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Apple’s latest accessibility features are for those with limb and vocal differences – TechCrunch

3 Mins read


Apple announced a batch of accessibility features at WWDC 2021 that cover a wide variety of needs, among them a few for people who can’t touch or ordinarily speak to their devices. With Assistive Touch, Sound Control, and other improvements, these folks have new options for interacting with an iPhone or Apple Watch.

We covered Assistive Touch when it was first announced but recently got a few more details. This feature lets anyone with an Apple Watch operate it with one hand using a variety of gestures. It came about when Apple heard from the community of people with limb differences — whether they’re missing an arm, or unable to use it reliably, or anything else — that as much as they liked the Apple Watch, they were tired of answering calls with their noses.

The research team cooked up a way to reliably detect the gestures of pinching one finger to the thumb or clenching the hand into a fist, based on how doing them causes the watch to move — it’s not detecting the nervous system signals or anything. These gestures and double versions of them can be set to a variety of quick actions. Among them is opening the “motion cursor,” a tiny dot that mimics the movements of the user’s wrist.

Considering how many people don’t use a hand, this could be a constructive way to get basic messaging, calling, and health-tracking tasks done without resorting to voice control.

Speaking of voice, that’s also something not everyone has at their disposal. However, many of those who can’t talk fluently can make many basic sounds, which can carry meaning for those who have learned — not so much Siri. But a new accessibility option called “Sound Control” lets these sounds be used as voice commands. You access it through Switch Control, not audio or voice, and add an audio switch.

The setup menu lets the user choose from various possible sounds: click, cluck, e, eh, k, la, much, oo, pop, sh, and more. Picking one brings up a quick training process to ensure the system understands the sound correctly. Then it can be set to any of a wide selection of actions, from launching apps to asking commonly spoken questions or invoking other tools.

For those who prefer to interact with their Apple devices through a switch system, the company has a big surprise: Game controllers, once only able to be used for gaming, now work for general purposes. Expressly noted is the unique Xbox Adaptive Controller, a hub and group of buttons, switches, and other accessories that improve the accessibility of console games. This powerful tool is used by many, and undoubtedly they will appreciate not having to switch control methods entirely when they’re done with Fortnite and want to listen to a podcast.

Image Credits: Apple

One more exciting capability in iOS that sits at the edge of accessibility is Walking Steadiness. This feature, available to anyone with an iPhone, tracks (as you might guess) the Steadiness of the user’s walk. This metric, tracked throughout a day or week, can potentially give a real insight into how and when a person’s locomotion is better and worse. It’s based on many data collected in the Apple Heart and Movement study, including actual falls and the unsteady movement that led to them.

If the user recently was fitted for a prosthesis, had foot surgery, or suffers from vertigo, knowing when and why they are at risk of falling can be very important. They may not realize it, but perhaps their movements are less steady toward the end of the day, or after climbing a flight of steps, or after waiting in line for a long time. It could also show steady improvements as they get used to an artificial limb or chronic pain declines.

Exactly how an actual physical therapist or doctor may use this data is an open question, but importantly, it can easily be tracked and understood by the users themselves.

Image Credits: Apple

Among Apple’s other assistive features are new languages for voice control, improved headphone acoustic accommodation, support for bidirectional hearing aids, and of course, the addition of cochlear implants and oxygen tubes for emoji. As an Apple representative put it, they don’t want to embrace differences just in features, but on the personalization and fun side.

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About author
Tristan McCue is a 26-year-old junior programmer who enjoys reading, binge-watching boxed sets, and appearing in the background on TV. He is smart and friendly, but can also be very evil and a bit lazy.He is an Australian Christian. He has a post-graduate degree in computing.
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