What’s New in iOS 9 for Accessibility

With iOS 9, Apple continues to refine the user experience for those who have disabilities or just need additional supports to effectively interact with their iPhones and iPads. While there are only two new accessibility features in iOS 9 (Touch Accommodations and a new Keyboard pane for improved support of external Bluetooth keyboards), the existing features have received a number of enhancements. Probably the one that received the most attention in this update is Switch Control, which now includes a new scanning style, the ability to set separate actions for long presses, and Recipes for more easily performing repetitive actions such as turning the pages in a book in iBooks.

The first change you will notice when you go into the Accessibility pane in Settings is that things have been moved around just a bit. Really the only change is that the options for Interaction now follow those for Vision. Everything else then follows the same order as before. I like this change as I think both VoiceOver and Switch Control significantly change how the user interacts with the device and  this change should make it easier to navigate to Switch Control in the Accessibility pane. The change also works to highlight the new Touch Accommodations feature by placing it near the top of the Accessibility pane.

This post is a short summary of each accessibility feature that is either brand new or enhanced in iOS 9, starting with the new Touch Accommodations feature.

Touch Accommodations

This brand new feature is largely targeted at people with motor difficulties who may have problems with the accuracy of their touches as they interact with the touchscreen on an iOS device. Touch Accommodations consists of three options: Hold Duration, Ignore Repeat and Touch Assistance. Before you start experimenting with these options, I would recommend setting up your Accessibility Shortcut so that Touch Accommodations is the only option listed. This way if you get stuck while using Touch Accommodations you can quickly triple-click the Home button on your device to exit out of the feature.

Hold Duration will require the user to touch the screen for a given duration before a touch is recognized. This can be helpful for someone who struggles with accidental presses. When Hold Duration is turned on, touching the screen will display a visual cue with a countdown timer. If the user lifts the finger before the countdown runs out, the touch is not recognized. With Ignore Repeat, multiple touches within the specified duration are treated as a single touch. This can be specially helpful when typing with the onscreen keyboard. A user with a tremor may end up tapping repeatedly on the same spot, resulting in many unwanted keypresses.

Tap Assistance can be set to use the Initial Touch Location or the Final Touch Location.  The two options determine the spot on the screen where the touch is performed when you let go with your finger. With Initial Touch Location, you can tap and then move your finger around on the screen while a timer is displayed. If you let go with your finger during the countdown (which you can customize using the Tap Assistance Gesture Delay controls) the tap is performed where you first touched the screen. After the countdown expires, you can perform a gesture (a flick, swipe and so on) the way you are used to with iOS. With Final Touch Location, the touch is performed at the spot where you let go as long as you do it within the countdown time. This can be a different spot than where you first touched the screen.

Additions to Switch Control

Switch Control is an iOS feature introduced in iOS 7 that provides access to touchscreen devices for a number of people who rely on external assistive devices. My friend Christopher Hills, with whom I am co-authoring a book on this feature (stay tuned on that front),  is a good example of an expert user of Switch Control. Christopher has cerebral palsy and uses external switches to perform many of the gestures someone with typical motor functioning could do with their fingers on the touchscreen.

In iOS 9, Apple has continued the development of Switch Control with a number of new features:

  • A new Single Switch Step Scanning style: this new style requires the switch source to be continuously pressed until the user gets to the desired item. Letting go of the switch then will highlight that item and give it focus. With the default tap behavior, the next tap will bring up the scanner menu then within the scanner menu letting go of the switch will immediately select the option that has focus. A Dwell Time timing option determines how long it will take before an item is highlighted and the user can make a selection.
  • A new Tap Behavior: the Always Tap option is similar to Auto Tap in that it allows the user to make a selection with the first tap of the switch. However, with Always Tap, the scanner menu is available from an icon at the end of the scanning sequence instead of through a double-tap of the switch.
  • A Long Press action: the user an specified a separate action that can be performed when the switch is held down for a specified duration. This is a great way to exit out of the Recipes feature.
  • Recipes: the user can invoke a special mode for Switch Control where each press of the switch can perform the same action. A couple of actions are already included, such as tapping the middle of the screen or turning the pages in a book. These are primarily intended for use in iBooks. Creating a new recipe is as easy as giving it a name, assigning the switch that will be used to perform the action that will be repeated with each press, and choosing one of the built in actions or creating a custom one. Custom actions for Recipes can include a series of gestures and their timings. To exit out of the Recipe, the user has two options: setting a timeout after which the recipe will be ended if no switch presses take place, or setting the action for a long press of the switch to Exit Recipe.

