Apple's iOS update comes with a new accessibility feature — but big tech still has a long way to go if it wants to be truly accessible

  • Sarah Katz is a freelance writer who covers the intersection between disability and mental health, relationships, entertainment, and public services.
  • At its Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced that iOS 14 will have a new accessibility feature that can alert deaf and hard-of-hearing users to 14 different sounds.
  • This type of technology isn't new: Companies like Wavio have been creating comprehensive sound recognition technology for years.
  • Still, many in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community are excited for the new update — and it could lay the groundwork for further sounds to be incorporated.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

I was born deaf more than 30 years ago, so I consider myself skilled at navigating an inaccessible world. But despite my visual attentiveness and high-powered hearing aids, some events escape my notice. For instance, as I was sleeping a couple weeks ago, my bathroom and office flooded with an inch of water after I accidentally left the sink running overnight. It caused costly water damage in the ceiling of my neighbor's apartment below.

But Apple's new accessibility feature, which will debut in the iOS 14 update of the operating system when it releases this fall, could prevent such a thing from happening again. The feature, announced during Apple's virtual Worldwide Developers Conference, will alert deaf and hard-of-hearing users by text to doorbells and door knocks; fire, smoke, and siren alarms; and other specific environmental sounds (14 in total), including shouting, a baby crying, a dog barking, a cat meowing, and — lo and behold — running water.

Other deaf and hard-of-hearing people share my excitement about the new feature. Haben Girma, a disability rights lawyer, speaker, and the author of "Haben: The DeafBlind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law," told me that the feature "has the potential to increase independence and freedom for many people." 

"Imagine Deaf and Deafblind parents moving around their homes with the assurance that they'll immediately receive an alert when their baby is crying," Girma said in an email. (Some Deaf people who consider themselves a member of the signing community capitalize the word "deaf.") 

Given Apple's use of Haptic Touch technology, which provides tactile sensations in the form of vibrations for other features, Girma hopes the company will also incorporate custom haptic alerts for distinct sounds, including on the Apple Watch: "We should be able to know if the doorbell is ringing or the baby is crying through a distinct touch on our wrist. Hearing people moving around listening to music, vacuuming, and engaging in other noisy tasks could also benefit from Sound [Recognition]." 

Apple isn't the first electronics company to incorporate non-speech sound recognition technology into its products; Samsung added a similar feature to its devices years ago. The company's efforts also build on the work of previous innovations by sound recognition technology companies including OtoSense, Audio Analytic, and AbiliSense. 

Wavio, founded five years ago by three Deaf individuals, is another sound recognition company that has forefronted accessibility. Its CEO Greyson Watkins said that the team's experiences as Deaf people and their consumer research have influenced their development of their sound recognition technology.

Wavio's technology, which goes much further than Apple's feature, recognizes over 500 "critical and convenient household sounds that we are prioritizing based on consumer research and unmet needs." That includes beeping, coughing, crashing, crying, fire, gunfire, cries for help, ringing, and shattering, among others — a list that will continue to grow as its dataset develops.

Wavio's technology can also pinpoint a sound's location, while Apple's feature may not. Wavio's CEO said that's an important factor in capturing sounds in spaces where people are not present, including when they aren't at home. 

"We heard so many stories about people accidentally leaving the car idling, water running, or stove on and then leaving the room," Watkins said. "So Apple's use of their internal mic is absolutely helpful for sounds nearby a device, but may not be as efficacious when it comes to capturing sounds outside of the immediate room the user or device is in."

Girma added that the feature could also come in handy when she's in an unfamiliar environment. 

"One of my greatest fears is that I won't hear a fire alarm. Before the pandemic, I traveled all the time for book talks and other events," she said. "I have the ability to hear loud sounds in the same room as me, but I've stayed in hotels where the alarms were in the hall rather than in the rooms. Accessible alert systems exist for hotels, yet many still don't use them. Hopefully in the future I'll be able to rely on my Apple watch to notify me of fire alarms."

Apple's move shows the potential for broader adoption of assistive technologies at bigger firms.

Although Apple's update will only include 14 sounds, it lays the groundwork for additional sounds to be added in the years to come. If successful, the feature could potentially replace other existing assistive devices for deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers, like flashing fire alarms, reducing the costs that they bear to make their homes more accessible to them.

Howard Rosenblum, chief executive officer at the National Association of the Deaf, a civil-rights organization for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, said he appreciates the efforts of Apple and other companies that seek to improve the accessibility of everyday life. But he also noted that they would benefit from employing deaf people. 

"We encourage all companies to retain deaf and hard of hearing employees as well as consult with deaf and hard of hearing organizations to assist with all technological advancements and ensure it is designed with accessibility from the start," Rosenblum said. "It is of paramount importance that all companies establish accessibility-focused positions to coordinate and oversee all accessibility-related matters and ensure accessibility is not overlooked internally." 

The technology could also potentially transform the lives of people who have service animals that currently alert them to various sounds in their environment. Cara Miller, Ph.D., a faculty member in the Gallaudet University Clinical Psychology doctoral program who is deaf, has a hearing dog, and studies human-animal interaction, said she welcomes the new feature. 

"[A]ny assistive 'technology,' whether digitally-powered or with a cold nose and warm heart, that has the potential to bring about greater ease in daily living is a welcome addition to the ways we as humans seek to be more aware of the environments around us," Miller said.

But Miller added that, in some cases, hearing dogs will alert owners to sounds which a dog has not been trained in, like an oncoming car — which is not something the new Apple feature will be able to do in its current iteration. 

"[H]earing dog partnerships offer some supports, both anticipated and unexpected, that may meet really essential needs for safety, security, awareness, and companionship," she said.

Apple has also added other accessibility features to iOS 14 that will affect deaf and hard-of-hearing users — like Real Time Text conversations, which will enable callers to text chat during a voice call, and an update for FaceTime to allow for a larger screen when users are communicating in sign language. 

The company also added "Headphone Accommodations," which will essentially turn AirPods Pro into hearing aids as it "amplifies soft sounds and tunes audio to help music, movies, phone calls, and podcasts sound crisper and clearer," according to the press release.

The company is making major inroads in the area of accessibility: something deaf and hard-of-hearing people — and my neighbors — can celebrate.

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