Update: My good friend and fellow ADE Daniela Rubio has created a similar post for our Spanish speaking friends on her Macneticos blog.
The long wait is over. It’s finally here: iOS 7, the latest and radically redesigned version of Apple’s mobile operating system. Along with the redesigned interface, iOS 7 has a number of new and updated accessibility features which I will outline here (with videos to come soon). I will organize these according to the kinds of supports they provide.
The first thing you notice is that it is now easier to navigate to the accessibility area in the Settings. In iOS 6, Accessibility was toward the bottom of the General pane . In iOS 7, it is much closer to the top of the pane, so that you don’t have to scroll. A small change, but one that hopefully will get more people to explore these settings and to become aware of the powerful assistive technology that is built into their devices. It will also aid with navigation for the people who actually use features like VoiceOver and Switch Control.
- Large cursor for VoiceOver: you can now choose to have a larger, thicker cursor when VoiceOver is enabled. This is great for me, as I always had a difficult time seeing the old cursor’s faint outline. This option is found at the bottom of the VoiceOver pane.
- Enhanced voices and language support: The Language Rotor option for VoiceOver has been replaced with a Languages and Dialects pane which provides a lot more flexibility. In this pane, you can specify a default dialect for your language (U.S. English, Australian English, etc.) and add languages to the rotor like you could in iOS 6. For each dialect or language, you can now download enhanced versions of the voices as well as separately control the speech rate.
- VoiceOver’s option to use phonetics now has a few options (off, character and phonetics, and phonetics only), whereas before you could only turn the feature on and off.
- You can use a switch to disable the VoiceOver sound effects. These are the sound cues that let you know when you are at the edge of the screen and so on.
- New options in the VoiceOver rotor: you can add the option for turning sound effects on and off to the rotor, and there is a new handwriting option. Updated (09/18/13, 3pm): The handwriting option allows you to enter text using your handwriting. For example, you can open up the Notes app and start entering text by using the screen as a canvas where you write your text. The handwriting mode supports a number of gestures: two finger swipe left deletes, two finger swipe right adds a space, three finger swipe right adds a new line. You can also switch between lower case (the default) and upper case, punctuation and numbers by swiping up with three fingers. For navigation on the Home screen, you can enter the a letter and VoiceOver will announce the number of apps that start with that letter (even if they are not on the current screen). If there are several apps that start with the same name, you can swipe up or down with two fingers to navigate the list, then double-tap with one finger to open the desired app when it is announced. The handwriting option also works on the lock screen, where you can use it to enter the numbers for your passcode (it even defaults to numbers). In Safari, you can use the Handwriting feature to navigate by item type (for example, you can write “h” for headings, “l” for links and so on then swipe up or down with two fingers to navigate the various headings, links, etc).
- Updated (09/18/13, 3pm): VoiceOver has a new gesture for accessing the help from anywhere in iOS: a four finger double-tap will allow you to practice VoiceOver gestures. When you’re done, a second four finger double-tap will exit the VoiceOver help.
- Enhanced braille support: VoiceOver now supports Nemeth Code for equations, and there is an option for automatic braille translation (supporting U.S., Unified and United Kingdom options).
- The Large Text option is now called Dynamic Type and it can work with any app that supports the feature rather than the limited set of built-in apps in previous versions of iOS. The size of the text is controlled using a slider rather than by choosing from a list and a live preview shows how the text will appear.
- Bold type and other visual appearance adjustments: overall, iOS 7’s new design has less contrast than previous versions. However, in addition to large type, there are a number of adjustments you can make to the UI to make it easier to see items on the screen. You can make text bold (requires a restart), increase the contrast when text appears against certain backgrounds, remove the parallax motion effect, and enable on/off labels (I’m guessing this feature is for people who are color blind. The feature will add a small mark to indicate when a control is in the on/off position, which would be helpful because green is used quite a bit throughout the interface and the changes in state could be difficult to perceive for those who are color blind to this color).
The big addition here is a Subtitles and Captions pane. This pane brings the Closed Captioning support under the Accessibility area of the Settings, whereas before it was found under Videos. It is a global setting that will control closed captions throughout iOS.
In addition to having a global control for closed captions, the Subtitles and Captioning pane also allows you to select from several presets that make captions more attractive and easier to read. You can even go further and specify your own styles for captions, with many options ranging from font, text size, color and opacity to the color and opacity of the box the captions sit on.
Guided Access now allows disabling the Sleep/Wake and Volume buttons in iOS 7. You can also access the other options in your triple-click home shortcut (which has now been renamed the Accessibility Shortcut) while Guided Access is enabled. This will allow you to use VoiceOver, Zoom and other accessibility features along with Guided Access.
