, as a customer, I've always appreciated as well. Partly because it serves the interests of humanity, partly because it serves my interests as a customer. If Apple is thinking that deeply about accessibility, it betrays deep thoughts into every aspect of usability. At least to me, it betrays not only painting the back of the fence, but making the fence safe and valuable for everyone.

If that IQLA statement wasn't plain enough, here's Tim Cook using even more direct language:

When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don't consider the bloody ROI.

That attitude is by no means unique to Tim Cook. When FaceTime was first announced, the WWDC video at the 1:20 mark showcased a sign-language conversation, with iPhone owners finally able to communicate in the best way possible for them.

When Siri was introduced, the WWDC video at the 1:00 mark showcased how someone blind could have messages read to them and could then dictate messages back using their voice alone.

Apple has highlighted iPhone apps that can let those without sight walk independently through forests, and Guided Access technology that can help those with autism stay focused on a single task.

Apple has shown all of this not once or twice, not only when prompted, and not off at some lesser venue, but on the stage at its biggest event of the year, and in commercials broadcast around the world.

Internally, in addition to teams tasked with ensuring the security and performance of Apple's software, there's a team tasked solely with ensuring its accessibility. Resources are also made available to stress the importance of accessibility to developers, and to help get more apps more accessible faster.

There's an accessibility support page for owners at www.apple.com/support/accessibility/ that goes over all the current features. There's also one for developers at developer.apple.com/accessibility/. There's a page highlighted the iPad's roll in special education, including a video of its use in classrooms, saying:

For special education teachers around the world, iPad opens up a world of possibilities. Meet teachers at three schools — Special School Poděbrady in the Czech Republic, the Awase Special Needs School in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan, and New York's District 75, the world's largest special education district — and discover how they use iPad and apps to motivate learning, improve social interactions, and encourage independence in the classroom and beyond.

And there are more accessibility features are on the way with iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite as well.

I point all of this out not to pat Apple on the back or to hold them up as an example. I point this all out, I hope, for the same reason Apple includes accessibility in so many of their videos — to bring even more attention to what is such an important issue.

Apple can, of course do more. So can Apple's competitors by making accessibility a competitive challenge. So can developers by making accessibility as important and integral to the app-creation process as functionality and design. So can customers, by making it known how important accessibility is to us and our family and our friends and our colleagues. And by making it known not only with our words but with our wallets.

When it comes to accessibility, we can all do more. Including me.

We've already created an accessibility hub and forum here at iMore: www.imore.com/accessibility and forums.imore.com/accessibility-special-needs/.

We're also going to ramp up our accessibility coverage, including more help and how-to articles, so everyone can get the most out of the remarkable technology Apple builds into iPhone, iPad, and Mac, and regular columns from people who depend on accessibility to use their devices and live their lives every day.

We can all do more.