What’s new in iOS 7 accessibility for individuals who are blind, deaf-blind, or who have low vision
By Scott Davert
Just like the last several autumn seasons, this one comes with another new iOS release. And just like other releases, this release brings a lot of new features and functions to supported iDevices. Major changes include enhancements to Siri, a new Control Center available from anywhere within the OS giving you instant access to several essential controls, a revamped Notifications Center, and much more. Many blogs and Apple themselves will be highlighting these new enhancements to iOS, so I will not discuss them in great detail. This article, as the title implies, deals with enhancements pertaining to accessibility: specifically, those changes which impact individuals who are blind or deaf-blind. One of the joys and curses of getting a new release from Apple is that they do not actively document the changes in accessibility with their products. This is good for me, because it gives me the chance to share new features with my readers, but it is also a challenge. While I have taken care to work extensively with the new version of iOS since the first Beta release in June, there will be things that I have missed. I'm confident this will also be the case with other people attempting to do the same thing. This is also part of the fun. Whenever I discover a new feature that was not previously written about, it's almost like solving a puzzle or getting an early birthday present. With that said, here are the changes Detective Davert found while investigating accessibility with the new iOS.
As anyone who has tried to enable VoiceOver on an iDevice can tell you, Triple Click Home, while designed to quickly enable selected accessibility features, by default will do nothing unless configured or unless it is during the initial set up of the device. With iOS 7, you can press and hold the Home key and tell Siri to enable some accessibility options such as VoiceOver, inverted colors, assistive touch, and guided access. Simply say: “turn off VoiceOver”. Or “turn on Assistive Touch”. Sadly, this does not appear to work with other accessibility features such as Zoom, Hearing aid mode, etc. I would hope that Apple would consider making this an option for other accessibility features in the future, so that more users could quickly toggle on and off settings as needed. Note that to use Siri, you must have either a data connection to a cellular network or Wi-Fi. One can still use the Triple Click Home function, once it's configured, but this is just another way to quickly toggle some accessibility features on and off. You can also tell Siri to go in to the Accessibility Settings menu by saying “open accessibility settings”. One mainstream feature that some may be concerned about is the automatic updating of apps. By default, this is set to on. As anyone who runs apps can probably tell you, developers sometimes unintentionally break accessibility when updating various parts of their apps. As such, many users may wish to disable this feature. To do so, go in to Settings\iTunes & App Store and under the Show All heading, you’ll find Updates. Double tap to toggle this setting on and off, or tap once if not using VoiceOver.
The list of gestures with VoiceOver continues to grow with each major release of iOS. This time around, one addition is the four finger double tap. This enables VoiceOver help from anywhere. So instead of having to go in to Settings\General\Accessibility\VoiceOver\VoiceOver Practice, you can now do this gesture from anywhere and then do gestures and keyboard commands to find out their functions. This of course, is already accomplished through VO plus K on the keyboard and Space with K with Braille displays. Another new gesture that was added is the quadruple three finger tap. This will copy the last spoken text to the clipboard. This is a handy feature, which will save a lot of time since you will no longer need to go to the rotor to find Edit and then copy the selected text to the clipboard. This also eliminates some need for selecting text via gestures, as these seem to be confusing to many of the clients I work with that choose to utilize only the touch screen. A third new gesture comes out of a new feature. To access the Control Center, which gives you quick access to many popular toggle settings within the iDevice, you must first tap the status bar, then swipe up with three fingers. You will now be in the Control Center. Double tapping any of the options (single tapping without VoiceOver) will toggle settings on and off. To exit the Control Center, do a two finger scrub on the home screen, or the equivalent keyboard command to activate the back button on your external device.