Like VoiceOver, Speak Selection has enhanced language support, including selection of different speaking rates for each of the supported languages and dialects as well as enhanced quality voices that are available for download as needed.
Both of these features are also supposed to get new APIs which I will verify once I can locate apps that implement them. For Speak Selection, a new speech API will allow apps to tap into the built-in voice support of iOS. The idea is that by not having to include as much voice data, the apps can be smaller and take up less space on the devices. In the case of Guided Access, a new API will allow developers to hide parts of the screen to reduce distractions. This builds on the previous version’s feature of disabling touch in certain areas of the screen.
The built-in dictionary feature now supports additional languages which can be downloaded and managed in the Define popover. When you select a word in a foreign language and tap Define, iOS will open the definition in the appropriate language if you have that dictionary downloaded. This is a nice feature for language learners.
Probably the biggest addition in iOS 7 for accessibility is Switch Control. This feature has the potential to do for people with motor and cognitive impairments what VoiceOver has done for the blind community. With Switch Control, items on the screen are highlighted with a cursor sequentially, and when the desired item is highlighted it can be activated by tapping the screen or a separate adaptive device connected to the iOS device over Bluetooth. A menu can also be brought up to access scrolling, saved gestures and a number of device functions such as clicking the Home button. Switch control is highly configurable in iOS 7:
- you can enable auto scanning and adjust the timing parameters for the auto scanning feature, including the number of times it will loop, how long you have to hold down the switch to activate an item (hold duration) and so on.
- you can adjust the visual appearance and audio effects: for the visual appearance you can choose a large cursor and select from a number of colors for the scanning cursor (I actually wish this feature were available for VoiceOver as well). For audio, you can choose to hear an audio cue when the cursor advances, as well as enable speech and adjust the speaking rate. This last feature may be helpful to someone who needs to use a switch device but also has low vision and needs the audio cues for the items on the screen.
- You can add multiple switch sources, and the switch source supports three options: external, screen and camera. The first two are pretty self-explanatory. You either tap on an external device or on the iOS device’s screen to activate an item. I set my iPad up to interpret a tap on the screen as a select action and my external switch (a Pretorian Bluetooth switch/joystick device) to pause scanning. The last option is pretty interesting. The camera can be set to recognize your head movements as an action, and you can assign different actions to either a right or a left head turn. When a head movement is added as a switch source an option for adjusting the head movement sensitivity will be available. One thing to note is that you should probably have your iOS device on a stand if you plan to make use of the camera as a switch source. Otherwise, moving the device may cause the camera to not recognize your face as desired.
Although not considered an accessibility feature, the improved Siri personal assistant with higher quality male and female voices could come in handy for people with disabilities when they wish to look up information or control their devices quickly. For example, Siri recognizes a number of new commands: you can turn some of the settings on and off with a simple command (“turn Bluetooth on,” or “enable Do Not Disturb”), or navigate to specific areas of the Settings with a voice command (“open accessibility settings” or “go to accessibility settings”).
Similarly, the new TouchID feature (currently available only on the iPhone 5S) should make it easier for individuals who are blind or who have cognitive disabilities to access the information in their devices. As great as VoiceOver is, entering text has never been a strength, even when it is just a few digits on the lock screen. Using the fingerprint reader built into the Home button of the iPhone 5S (and hopefully future iPads) will make it easier to unlock the device while also ensuring privacy. For individuals with cognitive disabilities, the passcode becomes one less thing they have to remember.
On the iPhone, the Control Center includes a Torch feature that uses the flash to provide a constant source of light. I can see this feature being useful for those who need to scan documents in order to perform OCR. Along with the improved cameras in the new phones released with iOS 7, the additional light could improve the performance of the scanning apps used by many people with print disabilities.
iOS 7 also added the ability to perform automatic updates for apps you own. This could have some accessibility implications because you may have an app installed that is accessible in its current version but may become inaccessible after an update. To prevent this from happening, you can turn off the option for automatic updates in Settings > iTunes & App Store > Updates. The App Store also supports the option for redeeming gift cards using the camera (a feature already available on the Mac with iTunes). For individuals with low vision, the redeem codes on iTunes gift cards can be difficult to read, and this option to scan it with the camera makes the process of redeeming gift cards much easier.
Of the new accessibility features, I am most excited about the captioning styles and Switch Control. These two features build on Apple’s strong support for the blind community to extend accessibility to even more people (especially so in the case of Switch Control and its potential impact for people with motor and cognitive disabilities). What are your thoughts? What are you most excited about in iOS 7 with regard to accessibility?