A new option allows the switch user to combine tap behaviors when using the onscreen keyboard. With the Always Tap Keyboard Keys option, the keys will be selected with a single press of the switch even if the tap behavior is set to the default of showing the scanner menu at the first tap of the switch.

 

Customizable AssistiveTouch Menu

The layout of the AssistiveTouch menu can now be customized, with options for changing the number of items that appear on the top level shown and swapping out icons for features on secondary menus that are used more often. The number of icons on the top level menu can be set to as few as one and as many as eight. Tapping on any of the icons in the Customize Top Level Menu pane will open a list of all of the features supported by AssistiveTouch. Selecting an item from the list will move that option to the top level menu. Change your mind? No problem, a Reset option is available (in fact, I would love to see similar Reset options for other features such as VoiceOver and Switch Control).

Better Support for Bluetooth Keyboards

Under Interaction, you will find a new Keyboard option. Tapping that option will open a separate pane with options intended for those who use an external Bluetooth keyboard with their iOS devices:

  • Key Repeat: turns off the key repeat (it is enabled by default) in order to prevent multiple characters from being entered when a key is held down on the keyboard. The options for customizing this feature include adjustments for the delay before a key that is held down starts repeating, as well as how quickly the key repeat will take place.
  • Sticky Keys: allows the user to press the modifier keys for a keyboard shortcut in sequence rather than having to hold them down all at once. The options for this feature include a quick way to turn it on by pressing the Shift key quickly five times, as well as playing a sound to alert the user when it has been turned on.
  • Slow keys: changes how long the user has to hold down a key before it is recognized as a keypress (essentially a hold duration). The only option for this feature is to adjust the length the key has to be pressed before it is recognized.

The one option for the onscreen keyboard in the Keyboard pane addresses a usability problem by making the switch between lower case and upper case more prominent. By default, the keys on the onscreen keyboard are in lower case and only switch to uppercase when the shift key is pressed.

Tweaks to VoiceOver and Zoom

The Rotor in iOS 9 has two new options available: Text Selection and Typing Mode. The former is not a new feature or input mode, it just now can be changed through the rotor. With the latter, the user can more easily select text by character, word, line, or page (or select all) by flicking up or down with one finger after selecting Text Selection in the Rotor. A flick to the right will then select the text by the chosen granularity (word, line, etc.).

A new option allows the users of external Bluetooth keyboards to change the VoiceOver keys from Control + Option to the Caps Lock. Finally, users can now adjust the Double-tap Timeout at the bottom of the VoiceOver settings pane. This feature may be helpful to a VoiceOver user who also has motor difficulties and can’t perform the double-tap as quickly.

For Zoom, the only change is that the option for choosing different Zoom Filters is now available from the Zoom settings panel where before it could only be selected from the Zoom menu available after tapping the controller or the handle on the Zoom window.

Other Options

iOS 9 includes options for disabling the Shake to Undo feature as well as all system vibrations, both of which can be found under Interaction in the Accessibility pane.

As is often the case with iOS updates, a number of features that are not explicitly labeled as a accessibility features can benefit those who use assistive technologies. One example is the new Siri suggestions feature, which can be displayed with a swipe to the right from the Home screen. The suggestions include frequently contacted people, recently used apps, locations and more. Anything that puts less distance between users of VoiceOver and Switch Control and the information they need is a good thing in my book.

That’s it for this high level overview of the major (and some minor) changes in iOS 9 that impact those who rely on the accessibility features. I hope you have found it helpful.

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12 thoughts on “What’s New in iOS 9 for Accessibility”

  1. hello and thank you for the in depth description of the accessibility tools especially on iOS 9 really appreciated!
    i am visual impaired and the zoom feature has opened the doors since day one for me and fora who lots of people with vision problems. thats one of the reason that i love iOS and apple of course
    however have installed the GM version and i see that there is an issue with the zoom. three finger gesture to zoom in and the navigate seems impossible. the only way that i could magnify the screen is to have the round shortcut so as to increase via the slider manually

    Also sometimes..when the fingers gesture works and i zoom in there is a lag or a glitch in the screen
    can you please confirm that?
    i have an iPhone and an iPad and if i switch to iOS 9 and problems remain..i think i will have a serious problem using the device

  2. You are absolutely correct. In fact, I spent many hours on the phone with Apple support and eventually they had to replace my iPad air two with a new one that have older software. If anyone who has low vision and relies on the three finger tap/zoom feature do not upgrade this also holds true for the new iPhones. I truly hope Apple gets this message soon as I cannot and will not be able to continue to use iPad products and iPhone products if they do not fix this major major bug. If there is anyone who knows how to get this information directly to Apple please do so.

