Today is the Eighth Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). This day has been set aside "to get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital (web, software, mobile, etc.) access/inclusion and people with different disabilities." This according to the above linked web page on GAAD. In recent years on AppleVis, we have supported this day, with posts about advocating for more accessible applications, highlighting the challenges of web design, providing an extensive list of resources, and others. Certainly, all of the posts linked above remain good examples of what GAAD strives to promote. This article will cover something a bit different: one example of where accessibility has helped those with different disabilities connect, and how in the situation I'm covering, how Apple's built-in accessibility features helped benefit not only one of its customers, but also the company itself. Further, it will highlight an issue which could turn progression into regression.
A Bit of Background
I'm both totally blind and have a significant hearing impairment. This means I'm almost entirely reliant on braille to interact with my various devices. Though I've tried learning American Sign Language, it has been a major struggle for me to grasp as a language. Due to this struggle, I've become more reliant on alternative communication options that often involve technology.
Accessibility Connects People
The posts linked to above cover a wide range of topics about accessibility. However, I'm here to discuss when that accessibility connects people with different disabilities. Last year, I decided to purchase an iPod touch seventh generation, as my sixth generation iPod touch had a battery swelling issue and was 5 years old. It also is not compatible with iOS 13. While on the road for work, I often will visit Apple Stores in various cities to check them out, and I also try to purchase each of my products at a different location. My first iPhone was purchased at a store on Long Island, with other purchases over the years at Apple Stores in Manhattan; Amsterdam; Boca Raton, Florida; Honolulu, etc. While on the road in Texas, I decided I would give a local store a try. I had learned from a colleague that there was a deaf employee who worked at this store, so I decided to take my Bluetooth keyboard with me, along with my braille display and iPhone.
This employee was a user of American Sign Language, which, as I said above, is not my strongest language. After briefly introducing myself to the employee using tactile sign language, I presented him with the keyboard and my iPhone that already had a pre-typed message which read similar to the following: "It's good to meet you! As you can tell, my sign language skills are small, but if you use the keyboard to type, I can use my braille display to type back to you. If you understand, please tap me on the shoulder and begin writing. Thanks!" After a tap on the shoulder, I began reading on my braille display what the employee was typing on the Bluetooth keyboard. I then replied to him by typing my responses in braille, which iOS translated in to plain text on the screen of the iPhone. The interaction was a bit choppy, only because there were so many other Bluetooth devices in the area. A few times, my braille display came unpaired from my iPhone, which I was able to resolve by shutting off the display and locking and unlocking my iPhone.
Though the Bluetooth connection presented an issue, we were still able to make the transaction work... I have the iPod touch seventh generation to prove it. Apple's built-in accessibility features permitted me to bridge a language gap and to conduct business successfully.
Though successful in this case, the challenge I presented above often prevents me from using this solution as a reliable method of communication within environments where many other Bluetooth devices are active. This applies to not only places such as Apple Stores, but also to conventions, crowded restaurants, etc.; and it even will depend heavily on how many other Bluetooth devices you have connected to your iOS device. For example, I often have four or five devices always connected to my iPhone XR. These include the Dot Watch, a braille display, 2 hearing aids, and sometimes a Bluetooth keyboard. When all of these devices are connected at the same time, the connection between some of them will randomly drop out. Specific to hearing aids, I found that the iOS experience became degraded when several Bluetooth devices were paired at the same time. In the above example in the Apple Store, the only things paired to my iOS device were the Dot Watch, Bluetooth keyboard, and braille display.
MFi-supported hearing aid connectivity also presents many challenges, as I outlined in my review of MFi-supported hearing aids from a VoiceOver user's perspective. If my hearing aids are connected, my braille display will not auto-connect as quickly. Some Bluetooth keyboards struggle more than others to keep up with typing when the hearing aids are paired. I also found that when setting up a new iPhone and using Bluetooth to transfer settings from an older device, the transfer failed repeatedly until I unpaired my hearing aids.
A Solution on the Horizon?
Accessories on iOS devices such as braille displays are entirely dependent on Bluetooth. If you have no ability to hear or see the screen to reestablish a connection to the iOS device, and the pairing breaks, you are no longer able to use your iOS device. In circumstances such as what I listed above, it also often leads to a fluid interaction becoming very choppy. This problem is not unique to Apple, as Android devices also depend on a Bluetooth connection for braille display connectivity. Like iOS devices, they also suffer from similar pairing issues.
In 2018, the Universal Serial Bus Implementers Forum (USB-IF) approved a new Human Interface Device (HID) standard for braille displays. USB-IF is a non-profit organization comprised of many industry-leading companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Their goal is to advance USB technology to make it more useable for consumers. What this means for consumers is that, if both the braille display manufacturer and mainstream technology manufacturer support it, you will be able to start a screen reader, plug a display in via USB, and have access to braille with no further effort required. It will be unnecessary to find and install drivers, connect via Bluetooth, or change settings before plugging your display into a USB port supporting the new standard. What this also means is that you are no longer dependent on Bluetooth paring for your braille display to maintain the connection. True, there will be a wire running from your device to the braille display, but if you are in a setting where a lot of interaction is required, it should be a more fluid one for those who depend on it. This also will eliminate at least one of my connected devices from interfering with the others already connected, thus making everything else more stable. At this time, I often will connect my hearing aids via the lightning to 3.5MM dongle to help offset this issue.
Though the standard was passed in May of 2018, as far as I'm aware, no mainstream manufacturers are supporting it yet. Vispero was the first to announce that they will support the standard at some stage, but as far as I know, this still has not happened. Orbit Research announced late last year that the latest firmware of the Orbit Reader 20 supported the standard. Humanware announced at the ATIA conference in January 2020 that its forthcoming collaborative efforts into the braille display market with APH will also support the standard when it's released.
Although this new standard could be very promising for blind and deaf-blind users, there has not been any updates from the likes of Apple, Google or other mainstream tech companies. Some news to counteract this forward development is the rumor that Apple may develop a portless iPhone to be released next year. If so, it is my hope that an equally capable iPhone will hit the market which still has the charging port. Failure of Apple to take this into account would mean that individuals such as myself will be even more dependent on Bluetooth technology which has proven unreliable when working with multiple devices. A portless iPhone would mean that there would no longer be options to plug in dongles (including for things like hearing aids and braille displays), leading to a user experience which would be both degraded and significantly less accessible
My experience at the Apple Store interacting with the deaf employee would never have been able to directly take place without the advancement of accessibility features. On one hand, Apple is to be commended for their work in this area to make a portable solution such as this possible. On the other hand, there is still work which must be done. While wireless technology works for those using one or two devices, it is my concern that those of us who have been forced to depend on it for too much may be looking at a regression in terms of accessibility should Apple release an iPhone with no ports. It is my hope that future wireless technology will be more dependable, so that it can one day make hardware connections obsolete. Until such time, however, it is my further hope that Apple will keep the hard-wired connection on its devices for those of us who depend on it for our personal and professional livelihoods.