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Apple seeks to 'take disability out of the equation'

Ahead of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, the tech giant discusses its work helping people with disabilities.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
3 min read

Austin Pruitt, who competed in the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games, demonstrates a practice routine with his racing wheelchair.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Austin Pruitt, a two-time US Paralympian, walked me over to a racing wheelchair that he set up for a stationary workout routine.

Pruitt has cerebral palsy from the knees down, which forces him to walk slowly, but he's able to compete on the world stage by racing in a wheelchair. He said he used to set up a bunch of trackers on his chair to log his workouts, but now uses just an Apple Watch instead.

"This has everything," he told me. "This has my wheelchair and my walking, all in one."

Watch this: How Apple makes its devices more accessible

Ahead of Global Accessibility Awareness Day this Thursday, which focuses on making technology more usable for people with disabilities, Apple sought to highlight the work its been doing in recent years to benefit people like Pruitt by building more capabilities into its devices.

These kinds of new features have the potential to change lives for the better, helping those with disabilities do more for themselves independently or save much more time completing tasks able-bodied folks might take for granted. Although many of these innovations focus on a smaller segment of people, some of these features can give the broader population benefit, too, thanks to added convenience or easier controls. For example, Apple's creation of inverted colors on its iPhone screen for the visually impaired also proved useful for low-light reading before bedtime.

"Every year we try to add in new things. We do look at how can we make it slightly better year over year," Sarah Herrlinger, Apple's director of global accessibility policy and initiatives, said about the company's work on its iOS and MacOS operating systems.


Text-to-speech, shown here, can be useful to read off a grocery list.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Other tech companies have been working to build up their accessibility options, too. Google added a variety of features to Android, including voice commands and display settings to make the screen easier to read. Samsung created several similar controls. And Amazon provides a handful of ways for people to use its Alexa voice assistant.

Herrlinger discussed a handful of Apple's efforts around accessibility, starting with the iPhone, where the tech giant has added a long list of specialized controls, including text-to-speech that can read your emails or a grocery list, and Bluetooth pairing with hearing aids and cochlear implants.

In the kitchen, a visually impaired person can use their iPhone to find specific spices by using a camera app to read their barcodes. They can also use a HomePod smart speaker to turn on small appliances via voice.

In the living room, Herrlinger said the company worked with makers of portable Braille readers and paddle switches (essentially large buttons that can pair with your electronics) to help people operate an iPad or turn on closed captioning or audio descriptions on an Apple TV.

"This becomes like a lifeline," said Andrea Dalzell, a nurse, advocate for people with disabilities and Ms. Wheelchair New York 2015. "I have the ability to take disability out of the equation."

Tech Enabled: CNET chronicles tech's role in providing new kinds of accessibility.

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