    Jason

  3. Luis,

    Im new to Switch Control. I set it up so i can use my bluetooth keyboard instead of tapping the screen of my ipad air. However, if i want to type in Word or Pages, i have to use the onscreen keyboard; the bluetooth (zaggkeys folio) doesnt work. It’s hard to believe that something that allows the user to use a bluetooth keyboard for almost everything prevents the user from using it to do word processing. What am i doing wrong here?

    1. You are not doing anything wrong, Glenn. Switch Control is designed to be used with an external switch interface, not a Bluetooth keyboard (though you can use one for testing by simulating some of the keyboard commands recognized by Switch Control).

  4. Thank you for these details on Switch Control. I wonder if you have a solution to the following problem for me. I am trying to configure Switch Control on an iPan Mini for my 85-year-old father-in-law, who has an advanced case of Parkinson’s Disease. His speech is inaudible and his manual dexterity is very limited. His primary (if not only) use case for the iPad is to read books in both the iBooks and Kindle for iPad apps.

    He cannot consistently and accurately tap or swipe the screen to turn pages in those apps, so I have configured an external two-button Bluetooth switch for him (the Ablenet Blue2), turned on the “Turn Pages” recipe in Switch Control, then set the “Launch Recipe” setting to “Turn Pages.”

    The Turn Pages recipe works well with the external switch in both apps, which is wonderful. However, I have found that after returning from screen lock (using the screen lock button or timing out), the Turn Pages recipe is no longer active, and Switch Control defaults to scanning mode.

    I can get it back into Turn Pages mode by turning Switch Control off, then on again, which reloads the recipe. But my father-in-law will not be able to navigate through the tiny buttons in the Switch Control menus to do this, nor does he have the dexterity to use the Switch Control on-off shortcut, which requires three rapid clicks of the home button.

    I spoke with Apple Support, who told me (1) this is not normal behavior for Switch Control; (2) it would go away if I reinstalled the latest version of 9.2, and (3) if it did not go away, I would need to replace my iPad because it’s a hardware issue.

    I reinstalled iOS (precisely following the instructions of the Apple support rep), but the behavior has not changed. I’m having a hard time believing this is a hardware problem, but thought I would ask whether you have seen this before.

    If this is just a fluke or bug in the way Switch Control works, I would like to come up with a work-around. Is there an easier way for my father-in-law to turn Switch Control off and on? Can I create an icon for the desktop that would execute a script to do that without dropping him into a bewildering set of menu options? Any help with this would be greatly appreciated. The iPad, external switch and setup were meant to be a Christmas present.

    1. I doubt it is an issue with the hardware. It sounds like a Switch Control bug to me. As for running a script as a workaround, you could check out an app such as Workflow. I have used it to create shortcuts on the Home Screen that perform some repetitive tasks such as sending a preset text message, launching an app with filled in information, etc. I’m not sure how it would work in this case, but it may be worth a try.

  5. Hi, I didn’t see my particular problem after a couple hours searching… so I’m hoping for some help:
    When using VO, I will double tap an item to select it. Then, as I pull away, it calls out the next one in line and doesn’t activate my selection.
    For instance, I might locate Facebook then double tap to select it but as I pull my hand away, VO calls out “Facetime” (I keep things alphabetically).
    Is this a (not) fun new hidden feature Or am I encountering a glitch?
    Thank you for your collective wisdom.

    1. I have had that issue a couple of times, but it was usually while I was projecting the iPad for a presentation. I couldn’t really figure out why it was doing it, and it went away with a restart. I would also recommend doing a full reset to see if it goes away, and also wiping the screen to make sure it is as clean as possible. Is it an older iPad? Are selections on the touchscreen accurate if VoiceOver is not turned on? If someone can test this out for you then I would say it is a VoiceOver glitch if it works ok otherwise.

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