Old gestures, new function
Previously, the slide to unlock button was located directly above the home button on iDevices. This is no longer the case. To unlock the screen with a gesture, press the Home button, tap anywhere on the screen, and then swipe three fingers from left to right across the screen. You’ll still find the “slide to unlock” button now simply called “unlock” slightly above and to the left of the Home button. Ever since iOS 4, the double tap with two fingers gesture has started and stopped audio, answer phone calls, started and stopped the timer, etc. Now, it has a new function. When in an edit field, double tapping with two fingers will allow the user to start dictating in that edit field. This is a much faster way of quickly dictating instead of finding the dictate button in the lower left corner of the screen. Double tap with two fingers again when you have finished speaking to send the audio to Apple's servers for decoding. Since the Notification Center was unveiled in iOS 5, one of the ways to access this feature with VoiceOver gestures was to tap on the status bar, and then swipe down with three fingers. This is still also the case. However, swiping down from anywhere else on the home screen will launch Spotlight Search. This was previously accessed by pressing the Home button when already on the Home Screen, but now you can only access spotlight search by using the page up gesture, or equivalent on your external device.
New rotor settings
The Action rotor option has been expanded in Mail. In apps such as Messages and Notes, you can flick up when on a note or message thread, and double tap to delete. This functionality has been expanded in mail to launch a “more” menu which allows you to reply, forward, archive, flag, mark as read (or unread if already read), move to junk, or move message. Also quickly accessible through this feature are the delete or archive options. Which of these will appear depends on whether you have inbox archiving enabled in the Advanced Settings for the particular email account. Containers are a new rotor setting found on the iPhone and iPod. These mean the same thing as what you find on the iPad. As an example of how this is useful, when you open an email message, moving to the first container jumps you to the header information of the message. Going to the next container will land you in the body of the message, and going to the third container will land you on message options like reply, archive, etc. Handwriting is another rotor setting, which those who hate using the touch screen to type may enjoy. It's also something an individual who has issues with touch typing on the screen and who knows the print alphabet may find useful. Turn the rotor to hand writing when in a text field, and then begin writing the text using one finger. Note that all VoiceOver gestures are disabled other than the rotor option (turning clockwise or counterclockwise with two fingers at a diagonal on the touch screen) when handwriting is enabled. When in handwriting mode, to produce a space, swipe right with two fingers on the touch screen, to produce a new line, swipe right with three fingers, and to delete a character, swipe left with two fingers. You can also write in upper case, add punctuation, and add numbers. You can cycle through these settings by swiping up with three fingers while in this mode. When on the Home screen and hand writing mode is activated, writing letters will start generating a list of apps which have the same title as what you’re writing. When done using the hand writing feature, turn the rotor to a different setting and all gestures will function as expected. Another new function found in the rotor is sound effects. With this feature, you can now enable and disable the VoiceOver-specific sound effects that you get when navigating through iOS. With iOS 5, muting speech would disable these effects, in iOS 6, they could only be muted by muting all sounds, but the VoiceOver sound effects now have their own toggle. This is particularly helpful for iPod users who utilize Braille displays with speech muted. It is also great for iPad and iPhone users who want to hear system sounds but not the clicks and beeps of VoiceOver. This setting can also be turned off and on in Settings\General\Accessibility\VoiceOver.
Other Changes with VoiceOver
For those users who require more than one language on their iDevice, it is now possible to install more than one high quality speech synthesizer. To do this, go in to Settings\General\Accessibility\Speak Selection. Then, activate the Voices button, followed by the language you wish to add. Choose the dialect, if any are available, that you wish to download the higher quality synthesizer for. Finally, move to the right and double tap enhanced quality. After the files are downloaded to your device, you will have them available as options within the Languages and Dialects option in the VoiceOver settings. Be aware that each high quality voice will consume anywhere from 50 MB to 300 MB of space on your device. Phonetic feedback now gives the VoiceOver user the ability to have the letters only pronounced as their phonetic equivalent, e.g. A for alpha, B for bravo, etc. Dismissing apps from the App Switcher becomes easier. Prior to iOS 7, one had to go in to the App Switcher and then double tap and hold on the apps they wish to dismiss, and then double tap again to close the desired app. now, when in the App Switcher, one can flick up and then begin double tapping the apps they wish to dismiss. This is very great news for Braille users who could not previously dismiss apps without interacting with the touch screen. This was annoying when trying to use the phone when it was stored away in a pocket, for example. (More on Braille changes later). There is now also an option to make the on screen VoiceOver cursor larger. This is the rectangular box which shows up around the item that VoiceOver focus is set to.
