back to article One year ago, Apple promised breakthrough features to help iPhone, iPad, Mac owners with disabilities. It failed them

One year ago, at 2019's WWDC, Apple showed off a set of accessibility features designed to help people operate their iPhone, iPad, or Mac without the use of their hands. Voice Control was supposed to help those with disabilities better use all the features of their macOS and iOS gear, and in the process regain some …

  1. Phones Sheridan

    I think the lack of progress can be down to disabled people not being the target demographic of Apple. Apple shiny’s are a lifestyle statement. “Look at me, everything is beautiful, and so am I and my Apple, were perfect!”.

    To develop tools for the disabled is a passive admission that not everyone is perfect, and that some people need additional functionality to perform tasks. Apple on the other hand like to brag how they specialise in reducing tasks to a minimum compared to other platforms, they use it as a selling point.

    If they start to offer additional functionality for disabled users, and it works, then you can bet that it will work just as well for the non-disabled and they will start to use it. Then suddenly apples minimalistuc UI is no longer it’s selling point. Better to do nothing and hope disabled customers go somewhere else and stop making the brand appear ugly.

    Me cynical? I’ve found that with Apple I’ve never managed to run out of it. The cynicism just keeps flowing.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      On the other hand, I have come across disability features in MacOS that stunned me. Did you know it can translate (crude) facial expressions into actions like "left mouse click"?

      There's still a long way to go, but at least they're working on. ALL platforms can still do better IMHO.

    2. Headley_Grange Silver badge

      Lack of Support

      I think the lack of progress is typical of Apple's approach to many apps; they release them with a fanfare then ignore them and the users and rarely update them. Apple's voice recognition "keyboard" could be useful to me (I'm able bodied) but the lack of a 'return' command means that for many apps I would have to use the keyboard on the screen to finish a command. It's been like it for ever, it's been reported as a bug/feature request, it's been ignored. Similar problems exist in other apps that have been around for ever: Contacts app has only one line for UK street addresses and custom ring-tones reset randomly. Calendar reminders default to midnight. I could go on (and frequently do).

      I have the impression that Apple, the people working on the next new thing are much more important than the people working on making them better. I guess it's because the new things get people into the walled garden and once they're in they don't leave.

      1. heyrick Silver badge

        Re: Lack of Support

        "Similar problems exist in other apps that have been around for ever"

        In the days of iOS 6/7, I gave up on asking Apple about the ability to _tell_ Siri where one is located, because hardware without GPS has no way of telling the system where the user is, so asking basic things like "what will the weather be like" is met with "I don't know where you are".

        It's part of why I have the iPad to my mother and stuck with Android myself. Too many stupid little problems like that which nobody seemed interested in acknowledging, never mind fixing.

        1. anthonyhegedus Silver badge

          Re: Lack of Support

          My parents' ipad, even when it was an older model without GPS, knew where it was because of wifi locating. Their current iPad has GPS. However, I don't see what the problem is - what's wrong with saying 'what will the weather be like at home' (you can tell it where home is) or even 'what will the weather be like in London tomorrow?'. It's not that much of a problem.

          Having said that, my parents won't speak to Siri on their iPad. They think that because it's got a screen and a button, that's the only way to control it. However, they have a google mini and often speak to it (simple stuff like 'what's the weather', 'turn the light on' or 'how old is Boris johnson' sort of thing.

      2. Terry 6 Silver badge

        Re: Lack of Support

        the people working on the next new thing are much more important than the people working on making them better.

        TBH I don't think this is an Apple issue, It's an industry issue. And it's on every platform and every kinds of s/w.

        From Microsoft to FOSS by way of Android and Apple. Making shiny new stuff is much more fun ( and marketable I assume) than fixing existing stuff.

        Little example I often quote in such circumstances-

        Since Microsoft has had a recycle bin icon that changed when you deleted stuff and the option to customise said icon, the two aspects haven't worked together without manually making a small registry edit whenever you choose a new icon. Otherwise the custom icons don't change on delete or empty. Unless you refresh the screen.

        It's a well known issue. The solution is easy to find online.

