On WWDC 2013 and Accessibility

Much has been made of Apple’s keynote this year at WWDC, what with its fast-paced yet relaxed vibe, digs at leather stitching and green felt, and Phil Schiller’s “Can’t innovate, my ass!” quip. Without a doubt, the star of the show was the unveiling of iOS 7. It was such a star, in fact, that the audience gave Tim Cook a standing ovation after watching the iOS 7 promo video. From the redesigned user interface to new features like Control Center to the new developer APIs, iOS 7 undoubtedly marks the most radical change in the operating system’s history. As Marco Arment wrote, Apple’s set fire to iOS. The company, third-party developers, and consumers stand at the beginning of a new frontier.

Among the consumers standing at the new frontier are hundreds of millions of users with disabilities, myself included. The new design language inherent in iOS 7 is bound to have a not-so-insignificant impact on disabled users, particularly those with vision impairments. The “whiteness” of the UI, the redrawn buttons and toolbars, the new icons, the new typography, and the new color palette are all going to have huge effects on the accessibility community. As a visually impaired user, judging by the screenshots, I can say with confidence that iOS 7 is going to be a huge adjustment. Needless to say, I eagerly anticipate iOS 7’s final release so that I can use the new software for myself. (I don’t have a developer account, so I have no access to the betas.)

However, given that iOS 7 will be such a huge adjustment to those with disabilities, I am disappointed that Craig Federighi spent no time whatsoever highlighting any new accessibility features. I’ve been told that the new functionality is under NDA, but that there’s a lot to like. That sounds great, but I’m still left somewhat bummed that there was no acknowledgment of accessibility, save for a slide listing a Guided Access API for developers. I just find it curious that Apple didn’t devote a few minutes to mention anything related to accessibility, since they *have* to know that iOS 7 is going to have a profound impact on users like myself.

My disappointment over accessibility’s neglect this year is exacerbated by the fact that, during the WWDC 2012 keynote, Scott Forstall dedicated a series of slides discussing Guided Access and Single App Mode, both new additions to iOS 6. I realize time and brevity must have factored into Federighi omitting accessibility, but it’s a bummer nonetheless. Watching the keynote, I kept waiting for Federighi to get to iOS 7’s accessibility features, but alas, he never did. If Forstall made time last year, I thought, why couldn’t Federighi do the same this year? It wasn’t the end of the world that he didn’t, but it was too bad. If I were Apple, I would take every step necessary to ensure that accessibility on iOS (and on the Mac, for that matter) gets as much airtime as possible. We (those in the accessibility community) watch the keynotes too, and I’m positive that I’m not the only soul in the Apple nerd universe who’s excited about enabling technologies. [pullquote]We matter, because we embody Apple’s ethos of making their products usable for everyone[/pullquote]

I always get excited when Apple makes improvements to iOS’s accessibility options, because they are so full of breadth and depth. I get even *more* excited when Apple makes a point to address these features onstage, because they *are* so good and it shows that the company recognizes the importance of accessibility community. We matter, because we embody Apple’s ethos of making their products usable for everyone. Those with disabilities use iPhones and iPads too, and I feel strongly that making software accessible is one of the most important (and certainly underrated, in my opinion) aspects of design. That said, it’s awesome that Apple’s shown such a strong commitment to serving this segment of the iOS user base. We deserve to be recognized, and it’s great that Apple does so most of the time. Still, I think Apple could do an even better job of making sure accessibility gets time to shine. Again, we *matter*.

I’m hoping that sometime this fall, when Apple holds another media event to reveal new hardware, that they’ll spend a few minutes talking up iOS 7’s accessibility features. Maybe they’ll even demo one or two running on the new iPhone and/or iPad. That would be awesome; it would definitely take some of the sting out of the slight — however unintentional, I’m sure — at WWDC.