Apple’s technology helps quadriplegic man, but still needs work

Apple takes great pride in its Accessibility features, promotes them heavily, and has won awards for them. For someone living with a disability, the right technology can literally be life-changing. Apple’s technology helps many people live a more independent life.

There is, though, still room for improvement. To better understand the differences Apple technology makes, and the gaps that still exist, I interviewed Colin Hughes, a 55-year-old Brit who has severe muscular dystrophy – a muscle-wasting disease which leaves him effectively quadriplegic, unable to use either arms or legs …

Hughes said that while smart home tech is about convenience for most people, for him it’s the difference between being able to do things for himself and not.

I’m fortunate to live in this digital voice driven era. It’s opened up so many opportunities for me that I would not otherwise have had. Every day I almost have to pinch myself that I’m actually able, for the first time in my life, to turn my own lights on, thermostat up, kettle on, blinds closed, and so on.

Another feature that is really helping with my independence is enabling my flat door to be opened and closed with voice commands. Initially it was enabled for Alexa, but thanks to IFTTT I have found a workaround to control the door with Siri as well. This has been great as it means I can get in and out of my flat independently and spontaneously.

For me, it’s not about an added bit of convenience. It is about independence, pure and simple.

It’s the same with the ‘Hey Siri’ feature in AirPods.

One of the most successful Apple features for me (and ironically Apple do not see it as an accessibility feature at all) is inbuilt Siri in the Airpods second-generation. This has had a huge impact on my life over the past year.

Previously, with almost every brand of Bluetooth earbud you had to be able to raise your hand and touch the earbud to trigger the voice assistant, but now with hands-free Siri in the second-generation Airpods, I’m able to do so many things with just a voice command: place a call, play a music playlist, control my Philips lighting when at home, check the time. All of this has proved extremely useful when I am out and about in my wheelchair. It gives me peace of mind as well, because I can call someone for help if I run into difficulties while away from home on my own […]

Another closely related feature that has been transformational is another one Apple does not class as an accessibility feature but similarly has had a huge impact on my life and that is Announce Messages with Siri. I can go out for a walk in my wheelchair on my own with Airpods in my ears, on a sunny day and I can think of my mum, or a close friend, and spontaneously text them and hear their reply. I have never been able to do this before – and you can’t put a price on that level of independence.

I’m excited to see that Announce Messages with Siri and Shortcuts are coming to watchOS 7. These are positive developments that will extend access for people like me

However, while Hughes gets enormous benefits from HomeKit and Siri – two mainstream Apple features – he ironically finds that some of the company’s Accessibility features are less effective. Lack of support for UK English in Voice Control, for example, means that he has to boot his MacBook Pro into Windows when he wants to dictate. British English is in the iOS 14 beta, and works, but it’s taken a very long time – and he isn’t yet able to try the Mac beta.

I’m an Apple user and fan. I am disappointed I have to turn to Dragon on Windows to dictate emails and messages because Voice Control dictation isn’t good enough.

I write and campaign with my MacBook Pro with speech recognition technology. It pains me that I simply cannot use Apple’s Voice Control in its present form, and have to occupy a twilight world running Parallels and Windows 10 on my MacBook Pro and using Dragon Professional 15 for voice dictation. I’m so frustrated with this situation, I would like to make Voice Control my number one choice for voice dictation but for the past 12 months it does not support UK English (although this is in the pipeline though I am yet to try it as the public beta of Mac OS has not been released yet). In its present form Voice Control is unusable for me.

He says details matter.

When it comes to accessibility, the little details can literally make or break your day, your life even. Across the Apple ecosystem, there are still yawning gaps in provision of critical accessibility features for severely physically disabled people who can’t touch screens, keyboards or trackpads.

For example, Accessibility offers an auto-answer capability for phone calls, ideal for people who cannot touch a screen to answer a call. But you can’t ask Siri to switch on this functionality: a feature most useful for people who can’t touch a screen requires you to … touch a screen to enable it. Sure, a disabled person can ask someone to do it for them, but accessibility is all about enabling independence.

If you don’t want to have auto-answer enabled, because it may not always be convenient to take a call, there is no Siri or Voice Control command to answer a call. Nor is there one to hang-up a call.

I have lost count of the number of times I call someone and end up in their voicemail box, and there is nothing I can do to end the call because I cannot press the red button on the screen. The sense of powerlessness is palpable. Very frustrating.

Hughes says the Apple Watch cellular model could almost be tailor-made for people in his position, as it provides the security and independence of being able to make and receive phone calls without needing a phone that they can’t access – but there’s no auto-answer feature for the Watch.

He adds that bugs which might be slightly annoying for able-bodied people can be show-stoppers for disabled people.

I can’t dictate into the Google search text box with Voice Control dictation without text getting mangled, for example randomly having no spaces between words. The same in text boxes on sites like WordPress and many others. This is a known bug that Apple acknowledges, but in 12 months the company has not fixed it. It is a fairly serious state of affairs when disabled users are unable to use Apple software to search for knowledge on Google, which is essential for everyone these days.

Siri dictation doesn’t have this issue, but you can’t mix-and-match them: if Voice Control is active, it is used for dictation as well as control.

Hughes had one suggestion that he thinks might raise the profile of these sorts of issues rather dramatically.

If Tim Cook took up the challenge of spending a day in an electric wheelchair, with his hands remaining on the armrests, and tried to use Apple’s technology to run his personal and professional day, he would clearly see the huge gaps that need filling.

But he also thinks there’s a better approach – in Apple learning from one of its own claims.

Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s head of accessibility, has said in the past: “When you build for the margins, you actually make a better product for the masses”. She is right. Make things easier for people like me to use and you make things easier and more convenient for everyone. That is a strong selling point these days.

Rather than building accessibility ghettos or silos, Apple should push the philosophy of inclusive design much more strongly than it does the moment.

Why have both Siri and Voice Control, asks Hughes? Why not simply make Siri more powerful by including all the Voice Control features? In that way, Apple would have one voice technology to manage, and because Siri is a mainstream technology, it might get more attention and priority than a feature used by a small minority of Apple customers.

Hughes had to give up his job as a BBC news producer because of the progression of his disability. He now devotes much of his time to campaigning on greater access to technology for disabled people. He had a lot more to say than I can include here, so I’m aiming to put him in touch with Apple so that more detailed discussions can be held

Do you have a disability? If so, what difference does Apple technology make to your life? What are the hits, and what are the misses? Please share your experiences in the comments.

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