New in Braille
As noted before, there is a new Control Center. This has a keyboard equivalent on Braille displays. The Command-Space with dots 2-5 will launch the Control Center from anywhere within iOS 7. This is actually faster than the touch screen where you have to tap the status bar before doing the three finger swipe up gesture. Another added keyboard command is to jump to the Notification Center. This can be achieved by pressing Space with dots 4-6. Just like the Control Center, this command seems to work from anywhere. For those who were hoping for a double tap and hold equivalent keyboard command on Braille displays, I’m sorry to have to report that I could not find one. There is now an option called “automatic Braille translation”. When this is turned on, contracted Braille input is translated as it was previously. When turned off, VoiceOver will only translate what you have typed after pressing the space bar, or backspace. I think the backspace auto translation could be a bug, but I’m not sure. I actually typed the word great, contracted as grt, but waited two minutes before entering the letter T, and it still translated my keyboard input properly after pressing the spacebar. One still has the option to auto translate just like before, or even to just have one thing auto translated. To auto translate, press Space with dots 4 and 5. I’m not quite certain of any practical application for this particular keyboard shortcut, but maybe someone else will find a use for it. There is also a new feature where equations are shown in Nemeth Code. While I suspect this may work with iBooks, I don’t have any books which have equations in them to try this feature out, so cannot review it. I’m sure someone in the coming days will do so though, if it has not been done already. There should be the option to always hide or show the virtual keyboard. However, this setting does not work as advertised. When in a note in the Notes app, I was unable to get the on-screen keyboard to come up. Pressing Space with dots 1-4-6 would not change this setting, it would only speak the status of the setting. Further, when in a text message window, the virtual keyboard would come up either way after entering a letter on a Bluetooth keyboard or Braille display. This functionality is handy in particular for deaf-blind iDevice users who could open up a note in the Notes app and use the on-screen keyboard once VoiceOver was set to touch typing to communicate with the hearing sighted population. Before, it was often necessary to press Space with dots 1-4-6 to turn the virtual keyboard back on when attempting to use the iDevice for the above mentioned function. Now, it is just gone. There are some bugs to be aware of as Braille users. One of them, and certainly the most significant, is that it is no longer possible to send a text message using a Braille display by choosing a contact in your contacts list. If one goes to compose, adds a contact from their address book, and attempts to flick right (Space with dot 4), or left (Space with dot 1), they will find that nothing will happen. In order to get VoiceOver to recognize that there are things underneath its cursor, it is necessary to hit the touch screen. There is, however, somewhat of a work around. After activating the compose button, in the “to” field, type the first few letters of the contact. Once this has been done, flick right twice (Space with dot 4), and select the contact that way. This works fine. Finally, the select all keyboard command (Space with dots 2-3-5-6) no longer functions. It still works if you go in to the VoiceOver practice area, but will not work anywhere else. When in a text field, it simply inserts an A in to the document instead of performing its designed function.
Low Vision Changes
Most of the information in this particular section of the article was garnered through talking with low vision users. As I have never had sight, it is impossible for me to evaluate this particular access method personally. I’d like to thank Amy Mason in particular for giving this a thorough look through and providing much of the following information pertaining to low vision. One of the biggest new features in iOS 7 is of course the complete re-design of the platform from a visual perspective. Apple is using bright, almost pastel colors, very skinny fonts and translucency effects to refresh iOS from a visual perspective. Unfortunately many of the design choices made by Apple are likely to make using iOS more difficult for low vision users.
iOS 7 has many issues pertaining to contrast that cannot be consistently made up for by the new and existing visual enhancements. For example, the Notification Center, Siri, and Control Center pop-up over the home screen with a translucent (frosted glass) effect behind them. This will make everything on these screens much harder to see. The new "improve contrast" feature flattens this translucency to a matte background, which is sometimes beneficial, such as in Notification Center and Siri where a user will see white text on a black background. This is generally helpful for many low vision users as it has very strong contrast. However, the Control Center becomes light gray. Some controls are black which has passable contrast, but selected controls are white which is rendered nearly invisible by being overlaid on the light gray background. Furthermore, the invert contrast option cannot be used to fix issues of contrast on the device. Many apps, (notes, Music, the iTunes and App Store, Game Center, Passbook, Calendar and Reminders main screen) are rendered with black text on a white background. The Weather app places small white text on top of weather-related backgrounds which dynamically change to show the type of weather being experienced in an area, and (as previously stated) Siri, Notifications, and Stocks are designed with white text on a black background. This general inconsistency of the interface along with the Control Center's already terrible contrast, means that depending on which applications a low vision user wishes to use, invert colors will invariably help with some, make others far worse, and will not improve a third class of applications no matter what state the invert colors setting is set to.
