It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed the full feature set of the accessibility features in apple products running iOS. This is due in part to most of the updates being incremental rather than revolutionary, and this is not intended as a criticism: indeed, Apple pioneered the inclusion of a touch-enabled screen reader in everyday devices with the iPhone 3GS in 2009, so while other companies have been playing catch-up, Apple has been able to continue adding polish to its rich feature set of accessibility features which is ultimately a good thing.
That said, with the recent launch of Apple’s new range of iPhone X devices bringing an operating system update to iOS 12, it’s a great time to have a look at what’s on offer for people with disabilities that want to use the iPhone or iPad. For this test I used a recent model of the iPad mini which has now received its iOS 12 update.
Farewell iOS 11 – and thank goodness for that
Before going through the iOS 12 feature set, it’s worth reflecting on the infamy of iOS 11. To say that it was buggy would be an understatement of epic proportions, with one of its bugs even sneaking into an Apple commercial. This resulted in a notable cat-and-mouse game of Apple putting out patches, users finding new bugs and Apple sending out yet another patch. While most of the bugs were ironed out towards the end of its OS life, the long beta testing of iOS 12 has largely helped Apple avoid the mistakes this time around. As a result, it is strongly recommended that you upgrade your device to iOS 12 if it can do so, especially if you’re unsure as to which version of iOS 11 is installed on your device.
iOS 12-specific accessibility improvements
In addition to overall stability, there are notable improvements to performance and boot-up times. There are two specific things that are important in relation to accessibility. The first is the upcoming Siri shortcuts which are likely to help assign tasks which will make it easier to use the iPhone or iPad. For example, if you can say to Siri ‘what’s on the menu’ in a café, it could potentially open your favourite OCR app, scan the menu and provide you with the result. This has the potential to be a powerful addition.
The second is already familiar to iPhone X users and that’s the new commands required to access the Home screen and perform functions without a physical Home button. Given the likelihood that Apple will move away from the Home button on iPad devices, it’s no surprise that iOS 12 has changed the shortcuts around for all devices going forward. If you use Voiceover, the new shortcuts are as follows;
- Go to Home Screen: swipe up from the bottom until you hear the first sound.
- Open App Switcher: swipe up from the bottom until you hear the second sound.
- Open Control Centre: swipe down from the top until you hear the first sound.
- Open Notification Centre: swipe down from the top until you hear the second sound.
- Cancel a gesture: slide your finger either to the left or to the right.
Accessibility feature categories
If you’re new to Apple iOS devices, the accessibility features can be found by going to Settings, then General, then Accessibility. To help make it easy to identify relevant features, Apple as categorised the features into sections titled Vision, Interaction, Hearing, Media and Learning. Let’s walk through what features are on offer.
The Vision settings are all designed to assist people with a vision-related issue. This can range from people with no vision through to people that need some minor assistance such as making the text bigger the built-in features include:
- VoiceOver: a screen reader designed to help people who are blind, or vision impaired to navigate the device primarily using swipe gestures.
- Zoom: a full-screen magnification tool that allows you to zoom into a part of the screen.
- Magnifier: this feature allows you to use the camera to zoom on some text or an image in the real world and display it on the screen.
- Display accommodations; this includes a variety of features which allows for an adjustment of the screen such as inverting the colours or applying colour filters.
- Speech: allows for the adjustment of speech options.
- Large text: provides an option to make the text larger across the device.
- Bold text: makes the text bold, allowing for the text to be thicker and potentially easier to recognise characters.
- Button shapes: this feature recreates the outline found around apps in previous versions of iOS.
- Transparency: this allows the user to decide how ‘see-through’ elements in iOS can be viewed. Minimising transparency can make it easier to see text and screens.
- Increase contrast: this feature can change the colour palette to help make elements contrast more effectively.
- Reduce motion: this can help in reducing the effects that may cause distractions or difficulties in seeing actions.
- Labels: this can provide additional information on functions.
While the Vision settings represent most accessibility features, there are also several features designed to help support people with a mobility impairment. They include:
- Switch control: provides support to people that use switch keys to perform multiple commands at once.
- Assistive touch: provides equivalent options for features such as single-tap and double-tap.
- Touch accommodations: provides options relating to the responsiveness of the screen when issuing commands.
- Shake to undo: as the name suggests, this allows the device to be shaken to undo the most recent input.
- Call audio routing: this can force a call to always output in a way such as to the speaker or a Bluetooth device.
Hearing, Media and Learning settings
The final three sections contain some helpful features specifically around hearing and to support people with learning disabilities. The Media section also provides some options for captioning and audio description. The features include:
- MFI hearing devices: this provides support for people that use hearing aids and other related technologies to connect with their iPhone or iPad.
- Mono audio: this allows for the stereo effect to be removed so that all audio comes through both earphones. There is also a sliding scale to adjust the stereo mix.
- Subtitles and captioning: this ensures that captions are visible on all video playback.
- Audio descriptions: this makes video playback automatically select an audio descried soundtrack where applicable.
- Guided access: this keeps the interface simple within apps, particularly helpful for people with learning or cognitive disabilities.
- Home button shortcut: allows the launch of an accessibility feature when the physical home button is triple-tapped.
Is iOS 12 worth the upgrade?
Whenever a new version of an operating system comes out, it’s important to consider if it is worth the upgrade. In this instance I would strongly encourage an upgrade from any earlier version of iOS on any device that supports it. VoiceOver users will need to adjust to the new gestures around the Home screen, but the improvements in stability and speed will certainly make it worth the effort.
iOS or Android?
In response to my recent article on Android 9.0 Pie accessibility, I’ve been asked by several people whether Apple iOS devices such as the iPhone and iPad are better from an accessibility standpoint, or whether its better to go with the latest Google Android smartphone or tablet. In short it depends on your disability and which ecosystem you prefer to use. In the case of people who are blind or vision impaired, the market is heavily weighted towards iOS despite the broader population choosing Android, so this would suggest that the wealth of vision-related features make Apple the preferred mobile operating system. However, both operating systems are well developed with accessibility features, so it may be worth trying devices from both platforms to see which one works best before purchasing.
Additional information on the accessibility features of iOS can be found in the Apple accessibility online resource.