To coincide with World Accessibility Awareness Day, Apple announced the availability of a new service called SignTime. The service offers the ability to connect Apple Store and Apple Support employees to a sign language interpreter to assist customers. Initially, the service will roll out with support for American Sign Language (ASL) in the US, British Sign Language (BSL) in the U.K., or French Sign Language (LSF) in France. Customers can access the service through the browser or in Apple Stores, where they can use SignTime to remotely access a sign language interpreter without the need to book ahead of time.
With this announcement, Apple also introduced a series of accessibility features that will roll out to Apple Watch, iPhone and iPad. AssistiveTouch for watchOS allows users with upper body limb differences to use Apple Watch without the need to touch the display or the digital crown. iPadOS will support third-party eye-tracking devices, making it possible for people to control iPad using only their eyes. VoiceOver, the screen reader for blind and low vision communities, can now also better describe images sharing details of a person’s position in relation to other objects. Apple is adding support for new bi-directional hearing aids so that users can use the microphones to have hands-free phone and FaceTime conversations. Finally, Apple is introducing new background sounds to help minimize distractions and help users focus, stay calm, or rest, which seems particularly well-timed as many prepare to re-enter the world post vaccines.
When it comes to accessibility, it is hard to find a brand that thinks more thoughtfully about its products. At the core of Apple’s drive is the belief that only by considering the full range of human experiences can you create the most personal technology and device. Of course, serving a group that, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2020, is one of the largest underserved groups in the U.S., counting 67 million adults, or 26% of the population, also makes excellent business sense.
“The American Institutes for Research (AIR) calculated in 2018 that the 20 million U.S. working adults (ages 16 to 24) with disabilities had a collective after-tax disposable income of $490 billion, slightly lower than those of Black ($501 billion) and Hispanic consumers ($582 billion). Discretionary income averaged about $17,000 per person, or $21 million in aggregate, more than the $19 million for the Black and Hispanic market segments combined.”
All the features announced this week will make a difference to Apple’s customers, but I thought the link between SignTime and Apple Stores was particularly interesting. Apple Stores remain the most diverse part of Apple’s workforce. The most recent diversity and inclusion data show that more than 60% of Apple’s Retail team members and more than 50% of Retail leadership in the U.S. come from underrepresented communities. Women represent 35% of global retail team members and 38% of global leadership.
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This diversity in the Apple Store creates a welcoming atmosphere and a point of reference for many of the visitors coming in to purchase a product, get support or simply charge their devices while doing some work. This ease that customers find in the Apple stores is why Apple has been able to turn its stores a link into the community. In the past, Apple has provided ASL interpreters at its Washington, DC locations, starting in 2019 at its Carnegie Library flagship store. The District of Columbia is home to one of the country’s largest deaf and hard of hearing communities as well as Gallaudet University, the United States’ most prestigious college for the deaf and hard of hearing. Customers of these D.C. stores could rely on ASL interpreters for shopping and attending Today at Apple classes and events. Today at Apple events online also had support for ASL. In February 2021, this program was extended to customers across the United States who could request an ASL interpreter when they book a store appointment online. Apple also expanded the interpreter program abroad: Deaf and hard of hearing customers in the United Kingdom, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland could request interpreters support the country-specific sign language.
Adding the ability to call on an interpreter when the employees working in the stores cannot assist with ASL is yet another way to create a welcoming environment. The lack of booking normalizes customers who need ASL support in a similar way one would do with a customer who spoke a different language.
Today, around one million people use American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary way to communicate, according to Communication Service for the Deaf. ASL is used by the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, as well as those with communication disorders. Yet this is only about 1% of the overall deaf and hard-of-hearing community. According to Communication Services for the Deaf: 98% of deaf people do not receive education in sign language and 72% of families do not sign with their deaf children. While some government departments have ensured important information reaches the deaf and hard of hearing community by creating videos or establishing a hotline in American Sign Language, most organizations both in the public and private sectors do not offer support for ASL through their sites or their place of business.
As we wait for artificial intelligence to live sign in the same way as it can provide live translation, businesses that want to be more inclusive will have to rely on third-party services or train their own staff. Given the level of service expected at an Apple Store, there was only one option for Apple, which was to continue to rely on in-house expertise even if not always in person.
Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.