Friday, October 17, 2014

What's new in Accessibility in iOS 8 for blind, low vision, and deaf-blind users

Submitted by Scott Davert on 17 September, 2014 - 13:57 and last modified on 17 September, 2014 - 13:57


It's fall, which means it's time for another iOS update to fall on to your iDevices. That is, if you are using an iPhone 4S or later, iPad 2 or later, or iPod Touch fifth generation or later. This year, Apple introduces a lot of new mainstream features such as the ability to share purchased items with family members on joint accounts with the iTunes and App Store, the further harmonization of iOS and OS X, interactive notifications, wifi calling - just to name a few. Many mainstream sources will be covering these features in great detail, so this article will focus on changes in accessibility. Just like all of my articles dating back to iOS 5, this one doesn't claim to have everything that's new. I, along with a few of the other AppleVis Editorial Team members, have taken time to work with the betas of iOS 8 since its first build was released to developers in June.


Hey, Siri!

If you've ever wanted to use Siri hands-free, in iOS 8 you now have that ability. If you go into the settings for Siri (Settings > General > Siri), you will now find an option called Voice Activation. Turn this on, and you can yell at Siri without ever having to touch your phone. As this feature would eat your battery for lunch, it is only active when your iDevice is plugged in to a power source - so be sure to plug your phone in before you start yelling.

Name That Song

Siri can now listen to a song playing and tell you what it is. Just ask Siri something like, "what song is this?" and Siri will listen for a few seconds, then try to figure it out. If Siri can identify the song, it will tell you the name and artist - then offer to let you buy the song on iTunes. This is great for when you are listening to a song on certain radio services or stations where the song information is not accessible to those who are blind. It can also come in handy when at a store or restaurant and you hear a song you like, but you have no idea what it is.

VoiceOver changes

I'll Take a New Voice, Alex

That's right, if you're running the iPhone 5s or newer (sorry, the 5C doesn't offer this), the iPad Air or newer, or the iPad Mini with Retina Display or newer, you can now use Alex (from Mac OS X) as your default voice for VoiceOver. This is a voice many users of the Mac have grown used to over the years, and many users will no doubt be happy to have it residing on their iDevices. This is also going to be a welcome addition for those users who have both vision and hearing loss - where their loss is higher in frequency - making understanding female voices more difficult. You can find and download the Alex voice, which is not on by default, by going in to Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Speech > Default Dialect. Under the U.S. English heading, you will find the option to download and then use the Alex voice. Be sure you have plenty of space available, as this speech synthesizer weighs in at a hefty size near 900 megabytes. Also, it appears as though after downloading the Alex voice for the first time, one must restart VoiceOver before using it.

And the Possibilities Keep Growing!

With iOS 7, you could download multiple enhanced quality voices for both multi-language support and for access to other dialects of languages such as English and Spanish. With iOS 8, you can now download enhanced quality versions of voices on the fly if you are connected to wifi. Alex voice users can even add a second instance of U.S English as a dialect, which will give you the familiar Samantha voice which one can then switch to on the fly if “language” is enabled in your rotor settings.

All of These Voices are Taking Up So Much Space, I Need a Disk Diet!

If you find that too many of the enhanced quality voices are installed on your device, you can remove the ones you are not currently using. Once you have multiple voices added to your device, go to the speech button under VoiceOver settings and you will find an edit button. You will see a delete option next to each voice; just double-tap that and confirm your choice, and the voice will be removed - creating more space for other stuff.

Keep it Cranked!

A new rotor item, Audio Ducking, is available in iOS 8. No, activating this rotor option will not make VoiceOver sound like Donald Duck, but it will let you toggle Audio Ducking. What is Audio Ducking, you ask? Audio Ducking is when iOS decreases the volume on whatever other audio is playing when VoiceOver is speaking. It has done this for quite some time, but you can now disable this feature if desired. You can accomplish this by turning your rotor to "Audio Ducking" and flicking up or down with one finger. If Audio Ducking isn't in your rotor, head over to Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Rotor, and then select the Audio Ducking option. Once selected, Audio Ducking will always be available in your rotor.

Is That the End?

Another minor change is that when you are browsing Settings you will now occasionally hear VoiceOver announce "Footer” after reading a block of text. This has been added to help identify the text which gives information about the specific setting. The choice of “Footer” could be confusing to a new user, as they may think that they are at the end of a page when they actually are not.

VoiceOver, No Longer Interrupted …Sort of.

Prior to iOS 8, when you were reading text (such as an e-mail or audiobook) using the Read All gesture, VoiceOver would interrupt whatever it was you were doing to let you know of notifications such as Twitter replies, Dice World rolls, breaking news, etc. This no longer happens, with the exception of text messages. So, read away--just make sure no one texts you at the same time.

