There’s no doubt that when it comes to digital access, Apple reign supreme in the mobile space. Prior to 2009, the idea that a blind person could effectively use a touchscreen seemed like an impossible dream – at least until the iPhone 3GS came out packing the VoiceOver screen reader. That Apple objective of universal access remains largely present in the current offerings with accessibility features available in most Apple products.
Apple iPhone X (Image © 2017 Apple)
However, the release of the iPhone X, pronounced ‘iPhone 10’, makes some changes that have raised concerns for people with disabilities. While there are some benefits to the new phone such as the inclusion of wireless charging, the two big things that have access implications are the removal of the home button and the new Face ID at the expense of the fingerprint sensor.
Home button removal
From the perspective of people who are blind or vision impaired, the removal of the home button is a pretty big deal. As noted in an AppleVis blog post about the Apple announcements, the use of the Home button to activate various assistive technology tools such as VoiceOver has to now be achieved in a different way. The article confirms that to address this issue, Apple have movved the three-button tap and Siri support to the side button. In addition, the accessibility shortcut to activate accessibility features will be supported by haptic feedback and a gesture which may be awkward to use, but ensures the functionality remains.
In addition, the Assistive Touch accessibility feature may be helpful by providing a virtual home button. A detailed tutorial on how to set this up can be found in Alyssa Bereznak’s article What to Do If Your iPhone’s Home Button Breaks.
Face ID at the expense of Touch ID
The next issue is the Face ID which relies on the iPhone picking up that a person is looking at the phone for it to be activated. As a person who is legally blind I can vouch for the challenges in trying to look at something you can’t see. As there is no Touch ID fingerprint option to fall back on in the iPhone X, this has the potential to be difficult. There is, however, a workaround for this as well in that the specific need to look at the iPhone will be disabled if VoiceOver is enabled, meaning that the user just has to hold the phone up in line with their face to achieve the same effect. How easy it is to use though for a blind person remains to be seen.
For other disability groups, it’s difficult to say at this early stage whether Face ID will be helpful or not. For some people with motor function difficulties it may be much easier to be able to look to the iPhone and unlock it, while others may struggle to get the iPhone in the right place to trigger the feature, whereby in comparison a fingerprint swipe may have been the easier option. While new features always have the ability to make things easier, it’s the removal of long-established accessibility features to incorporate the changes that have raised the concerns of many.
Accessible smartphone alternatives
While some of the design decisions for the iPhone X may have negative access implications, it’s important to remember that there are plenty of alternatives out there. In addition to accessibility, there’s also affordability considerations as the price of the iPhone X starts from $AUD1579 for the 64GB model.
Firstly, if you’re particularly keen on Apple products, it’s worth mentioning that the other two iPhones announced, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, retain Touch ID while picking up the benefits of wireless charging and still have all the fantastic accessibility features built-in for several hundred dollars less. There’s also high-end Android smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S8 and a new Google Pixel just around the corner which are slightly cheaper still.
Finally, if you’re looking for a mid-range smartphone that still has most of the features as the flagship phones along with fingerprint sensor and a wealth of accessibility features, I’d recommend my personal favourite the Moto G5 Plus rated by NET as ‘Simply the best budget phone’. It’s also one-fifth the price of the iPhone X.
So overall it is understandable that the removal of the Home button and Touch ID from the Apple iPhone X may make the phone more awkward to use for people with disabilities, but in fairness to Apple it also appears the company has endeavoured to ensure that the functionality remains with workarounds to address the issues. Additional information on the iPhone X can be found on the Apple website.