In light of Global Accessibility Awareness Day on Thursday 21st May, last night Apple held the first of two events at its flagship Australian store on George Street in Sydney. At the event was Founder and CEO of AssistiveWare David Niemeijer, Co-founder of Ai-Media Alex Jones and Senior Adaptive Technology Consultant at Vision Australia David Woodbridge.

With Apple Watch now in the hands of consumers across the globe, new ways of interacting with information are empowering people with disabilities in just as many ways as everyone else. I attended the discussion to gain a first hand insight into the ways mobile devices are contributing to the lives of people with disabilities as well as the ways they currently fall short, instead opening up opportunities for improvement in the future.

Apple Watch Accessibility

Wearing a Space Grey Apple Watch, Dr. Niemeijer describes the way technologies such as Apple Watch have the potential to break down social barriers for people with disabilities, “There are about 300,000 Australians who can’t have their own voice without speaking. This is mainstream technology, it brings them closer, it doesn’t set them further apart.” He describes the importance of working in the accessibility field and the ways his own life experiences have opened him up to the possibilities of enabling people with disabilities to regain their own inner voice.

Asked about how Apple Watch can effect the lives of people with blindness, Mr. Woodbridge stated that the device was not specifically created for blind people such as himself but that the device “really holds up the bar for other technology manufacturers that creating such a rich and visual interface can actually be really accessible.” He mentions that his wife uses the ‘Ping iPhone’ feature to be able to call for help remotely when she needs his attention.

Mr. Jones’ favourite use case for Apple Watch is being able to listen to music with his friends and colleagues, using his watch to identify a song and display the lyrics. The ability to easily see what people around him are singing seems a welcome and exciting change. “What would I like to see changed in the accessibility community? Holograms” he jokes, “really, in the future, in maybe 5 years, I want that Hologram.”

Global Accessibility Awareness Day is a community-driven effort whose goal is to dedicate one day to raising the profile of and introducing the topic of digital (web, software, mobile app/device etc.) accessibility and people with different disabilities to the broadest audience possible.

Mr. Woodbridge remembers in 2007 the addition of Voice Over to the Mac OS X operating system, which for the first time gave him complete control of his computer without any assistance. Later in 2009 he was introduced to the iPhone 3GS, “I payed the same price as everyone else did, and as a smartphone it opened up my world.”

The trend continued in 2010 with the launch of iPad, “the iPad is what enabled me to easily read books”. In 2015 Mr. Woodbridge sees himself becoming capable of even more, “with the Apple Watch I have another ability to be more productive in my daily life.”

Apple Store Sydney

Dr. Niemeijer believes there is always room for developers to add accessibility support into their apps and the pay off is well worth the efforts, “what we’re seeing is that by adding that little bit of work in terms of making your own apps accessible, it opens up all sorts of unexpected doors.” Mr. Woodbridge hopes that one day homes will be connected digitally, “everything in my house, I want it to be connected.”

It’s often easy to forget the impact that new technologies such as Apple Watch can have on people with less mobility and accessibility than ourselves. As the ways in which humans interact with technology and digital information continue to improve, and at an exponential rate, the barriers that stand between everyone across the whole spectrum of our society will only diminish further.

Technology has come a long way in recent years and yet there is still a long road ahead. There are still so many possible ways of improving and enhancing lives. Only by being enthusiastic and taking advantage of the opportunity our tools provide us to create accessible mobile products can developers ensure that technology reaches its fullest potential.