Apple has released iOS 8, the latest version of its operating system for mobile devices such as the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. This update is not as dramatic an update as iOS 7 was, with its completely overhauled user interface, but in terms of accessibility it continues to refine the user experience so that it works even better and for more people.
Aside from the features I will discuss in the rest of this post, I should mention a couple of small changes to the way the Accessibility pane is organized. A new option for turning on audio descriptions is now listed under Media along with Subtitles and Captioning. Similarly, options such as Switch Control, AssistiveTouch and Call Audio Routing are now listed under Interaction. I like this change because it highlights the different ways you can interact with the devices rather than specific disabilities. With that out of the way, what follows is a quick overview of the key features that have been added or enhanced in this version of iOS 8, with videos of each feature in action as I am able to record and release them.
Apple has enhanced the Zoom screen magnification feature in iOS 8 to provide even more flexibility and customization. Whereas in previous versions you could only zoom in on the entire screen, users of iOS 8 now have the ability to turn on a window mode where only part of the screen is magnified while the rest of the screen remains at its default magnification. Furthermore, a number of lens filters are available to customize the appearance of the zoomed in area of the screen. Lens filter options include:
- Inverted (similar to the Invert Colors feature available in previous versions of iOS, which reverses the colors for added contrast),
- Grayscale (for removing all color and replacing with shades of gray)
- Grayscale inverted (similar to inverted but with only shades of grayscale), and
- Low light (which dims the screen somewhat for those with light sensitivity).
An option I really like is being able to adjust the zoom level with a slider, rather than relying on a somewhat tricky gesture in previous versions of iOS. I found that gesture (which requires the user to double-tap and hold with three fingers, then slide up or down to adjust zoom) to be difficult for new users in the sessions I do for teachers, so I welcome the addition of this slider. A maximum magnification level for this zoom slider can be set in the Zoom settings.
Many of the options for customizing Zoom are available from a popover menu that can be accessed in a number of ways:
- triple-tap with three fingers
- tap the handle on the edge of the window in window mode, or
- tap a new controller similar to the one available with Assistive Touch. As with AssistiveTouch, you can move this controller around the screen if it gets in your way, and there is even an option to reduce its opacity. A tap and hold of the controller turns it into a sort of virtual joystick for panning around the screen with the Zoom window.
The keyboard is much easier to use with Zoom with a new Follow Focus feature that allows Zoom to follow the keyboard focus as you type, and you can also choose to have the keyboard remain at the default 1X magnification while the rest of the screen is magnified.
Apple has added Alex, its natural-sounding voice previously only available on the Mac, to iOS. As on the Mac, Alex is not limited to VoiceOver, but will work with other iOS speech technologies such as Speak Selection and the new Speak Screen (more on that later). However, note that not all devices are supported (check the Apple website to see if yours is on the supported list), and Siri still has its own voice rather than using Alex.
Building on the handwriting recognition feature introduced in iOS 7, iOS 8 also supports 6-dot Braille input. This feature involves the use of an onscreen 6-dot Braille keyboard that will translate 6-dot chords into text. Two modes for Braille input are supported: screen away mode and table top mode. These two modes determine the location of the onscreen controls for Braille input. In Screen away mode, the controls are placed on the right and left edges of the screen, while in table top mode they are arranged in the shape of the letter V.
While we are on the subject of Braille, I should note that the Braille pane in Settings now includes an option for turning pages when panning, as well as separate panes for selecting the Braille display output and input (contracted, uncontracted six-dot and uncontracted eight-dot Braille). Some of these options, such as the option for turning on eight-dot and contracted Braille, were previously available as on/off swiches in iOS 7.
Access to the new Braille keyboard is available through the rotor, which also now includes an option for controlling audio ducking. When audio ducking is enabled, VoiceOver will automatically lower the volume of whatever other sound is playing (such as from a video) so that you can hear its output better. Finally, in addition to the standard text entry method and touch typing there is now an option for Direct Touch Typing. This is similar to typing when VoiceOver is not turned on, where you just tap once on a letter to enter each character. This option could be helpful to someone who has some remaining vision but uses VoiceOver as an additional support when reading content on their devices.
With Speak Screen, a simple gesture (flicking down with two fingers from the top of the screen) will prompt the selected voice (which could be Alex) to read what appears on the screen. Speak Screen is different from Speak Selection, a version of text to speech available in previous versions of iOS that requires the user to first select text that can be read aloud. Unlike Speak Selection, Speak Screen can read not only text but the names of buttons and other interface elements, and the user does not have to make a selection first. Options for controlling the speed of the voice, pausing the speech and moving the focus of what is read aloud are available as a popover menu that can be collapsed to the side of the screen while the contents of the screen are read aloud.
Apple has added a time limit feature to Guided Access, allowing teachers, parents, therapists and the like to lock students into a specific app and specify the length of time the app is to be used. On devices that have the TouchID sensor, TouchID can now also be used as an alternative to the passcode for disabling Guided Access. With a time limit set, the child using the iOS device can get a warning as time is about to expire, either as a sound or with one of the built-in voices. In the classroom, features such as the timer for Guided Access can be helpful for ensuring students are on task while still setting expectations for transitions. Guided Access in iOS 8 also now allows for the keyboard to be disabled while the student works in an app, and I found that in Safari you can also disable dictionary lookup.
QuickType and Third-Party Keyboard API
The onscreen keyboard has gained smart word prediction in iOS 8. According to Apple, the QuickType prediction depends not only on your past conversations and writing style, but also on the person you are writing to and the app you are using. For example, in Messages the keyboard will provide suggestions that match a more casual writing style while in email it will suggest more formal language. Word prediction can save time and effort for everyone, and it can be especially helpful for students who struggle with spelling or those who find it difficult to enter text due to motor challenges.