Dynamic text size:
Dynamic text size replaces the large text option under accessibility in iOS 6 (which in iOS 7 has been moved out of accessibility and under General in settings. The purpose of both of these settings is to increase the size of dynamic text in iOS. (This behavior is similar to when a low vision user increases the size of text on a Web site. If the site was designed to support it, the text will grow larger, but if it was not, the text size will not increase.) For example, in the Email app and in the Notes app, text of the actual content of email messages and notes was increased, but the lists of messages and Notes, which are important if you plan to access any of them, were not affected. At this time, the number of apps supporting this functionality is low, so it will only be of use with a few apps. Furthermore, system messages and most other text on screen is not affected. Large text in iOS 7 is almost exactly like dynamic text except that dynamic text actually will increase the text size more than large text will.
The text in iOS 7, in general, consists of very thin fonts both within apps and the Home screen icons. This makes it very difficult to read, as even with the new font size set to 100%, letters are very narrow, and consist of very thin lines, which are harder to read. The letters also appear to be somewhat cramped or run together despite an otherwise cleaner interface. Bold Text has been added to accessibility settings in an attempt to improve the new appearance of iOS 7 for low vision. While offering a bit in the way of making icons and system text stand out, this setting may not be enough for many low vision users. Turning this setting on will require you to restart your device.
Other changes related to vision
Another new setting, which is designed to assist low vision users with regards to how some backgrounds and wall paper appear to “move”, is reduce motion. However, as a VoiceOver user, I have found that turning this setting on seems to speed up my iDevice slightly, possibly because the graphics processor is not working quite as hard. Finally, there is a feature called on/off labels. When enabled, instead of icons appearing as different colors to determine whether they are on or off, this now has a numerical value. If an item has a 0 next to it, this means it is off, and a 1 would represent that the feature is on. I’m not quite sure what this feature was designed to do, possibly assist the color blind in determining whether an item is on or off.
The only new added functionality for those who are deaf or hard of hearing is support for subtitles and closed captioning. One assumes that this may mean that movies purchased in iTunes will soon support this functionality. Also, this may work with YouTube and Netflix, once these features are implemented in these video services.
Physical and Motor
One major change that could open up a new world for those with physical disabilities that prevent them from interacting with the touch screen or a keyboard is the added ability to control your iDevice with a switch. Once a switch is connected to another device, along with your iDevice, it can be configured to scan through menus a set number of times. One can also set the pauses between the movement of each item. iOS will also give auditory feedback and there are some minor visual enhancements possible related specifically to switch control. One can even connect multiple switches to accomplish a specific task or tasks if desired. As this is not my area of expertise, I cannot offer much more in the way of input on this section. I also do not have a switch to test this portion of iOS, so I hope there will be other reviews concerning this access method. It did, however, seem worthy of note.
There are many great enhancements to iOS 7 with respect to accessibility. Some of the ways in which things have been accomplished using iDevices have changed with this release. This is not only applicable to accessibility itself, but also to the general lay-out of the OS. For example, you can now put multiple pages of apps in one folder, but can only fit nine apps on each page. Also, from a visual standpoint, it would seem that the new operating system could be a significant challenge to those who need a high degree of consistent contrast. As such, I suggest that low vision users in particular take a look at the new OS at an Apple Store or other retailer selling iDevices to see if it will work for them. If you are a speech and/or Braille user, I would advise checking out the bug list on applevis.com to be certain you can handle the bugs before upgrading to the new iOS. iOS 7 is a free upgrade and is available for the iPhone 4 and newer, the iPad 2 and newer, as well as the iPod touch 5th generation. You can find a general list of new features at: http://www.apple.com/ios/whats-new/ and instructions on updating your iDevice can be found at: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT1414