More E-mail, More Options

In the Mail app, the Custom Actions option in the Rotor setting has been modified. When you were on a thread or message in previous versions of iOS, “Trash/Archive” and “More” were your only options. Now, added to the list of custom actions and not requiring the selection of the “More” menu are Flag, Mark As Read/Unread, Archive, and - yes - More. The “More” menu now consists of Reply-all, Forward, Flag, Mark-as-Read/Unread, Move to Junk, Move Message, and Notify Me. The “Notify Me” option allows you to get push notifications when there is a reply to a certain thread of messages.


In addition to Standard and Touch Typing for touchscreen input, there is now a new option called Direct Touch Typing. If you are in a text field and move to the Typing rotor option, you will still find the Standard Typing and Touch Typing selections available. Direct Touch Typing is similar to Standard Typing in that you can find a key with one finger, then tap another finger on the screen to enter the character. The difference with Direct Touch Typing is that if you touch a key and immediately lift your finger, that character is entered. If you're extremely confident in your ability to locate the key you want on your first try, Direct Touch Typing is for you. You can also find the key you want by dragging a finger around the onscreen keyboard, then touching the same spot quickly to type that key. Typing feedback is, as with the other typing modes, based on the verbosity settings that you have set in Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver> Typing Feedback > Software Keyboards.

The Braille is Everywhere!

Another new feature that has been added to the rotor in iOS 8 is a built-in Braille keyboard. This is similar to what users of the mBraille app have grown accustomed to, but without many of mBraille's advanced editing or shortcut features. However, this Braille entry is now a universal keyboard option and works in any text field. You'll find it as a new rotor selection called "Braille Screen Input.” Just like the Handwriting mode introduced in iOS 7, you simply turn the rotor to the Braille option and begin typing in Braille on the touchscreen. If you aren't finding this option in your rotor, you will need to enable it as described above in the Audio Ducking section.

Getting a Feel for Using the Braille Keyboard •To orient yourself to the Braille dots, press and hold down a finger on the touchscreen until you hear two tones and then the phrase "entering explore mode", then drag your finger around to discover where the dots are. To exit this mode, simply lift your finger off the screen.
•There are two keyboard layout modes: Tabletop and Screen Away. If you are not happy with the layout of your keyboard, try turning the screen in another direction to change the orientation. Note: If you have orientation locked, entering Braille Screen Input mode will disable that feature.
•To change the input from or to contracted or uncontracted Braille, flick 3 fingers to the right or left to change from one to the other. You can also find this under Settings > General > Accessibility> VoiceOver > Braille > Braille Screen Input.
•After typing a word, flick right with 1 finger to enter a space. If you've made a mistake, flicking one finger to the left will perform a backspace.
•If you flick up or down with one finger after inputting part or all of a word, you will be offered word suggestions based on common Braille mistakes (such as "Job" if you wrote "Dob"). Flick up or down with one finger until you hear the word you want, then flick right with one finger to select that choice (no need to double tap - that would just add two dots to your text). Once you have chosen a word, you can continue inputting Braille.
•If you need to enter a new line, this can be achieved by flicking right with two fingers.
•When you are done using Braille as your input method, simply turn the rotor and all functionality of the touchscreen returns to normal - just like with the handwriting mode.
•To search for an app on the Home Screen, when you type, iOS will pop up apps matching what you've typed so far. Flick up and down to cycle through these, and two-finger flick right to open one.
•Not a fan of entering your passcode with the touchscreen? No problem! You can also do this with Braille gestures. Note: If the first character in your passcode is a number, you will need to first enter a number sign (dots 3-4-5-6) before typing your passcode. Once you are finished entering your passcode, the phone will unlock automatically.
•It’s important to note that 8-dot Braille is only supported on the iPad, not the iPod or iPhone due to the limited amount of touchscreen space available. Also worthy of note is that performing a 6 dot gesture is a bit tricky, since Apple's touchscreen only permits 5 finger gestures. As such, if you wish to do a capitol Q in 8-dot Braille, for example (dots 1-2-3-4-5-7), you would need to lift a couple of fingers after pressing those dots, but not all, so that the system knows you are going to use other dots. The same scenario applies to doing a full cell in 6 or 8-dot mode.

Braille Changes in iOS 8

Uh, Hello? Is This Thing On? Are There Any Cells Left in This Brain?

This bug, for Braille users, is being reported here because it is very critical. If you go to Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Braille > Status Cell, do not change them to the Right or Left setting. Doing so will render VoiceOver and Braille completely useless until a sighted person can turn the status cell back off.

