It's been ten years since Apple released OS X version 10.4, Tiger, which featured the world's first full-function screen reader, VoiceOver, built directly into the operating system. In 2009 Apple launched the Third Generation iPod Shuffle, the first music player which spoke right out of the box, announcing song and album titles, artist and playlist names and contents—all available in 29 different languages.

However when Steve Jobs unveiled the very first iPhone at Macworld on January 9, 2007, the blind community more or less went into panic mode. If touch screen interfaces were the future, were we going to be left out in the dark? Sure, there were a few touch screen devices that boasted screen reading capabilities, but they either used overlays to guide the sight impaired to specific screen positions, or rewrote the screen into quadrants, and remapped commands to offer at least limited functionality. But neither of these solutions would work on this new touch screen smartphone. The multi-touch interface was simply too fluid and complex.

Then, in June of 2009, Apple announced what may have seemed to the rest of the world like "Just one more thing," but to the blind became a milestone advancement in accessibility: VoiceOver for iOS.

Apple's Mac computers were available a full quarter century before they included the built-in VoiceOver screen reader. For iPods eight years passed before they were accessible by the blind, and for Apple's flagship product, the iPhone, it took two years. When the iPad was released in 2010 accessibility was built-into the very first model. And this year, the new Apple Watch also "talks" with no sighted setup assistance required.

As you can see, it may have taken awhile to make its products accessible with screen readers and low-vision accessibility features, but these days Apple's commitment to accessibility is second to none. This is why this June 18, at a special gala in New York City, AFB will award Apple with its prestigious Helen Keller Achievement Award for its notable breakthroughs in accessible technology.

"We are thrilled to honor Apple for its trailblazing engineering and unwavering commitment to accessibility," said AFB President & CEO Carl R. Augusto. "Apple's products are intuitive and accessible right out of the box. Apple is truly in a league of its own."

Apple is proud of its commitment to accessibility. "Too often people with disabilities are left in the shadow of technological advances," says Greg "Joz" Joswiak, Apple's vice president of iPhone and iOS Product Marketing. "AFB is committed to removing barriers, extending solutions and expanding possibilities for those who are visually impaired, and we view this award as an acknowledgement of how aligned Apple is to that same commitment."

Many iOS and OS X users praise Apple for making them feel equal to all their other customers, from their first visit to an Apple store to a telephone session with customer support. "At Apple we build tools," says Joswiak. "For Apple, accessibility is another tool to make our users' lives more productive and more fun."

Apple's commitment to accessibility goes both ways: to its users, and also to company employees. "From the day I showed up for my first interview with Apple I was assured that my blindness was not going to be an issue," says Shane Jackson, who worked in a Birmingham, Alabama Apple retail store as a sales associate and iPhone specialist from 2009 until 2014, when he left to pursue a career in law. "They were right. I never felt like the blind guy working at Apple; I was the guy at Apple who happened to have this condition called blindness. My colleagues never made a big deal about accommodations; they just went ahead and made them, like braille dots under the display tables so I could learn the store layout, and making sure the EasyPay system worked with VoiceOver."

According to Joswiak, "One of Apple's unique strengths in providing accessibility is its integrated approach. Since we control the hardware, software and key services," says Joswiak, "when we create solutions we try to ensure that they are truly integrated into our products, and by that I mean that if the hardware has to change to accommodate the software, we can do that. If the software has to accommodate the hardware, we can do that, too. Without that system-wide integration accessibility solutions generally do feel like they are bolted on. They can be kludgy, and often break easily."

Apple does not stand alone. "We strive to include iOS and OS X app developers in our accessibility mission in every way possible—from highlighting useful apps for Global Accessibility Awareness Day to continuing to improve and enhance our products," Joswiak says.

