Access all areas: Apple and its assistive technologies

Macworld Australia Staff
3 October, 2012
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When you look at some of the high-powered desktop systems and mobile devices on the market today, it’s easy to assume that users must be able-bodied and impairment-free to operate such advanced equipment.

We expect – even demand – that our computers power through tasks on all cylinders and at lightning pace. And when these systems begin to become outdated and develop a quirk or a lag, we immediately look to upgrade or replace them.

That’s the difference between machine and man. As human beings we possess different strengths and weaknesses that affect what we can do and how well we do it, and this is particularly true when it comes to our skill and understanding of technology.

Unfortunately, we can’t dissect the parts of ourselves that perform to a lesser degree than we’d like. There’s no human equivalent for adding more RAM or rebooting the system when the spinning wheel of life halts production. At least not yet, anyway.

That doesn’t mean, however, that cognitive difficulties and impairments can – or should – obstruct access to computers and technology in general. In fact, using this equipment can help to overcome or reduce the limitations of various handicaps. And that’s where Apple and its designs come into play.

For more than 20 years the company has pledged to make products accessible to users of all capabilities. In fact, more than just offer access, iDevices and Macs are being employed to help aid development programs for children and adults with learning difficulties and disabilities.

Under Apple’s umbrella of ‘accessibility’ sits a number of assistive technologies to explore, if needed. Among them are:

SPEECH AND TEXT CONVERSION SUPPORT

Apple’s new Dictation for Mac was introduced as one of 250 new features in OS X Mountain Lion’s release in July. The software works within any writing app by processing speech and converting it into text – a utility that is of benefit to individuals with low vision or limited motor skills.

A partner service that works in reverse to Dictation for Mac is Apple’s Text-to-Speech technology, which does pretty much what its name suggests. TTS can read a section of text or complete documents and is compatible with all applications that support the OS X Speech engine, including Mail, iChat and TextEdit.

CLOSED CAPTIONING

Closed Captioning for Mac works in QuickTime and DVD to help deaf or hard of hearing users understand and enjoy video and other audio content. Schools and universities are also able to create and upload closed-caption learning materials to Apple’s iTunes U courses app for students who require special assistance.

AND MORE …

There are a host of other assistive technologies for Mac, including Slow Keys, which avoids unintended multiple keystrokes by employing delays between when a key is typed and its corresponding action is accepted; and braille mirroring that enables one Mac to control multiple USB braille displays simultaneously.

MOBILE ACCESS

Apple has added extra features to iOS 6 for increased accessibility too, including Guided Access that helps students with disabilities such as autism stay on task and complete set assignments; iOS restrictions for parents to disable the Home button and touch input on specific areas on the screen; and VoiceOver, a screen reader that now integrates with Maps, Zoom and AssistiveTouch features aimed at blind or low-vision users. Apple is also currently working with hearing-aid manufacturers to develop a ‘made for iPhone’ device.

Apple’s mission to offer assisted access to technology and communication is admirable, with third-party developers following suit by creating apps for Mac and iOS that provide workarounds for cognitive, learning and motor skills handicaps.

Having limitations doesn’t necessarily mean you’re limited per se; Often it’s a case of finding alternative paths to achieve the same, desired goal. And, who knows, you could reach the finish line before everyone else.

2 Comments

2 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Sarah Pulis says:

    Apple’s philosophy of including accessibility support and assistive technology as a feature out-of-the-box is definitely to be applauded. One of the critical factors when a manufacturer includes this support in mainstream devices and software is quality. Other mobile platforms such as Android and the fourthcoming Windows 8 for instance have a screen reader that comes as part of the mobile operating system. However, the quality of the native screen reader compared with third-party software that a user have to pay for is much lower. There not only has to be the commitment to accessibilit by the company but also the expertise to produce a quality product that provides a similar user experience to third-party solutions.

  2. Sarah Pulis says:

    Apple’s philosophy of including accessibility support and assistive technology as a feature out-of-the-box is definitely to be applauded. One of the critical factors when a manufacturer includes this support in mainstream devices and software is quality. Other mobile platforms such as Android and the forthcoming Windows 8 for instance have a screen reader that comes as part of the mobile operating system. However, the quality of the native screen reader compared with third-party software that a user have to pay for is much lower. There not only has to be the commitment to accessibility by the company but also the expertise to produce a quality product that provides a similar user experience to third-party solutions.

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