In addition to QuickType, there is a new API third party developers can use to create customized keyboards that users can choose from instead of the standard one included with iOS. Already, developers of third party keyboards such as Fleksy and Swype have promised to have iOS 8 keyboards ready soon after launch. I am especially excited by the upcoming customizable keyboard from AssistiveWare, the makers of Proloquo2Go. This third-party keyboard for iOS will include many options for customizing the appearance of the keyboard as well as changing the spacing of the letters and more. With these third-party keyboards users should have more options for customizing the keyboard experience by changing the key spacing, using color themes and more. Fleksy even has a page where you can sign up to be notified when their iOS 8 keyboard is ready and in the App Store.
In iOS 8, Apple had added Grayscale as another option for changing the appearance of the display. Previously it was only possible to turn on Invert Colors to view a reversed, high contrast, version of what appeared on the screen. With Grayscale turned on, the entirety of iOS’s UI is displayed using a range of gray tones. While this is intended to help people with color perception issues, it could also be helpful for web developers who need to test to make sure they are not relaying on colors such as green and red alone for meaning. A similar feature is already available in OS X.
In addition to improvements to key accessibility features such as Zoom and Guided Access, iOS 8 includes a number of other accessibility enhancements, including:
- The ability to adjust the text size and make it bold is also now available in the Display and Brightness pane ( in previous versions of IOS a Text Size option was also found in the General pane, right above Accessibility).
- AssistiveTouch now has options for the Notification Center and the Control Center. This is really nice for the people who are unable to perform the flick gestures required to bring up these two options at the top and bottom of the screen.
- Navigation within the Switch Control menu has improved and is now more efficient. When the menu has more than one row of options visible, scanning is performed by row and then by column (as opposed to one item at a time). This reduces the amount of time it takes to navigate through all of the options on the menu. Also, the menu now takes into account the most likely actions a user would want to perform in a given context. For example, in the Home screen when I bring up the menu I only get an option to tap and to scroll to the right. However, I can still select the dots at the bottom of the menu to see the other actions or settings.
- Messages includes an option for sending audio clips from within the app, which will be of benefit to people who can’t enter message text as quickly as they can speak. On the receiving end, these messages can be played back by just raising the device to hear them, making the interaction easier for those with motor difficulties. Video clips can also be sent in a similar way. For someone with a cognitive disability, the ability to see something in concrete terms with the help of a quick video clip will be helpful (a picture is worth a thousand words, right?).
- Siri now has an always-on listening mode where the user can just say “Hey Siri” to activate the personal assistant. To avoid draining the battery, this mode will only work when the device is plugged into power. This will be helpful to any individual who has difficulty pressing the Home button to activate Siri.
- As on the Mac, Dictation now takes place with real time feedback (the text is entered almost immediately after it is spoken). This allows you to catch and fix errors more quickly as you type, which should be helpful to anyone who relies on Dictation as a method for text entry.
- iOS 8 adds multi-device support for Made for iPhone hearing aids, allowing users to pair their hearing aids with multiple iOS devices so they can switch between them as needed.
- The new support for a heath data API for tracking physical activity. For someone who is on the road to recovery (from an illness or an injury) such tools should prove helpful in keeping them on track and motivated about their progress, which is really important. There is even an option for including a health card (with information about medications, allergies and the like) in the lock screen. This idea will be taken even further when the new Apple Watch is released with a number of sensors for collecting health information that can be accessed with the Health app on iOS devices.
- A similar home automation API could come in handy for allowing people with motor difficulties to more easily control the appliances. lights and other aspects of their home environment using their iOS devices.
- NFC payments (Apple Pay) could make interactions at gas stations, pharmacies and other places of public accommodation a bit easier for people with motor difficulties. Rather than fumbling with a wallet to take out a credit card or loyalty card before buying a coffee, all that’s required is a simple tap of the phone (or upcoming watch) with the payment station.
When you take into account all of the accessibility and other enhancements built into iOS 8, it is clear that Apple is truly focused on creating an ecosystem of hardware, apps and services that work for everyone. Apple’s iOS 8 and iPhone/Apple Watch announcement also points forward to new technologies and means of interaction that will benefit people with disabilities. A great example is the new haptic feedback provided by the Taptic engine in the Apple Watch, which will use subtle vibration patterns to guide someone when using turn by turn navigation with the Maps app. I hope to see this technology appear in future iPhones, as it would be of great benefit for those who are blind.
I was also fascinated by the way in which you can communicate with the Apple Watch using tap patterns, doodles and what appears to be animated avatars, and I hope a similar app is eventually added to iOS. I could see that being very useful for young people who are on the autism spectrum or who otherwise have communication difficulties: what would be easier than drawing a big heart to tell your parent you love them, for example.
On that happy note, that’s it for this post. I’ll continue to update it with videos as I have time to complete them (including the captions) or new details emerge. As someone with low vision, I would love to be able to use iOS 8 on the new iPhone 6 Plus which has a bigger screen (as well as a better camera with stabilization for my photography). Unfortunately, I will not be able to do so because I am locked into a service plan for a while and can’t afford to buy it unlocked, but the new Apple Watch intrigues me and I think I will save up to get it when it comes out in early 2015. How about you? What’s your favorite new or improved accessibility feature in iOS 8? What do you think of the new iPhones that will be paired with iOS 8, are you getting one and if so which one?