What excites me about the world of assistive technology is the innovative use of technology to help people access all sorts of things, from online services to composing music. In recent years I’ve found myself focusing on mobile technologies, inspired by the accessibility features being developed for platforms like iOS and Android.
The accessible iPhone
Since the release of the iPhone 3GS in 2009, Apple has been a clear innovator in mobile accessibility. The iPhone 3GS shipped with a mobile version of Apple’s screen reader, VoiceOver. It was the first gesture-based screen reader on a mobile device. It came free with my new smartphone and would fit in my pocket. Amazing!
That first version also included a system-wide screen magnifier and support for closed captioning and Braille displays. By the time iOS 6 was released last year, the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch included several more innovative features.
Assistive Touch overlays a menu on the screen that helps perform touch gestures that are difficult for some people to do, such as pinch to zoom. It can also be used with adaptive hardware such as a joystick, making it easier to use for people with physical disabilities. (It also happens to be great if any of your hardware buttons stop working!)
Guided Access lets you set restrictions on apps and the features of your iOS device. You can stop people from leaving the current app or from accidentally pressing hardware buttons, which is great for working with children or people with autism, as well as for businesses and museums who are increasingly handing tablet devices over to their customers to demonstrate products or guide visitors around exhibitions.
There have also been a variety of phone-specific features that are great for those who are hard of hearing or deaf. Custom Vibrations is a way to create “physical ringtones” for contacts, and flashing LED alerts help you see when people are calling or a new message has come in. The iPhone 4 and 5 are hearing aid compatible. Hearing aid manufacturer GN ReSound introduced the first “Made for iPhone” hearing aid in October 2013, which promises some interesting features, including an app to control the hearing aid.
Some of the better-known features are helpful for all of us, but also aid accessibility: Siri lets us speak to our iOS devices to set reminders, help us find directions or launch apps, particularly useful if you find it difficult to use a touch screen or a keyboard. FaceTime lets us do video calls, but it also opened up the mobile phone to people who communicate using sign languages.
New accessibility features in iOS 7
Apple hasn’t let us down with the release of iOS 7. Firstly, it’s interesting to note that the Accessibility settings have been given a more prominent spot in the Settings app, having moved from the near the bottom of General settings to near the top of the screen, making them much easier to find.
Alongside improvements to existing features such as Siri, VoiceOver, Guided Access, closed captions and Braille support, two new features stand out: Switch Control and Handwriting support.
Switch Control is a great new feature that allows iOS devices to be controlled using physical switches. While this is nothing new in the assistive technology world, it’s the first time that such a feature has been built into a smartphone operating system. A cursor appears on the screen that can be set up to be moved by several methods: pressing external switches, touching different areas of the screen, or even head movements detected by the camera. (Be careful if you have a go at the feature that detects head movements, as it’s a bit tricky to get used to and to switch off!)
The Switch Control cursor is customisable, so you can change its colour and make it larger. It can also be set up to automatically scan through elements on the screen, allowing access by people who can only use a single switch. Unfortunately, it seems you currently cannot use Switch Control and VoiceOver together.
Handwriting support lets VoiceOver users enter text using their finger to write on the screen. This is supplemented by a series of gestures for adding a space, adding new lines, deleting text, and switching keyboard modes (lower case, upper case, punctuation, numbers). While this feature was seen in the 90s on the PalmPilot, it’s been a long time coming to iOS. The innovation now comes from the other things that handwriting recognition can do.
The Handwriting feature goes beyond just entering text, as it can also be used to quickly navigate pages in Safari, or apps on the Home screen. For example, writing the letter ‘h’ will make VoiceOver navigate through headings on web pages, and writing letters on the Home screen will filter the apps in order to quickly find the one you’re trying to find. There also seems to be some new handwriting support outside of VoiceOver, since the new version of the Google Translate app has added the ability to use handwriting on the screen to write words in 49 languages.
Accessibility enhancements in iOS 7
Further improvements have been made to VoiceOver in iOS 7. Enhanced voices can be downloaded for clearer speech output. The VoiceOver cursor can be made larger. Sound cues are now optional. If you are new to using VoiceOver, the Settings app has included a practice screen for some time, but now you can access this feature using a four-finger double-tap when VoiceOver is on.
Captions and Subtitles is now a global setting that allows closed captions to be enabled for all videos and provides options for customising their appearance. Users can select the font, size and colour used for the text as well as the background colour.
There are now a number of other customisations that can set up to make it easier to use iOS. Bold text makes it easier to read text on the screen, especially considering the thinner text introduced by iOS 7. A new Increase Contrast feature can also help make text more legible. The new parallax motion effect can be a distraction for many people, so it’s good that you can turn that off using Reduce Motion. You can reintroduce the text labels to on/off switches, which were removed in the redesign for iOS 7.
Beyond the accessibility features we find in the iOS settings, work goes on behind the scenes to help developers to make their apps more accessible.
One of the biggest changes here in iOS 7 is the ability for apps to set text size according to a system-wide setting. Developers can now add Dynamic Type support to their apps, providing much improved support for large text in all apps. The new Text Size and Larger Dynamic Type options replace the Large Text setting in previous versions of iOS that would only work in a limited set of system apps. These settings now work in any app that supports Dynamic Type.
That’s not all, folks!
In writing this, I’m at risk of sounding like an Apple fanatic, so I must say that some Android phones and tablets have great accessibility features that are on par with those we see on iOS devices.
For me, though, the innovations we see come from Apple are very welcome in our industry and is helping push mobile devices forward as the most affordable and accessible way for people to access technology and get online.
This article was republished in Ability Magazine Issue 91, Autumn 2013.
If you would like to see iOS 7’s new accessibility features in action, be sure to look at Luis Perez’s series of videos on YouTube.