On June 8, 2009, at the end of a two-hour WWDC keynote, Phil Schiller was running through a long list of new features and apps that would be available on the iPhone 3GS, due to ship on June 19 of that year. Phil was pinch-hitting as keynote master of ceremonies for Steve Jobs, who was then on leave, recovering from a liver transplant.
At 1:51:54 in the video, just after he showed off Voice Control and the new Compass app, Apple’s version of the accessibility logo appeared on screen. It’s a stick-style figure with arms and legs outstretched. The icon is still used today.
“We also care greatly about accessibility,” Schiller said, and the slide switched to an iPhone settings screen.
For a total of 36 seconds, Schiller spoke somewhat awkwardly about VoiceOver, Zoom, White on Black (called Invert Colors from iOS 6 onward), and Mono Audio – the first real accessibility features on the iPhone OS platform, as it was then called.
And then it was over. No demo. No applause break.
Schiller moved on to describe the Nike+ app and how it would allow iPhone users to meet fitness goals.
I surveyed a number of liveblogs from that day. About half noted the mention of accessibility features in iPhone OS. The others jumped directly from Compass to Nike+. Accessibility hadn’t made much of a splash.
But in the blindness community, things were very different. Time seemed to stop somewhere after 1:51:54 in the video. Something completely amazing had happened, and only a few people seemed to understand what it meant.
Some were overjoyed, some were skeptical, some were in shock. They all had questions. Would this be a half-hearted attempt that would allow Apple to fill in the checkboxes required by government regulations, a PR stunt to attract good will? Or would it mean that people who had previously been completely locked out of the iPhone would have a way in?
You can probably guess what the answer is, now that we have ten years of an accessible mobile platform in the rearview mirror – now that Apple is widely credited with offering the best mobile accessibility experience available. But it didn’t all happen at once, and not every step along the way was a positive one.
As a companion to my audio documentary, “36 Seconds That Changed Everything: How the iPhone Learned to Talk,” I’ve put together a timeline of iOS accessibility milestones from the past ten years. I’ve focused on Apple hardware and operating systems, though there have also been important Apple app updates, and third-party apps that opened doors to new ways of using iOS accessibly. It’s a list that’s simply too long for this article. And, with a few exceptions, I’ve addressed accessibility-specific features of iOS. Many mainstream features have accessibility applications and benefits, even if they don’t fit here directly.