With IOS 5, Apple has introduced a number of features to make their mobile devices even more accessible to people with disabilities:
- VoiceOver enhancements: IOS 5 includes an updated voice for VoiceOver, the built-in screen reader for people who have visual disabilities. I have found the new voice to be a great improvement over the old one, especially when reading long passages of text in apps such as iBooks. Another improvement is that the triple-click home option is set to toggle VoiceOver by default. Along with the PC-free setup introduced with IOS 5, this small change has made it possible for someone with a visual disability to independently configure his or her IOS device out of the box, without any help from a sighted person. The Mac-cessibility website has an excellent overview of the many new changes in VoiceOver that I highly recommend reading.
- Camera app compatibility with VoiceOver: this is a neat feature that will make photography more accessible to people with low vision and those who are blind. With VoiceOver on, if you launch the Camera app it will announce how many faces are in the frame. In my testing this worked pretty well, and I’ve used it successfully on the iPad and the iPod touch. It should work even better on the iPhone, which has a better sensor and optics. Combined with the ability to turn on the camera app from the lock screen on some devices (iPhone and iPod touch) by double-tapping the home button and the fact that you can use the volume up button as a shutter release, Apple has done a lot to make photography more accessible to people with visual disabilities.
- Speak selection (text to speech): This is one of my favorite features introduced with IOS 5. It provides another modality for students with learning disabilities who can benefit from hearing the text read aloud to them. To use it, go into Settings, General, Accessibility, tap Speak Selection and choose On. Once you’ve enabled this feature, when you select text a popup will show the option to Speak the text using the VoiceOver voice. Note that you can control the speaking rate for the speak selection feature independently from VoiceOver.
- Balance controls for audio: In addition to mono-audio, which combines both channels of stereo audio into a single mono channel, there is now an option for controlling the left/right balance for stereo sound. On the iPhone, there is now also a special Hearing Aid mode that is supposed to make the device more compatible with hearing aids.
- Handling of incoming calls: you can choose to automatically route incoming calls to the speaker phone feature of the phone, or to a headset.
- New alert types: on the iPhone, you can use one of five unique vibration patterns to identify who is calling if you have a hearing disability, or you can create your own pattern by tapping it on the screen. These custom vibration patterns can be assigned in the Contacts app by opening a contact’s information, choosing Edit, Vibration and then Create New Vibration. There is also an option to have the LED flash go off when you get a notification, a new message, and so on.
- Assistive touch: this was one of the most anticipated accessibility features in IOS 5. Assistive touch was designed to make IOS devices easier to use for people with motor difficulties. For example, someone who is not able to tap the Home button to exit an app can now bring up an overlay menu with icons for many of the hardware functions of their device, including the Home button. Assistive touch also includes options allowing for single finger use of many of the multi-touch gestures (including the new four finger gestures available only for the iPad and the pinch gesture used for zooming). To use assistive touch, choose Settings, General, Accessibility and turn on Assistive Touch. You will know assistive touch is enabled when you see a floating circular icon on the screen. Tapping this icon will open the overlay menu with the assistive touch options. Note that you can move the assistive touch icon to another area of the screen if it gets in the way. Please note that Assistive Touch is not compatible with VoiceOver. I really wish the two features could work in tandem. This would be helpful to users with multiple disabilities.
- Custom gestures: assistive touch includes an option to create your own gestures. Update: I was able to create a few useful gestures after watching this video from Cult of Mac. I created one for scrolling up on a page and one for scrolling down. Now when I’m reading a long web page, instead of having to swipe up or down to scroll I can bring up the assistive touch overlay menu, select the new gesture from the Favorites group and tap once on the screen to scroll.
- Typing shortcuts: under Settings, General, Keyboard you can create shortcuts for common phrases. For example, you could create a shortcut that would enable you to enter an email signature by simply typing the letters “sig” and pressing the space bar. This feature should provide a big productivity boost to anyone who has difficulty entering text on their mobile device.
- Siri and dictation (iPhone 4S only): the new personal assistant uses voice recognition and artificial intelligence to respond to a range of user queries that can be made using everyday language rather than preset commands. The Apple website has a video that demos some of the capabilities of Siri. One of the amazing things about Siri is that it works without any training from the user. Along with Siri, the iPhone 4S also includes an option to dictate text by tapping a microphone button on the keyboard. The ability to use your voice to control the device can be helpful to many different types of disabilities, including those who have disabilities that make it difficult to input text. One of the things I have found especially frustrating when using VoiceOver on IOS devices is inputting text, so I hope this new dictation feature makes that easier. I will have a chance to test it out more thoroughly once I get my own iPhone 4S (currently out of stock in my area). Update: I finally got my hands on an iPhone 4 and I tried using the dictation feature with VoiceOver. It is working really well for me. I find the microphone button on the onscreen keyboard by moving my finger over it, double-tap to start dictation (as indicated by a tone) and then I double-tap with two fingers to stop it. Even better, after I’m done dictating the text, if I move the phone away from my mouth, it automatically stops listening! I love this feature.
- Dictionary: While it is not listed as an accessibility feature, having a system dictionary is a new feature that is great for providing additional language supports to students with learning disabilities. To use this feature, select a word and a popup will show the Define option that will allow you to look it up using the same dictionary that has been previously available only in iBooks.
- iMessages: a new add-on for the Messages app makes it possible to send free MMS messages to any owner of an IOS device. Many people with hearing disabilities rely on text messaging as a convenient means of communication. The iMessages will be especially helpful to those who are on a limited text messaging plan.
- Reminders app: The new Reminders app has a simple interface that will make it a nice app for people who need help with keeping track of assignments and other tasks. On the iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S, tasks can be tied to a location using the phone’s GPS capabilities. One use of this feature could be to set up a reminder for a person to take their medication when they get to a specific location, for example.
- Airplay mirroring (iPad 2, requires an Apple TV): along with IOS 5, a recent firmware update for the Apple TV enables mirroring to a projector or TV using Airplay. I can see this option being helpful in a class where there are students in wheelchairs who have difficulty moving around the room. Using air mirroring, the teacher could bring the iPad 2 to the student and the rest of the class could still see what is displayed by the projector or TV.
The new accessibility features make IOS 5 a must-have update for anyone who has a disability, as well as for those who work with individuals with disabilities. For schools and other educational institutions, the accessibility features of IOS make Apple mobile devices an ideal choice for implementing mobile learning while complying with legal requirements such as Section 504, Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Disclosure: I am an Apple Distinguished Educator.