Apple is working to get a range of new emoji’s approved to better represent individuals with disabilities. The attempt underlines its award-winning leadership position when it comes to an evidenced commitment to making products accessible with software. It could do even more to enrich people’s lives.
Technology for change
Apple already works closely with internationally respected organizations, such as the American Council of the Blind, Cerebral Palsy Foundation and the National Association of the Deaf. It has collaborated with many of these groups for years.
“We see accessibility as a basic human right,” says Sarah Herrlinger, senior manager for Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives at Apple.
Submitting the emoji designs, Apple says: “One in seven people around the world has some form of disability, whether that be a physical disability involving vision, hearing, or loss of physical motor skills, or a more hidden, invisible disability.”
The power of accessibility solutions within consumer electronics is already changing people’s lives.
For example, the accessibility tools inside the Apple Watch empower deafblind Usher Syndrome sufferers to better manage complex urban travel. The combination of location awareness with taptic navigation instructions and voice-activated Siri all work together to help people when they travel.
A $26 billion opportunity
The World Health Organization estimates that over one billion people worldwide need one or more assistive products, with the global elderly and disabled assistive devices market expected to surpass $26 billion by 2024.
The challenge when developing such products is that the time it takes to achieve regulatory approval for what would be defined as medical devices means not every assistive solution can easily be wrapped up inside a consumer product without severely impacting development time.
Discussing this, Apple CEO Tim Cook in 2016 said: “We don’t want to put the watch through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) process” because the approval process would slow down the innovation curve.
He also said Apple wouldn’t mind putting “something adjacent” through FDA approval, “maybe an app, maybe something else.”
We’ve all heard years of speculation claiming Apple plans a non-invasive diabetes sensor for its devices. I think it can go further.
You see, while I do think it’s great that Apple wants to make sure there is an emoji for a hearing aid, I think it might be even better if it sought to put iOS intelligence inside such devices.
Think AirPod capabilities in conjunction with the sophisticated audio listening systems it has created for use in HomePods. Or semi-autonomous wheelchairs based on the tech it has been developing for cars? Apple does, after all, have a great deal of information on wheelchair use.
It’s not so far-fetched.
Apple expanded its Made for iPhone scheme to include hearing aid manufacturers in 2013. Since then, it has worked with manufacturers, including Cochlear and ReSound, to develop iPhone-compatible solutions that combine hearing enhancement tech with smart iOS features, navigation, messaging, and more.
Apple also has some relevant patents, such as this one for hearing aid detection, or this one for “remotely updating a hearing aid profile.”
Returning to the new emoji’s Apple is proposing:
A hearing aid and the deaf sign
A guide dog and a service dog
Prosthetic limb (arm and leg
Two wheelchair users — one mechanical, the other self-powered
A person with a cane
In its current form, iOS can already enhance what many of these assistive solutions can do to empower people of disability.
As the company continues on its slowly emerging but profound project to innovate in digital health technologies, everything about Apple's history says it will continue raising awareness of the needs (and solutions) of those with disability.
This makes it pretty much inevitable that it will seek out ways to innovate the kind of assertive devices illustrated in its new emojis. It's yet another big chance to enrich people's lives.