"Apple has made it so easy to make apps accessible there's really not much for developers to do for most apps, says George Cox, lead developer of the popular Downcast podcast app. "Most applications are reasonably accessible with no additional developer effort. Any user control that has a title is automatically accessible and any of those same controls that are visually represented by an icon only are easily made accessible by setting the control's accessibility label. This is something that takes a couple of seconds to do. These days, there's simply no excuse for not making an app accessible. Sure, certain apps that are heavily visual may be extremely difficult or impossible to make accessible, but the vast majority of applications use standard controls that can be made accessible with minimal effort. I'd give Apple most of the credit for that. It is continually improving accessibility APIs used to customize accessibility and always seems to address these changes in WWDC sessions each year."

Indeed, at the recent Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) Apple hosted accessibility-specific developer sessions for both iOS and Apple Watch. The conference also included an accessibility lab where company engineers offered developers one-on-one help making their iOS, WatchKit and OS X apps more accessible.

"For me it was a very exciting moment at WWDC to honor for the first time at our Apple Design Awards an app for accessibility," says Joswiak. This first annual Accessibility Award went to the Workflow app, in honor of its outstanding use of iOS accessibility features, in particular an outstanding implementation for VoiceOver, with clearly labeled items, thoughtful hints, and drag/drop announcements, making the app usable and quickly accessible to those who are blind or have low-vision.

"Once we heard from the blind community they were interested in using our app, if it could be made to work with VoiceOver, we made the necessary changes," says Workflow's lead developer, Ari Weinstein. "Everything we needed to know was in the Apple accessibility documentation."

One of the new WatchOS 2 features announced at WWDC is the ability for developers to control the haptic engine directly from inside their apps. "We feel this will align nicely with the ability to create accessibility solutions," states Joswiak. One developer who will doubtless be taking quick advantage of this new feature is Ilkka Pirttimaa, developer of the essential BlindSquare navigation app, which was reviewed in the July 2014 issue of AccessWorld.

"For Apple, accessibility has just become part of the company's DNA," he says. "The latest example of this is the Apple Watch, where the first model is accessible out of the box, just like all of its other products. Some people say that Apple is not as innovative as other companies. However, Apple uses new technologies, refines them and creates products that just work, and for that reason are more successful than similar products of its competitors. A good example is iBeacons. The technology has been developed by Nokia, but Apple has enhanced the product and is successful at promoting it for use cases in very different scenarios (retail shops, museums). Apple refined and made available everything I needed to create accessible indoor navigation."

BlindSquare version 3.0 offers indoor navigation for venues equipped with iBeacon Positioning Systems (BPS). When a BlindSquare user enters the range of a specific iBeacon, a message associated with that beacon is played on his or her iOS device. Currently, the number of iBeacon-equipped venues is limited, but if you have navigated a shopping mall, sports arena, airport terminal, or another building using BlindSquare we'd love to hear from you.

Apple realized early that providing accessibility was one thing, but if users couldn't figure out how to configure and use VoiceOver and the other accessibility features its efforts would be less than successful. To address this problem the company set up an accessibility help desk, which users can reach either via email at or by phone at 877-204-3930. Store employees are also trained to help users of Apple's various accessibility features at Apple retail stores across the country and around the world.

As for the future of Apple's accessibility initiatives, the company's philosophy and commitment were best summed up by Apple CEO Tim Cook in a speech to his alma mater, Auburn University:

People with disabilities often find themselves in a struggle to have their human dignity acknowledged; they frequently are left in the shadows of technological advancements that are a source of empowerment and attainment for others, but Apple's engineers push back against this unacceptable reality, they go to extraordinary lengths to make our products accessible to people with various disabilities from blindness and deafness to various muscular disorders.
I found in Apple a company that deeply believed in advancing humanity through its products and the equality of its employees. These values which are at the very heart of our company remain the same. These values guide us to make our products accessible for everyone.
We design our products to surprise and delight everyone who uses them, and we never, ever analyze the return on investment. We do it because it is just and right, and that is what respect for human dignity requires, and it's a part of Apple I'm especially proud of.

Comment on this article.

More from this author:

Bill Holton
Article Topic
Corporate Highlights