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Why the iPhone 5s is a terrific accessibility tool

As a freelance tech writer, I’ve focused primarily on accessibility and recently, it’s been a good beat to have. Apple has shown unwavering commitment to implementing and updating the accessibility features found on OS X and iOS, even going so far as to tip its hat to the accessibility community in its iPhone TV ads. The accessibility features found on Apple’s platforms enable users with special needs— myself included—to interact with their devices with as much fluidity and delight as the fully-abled do.

But while the norm is to focus on accessibility software, accessibility can apply just as aptly to hardware. For me, Apple’s iPhone 5s is a perfect example. I’ve used the iPhone 5s since launch day and have found Apple’s flagship iPhone to be a terrific accessibility tool for three reasons: its larger display; thinner, lighter body; and its Touch ID sensor. All together, these features make using my phone easier than ever, and a lot more fun too.

It’s easier on the eyes

Every iPhone I’ve had since the 2007 original has been of the 3.5-inch variety. That changed this past September when I upgraded from my trusty companion of two years, an iPhone 4S, to a shiny new iPhone 5s.

As a visually-impaired person, I greatly enjoy the extra screen real estate I get from the larger, 4-inch display. Generally speaking, bigger is always better for someone like me, and the iPhone 5s’s display is awesome. Not only do I retain the glorious Retina display, but also the bigger screen has benefitted me as I find myself not squinting as much as I used to on the smaller screen. Since the screen is bigger and can hold more information, I don’t have to search as much for items. What’s more, the Larger Dynamic Text option introduced in iOS 7 makes it so that apps can support my preferred font sizes system-wide, saving me from having to always adjust manually.

My eyes were accustomed to my old iPhone’s screen and did well with it, but after using the 5s’s 4-inch screen regularly now, I can’t go back. By comparison, the screen on the 4s feels comically small and cramped, and makes my eyes hurt almost instantly.

It’s easier to hold

I never felt my old iPhones were too bulky or heavy; I held and carried them everywhere I went without much hassle. Still, because of cerebral palsy, I have to grip my phone more tightly than most to compensate for reduced strength in my fingers, which means my hands wear out. I also have small hands, which make it more difficult to wrap my fingers around a large phone comfortably.

Hands on with iPhone 5s Jason Snell

Thin and light, the iPhone 5 and 5s are much easier to hold for people with small hands or limited strength in their fingers.

The body of the iPhone 5s is so much thinner and lighter than my 4s that I find I don’t need to grip it as tightly. The aluminum enclosure is much lighter (and more durable) than the glass on my 4S, making it easier for me to hold it for prolonged periods without getting muscle cramps. The phone’s size also makes it easier to get it in and out of my pocket—something I do repeatedly throughout the day.

It’s easier to use, with special thanks to Touch ID

When Phil Schiller revealed the Touch ID sensor as the marquee feature of the iPhone 5s, I immediately started contemplating its potential impact on accessibility. I was so intrigued by the idea that I wrote about it twice, wherein I posited that the fingerprint sensor would be a dark-horse accessibility tool.

It turns out I wasn’t alone in my thinking. For me, the hypothesis turned out to be correct. Simply resting my thumb on the Home button to unlock my phone and to make iTunes purchases is worlds better than clumsily hunting-and-pecking out my passcode and Apple ID password. For those with vision- and motor-related disabilities, the fact that you’re able to just rest your finger on the Home button to carry out common security tasks is an absolute game-changer. In fact, I would say Touch ID alone makes the 5s a worthwhile buy for any user with special needs; it’s that good.

touchid

 Touch ID isn't just a nifty tool for me; it makes using my iPhone much, much easier.

What’s next? 

Truthfully, there aren’t many nits to pick about the iPhone 5s. I love it. But, looking forward, I hope Apple will keep improving the iPhone’s accessibility features, both in hardware and software.

Siri for everyone: Siri, Apple’s voice recognition-based personal assistant, sounds like a great idea for people with motor or vision difficulties. After all, if you can just dictate your text messages and tell your phone to remember appointments, you’re spared the need to type or tap. If you have speech impediments like me, however, it’s a bust. I stutter, which makes it very hard for Siri to understand me. Oftentimes it takes a few seconds to get out the words, and Siri will cut me off because it thinks I’ve finished talking.

The bigger issue, though, is that more often than not Siri inaccurately parses what I did say, which leaves me frustrated. It’s gotten to a point where Siri is so unusable that I forego using my voice to do anything. (And, let’s face it, I’m not the only one who has trouble with Siri.) If Apple wants to continue touting Siri as a hallmark feature of the iPhone, it had better work hard to ensure Siri plays well with everyone.

A wearable option: As for hardware changes, I believe a wearable, wristband-type device would be a great complement to the iPhone, in terms of accessibility. Because of my cerebral palsy, there are times when holding my phone is hard. I sometimes find myself in situations (like the grocery store) where I need to act on an important message, but my hands are full and I can’t comfortably reach for my phone. A wristband device could allow me to tap a button to read a message and then use (a working version of) Siri to act on it. Rather than just being cool toys, wearable devices could have a major role in enhancing the iPhone’s accessibility appeal.

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