Small Things Considered: Improving iPhone Accessibility

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

It seems so surreal. I am in an airport. I need to go to the public restroom. I find the serpentine tiled entrance to the enclave and I work my guide dog inside. It is vacuous and sounds reflect from every direction off the hard tile walls and floor. I have no idea where the porcelain fixtures are located. I am not even sure if I am in the right bathroom. I move slowly, reaching out, hoping that I do not touch something wet or, worse, the back of someone's neck. Even if I accomplish my original goal, the nightmare is not over. In dreams of entrapment, there never seems to be an exit. Minimally, it is frustrating. Sometimes, it gets stressful. This sense of confounded isolation is not limited just to public restrooms. There are times when I get these same feelings when dealing with my access technology.

Many years ago, I remember eagerly waiting each week for the flexible disks of "U.S. News and World Report" to arrive so that I could catch up on what others had already read in the daily newspapers. I recollect how some libraries had a few shelves, a very few, with Braille reference materials that were often decades old. I still smile when reminiscing about lugging my Talking Book record player around the house so that I could read books whenever and wherever I wanted. Things were simpler, but not very informative.

As technology evolved, so did our access. Spinning records transitioned to cassettes. Cassettes moved to CDs, and finally to digital cartridges. Paper moved to electronic text and everything ended up online. Accessibility began to intertwine with mainstream solutions. Microcomputers enabled us to interact with vast stores of information. At least until the inevitable crash...

Remember the three words you used to say to the ones you loved?

"Save your work!"

Oh, how we used to suffer with the "Blue Screen of Death" on our PCs, the rattling "Click of Death" inside our Zip drives, and the dreaded "Chimes of Death" emanating from our Macs. Fortunately, our iPhones are much more stable. Until I replaced my 5S, it was generally only my iPhone batteries that died.

I really enjoy my iPhone 6S Plus and use it as my primary workstation every day. I use it to read, write, and relax. I did the research for this blog on my phone. I did all of the text entry and editing through my Bluetooth keyboard. And, I listened to Apple Music as I worked. However, I require more than just a note taker or MP3 player. I need a fully functional desktop computer, preferably one small enough to fit in my pocket. Most important, I need easy access. To be the right tool, I need a device that communicates with me on my terms, in my language, and in whatever way helps me be my most effective. Accessibility is all about adjusting to what serves any individual best. A computer should extend and enhance, not hinder.

Apple's commitment to universal accessibility has been good for us and good for their business. I am grateful to the many developers who have made their applications more powerful through attention to interface and accessibility standards. Those things that help level the playing field for us are also good for the aging population and for so many others around the globe. It has been an exciting time! I really enjoy hearing about new Apple products and knowing that I might be able to fully experience them, straight out of the box.

Even so, I still dream of a smoother user experience on my iPhone. I look forward to the day when I do not need to triple-click the Home button many, many times during a single work session to reset VoiceOver and get it back on track. I am hopeful that pesky bugs that unexpectedly change the volume or interfere with text editing will be eradicated. I envision an operating system upgrade where my use of a Bluetooth keyboard will not be impacted by a new glitch. What may appear to some as relatively minor hiccups can really reduce productivity.

Just like I am admittedly uncomfortable with the chaotic disarray of signals when trying to navigate an airport restroom, I am equally dismayed with some iPhone apps because of my struggles through their virtual environments. I prefer to fantasize about apps that really become much easier to traverse because all buttons are labelled, all text is audible, and there is always an exit out of the setup screens. I look forward to being able to interact with applications where the creation and manipulation of data is more intuitive and predictable. I really like knowing where I am and how I can interact with my surroundings. And, frankly, everything should be easier than trying to keep my dog from drinking out of a urinal.

Things are much improved. Gone are the days when we were dependent on Braille magazines that might arrive weeks after publication. Gone are the days when we had to get up early on Saturday mornings to listen to someone read newspaper articles on the radio. We now have our iPhones. We have excellent access to information that can give us an edge.

Attention to accessibility enhances utility, predictability, and navigability for everyone. As Apple and their developers move forward, I would ask that they keep striving to make accessibility a normal and necessary part of building and maintaining software. We all gain when we are all included. And, please, remember that it isn't just the big things that need attention, small things need to be considered, too.

*** Morgan is the author of other AppleVis blogs, including “Big Is The New Small”, “Pending Charges”, and “Think Small”. He gratefully welcomes and appreciates your comments and feedback.



Submitted by walkseasy on Monday, November 16, 2015

I agree with all you say here. Apple devices have become an important part of my life, but Apple software is becoming somewhat of a disappointment lately. This is not only with the quality of VoiceOver, but the whole Apple software product is losing quality. am not ready to give up yet.

Submitted by Pascal on Monday, November 16, 2015

Hi Morgan,
Concise and beautifully written. Fully agree.