        This is the Windows 7 advice. Windows 10 is unchanged. 11 years later

        https://www.sevenforums.com/tutorials/24761-recycle-bin-fix-custom-icons-not-refreshing.html

        They still haven't bothered to fix it. And few users will want to be digging around in the registry.

        Or there's the simple fact that Android updates don't get passed on to users for most phones.

  2. Maximum Delfango

    Are any other phones any better in this area?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Blackberry derivatives will prob do better for sight impaired people at they have puttons - a smooth sheet of glass is of sod all use for people who are sight impaired.

    2. PassiveSmoking

      Not really. In fact the iPhone is still the class leader when it comes to accessibility by a country mile

      1. Quando

        The Apple voice over controls for blind/partially sighted people work excellently when the app developer implements them.

        Watching a blind person navigate through the system and apps with the voice speed cranked up is something to behold.

        But it is a chunk of work to implement to best quality in an app, and most devs/product owners don’t care/have the time/budget to do it.

  3. Andy Non Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Lack of engagement with disabled people

    I get the impression from the article that able-bodied people at Apple have just got together and decided what features disabled people "need" rather than, you know, actually asking them and getting disabled people involved with the design, implementation and trialling of the project.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Lack of engagement with disable people

      That is an assumption, and it is incorrect.

      They have disabled people involved, they actually employ several of them. The keynote of WWCD 2020 highlighted a few, if I recall correctly there's even a whole specific department for it.

      1. Andy Non Silver badge

        Re: Lack of engagement with disable people

        Well it sounds like there was something fundamentally wrong with Apple's approach if people can't do something a basic as ending a call using voice. What if two disabled people are talking to each other and neither of them can physically hang up the call, does it go on for days or until the phone's battery dies? I'd call that a serious fail of the most basic kind.

        1. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

          Re: Lack of engagement with disable people

          You may have just given Apple an argument for poor battery life.

          :)

      2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        If that is true, then how can one get the impression that Apple doesn't know how disabled people work with a computer ?

        Because that's what the author of the article wrote.

      3. heyrick Silver badge

        Re: Lack of engagement with disable people

        "they actually employ several of them"

        There's a big difference between virtue signalling "we employ some disabled people" and "we have disabled people involved in the design process so we can be sure all this stuff will work for the (very) ability impaired".

        1. Terry 6 Silver badge

          Re: Lack of engagement with disable people

          This quote "there's even a whole specific department for it" tells the tale.

          If there's a specific separate department it's not integrated into the design. It becomes "Let's ask the disabled folk down the hall" rather than a team member who doesn't even have to be disabled, but who's simply aware of the needs of the colleague on the next desk saying, "Don't forget to have an end call command too", or even better, just writing one in.

      4. sabroni Silver badge
        Meh

        Re: That is an assumption, and it is incorrect.

        Oh cool, so they've managed to fuck this up even with staff who should understand all these issues.

        That's an achievement!

  4. andy 103 Silver badge
    Unhappy

    What are the penalties for excluding disabled people?

    It makes me cringe to write this, but it reminds me of published guidance on website accessibility with regards to those who have - for just one example - visual impairments up to and including blind people.

    Unfortuantely it isn't particularly well enforced. So you can get a web developer who makes a "beautiful" looking website and then goes "meh, making this accessible for screen readers is too much work / makes my work look un-sexy". If they take this approach, there are very few consequences. Theoretically they could be fined. When was the last time you heard about someone being fined for that?

    UK Gov are apparently very focused on making all of their own digital assets accessible to those with disabilities. But you get the impression they don't really want to do this, they're just doing it to make it look like they comply with guidance - guidance which they probably don't even understand, or care about.

    If there were severe penalties for producing any technology that was seen as exclusive (as in excluding) towards disabled people some of these companies may think twice about where they put their efforts.

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      Re: What are the penalties for excluding disabled people?

      "making this accessible for screen readers is too much work"

      Is there a free screen reader / TTS browser that runs on Android? I'd be interested to see how my own site fares.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What are the penalties for excluding disabled people?

