On iOS 7, Restrictions, and Accessibility's Role

There’s a concept in special education called LRE, or Least Restrictive Environment. From Wikipedia:

“Least restrictive environment” (LRE) means that a student who has a disability should have the opportunity to be educated with non-disabled peers, to the greatest extent appropriate. They should have access to the general education curriculum, or any other program that non-disabled peers would be able to access. The student should be provided with supplementary aids and services necessary to achieve educational goals if placed in a setting with non-disabled peers.

In essence, what is meant by the “least restrictive environment” is a setting whereby a student can function amongst his or her peers as best as possible, with the least amount of support possible. This is why, even in dedicated special day classes (SDCs), the classroom is structured as closely as possible to how a regular education classroom is structured. By “structure”, I mean two things: physical layout and daily schedule. The classroom will look and run in a way not disssimilar to a typically-developing class. The differences lie in, of course, how to implement the curriculum given the needs and ability levels of the students — hence, special education. There is a psychological reason for this too. You don’t want your students to need (or event want) help 100 percent of the time. You want to foster a feeling of indepedence and self-reliance, making your students feel like they’re at school, doing normal things. Take it from me, it’s a huge boost to one’s self-esteem knowing you’re doing the same things all your friends are doing, but you don’t mind a little help.

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I bring up the concept of LRE because I feel its tenets are in ways applicable to the user interface design that Apple chose for iOS 7. Because of its radical visual overhaul, iOS 7 can arguably be construed as more restrictive than previous versions of the operating system, because the aesthetic has been altered in such a way that it makes using an iPhone or iPad more difficult if you’re visually impaired. Obviously, this isn’t good. Furthermore, that many visually impaired users seek to downgrade to iOS 6 is not-so-subtle acknowledgment that iOS 7 is hindering in ways iOS 6 was not.

Apple has anticipated special needs by adding Accessibility features to iOS, and they are to be commended for the tremendous breadth and depth of these options. However, for as much as Accessibility stands to enable users, they can also be viewed as tacit acknowledgment that the standard user interface isn’t good enough. Especially in iOS 7, an argument could be made that putting so many toggles — Button Shapes, Reduce Motion, et al — is Apple’s way of letting users know that the company senses a lot of people will have trouble with iOS 7’s new look. For all the marketing Apple has done pushing iOS 7, this isn’t good — no matter what one’s visual acuity, the ideal scenario is one in which no one wants to revert to the older, drastically different, version of the OS.

But therein lies the problem with leaning too heavily on Accessibility. As I stated, iOS’s Accessibility features are best-of-breed, but no one should have to invoke several, if not all, of them to attain even a base level experience — reading, diciphering icons, and so on. The purpose of Accessibility is to augment the user experience, not drive it because the out-of-the-box interface is so riddled with inherent issues. Put another way, the Accessibility features should help users enjoy the OS as Apple intended it by making text size bigger or using VoiceOver, whatever. Accessibility can’t (nor should it) be the be-all, end-all solution all of the time. As with a school setting, we in the accessibility community want to feel good about using the same apps and things our peers do, with a minimum of support.

It’s a cop-out to flippantly scream “ACCESSIBILITY!” whenever a user expresses issues with navigating iOS, because it ignores the core problems that Jony Ive and team created. iOS 7 is, for the most part, a huge step back in terms of visuals, and the visually impaired segment of the user base has the most to lose. If we can’t see anything, what good, then, are our devices? The most frustrated may just render them simply precision-crafted paperweights.

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The bottom line is unless absolutely necessary, even a disabled person shouldn’t have to use Accessibility just to operate their device(s). These options are meant to be tools, not crutches. Right now, iOS 7 is the most restrictive environment for many visually impaired users. Things like the new Button Shapes in 7.1 are no doubt positive steps for maximum usability, but there is a lot more that Apple can do.

Designers and design-minded nerds like to make fun of the green felt and faux wooden shelving of iOS 6, but it is smart to keep in mind that iOS 6 did a lot right, in terms of visual accessibility. Buttons were buttons, toolbar icons were easier to discern, etc. I strongly believe Apple threw out the baby with the bath water with iOS 7, and that form prevailed too far ahead of function. If iOS 6 went too far in the direction of hyper-realism, then iOS 7 went too far in the stripping of ornamentation and so forth. My hope is that, with iOS 8, Apple addresses these visual concerns and finds a happy medium that will be more pleasing to folks than iOS 7 is currently.