Hardware: The often overlooked aspect of accessibility

Hardware: The often overlooked aspect of accessibility

Steve Jobs was fond of saying often that if hardware is the brains of a device, then software is its soul. This statement is true insofar that software is what really makes a device and its ecosystem — one needn't look any further than iOS to see that — and is what designers, developers, and consumers care about most. In terms of accessibility, the fact that software gets so much (rightful) attention means that one crucial and, I would argue, just as important aspect gets overlooked in the discussion.

The hardware.

Assessing the kinesthetic, tactile value of using an iPhone or iPad is just as important as assessing the software it runs. Speaking from personal experience, not only am I visually impaired but I also suffer from a mild form of cerebral palsy. What this means is, for me, the strength in my hands and fingers are substantially less than that of a fully-abled person. Hence, it takes much more effort to hold things — in this case, my iOS devices — as well as do things on my devices, like typing. Because of this, my approach to buying a new iPhone or iPad depends not only on 64-bit systems-on-a-chip and improved cameras, but also how the device feels in my hands: the weight, width, thinness, etc. As I said, the tactile experience.

A prime example of this is my iPad Air. Before upgrading to it last October, I used an iPad 3 for about a year and a half. My iPad 3 was relatively heavy, thick, and ran hot. My iPad Air is light, thin, and cool to the touch. The differences aren't insignificant. My physical limitations made it hard to use my iPad 3 for prolonged periods. Fatigue would quickly set in, shortening my time with the device and lessening the overall experience. I feel none of these things using my iPad Air; the heightened experience I having using the device is a testament to just how well a job Apple's hardware engineering team did at changing the iPad's form factor. The contrast between iPads old and new is dramatic, and I'm very happy with my Air. (I also prefer the Air over the Retina Mini for the big screen, but that's immaterial to my points here.)

To the majority of people, that someone would consider how a device feels in the hand to be natural and obvious, and it certainly is to an extent. The point I'm making, however, is that to physically disabled people such as myself, it matters so much more — orders of magnitude more. For those with motor issues, comfort and dexterity could mean the difference between buying or not buying a device. Moreover, my point also illustrates just how diverse and far-reaching of a topic accessibility is. It isn't about just vision or just hearing. Accessibility is a complex, abstract beast that often involves, as is the case for me, multiple layers of problems in need of solutions.

The moral of this story, I think, is that hardware accessibility is something that needs more consideration when discussing a decice's overall accessibility — this will be especially important to keep in mind this fall, when Apple unveils their rumored big iPhones. The physical changes are not going to be trivial, particularly to someone like me. Impressive though iOS 8's new Accessibility features may be, the accessibility of the hardware itself is going to be just as worthy to talk about.

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Steven Aquino

I'm a freelance tech writer who specializes in iOS Accessibility. I also write at Steven's Blog and co-host of the @accessibleshow podcast. Lover of sports.

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Reader comments

Hardware: The often overlooked aspect of accessibility


Hai Rene,

As I am new to this apple world,When I start searching things I saw you giving valuable advices with lot of patience.In my new ipad how to retreive all my outlook mails from my laptop.Please guide the settings how to get all mails from laptop.

Thanks in advance.


I can't definitely say I've never looked at hardware in this way. Sure, one-handed usability is a MAJOR function Apple shouldn't overlook, but I've never thought about people with a condition such as this, so thank you for bringing it to the attention of the masses. I'm curious though, when Apple does release larger devices, is it merely the weight that causes such a nuisance for you? Did you considerably notice the difference from the 4 to the 5's weight? And since the iPhone 6 is rumored to be bigger but possibly thinner (thus making it lighter per se) would gestures and accessibility features in iOS 8 help to make the experience easier for you? In that the iPhone 6 more than likely won't have easy access to specific buttons (like the lock button on the 5.5" version) would having to use two-hands be more of a problem in that your foregoing the one-handed use or easier since you can use both hands? I apologize in advance for the potential brashness of these questions and possible wording, making them confusing.

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Being visually impaired "low vision" with Voice Over turned on navigation is much different, three finger swipe verses two to switch from home screen to the next, or for one handed use one needs to highlight the row of dots indicating what page you are on and one finger flick up or down to go between pages, to go between apps select an app then one finger flick left or right to go through your apps. The one handed operation is precarious so I normally use two hands any way and look forward to possibility of lager screens.

I completely agree with this; motor and touch are often overlooked.

I have a family friend with MS and she says using an iPad with MS is much easier than a mouse.
And a keyboard accessory helps with typing...

Interesting perspective I must admit I never have given too much thought to. I'm fortunate to be fully-abled (save for minor back issues that have no bearing on my iOS device use) but I still know what suits me PHYSICALLY and aesthetically. Apple devices across the board currently please me in both regards. As a fully-abled person I do have preferences, but can adapt to most anything if I choose too. I have a family member who is autistic, and has other issues as well. She can't care for herself, and until a few years ago couldn't really communicate with anyone very much. Technology has made a small step forward for her towards communication. I must admit, she is disabled to the extreme, but it's nice to see that although nobody ever thought she would be able to communicate with anyone she has been able to have some minor breakthroughs thanks to tech! It'll
Be interesting to see where it all goes in the next 5, 10, 20 years or so for all persons with all types of disabilities. I'm glad to see Apple has been so thoughtful and one of the leaders in trying to strike a balance between tech for the masses and tech for the challenged!

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I've always considered hardware to be part of the accessability equation, but not to the extent that Steven does. I've considered it in terms of display tech and input devices.

I agree with Steve here. The physical aspect is as important as the software. I feel the difference now and then, when I had to carry around the iPad 2. Now I use an iPad Air and is a lot easier to perform my daily operations.