Apple’s Use of the Term “Accessibility” on the Mac and on iOS Is Confusing

Apple has long been one of the leaders in accessibility on its computers and mobile devices. Accessibility, in computing, according to Wikipedia:

refers to the accessibility of a computer system to all people, regardless of disability type or severity of impairment. The term accessibility is most often used in reference to specialized hardware or software, or a combination of both, designed to enable use of a computer by a person with a disability or impairment. Specific technologies may be referred to as assistive technology.

Both on the Mac and on iOS, there are a number of accessibility settings, to help users see, hear, and work with their devices.

Accessibility pane

But Apple is also using this term, and the same “human” icon in another location on macOS Catalina. It is found in the Security & Privacy pane of System Preferences.

Accessibility security

This section is where you allow apps to control your Mac; you give explicit authorization, through a number of alerts and dialogs, to apps to allow them to interact with other apps.

This latter use of the term accessibility is simply wrong. Yes, it is about accessing your Mac, but this is a term with a very clear meaning in computing. And using the same icon for accessibility in these settings makes it look as though these settings somehow affect how a user interacts with the Mac.

In a chat today, my colleague Craig Grannell, who has written a lot about accessibility, said this:

Accessibility is too often where things go that Apple doesn’t really want you to trigger. On macOS, there is no good reason why the transparency settings aren’t in General.

There are a lot of settings on the Mac that are wedged into the Accessibility preferences that should be more obvious, and Reduce transparency is certainly one of them. (And I’d argue that the term should be “translucency,” not transparency…) Voice control is another. While it is designed for people with physical limitations, the dictation feature can be used by anyone to convert speech to text, especially now that Nuance has discontinued its Dragon software on macOS.

Pointer control should be in the Trackpad and Mouse preferences. This is where you set a double-click speed, and where you adjust the spring-loaded folder delay.

On iOS, there are even more essential settings filed under accessibility, but some of these settings are also found elsewhere. For example, to change the system font size, you can go to Display & Brightness, or to Accessibility. In Accessibility, you can activate auto-brightness, which you cannot access where you would expect (I’d expect that setting to be in Display & Brightness).

Settings for the Magnifier are in Accessibility, whereas this is a feature that is not just for visually impaired people. Reachability, a feature designed for one-handed access to the larger displays of iPhones, is also hidden in Accessibility, as are Tap to Wake and Shake to Undo.

Accessibility is essential, and it’s not just for people with handicaps or disabilities. Apple really needs to make all this more coherent, providing more logic in how settings are organized, and especially changing the way they describe the security setting that allows apps to control your Mac, which has nothing at all to do with accessibility.

2 thoughts on “Apple’s Use of the Term “Accessibility” on the Mac and on iOS Is Confusing

  1. The icon and term for Accessibility actually did come from, and mean the same thing as you’d expect, for the section in Security & Privacy. It is intended to be used solely by third-party assistive software a user with certain disabilities might wish to install. That you have found software of a different kind abusing this privilege is something Apple might not allow for long, as the security hardening of macOS continues.

  2. I agree that it’s up to Apple whether & how long they continue to allow this (and I think, and trust & hope that this essential allowance will continue; see below for why), but/so I think “abusing” is a rather harsh word, that doesn’t actually apply here.

    Personally, I think ‘Accessibility’ is thought of at Apple as ‘Advanced’ or ‘Tweaky’ or some such; it seems that the Accessibility group at Apple still has some leeway to add in settings that many if not most people won’t “need” but which some folks who do want them, really want them, and are really glad that they’re (still) there.

    Zoom on iOS, for example. Super handy, for those willing to go thru the mild learning curve; but perhaps too tweaky or geeky for the majority of users. Maybe changing how the settings are presented, and creating a ‘training video’ (as Apple shows on macOS in the Trackpad settings) might help more people learn these ‘advanced’ settings, such as Zoom, the Accessibility Shortcut, and others.

    I’m fine with the current balance – where – easy simple concepts are “where they should be”, and more… particular settings are thrown into the grab bag of “Accessibility”. But I’d be happier if, as Kirk suggests, some of these settings get moved into (let’s say, an “Advanced” subsection of) *where you’d expect to find them*.

    Back to the ability of apps to control the system on the Mac: there’s many many long-standing technologies that have always done this, i.e. Apple Events. An AppleScript saved as a ‘Droplet’ or as an Application, has always needed these privileges. Apple’s overall tightening of security for ‘default muggle users’ is laudable and I think usually or mostly right; at the same time there always needs to be the ability to make exceptions – this is exactly where these things go. So, no, I don’t think ‘abusing this privilege’ is really the accurate way to describe this section, i.e. “Security & Privacy -> Privacy -> Accessibility”. But I would also definitely agree that this needs a new name, and a new icon.

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