iPad Accessibility

Posted on Apr 4, 2010
iPad Accessibility

The lines formed around city blocks this week, in great anticipation of the iPad arrival. There is plenty of chatter about what the iPad means for personal computing; resting somewhere between a phone and a laptop, it will be interesting to see what impact the device has on digital content creation and consumption.

To a somewhat lesser extent, there has also been discussion regarding the accessibility features of the iPad compared to other Apple products. All existing iPhone accessibility features are available on the iPad, including VoiceOver, screen zoom, white-on-black displays, mono audio and closed-captioning of content. There is some grumbling as to the comparative number of languages supported in iPad’s version of VoiceOver; however, this is somewhat mitigated by Apple’s decision to support free e-books in read-aloud format:

“IBooks works with VoiceOver, the screen reader in iPad, so it can read you the contents of any page,” Apple’s description reads. And for EPUB titles that are not offered through the iBooks store, you can manually add them to iTunes and then sync them to the iPad:

“The iBooks app uses the EPUB format — the most popular open book format in the world,” Apple’s site reads. “That makes it easy for publishers to create iBooks versions of your favorite reads. And you can add free EPUB titles to iTunes and sync them to the iBooks app on your iPad.”

That’s good news for iPad customers, because that means bookworms won’t be limited to the offerings in the iBooks store, which are based on partnerships that Apple inked with publishers.

This tactical decision on the part of Apple has already received support from the National Federation of the Blind, who specifically cited the integration of accessibility in the iPad’s touch-screen technology.

As of this writing, the iPad is not expressly designed to operate as a person’s primary computing device; Apple makes the assumption that a user will have a desktop computer or laptop in addition to the iPad. That said, iPads can be docked to a wireless external keyboard. This benefits users with motor skill or vision impairments, who cannot use the touch-screen functionality as effectively as those without disabilities. It is also worth noting that the iPad’s built-in speakers are much louder than existing iTouch devices.

One item to note is that the iPad is big, with features that can be “zoomed up” for those users who have motor control impairments. I would personally want to see more data behind the effectiveness of these features, since no two people living with a disability are the same. A person with cerebral palsy may have different needs and expectations from someone just diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). I’d also be interested to see how iPad apps can be customized over time for people with degenerative conditions.

I believe that research also needs to be conducted on the assumption that a larger touch-screen interface is cognitively easier for people to use. A design principle based upon large, brightly-colored buttons certainly makes sense from a form factor perspective. Removing the input layer of a keyboard/mouse combination may or may not benefit people with cognitive disabilities, and only testing within authentic use cases will provide measurable results. That being said, I’m encouraged by this report from the excellent blog Abledbody:

For those who use the iPod as a daily assistive device, the size helps make many apps easier to use, like Proloquo2go, a text-to-speech app for those who speak by touching words, images and phrases on the screen. With the iPod or iTouch, external speakers were necessary; the iPad has built-in speakers making it easier for them to communicate out loud. Another app, iPrompts, is a picture scheduler for those with developmental disabilities. For this group and others (perhaps those who have had a stroke or traumatic brain injury), ease-of-use will provide them with more confidence for buying and using this device.

Another area of possible exploration would be the creation of haptic inputs that do not require direct skin contact with the surface interface, perhaps even a pointing device that somehow delivers signals to the iPad via head-pointing or eye-tracking. I’ve long been interested in the potential of cognitive computing to affect digital objects on a screen, so any new device purporting to be a game-changer certainly gets my attention within this space.

So we will see how things net out over the coming months. In the meantime, you can read the iPad technical specifications from Apple’s website.

Update: the very brilliant and wonderful Jennison Asuncion just posted a link on Twitter detailing the first impressions of the iPad from the perspective of a blind user.