Braille Input via Braille Display

Braille input using a Braille display has become more sluggish in iOS 8, regardless of which mode of input you are using. For example, typing a sentence such as: "Hello, my name is Scott," will still produce the correct result, but the process will take about five seconds longer. With iOS 8, each letter you press is automatically displayed next to a full 8-dot cell at the beginning of the display and again at the end. It is then fed through the translator and finally comes out on the iDevice. It's important to keep track of when all of the text has been entered, so that when you move to a button or wish to move to another field on a web page, for example, all of the text has been entered accordingly.

Quickly Use QuickNav

One feature that Bluetooth keyboard users of VoiceOver have enjoyed since the release of iOS 5 is QuickNav in Safari. It has now been made possible to carry out these commands using a Braille display's input keys as well. Pressing space with Q should toggle QuickNav on and off, though VoiceOver always reports it as being on. The same keyboard commands that Bluetooth keyboard users know, such as pressing H for the next heading, C for the next checkbox, or F for the next text field, all apply here as well. As someone who is primarily a Braille-only user, this is a welcome addition to iOS' Braille support. However, even loading the same page on the same exact configuration will not always yield reliable results. Further, restarting VoiceOver will not always fix the issue.

That Was a Real Page Turner? I Didn't Know!

For quite some time, speech users of VoiceOver have enjoyed the ability to not have to worry about turning pages in various book reading applications. However, if you're using a Braille display to read content, you always had to turn pages by actually pressing the command to do so. In iOS 8, if you go in to the VoiceOver settings for Braille, you will find an option called "Turn Pages When Panning" and you will no longer need to worry about doing this. Note that this feature seems to work best in the Kindle app, as using it in iBooks presents you with a page number each time the page is turned and you have to wait a couple of seconds before you can resume reading.

My Input Doesn't Match My Output, is That Okay?

One of the more frustrating things with using a Braille display on the iOS platform is when you try to use contracted Braille and are a slower Braille typist. Those who write Braille slowly or who don't wish to use the translator found in the Braille driver had to toggle between contracted and uncontracted Braille each time they wanted to write. Now, this is no longer necessary. You can cycle through changing the input (what you're typing) mode by pressing space with G to go between contracted, uncontracted, and 8-dot computer Braille. You can also set your output (what you're reading), independently of the input mode. Cycle through the same 3 options by using space with dots 2-3-6. Of course, these options are also configureable in VoiceOver's Braille settings.


Most of the information in this particular section of the article was garnered through talking with low-vision users. As I have never had sight, it is impossible for me to evaluate this access method personally. In particular, I would like to thank Amy Mason for giving this a thorough look through and providing much of the following information pertaining to low-vision.

Boldly Moving Forward … Sort Of.

In Settings under General > Display and Brightness, you will now find the Bold Text option that used to be under the Vision heading in iOS 7. This feature is identical to bold text in iOS 7, except that it adapts to the color of the fonts on the Home Screen. If the Home Screen is light, the feature makes text dark; otherwise, text will be light. When the background color is somewhere in-between, this setting will default to white text.

A New Zoom for a New Version of iOS

Prior to iOS 8, Zoom simply magnified the entire screen. However, the new Zoom lives much more up to its name. When a user first enters "Zoom" in the "Accessibility" menu, they will find that they can toggle Zoom on and off, and that the instructions and method for using it are unchanged. However, there are a number of new feature toggles underneath the Zoom instructions -each of which will be discussed in turn:
•Follow Focus: This setting determines whether or not the Zoom lens will follow the text cursor.
•Show Controller: This toggle places a joystick on screen which can be used to move Zoom focus around, to bring up the new Zoom control panel, and to quickly zoom in and out of an area (I found it easier to use than dragging three fingers to move my focus all over).
•Zoom Region: This feature allows a user to use Window Zoom (a smaller than full-screen lens) or Fullscreen (as in previous versions of iOS).
•Maximum Zoom Level: This slider allows users to limit how much magnification Zoom will offer, which is helpful on iPod and iPhone due to screen size limitations.?

applying Zoom’s Features

Using Windowed Zoom: When a lens is enabled, a user will see a small horizontal bar at the bottom of the lens which allows for access to several controls and allows the user to move the lens itself. If you drag this control, you will move the lens; if it is single-tapped, Zoom will open an on-the-fly Zoom control panel. From the control panel, a user can take advantage of several options. First, the user can zoom in or out (though to regain access to the control panel without visiting settings again, when Zoomed out or in Fullscreen, the controller needs to be on), and you can then choose between fullscreen or window zoom. The Zoom lens can also be resized from this menu. Users can also choose to filter just their zoomed lens; options are: Inverted, Greyscale, Inverted Greyscale, and Low Light (which dims the lens on screen only). You can also hide or show the controller from this menu and grow or shrink the magnification size.