      > making this accessible for screen readers is too much work

      It is too much work. I started working on this last year for a complex website I am responsible for, and making the necessary changes was a huge amount of work, even though I had already been designing the pages with accessibility in mind (e.g. properly labelled input elements). This was for a business product: less than 1 in 50000 users were blind. Blindness is fairly common in the population, but far less common among the working population.

      To do the job to a reasonable level of quality requires a very well funded project (think government website), and it requires specific knowledge of the various screen readers which takes a lot of time to learn and is different over the years (last year a large number of blind users were still using a screen reader that only works with Internet Explorer).

      Apple iOS VoiceOver was extremely hard to make work - the feature is built in to iOS but I found it to be extremely frustrating to use or develop for, and it had plenty of bugs.

      Even with a very large time budget, it wasn’t enough to cover the whole product. I wish we could support our blind users better, but there was a real cost to all users and a arbitrary line needs to be drawn somewhere.

  5. Richard Jones 1
    FAIL

    Nokia had basic voice calling in 2007

    Since that time things have gone downhill. Apple devices are of no appeal and I have never wanted one, but no one else has devices that can reliably operate in voice control mode. I am not disabled, though there are times when I really need voice control, such as after hand surgery, or when my hands are involved with such as dog walking, and other two-handed activities. I use a 4-year-old Android phone. Voice searching is only good for laughing at the stupid suggestions it comes up with when I want to call home. I suspect that someone, somewhere, possibly in a 'clean', noise free chamber has managed to get all these wonderful toys to work. In the outside world with noise, accents, imperfect acoustics and so on they are crap. Nokia had a good speaker dependant voice calling in the 2000s, others added thrills and spills, making voice no longer worth consideration for anyone. I have sympathy for those who are forced to use voice management full time. Post-operative experiences show their lives must be far more restricted than well-thought-out and implemented technology should allow. My problems affected me in the short term, theirs are life-long.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Nokia had basic voice calling in 2007

      Motorola had a working voice dialing feature in the late 1990's.

      Just sayin'...

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hmm

    Ableism in some of these posts is a little creepy!

    Apple is far from perfect but disabled users use a huge variety of methods....also they employ several a-grade devs with disabilities - who aren't just working on accessibility I hasten to add.

    Voice control isn't the magic bullet drawn here, worth doing but their work on switch control (iOS7) is a better bet for most users with physical disability and pretty ground breaking (first native scanning support on any platform mobile or desktop)

    .....have a look at Christopher Hills videos https://www.youtube.com/user/icdhills/videos as a for instance.

    Blind/VI users have migrated in droves to iOS/MacOS for VoiceOver - https://applevis.com/ is a good spot on this.

    There's a ton of more trivial to implement accessibility stuff also in iOS - visual adaptations and screen reading etc

    Toolchains have improved greatly too, but despite the native support the biggest issue you'll find in forums like AppleVis is software developers who don't create accessible products or understand the accessibility features provided by the OS.

    1. Terry 6 Silver badge

      Re: Hmm

      Colin Hughes, a past Reg contributor and disability rights advocate, said, despite all the fanfare, Voice Control is maddeningly frustrating to use on a day-to-day basis.

  7. heyrick Silver badge

    and the mainstream media reported it uncritically

    El Reg, more than anyone, ought to understand the grudge that the Big Pomme can hold against any journalist who dares to report critically.

  8. PassiveSmoking

    Accessibility

    One of the major motivations for me finally giving Windows the boot and switching to Mac (aside from Apple going Intel and Vista sucking) was seeing the accessibility tools in OSX Tiger in action. They've provided similar features in their phone OS at a time when Android treated accessibility as an afterthought (and still does, honestly). As a visually impaired user I really appreciated the effort and find that the Apple accessibility tools are still some of the best out there.

    It sounds like Apple dropped the ball here by overpromising on what they could do with voice recognition tech (they really should have known better, voice recognition is still far from a solved problem), and not having a way to use a call with a voice command is definitely a big oversight, but the thing is Apple are at least trying to make their products accessible above and beyond the minimum requirements mandated by law.

