Accessibility For iPhone, iPad, And iPod touch: A Blind User's Review
by, October 24th, 2009 at 01:03 PM
The iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch are amazing and revolutionary devices, and now, consumers who are blind or visually impaired, can use them too. I've been using the iPod touch for the past few weeks and have been testing out the accessibility tools. Although I've only tested the iPod touch, the same accessibility features and functionality are the same on the iPhone and iPad.
Those with special needs, especially those who are blind or visually impaired, can use nearly every device produced by Apple. Every model of Mac, the iPod shuffle, iPod nano, iPod touch, iPad, and the iPhone all have built-in technology geared towards blind consumers.
I've previously written about the accessibility technology found in Mac OS X. Although the technology has been a bit buggy in Snow Leopard thus far, it is still far superior to anything found in the Windows world. As a blind user, I appreciate companies that recognize that there are consumers with unique needs and work to accommodate those needs.
When the iPhone and iPod touch were released, I was amazed at the technology, but had always passed it up as the initial models contained no accessibility tools for people like me. However, current models of the iPhone, iPad, and the 3rd generation iPod touch now have accessibility features that grant access for blind and visually impaired users.
There are two basic facets of the accessibility features in the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. One facet helps those with complete or substantial vision loss, while the other helps those with limited vision. Both can be activated on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch by navigating to Settings > General > Accessibility. They can also be activated from the device's settings tab in iTunes when syncing.
For those with complete or substantial vision loss, the iPhone or iPod touch has VoiceOver technology which will audibly speak what is on the screen and what the user is interacting with. For those with limited vision, the iPod touch and iPhone 3GS has color inverting to enable white text on a dark background. The contents of the screen can also be enlarged, or zoomed.
Each facet of the accessibility tools uses its own unique finger gestures to utilize. There is a slight learning curve involved with this, but such challenges are expected by those who are blind or visually impaired.
Since the touchscreen offers no physical feedback, one has to wonder how blind users find the right button on the flat surface. Other than the Home button, the volume control, and the sleep button, there are no physical buttons on the iPhone or iPod touch. This is problematic for blind users. On a computer, blind users touch-type, or in other words they feel where the keyboard keys are and press the appropriate keys while the computer gives audio feedback of on-screen events. Much like with veteran typists, touch-typing allows input and interaction without actually seeing the keyboard, only feeling it. But with the touchscreen there is no physical way for blind users to feel their way through the contents of the screen.
Apple solves this problem with a unique mode of VoiceOver, the screen-reading feature in Mac OS X. For the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, once VoiceOver is activated, a user places a finger on the screen and runs it along the screen's surface. Whenever the finger runs above an icon or static text, VoiceOver will read it out loud. Once the user becomes familiar with the layout of each screen, navigation can be easily accomplished. When the user finds what they are looking for, they double-tap and the app, link, setting, etc is activated.
Moving a finger along the screen in actuality moves the VoiceOver cursor. Once the VoiceOver cursor is focused on an element, the element can be activated with a double-tap. But dragging your finger around the screen is not the only way to move the VoiceOver cursor. A single-finger swipe to the right will move the cursor to the next item. In the home screen, a right swipe will move the cursor to the next icon. On a webpage, a right swipe will move to the next item whether it is an image, a link, static text, or a text form. A single-finger swipe to the left will move the VoiceOver cursor to the previous item. Once the VoiceOver cursor is on the desired element, a double-tap anywhere on the screen will activate the selected item.
Safari, the iPhone's, iPad's, and iPod touch's web browser, has special VoiceOver controls. Since webpages typically have multiple elements, such as links, images, static text, headers, etc, it can be very difficult to navigate through. An up or down single-finger swipe will move the VoiceOver cursor to the next "quick navigation" item. The "quick navigation" can be defined by the user. Once in Safari, place one finger at 12 o'clock and a secondary finger at 6 o'clock. Rotating the fingers as if turning a wheel will select which "quick navigation" type to navigate through. For example, rotating two fingers in a wheel motion clockwise and selecting "headers" will make the "quick-navigation" swipes navigate to only headers. Swiping down will move the VoiceOver cursor to the next header and an up swipe will move to the previous header. After a user executes an up or down swipe to navigate to specific elements, the user can always use a right or left swipe to move the VoiceOver cursor to the next item whether it is a link, header, image, etc.
While VoiceOver is active, scrolling up and down and moving to different pages of the Home screen are handled with a three-finger swipe up, down, left, or right.
Overall, VoiceOver on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch works very very well. It can be slow going when you are first learning the system and the swipes, but once you are familiar with the layout of the OS and its apps, you can effectively accomplish many tasks.
There are a few caveats. VoiceOver does not always give audio feedback. For example, when in mail, when the user deletes a mail message, there is a visual indicator of a successful deletion, but no audio indication from VoiceOver. This doesn't cause concern that a blind user is going to accidentally delete a message, but rather it prevents the user of being notified that the message was successfully deleted.
Another slight hiccup is that single finger swipes are sometimes interpreted as a tap. This means that instead of the VoiceOver cursor moving to the next or previous item, the VoiceOver cursor is moved to wherever the screen is touched. I found this hiccup occurred less frequently as I began to make slightly faster and exaggerated swipes.
Finally, as with computers, not all third-party applications available will work with VoiceOver. And as far as I know, there is no record of what apps do work with VoiceOver on the iPhone and iPod touch. The apps that come preinstalled on the iPhone (made by Apple) work with Voiceover. Mail, Safari, iCal, Contacts, Weather, Music, Audiobooks, Podcasts, Stocks, etc have no issues with VoiceOver. I haven't tested many third-party apps, but Skype, Pandora Radio, and some very basic text heavy apps work well with VoiceOver. If you have tried certain apps and found them to work well with VoiceOver, please post a comment.
Once zooming is active, a three-finger double-tap will zoom in. Dragging three fingers up, down, left, and right will move the magnification accordingly. To increase and decrease the level of magnification, you must do a three-finger double tap, keeping your fingers on the screen after the second tap. While keeping your three fingers on the screen, move up to increase magnification and move down to decrease magnification. Lift your fingers off the screen when the desired magnification level is reached. A three-finger double-tap will un-zoom. That's all there is to it. The regular gestures and taps work in conjunction with zoom. A single-finger tap will activate, a swipe up or down will scroll, everything works just as it does if zoom was turned off. This means that many more apps are accessible when using zoom than when using VoiceOver.
As far as color inverting goes, there is no easy way to activate and deactivate it. One has to navigate to Settings > General, Accessibility, and active or deactivate color inverting. There is also a setting that will allow a triple-click of the home button to activate an accessibility menu which includes an option for color inverting.
One Possible Problem
You can't use VoiceOver and zoom simultaneously. It's one or the other. Both VoiceOver and Zoom can be be activated and deactivated with relative ease, allowing the user to switch between the two methods. This can be an adjustment for those who prefer to use both a screen-reader and magnification, but the limited processing power, RAM, and battery all limit processor intensive features. Additionally, there would be some major command/gesture conflicts between the two accessibility methods. This may take some adjustment, but the limitation is more than manageable.
As with everything Apple, it's the overall experience that makes the difference. How is the overall experience of VoiceOver and zoom on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch? Terrific! Especially when you consider that the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch are still relatively new to the market and that this is the first attempt at accessibility on the devices.
FYI, the accessibility tools discussed in this article can only be found in the iPhone 3GS or higher, all models of the iPad, and iPod touch 3rd generation or higher. Previous models do not support accessibility.
If you need help using the accessibility features of the iPhone or iPod touch, you can find support in our community forums.
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