COMMENTARY: 02.15.19- A slew of 15 new emojis reflecting people with disabilities is forthcoming in the version 12.0 update for smartphone devices including the iPhone but whose idea was it in the first place to submit those particular minuscule digital icons for inclusion as part of our way of expressing our emotions?
As I reported here in this column last week, the Unicode Consortium has approved 59 brand new emojis which will be making its way to all smartphones sometime towards the end of the year. What especially stood out from the bunch was its more inclusive nature representing persons who are Disabled, something which caught my attention as a person with two disabilities. First, I am visually impaired and completely blind (from losing my eyesight back in July 2013 as a result of health-related complications) — a fact that my regular readers already know —and second, which I am revealing here for the very first time, I am also hearing impaired in my right ear (something that recently came about, two days before Thanksgiving in 2017 to be exact, where I inexplicably lost my hearing and my case was later diagnosed as being idiopathic, meaning that there was no known cause) and have since had to wear a hearing aid to assist in listening to sounds directed towards that ear.
Stories that deal with disabilities — namely those about Apple and accessibility — are one of the special topics I like to cover and prominently feature in this column from time to time. (I even have a special section in my column archives page just for those types of articles: find it in the “Coverage Highlights” category under “Apple & Accessibility”) . So naturally, when I read the article on Fast Company magazine’s website from a post on my Facebook news feed, I in turn wrote a news story about it here in this column.
After my story was published, I was surprised — more delighted than shocked — to then come across, in a newsletter email as a subscriber, a related article from Macworld magazine about the new emojis which went more in-depth into who and what the Unicode Consortium is and more specifically who was responsible for the proposal of those 15 emojis that were themed to reflect people with disabilities.
The Unicode Consortium — according to the article’s author, staff writer Jason Cross — is comprised of representatives from a number of hardware and software companies who agree on updates to the Unicode standard which is a common way to encode and represent text in digital formats that is the foundation of transmitting and displaying text on practically every modern digital platform in use today.
Cross wrote, “Emojis are a part of the Unicode standard and the group gets together each year to decide which new icons will be added to the official list.”
Then came the big revelation, at least for me, as to the particular group responsible for proposing the batch of new Emojis representing people with disabilities: Apple.
Cross wrote, “All of Apple’s proposed accessibility emojis have been included in the 12.0 standard.”
The Unicode Consortium agreed to include all nine of Apple’s proposed accessibility emojis — a story which Cross first reported on last year — which were written in a proposal letter from Apple and sent to the consortium.
The following are excerpts from that very letter from March 2018:
Proposal For New Accessibility Emoji
Apple is requesting the addition of emoji to better represent individuals with disabilities. Currently, emoji provide a wide range of options but may not represent the experiences of those with disabilities. Diversifying the options available helps fill a significant gap and provides a more inclusive experience for all.
One in seven people around the world has some form of disability, whether that be a physical disability involving vision, hearing, or loss of physical motor skills, or a more hidden, invisible disability. The current selection of emoji provides a wide array of representations of people, activities, and objects meaningful to the general public but very few speak to the life experiences of those with disabilities.
At Apple, we believe that technology should be accessible to everyone and should provide an experience that serves individual needs. Adding emoji emblematic to users’ life experiences helps foster a diverse culture that is inclusive of disability. Emoji are a universal language and a powerful tool for communication as well as a form of self expression and can be used not only to represent one’s own personal experience but but also to show support for a loved one.
This new set of emoji we are proposing aims to provide a wider array of options to represent basic categories for people with disabilities. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of all possible depictions of disabilities but to provide an initial starting point for greater representation for diversity within the emoji universe.
Every individual’s experience with their disability is unique and therefore, the representations have unlimited possibilities. It would be impossible to cover every possible use case with a limited set of characters. For this proposal, we have selected a set of emoji that was inclusive to a large number of people in four main categories: Blind and Low Vision, Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Physical Motor, and Hidden Disabilities.
Developed in collaboration with internationally respected community organizations such as American Council of the Blind, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and the National Association of the Deaf, we believe this proposal is a significant step forward in representing more diverse individuals and we hope it will spark a global dialogue around better representation for people with disabilities.
Those emojis include people in wheelchairs, with mechanical arms and legs, using probing canes for the blind, wearing hearing aids, as well as service and guide dogs for the disabled.
So why is this significant? Aside and other than making emojis more inclusive for everyone such as for people with disabilities, it is yet another example of the commitment to accessibility by Apple.
Apple products are already accessible right out of the box for people with disabilities. Take for instance, like having VoiceOver — a screen reader software built in to MacOS and iOS designed for the visually impaired — so if you are blind, you wouldn’t need any assistance in setting up your Mac or iOS device. When you take a new Mac out of its box, after start up, it will begin talking to you with VoiceOver and guide you through the setup process. The same is true for any iOS device out of the box after powering it on such as buying a new iPHone, iPad, or iPod touch where for those in the know, you simply activate VoiceOver by pressing the Home button three times (if the device has a Home button).
This commitment to accessibility by Apple for its customers with disabilities is not new and dates back as far as and as early as the 1980s as evidenced in a story I wrote over on Low End Mac (another website that I write for) as seen in three vintage Apple posters from circa 1987 which show disabled persons operating and using their Mac with alternate computing interfaces — such as touch and voice control — and assistive technologies.
After I contacted Apple directly through its media helpline, a company spokesperson — who declined to be identified in my story — confirmed the existence of the three vintage posters in my possession and said the following:
“They were the result of the work by our early ‘disabilities solutions’ group — a kind of precursor to today’s Accessibility team who supports making products and technology that everyone can use.”
And the approval of 15 new emojis reflecting people with disabilities by the Unicode Consortium for inclusion in its version 12.0 update coming later this year to all smartphones is just one more example: a small step spearheaded by Apple that is a huge leap forward thanks to its commitment to making technology accessible for all.