    I honestly wish other tech companies were failing at accessibility the way Apple are failing at it, because Apple's failures are at least not down to complete apathy. As somebody who needs to use the tech they've supplied all I can say is that I appreciate the effort

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      Re: Accessibility

      "at a time when Android treated accessibility as an afterthought (and still does, honestly)"

      Not strictly accessibility, but I'm still flabbergasted that using a British layout Bluetooth keyboard with Android won't let me directly enter the majority of French accents.

      My God, XP had this sorted twenty years ago, RISC OS had this sorted thirty years ago. Android? Uh........

  9. IGotOut Silver badge

    It's just an afterthought.

    Just look at the reviews of The Last Of Us Pt2, that had disabled people involved pretty much from the start. It shows what can be done.

  10. William Higinbotham

    IBM has had tools for handicap/disabled and blind for years.

    https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Encyclopedia_of_Blindness_and_Vision/l7UN5asLD0cC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=ibm+disability+blind&pg=PA119&printsec=frontcover

  11. Blackjack Silver badge

    Wow

    This... this is definitely an epic fail.

    When Open Source software (for Android and PC) is doing a better job than your paid device and Os, you goofed pretty badly.

    Even if you are an Apple fanboy, this goes on the level of Apple Maps of Bork.

    If you are paying you should get the service you are paying for. Not something that screams "unfinished beta".

  12. khjohansen

    ELEVEN !

    ELEVEN !

  13. Man inna barrel

    Voice control for the mute

    I find all this very funny, because I am unable to speak, for medical reasons. My boss gave me a mobile phone when I was in hospital. This is quite useful to text messages to and fro. But when someone leaves a voice message, I am expected to say some magic words before I can access the message. I laughed, or rather, I wheezed in some rhythmical manner. If you are old enough, you may recall a cartoon series called Wacky Races. I am Muttley, for my sins. And I do not like dogs.

    I recall an engineer friend who got a spiffy new mobile phone. He said he could call anybody on his contact list, just by saying their name. To demonstrate this wondrous feature, he tried to call his wife, whose name is June. "June..." Nothing happened. "JUNE...". Still no response. And then, at the top of his voice: "JUNE!!". This activity drew embarrassing attention to our party, so my friend resorted to prodding the screen, and let his wife know that he would be home shortly.

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      Re: Voice control for the mute

      I knew a guy with...I think it was a Nokia...back in the late '90s. It wasn't smart, it wasn't feature. But it did have the ability to learn and recognise words in order to call people by name. And since you had to say the word a few times to train it, no problem with accents.

      He spent a fair chunk of change calling the wrong people, however, as he trained the names to be words like "twat", "bender", and "pillock". Of course, he could never remember what twat was the bender and what pillock was the twat. As for his wife, that was a phrase sometimes said while goose-stepping with the right arm held up. And he called somebody else a twat.......

    2. Terry 6 Silver badge
      FAIL

      Re: Voice control for the mute

      And in the car, my old WinPhone would send a text by my telling it to. So no touch required. "Message s____"

      "What is your message?"

      "Stuck in traffic. I'll be late"

      Followed by a whoosh sound and herself gets a nice legal message.

      Listening to a message equally legal and easy.

      But on my Android you have to (locate and ) touch a little button somewhere on the screen to activate voice. It can't be activated by the car (Honda) controls, even though the phone can. And it's neither legal nor safe to fish around to pick up the phone, then look at the screen to find the little microphone icon....

      And anyway, what's the point? If you have to do all that to send a text (when it's legal to do so) you might as well just send a text the usual way.

  14. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

    1997

    Sad but true: Mac OS (7.6?) had fully functioning voice control out-of-the-box in 1997.

    OS-level so worked with ALL apps as-is, no Dev changes/upgrades required, even for old 80s-vintage apps.

    Amusingly at the time, and plangently poignant given this article's note re requiring American accents 23yrs later, there WERE some things that required you to use a Californian accent.

    La plus ca change.

    Or as my autocorrect just attempted: la plus CA change :)

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