VoiceOver and zoom … Not Such a Happy Merger

The Zoom controller takes a backseat to VoiceOver if both are enabled, and using the more advanced Zoom features with VoiceOver looks like it may involve a lot of frustration and compromise. For instance, while testing with both Zoom and VoiceOver enabled, it did not seem possible to move the Zoom lens created earlier, and movement was restricted to the old Zoom controls. Most likely, the combining of both VoiceOver and Zoom with the new features is a work-in-progress.

All things considered, the improvement to Zoom is significant, but the tiny size of the iPhone and iPod screens will always limit it's usefulness for more than spot-checking. As this build of iOS 8 was only tested on an iPod, it’s unclear if these new features will come more in handy on an iPad.

Getting Cut Off While Sizing Up the Text

In iOS 8, text size can be increased in two different areas in Settings. First, one can increase text size from the "Display & Brightness" menu; this will exhibit smaller changes to the text size. Never fear, though, as at the top end of the window, you are given the feedback that "Larger sizes are available in Accessibility Settings.” Once you turn on "Larger Accessibility Size" under the Accessibility Settings, it will not increase the size of text in the Settings menus any further. However, a modest growth in the Settings menu itself has occurred, which may help to some extent. Also, the lock screen date text is increased to a small degree. The text of some Settings panels are cut off when they are a larger size than the screen allows. A moderate increase in text size can be seen in dialog boxes, in Settings, on the Lock Screen, Notifications, Tips, Voice Memos, and in the music player. Full sized dynamic text can be seen in Notes, Mail, reminders, and Messages. This can only be used, generally, in places where the user is inputting their own text, and not on most labels. However, some labels in contacts were enlarged. Labels do cut off in the larger sized text and do not appear to offer a method for reading the entire line they are on. Messages, notes, and the like will correctly wrap the words that are too long. It should also be noted that no changes in text size were encountered in the App Store, Safari, or iTunes.

50 Shades of Grey on My iDevice?

By the time you factor in all of the options available with Zoom and now Grey scale, which is a new feature, there are probably way more than 50 different shades of grey on your iDevice. Grey Scale, very literally, turns all of the content on your iDevice grey. This can be combined with Invert Colors or Zoom to assist the low-vision user in any number of ways.

Speak it to Me

Another new setting called "speak screen” has been added in iOS 8 under Settings > General > Accessibility > Speech > Speak Screen. This option offers a simple way for low-vision users to "read" the screen only. This feature will only give users access to rewind, fast forward, play/pause, and speed. It is not intended to be a replacement for VoiceOver; rather, it is meant to be a simple solution for when a low-vision user would like to quickly read an entire screen. When enabled, a highlight text toggle appears, showing a visual highlight of the paragraph being read.

Other Changes

There are some other changes that you will find under Settings > General > Accessibility that are not listed under the vision heading. Here are a few more:

Can You Describe That, Please?

Under Settings > General > Accessibility, you will now find a "Media" heading. Captioning, which was available in iOS 7 under the "Hearing" heading, has now been moved here. There is also a new option for video description. While I have not come across any content which has this feature yet, one would hope that iTunes will start selling content that has video descriptions in the near future.

Take a Consistent Route

It's now possible to set where your incoming phone calls go to by default. If you always, for example, want your calls to go to speakerphone instead of the ear piece, you can now set this option. You'll find it in Settings > General > Accessibility > Call Routing.

Track That

Also of interest to VoiceOver and Braille users is a feature located in the Maps app called Tracking. Tracking will announce when you are approaching an intersection, and it will also give you the cross streets. Tracking will also notify you of points of interest as you move about your environment. To enable Tracking, launch the Maps app, and find the “Tracking” toggle located in the lower left corner of the touchscreen. Double tap this until it says "Tracking with Headings," and then begin walking. This may be a difficult feature for Braille-only users, as the announcements flash up on the display, and the user has no easy way to tell when new information is being presented. Also, it seems that Apple is still perfecting this, or that it just chooses random points of interest, as when walking, it will skip over some points of interest while announcing others. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to what is picked, as sometimes it announces things you're passing, while other times, when moving passed the same location, it announces something totally different. My guess, which is all it is, is that Apple are still in the process of perfecting this feature. Either that, or they are using some sort of logic to their choices that a simple minded user like myself cannot understand. Either way, it's nice to see this feature made accessible with VoiceOver, and I hope they continue to expand on it.


The conclusion of this article will be the same as it was a year ago, so I'm just going to restate it. There are a lot of changes in terms of the way the operating system renders content based on what is on or off for low-vision users. I'd advise low-vision users to check out iOS 8 at a retailer before upgrading, or maybe find a friend who has upgraded, and check it out for themselves particularly if they have not yet upgraded from iOS 6. Low-vision usage is a very personal thing, and what works for someone else, may not work for you. Braille and touchscreen users may wish to check out the content found elsewhere on this website, as there are a number of known issues with this new release not touched upon in this article

Scott Davert, MA, VRT
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