Apple announces new iOS accessibility features ahead of WWDC 2021

Apple announces new iOS accessibility features ahead of WWDC 2021

Apple has announced a number of new features the company said are designed for people with disabilities, including a one-on-one sign language interpreting service called SignTime for shopping and support sessions. The announcement comes a few weeks ahead of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, where it’s expected to unveil updates for iOS, watchOS, and iPadOS.

Speaking of which, many of the new tools unveiled by Apple will arrive in updates arriving on the aforementioned platforms later this year. Some of the new features include options for Assistive Touch, VoiceOver, hearing aid support, and improved representation related to Memoji customization. The latter feature will represent users with oxygen tubes, cochlear implants, and a soft helmet for headwear.

As for SignTime, the new service is set to launch on May 20 in the U.S., U.K., and France, and is expected to expand to additional countries in the future. The new feature will provide deaf and hard of hearing people with access to AppleCare and retailer customer care through American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL), or French Sign Language (FSL).

Apple is also bringing Assistive Touch to Apple Watch for users with upper body limb differences. The feature will use built-in motion sensors like the gyroscope and accelerometer, along with on-device machine learning, to detect subtle differences in muscle movement. This will allow users to control the Apple Watch, including answering incoming calls and access Notification Center, without ever having to touch the display or controls.

A new feature is bringing eye-tracking support to the iPad. Apple said later this year, compatible MFi devices will track where a person is looking onscreen and the pointer will move to follow the person’s gaze. Extended eye contact performs an action, like a tap, Apple said.

Apple’s also introducing an update to the MFi hearing devices program, adding support for new bi-directional hearing aids. Microphones in these hearing aids will enable those who are deaf and hard of hearing to have hands-free phone and FaceTime conversations. Devices that support the updated hearing devices program are set to be available later this year. Apple said it’s also bringing support for recognizing audiograms to Headphone Accommodations.

In addition, Apple said it’s introducing a new background sounds feature, which will play background sounds to mask unwanted environmental noise. The company said these sounds can minimize distractions and help users to focus, calm, or rest. Some of the sounds include “balanced, bright, or dark noise, as well as ocean, rain, or stream sounds.” Apple said these sounds will mix into or duck under other audio and system sounds.

Finally, an update will allow users to explore images with VoiceOver. Users will be able to explore images more thoroughly, including details about the people, text, table data, and other objects within images.

Apple said these new features push the boundaries of innovation and bring the fun and function of Apple’s technology to even more people. “Accessibility is a fundamental right, and we’re always pushing the boundaries of innovation so that everyone can learn, create and connect in new ways,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said on Twitter.

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Brandon Russell
Brandon Russell

Brandon's love of technology can be traced back to his childhood, when he would obsessively watch Back to the Future. Since then he's followed the industry and its many innovations, from handheld consoles to powerful smartphones. He's still waiting on a hoverboard.