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The Nillabyte Perspective: Technology

Accessibility For iPhone, iPad, And iPod touch: A Blind User's Review


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.

Accessibility Features

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.

VoiceOver

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.

Zooming

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.

Overall Experience

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.

Comments

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  1. Spiderpig's Avatar
    That is so frickin' awesome! I just tried out the zoom feature on my iPhone 3GS. I had no idea it was there. Although I am not blind, at times the text on the screen is a bit too small for my taste and I may end up using the zoom feature from time to time. Thanks for the info.
  2. dksBeet's Avatar
    I think that that zoom capability is going to be used by lots of people. Some of us don't always have our reading glasses on hand and enlarging the text on the iPhone would help.
  3. Stevez4's Avatar
    It would require only a minor software upgrade to increase the font size of the iphone overall. Why Apple refuses to do so has been a mystery. I have repeadedly suggested it.
    Thx for the zoom explanation.
  4. Kent's Avatar
    I wish Verizon had Iphones! But hopefully the just announced Droid based smart phnes will have some of these features, like inverted text and zooming. Kudos to Apple!
  5. Kyle Buckley's Avatar
    Quote From Kent
    I wish Verizon had Iphones! But hopefully the just announced Droid based smart phnes will have some of these features, like inverted text and zooming. Kudos to Apple!
    I too wish that Verizon had the iPhone. But it appears that if it happens, it won't happen for a few years, and it will be a slow rollout meaning that the big metro areas will get it first and the rest of the country will get it months to years later.

    Android phones that have Android 1.6 are accessibility enabled, but at a much smaller scale when compared to the iPhone. Thus far, there is only a screen reader and it is pretty crappy in my opinion. The voice is rather stinky. Not only that, but from what I could gather, the screen reader doesn't have a whole lot of gestures to support easy navigation. Additionally, web browsing is not compatible with the screen reader.

    As far as Android 2.0 and accessibility, it's hard to find info. Since Android is Open Source, information can be difficult to sift from misinformation. I'm sure 2.0 will bring some improvement, such as web browsing with the screen reader, but I think it will take a while for Android to catch up to the iPhone as far as accessibility goes.
  6. Samantha Nicole's Avatar
    Hey Kyle,

    Thanks for the extremely helpful review! Iím sighted, but my best friend is blind (I do know Braille by the way - grade 2 even). Iíve been thinking about what to get her for her birthday, and Iím considering the new iPod touch or new iPod nano. The nano interests me from a tactile response viewpoint and it apparently has the new VoiceOver features as well, but the iPod touch is so much more powerful. From your review, it seems that the iPod touch is quite navigable. Am I correct thinking that you would recommend the touch over the nano for the blind? Thanks for any input.
  7. Kyle Buckley's Avatar
    Quote From Samantha Nicole
    Hey Kyle,

    Thanks for the extremely helpful review! Iím sighted, but my best friend is blind (I do know Braille by the way - grade 2 even). Iíve been thinking about what to get her for her birthday, and Iím considering the new iPod touch or new iPod nano. The nano interests me from a tactile response viewpoint and it apparently has the new VoiceOver features as well, but the iPod touch is so much more powerful. From your review, it seems that the iPod touch is quite navigable. Am I correct thinking that you would recommend the touch over the nano for the blind? Thanks for any input.
    Samantha,

    Thanks for your question. I started composing a response, but it became long enough that I think it deserves to be an article. Later today, I will have the article posted here discussing the differences between the iPod nano and the iPod touch as far as accessibility goes. It will be posted on our home page, but I will also post a link to it here in the comments once it is posted.
  8. Samantha Nicole's Avatar
    Thank you so much. I really look forward to it! I just want whatís best for her.
  9. Kyle Buckley's Avatar
    Here is the link to the article discussing the differences between iPod nano and iPod touch as far as accessibility goes:

    iPod nano Vs. iPod touch: Which Is Better For Blind Users?

    Hope it helps.
  10. Timon's Avatar
    Nice article!
    There's a list of accessible apps at the following site:
    http://maccessibility.net/iphone/apps/
  11. Dario's Avatar
    What about the "data input" process?

    Is the speech regognizing software a possible way? Or a typing method - assisted somehow - a suitable solution?

    I am low-sighted, I was thinking to an iPhone as a possible target and probably a very nice friend, like my beloved Macbook Pro is, but - as described in the review - the touching experience, without any physical feedback, was a kind of brake, probably in my miond first, and non for real yet...

    I use a monocular for daily purposes, to enlarge what ever I have to read or watch, it has a variable focus lens system, so I can play with that in so many situationd. But that involves also that I have to use one hand to carry it and the other one to do what I have to do (hold a paper, the cell phone or what ever).
    With a "regular" cell phone, for example, there's no problem at all, I can write and do everything with one hand, or I can write with both and then check once I finisched - writing without seeing for a while -, but having the iPhone-Pod family no keys, as said, some doubts came out.

