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Apple announces new accessibility features across its products, sign language support

Screenshots showcasing SignTime new VoiceOver features and audiograms on an iPhone

Apple is launching a new support service called SignTime, which provides live sessions with agents using sign language, along with a range of accessibility-focused improvements that are making their way to various Apple products and services later this year.

Starting with SignTime, it's a new support service launching on May 20, next Thursday, and it allows users with limited speaking or hearing abilities to get help from Apple support teams more easily and over the phone. The service is accessible from their web browser for pre-booked sessions, but Apple Stores will also offer the ability to start remote SignTime sessions without booking ahead of time. This will initially be available in the United States, United Kingdom, and France, in their respective sign languages, but more countries will be supported later on.

On to software features, there's a lot coming later this year. Starting with the Apple Watch, there's a new feature called AssistiveTouch, which lets users navigate the interface using just one hand: the one that's wearing the watch. Using its hardware sensors, the Apple Watch will be able to detect gestures like clenching your fist or pinching, which translate to moving a cursor or changing focus to a different object on the screen. You can see it in action below.

Over on the iPad, Apple is adding support for eye tracking using external devices in the MFi program. Additionally, the firm is adding support for bi-direction hearing aids in the MFi program, making it easier for those with hearing disabilities to take calls more easily. Apple is also adding the ability to recognize audiogram results in Headphone Accommodations, so sounds can be tailored for the user's needs.

Moving on to VoiceOver, Apple's voice control tool, the company is making it possible to explore images with it. For example, if you have a picture of a table, such as a receipt, you can use voice to navigate the table by row or column, including support for headers. VoiceOver will also be able to describe a person's position and other objects in a picture, giving users a better idea of what the image is showing.

Apple is also adding new features like Sound Actions for switch controls, meaning you can make sounds like a click or pop to toggle certain software switches or buttons. New display and text size options are also coming and can be configured on an app-by-app basis, and Memoji are getting new customization options to account for users with oxygen tubes, cochlear implants, or soft helmets.

Three Memoji showcasing cochlear implants oxygen tubes and soft helmets

Though it's not necessarily an accessibility feature, Apple also announced Background Sounds, a new feature that plays relaxing background noises such as rain, ocean waves, and more, to help users stay calm and focused. It can also help drown out other, more distracting noises that might be happening around the user.

All of these features are coming later this year, presumably as part of the next major updates for each of Apple's operating systems.

Outside of these new features, Apple also announced a bunch of initiatives for Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Apple Fitness+ is highlighting training sessions for all kinds of users and Time to Walk is getting a rebrand to 'Time to Walk or Push' to account for wheelchair users. Other Apple services like the App Store, Apple TV, Apple Books, and Apple Maps, will all be providing content by and/or tailored to users with disabilities.

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