Apple’s New Back Tap Feature In iOS 14 Is Cool, But It Isn’t ‘Hidden’

In the months since WWDC, and particularly since iOS 14 was in public beta and recently released, several tech publications have run a deluge of stories in which they list the best “hidden features” of Apple’s newest mobile operating system. The premise here is these all are ostensibly smaller, less noticeable changes or additions.

In nearly every one of these articles, Back Tap is mentioned. New this year, Back Tap is a motor-oriented feature that allows users to tap the back of their iPhone—hence the name—to trigger a variety of pre-defined actions such as turning on the flashlight. Back Tap is useful in an accessibility context because it accommodates those for whom elaborate tapping and swiping is difficult or impossible. For many, a tap (or series of short taps) is far easier to manage than the OS’s customary multi-touch interface.

Apple CEO Tim Cook often cites the interplay of hardware and software as the differentiating factor as to why the company’s products are markedly better than the competition; to wit, by controlling the whole stack, Apple can optimize to precise degrees that no one else can. Back Tap is a prime example of this famously tight integration—the feature functions as it does only because Apple controls both the iPhone’s hardware and the iOS software. A side effect is the utter delight inherent in using Back Tap: it takes what is seemingly an unsubstantial motion (drumming the back of one’s phone as if to fidget) and turns it into something eminently more useful (and magical).

Given Back Tap’s raison d’être, it’s not at all hard to understand why classifying it as a “hidden” feature of iOS 14 is problematic. For one thing, accessibility features are literally no longer hidden; Apple in iOS 13 moved the Accessibility submenu from under General to the front page of Settings. That Accessibility received top billing is as symbolic as it is practical; it was an immensely important nod to the disability community that people with disabilities matter. They matter enough that Apple (finally) decided to put access to these life-changing tools front and center, right along other marquee settings like managing notifications and privacy. The significance of this move cannot be overstated, especially considering even technological novices venture into the Settings app not infrequently. In other words, users will notice the iPhone (or iPad or Apple Watch) has assistive technology software built in.

It’s reasonable—and kind, for that matter—to presume the writers and editors of the aforementioned “hidden features” stories are not being malicious nor willfully obtuse in their characterization of Back Tap. On one level, semantics (and reality) dictate accessibility is more or less hidden from the average user in terms of awareness. Thus, journalists are doing the public a service by alerting to Back Tap’s existence.

While that argument makes perfect logical sense, it’s also wrong. What this stance completely lacks is a sense of empathy and respect for the intended audience. Apple’s accessibility engineers are not going rogue and “hiding” Back Tap deep in the bowels of the operating system. It isn’t a game of “Where’s Waldo?” It’s my understanding, according to sources, that accessibility features are up there with high-priority software that has to ship each and every year. This is in a similar vein to how the iPhone has to ship each and every year, or else calamity ensues. Accessibility features represent some of the very best software to come out of Apple Park; it is mission-critical stuff relied upon by legions of people.

Put another way, accessibility features are not built nor used on a lark.

The real harm, however, in casting Back Tap as “hidden” is to the disabled community. What does it say about society’s collective view on people with disabilities that their needs are reduced to purposeful obscurity? To label Back Tap as “hidden” insinuates it and those of its ilk are of lesser importance. That’s not only stupid and clearly wrong, but it shows profound disrespect to those people for whom Back Tap is truly needed. There’s a lesson in headline-writing here—instead of using the word hidden, why not use a phrase like “coolest features” to introduce Back Tap? Back Tap is undoubtedly cool, whereas “hidden” has a negative connotation and untrue.

The moral of this story is simple: language matters. A lot. While it’s understood where newsrooms are aiming in terms of reporting and publishing this sort of story, labelling accessibility features so pejoratively is unkind not only to disabled people but to the outlet. The mainstream tech press can and should do better. Readers deserve better.

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