    I gave a try to the new Nokia N97, just to give an example, 'cause I thoght the integrated/sliding qwerty keyboard could help, but it's so unconfortable to handle and nearly impossible to use with a single hand, it's necessary to hold it firmly with both and act with thumbs, or to have a surface to put it on, and in my case it "stops" me... so probably a "pure" touch screen device, if well done as Apple's one seems to be, could be an unexpected companion.

    I hope not to have been too much long here... and that those experiences I bring can be useful to someone else too.

    Thank you all for reading.

    Dario
  12. Yurrmamma's Avatar
    OK. Thats great.. Now how do you UNzoom?
  13. Kyle Buckley's Avatar
    Quote From Yurrmamma
    OK. Thats great.. Now how do you UNzoom?
    Double tap with 3 fingers.
  14. Ben's Avatar
    You see, I'm not visually impaired or anything like that, but I have put my iPod Touch on the voice over option. My iPod is all black and everywhere I touch is says something. How do I undo voice over? Do I have to completely reset my iPod? Or is there another way?

    Thankyou!
  15. Kyle Buckley's Avatar
    Quote From Ben
    You see, I'm not visually impaired or anything like that, but I have put my iPod Touch on the voice over option. My iPod is all black and everywhere I touch is says something. How do I undo voice over? Do I have to completely reset my iPod? Or is there another way?

    Thank you!
    Wake it with the wake/sleep button, , then triple-tap with three fingers.
  16. Jennifer's Avatar
    This is getting me so excited. I'm a 20 year old girl and I'm visually impaired after an acceident. It's great to hear I'm able to use the iPhone. I'm planning on getting it soon, but I'm just wondering if the voice over will allow me to use facebook?
  17. Kyle Buckley's Avatar
    Quote From Jennifer
    This is getting me so excited. I'm a 20 year old girl and I'm visually impaired after an accident. It's great to hear I'm able to use the iPhone. I'm planning on getting it soon, but I'm just wondering if the voice over will allow me to use facebook?
    Thanks for visiting the site. Glad to hear you liked the article.

    I just tried the Facebook app for the iPhone and iPod touch. It's not very VoiceOver friendly. Often times, it skips links, buttons, and text fields, and when it does navigate to buttons VoiceOver only says "button," so you have know idea what button it is by listening to VoiceOVer. Navigating to Facebook.com in the iPhone's web browser has a little better accessibility support, but some items aren't labeled very well. If you have a little vision, you may be able to utilize VoiceOver with FaceBook in conjunction with the zooming features of the iPhone.

    If you want the FaceBook app to work better with VoiceOver, I suggest you contact Facebook and request support for VoiceOver. I'm sure you are not the only person who would love an accessibility friendly Facebook app.
  18. Jennifer's Avatar
    Quote From Kyle Buckley
    Thanks for visiting the site. Glad to hear you liked the article.

    I just tried the Facebook app for the iPhone and iPod touch. It's not very VoiceOver friendly. Often times, it skips links, buttons, and text fields, and when it does navigate to buttons VoiceOver only says "button," so you have know idea what button it is by listening to VoiceOVer. Navigating to Facebook.com in the iPhone's web browser has a little better accessibility support, but some items aren't labeled very well. If you have a little vision, you may be able to utilize VoiceOver with FaceBook in conjunction with the zooming features of the iPhone.

    If you want the FaceBook app to work better with VoiceOver, I suggest you contact Facebook and request support for VoiceOver. I'm sure you are not the only person who would love an accessibility friendly Facebook app.
    Thanks for letting me know. Facebook was the one thing I was looking forward to with the iPhone .. It's sad that brings my excitement down lol Now I'm not sure if it would be anymore useful for me than simpler phones.

    So you're saying it's too confusing to do things so it it's not a good idea? I also tried finding a place where I could put in a request for this on facebook, but I only found questions and answers from other users.
  19. Jennifer's Avatar
    Ok sorry for the kind of unecessary questions about facebook.. I understand it isn't easy with voice over, but would it be alright if someone who is able to see, show me what buttons and such that I'm on.. if I remembered everything, would that make it possible to use it?
  20. Kyle Buckley's Avatar
    Quote From Jennifer
    Ok sorry for the kind of unecessary questions about facebook.. I understand it isn't easy with voice over, but would it be alright if someone who is able to see, show me what buttons and such that I'm on.. if I remembered everything, would that make it possible to use it?
    Don't worry about asking too many questions. The ability to post comments here is here for a reason

    Yes, I think that with a sighted-person's help, you may be able to navigate Facebook.com with the iPhone, and possibly navigate the Facebook application. You may want to go to a store which sells the iPhone and see if you could play around with it a bit to see if you could navigate Facebook.com with the help of a sighted person.
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