Glen, visually impaired blogger and Youtuber based in London, posts about his experiences as a disabled person. In this post, originally published on his blog Well Eye Never, he talks about the iPhone apps and features that help him navigate the world.
I currently have an iPhone 6 running iOS 11. I’ve had the phone for a few years now, and it’s been my first ever smartphone. Prior to that I had a classic old Nokia phone, which lasted me for ages, but when it eventually started breaking down, I finally made the upgrade.
I love my iPhone. I basically have a small computer in my pocket that does so much to make my life a lot easier and more accessible, and gives me access to lots of information and entertainment. And it happens to make phonecalls on the side too – these days that almost feels like an extra rather than the main feature for many people!
iPhone Vs Android
I have nothing against Android by the way, which regularly comes up in comparison to Apple’s iOS system, because I have no experience to comment on Android. When I was choosing a new phone in the store, I did have a little play with an Android device, and it seemed alright. And I’m sure I would have done fine if I’d gone down that route. But the iPhone just seemed to have a nicer interface and felt more accessible.
Plus, after my Windows PC had died a couple of years previously, I’d upgraded to an iMac, because I use Macs at work and already had experience with them. So getting an iPhone to connect with it was naturally a big draw. But if you prefer Android or some other smartphone system, because you feel it works best for you, then that’s fantastic.
In any case, many features and apps are identical or very similar on different types of smartphone anyway, so a lot of what I talk about here won’t just apply to the iPhone.
iPhone Accessibility Features
It’s wonderful that iPhones have so many accessibility features built in, and that they’re constantly evolving and improving as Apple updates the operating system. It ensures that people who are visually impaired, hard of hearing, or who have limited motor skills, can still use the device and aren’t left out.
“But also, many of the accessibility features can be useful for non-disabled people as well to be honest. They just don’t know they’re there, because they don’t think of looking for them.”
So whether you have a disability or not, it’s well worth going into Settings / General / Accessibility and having a look around, because you might be surprised by what you find.
So here are the features that I personally use. Most of these features, or ones that are similar to them, are on other Apple devices too (iMacs, Macbooks, iPads, etc), so I use some of them on my iMac as well as my iPhone.
(Settings > General > Accessibility > Display Accommodations)
Aniridia, one of my eye conditions, makes me more sensitive to glare. And the white backgrounds on computer screens generate a lot of that. Turning the brightness or contrast down isn’t enough, because then it’s just harder to read everything in general. So instead, I use the Invert Colours option to switch to a negative view – i.e. white text on a black background. It makes things much easier to see and a lot less tiring on the eyes.
In the past, this option has turned everything negative, including pictures and videos. And that’s what the Classic Invert option still does. In this case, you have to flip back and forth between the negative and standard views if you want to view media like photos and movie clips. And that is easy enough to do by triple-clicking the Home button, which brings up an Accessibility Shortcuts menu to quickly turn things on or off.
Recently, however, Apple have added a Smart Invert feature, which turns the text and background negative, but keeps photos and videos the correct way around. It’s also been added to the desktop operating system on my iMac as well, which is great. So it’s a really useful update.
Smart Invert doesn’t work everywhere though, admittedly. There are some apps where it partially works (e.g. Instagram photos but not videos), and others where it doesn’t work at all. Or if an app is designed with a dark background, then inverting the colours will naturally make it bright again. So I still have to switch back and forth sometimes. But I don’t have to do it as often as I used to, and hopefully Apple will continue to refine the feature as they go along.
(Settings > General > Accessibility > Magnifier)
Turning on this option adds the Magnifier to the triple-click home button shortcut menu. I’ve also made it available in the Control Center, which you get when you swipe up from the bottom of the screen.
Magnifier is basically a special camera app that allows you to zoom in on things to check them out more closely. And the zoom here is much more powerful than the standard Camera app.
It also has various additional options. You can turn your camera’s light on, lock the focus, freeze the image on screen so that you don’t have to keep holding your phone up to something, adjust the brightness and contrast levels, invert the colours, and select from a range of other colour combinations to make things easier to read. So it’s a really versatile and useful app, but it’s rather hidden if you don’t know it’s there.
(Settings > General > Accessibility >Zoom)
With this option activated, I can zoom in on the contents of the screen if I want to, by double-tapping with 3 fingers. And I can then drag 3 fingers around to look at different parts of the display. And to change the magnification level, I double-tap with 3 fingers as before, but instead of removing my fingers I keep them there and drag up and down.
You can also triple-tap with 3 fingers to bring up a menu for changing various options. And when a keyboard appears on the screen, the Zoom feature will adjust to ensure you can always see what you’re typing. So the gestures are all very simple, and there’s plenty you can do with this feature.
Update – Emma from Rock For Disability has noted a couple of important additions in the comments that are worth highlighting at this point:
I think it should be good to mention the Controller on zoom. I use it because I cannot use three fingers to scroll. If you go to Accessibility > Zoom > Show Controller then a circle with a dot and four arrows will appear that you can control around the screen. Plus if you press it, it will come up with menu options to zoom in/out, full screen or window view, choose filters, hide controller and change the zoom level.
Another accessibility feature which is also good to mention is Assistive Touch (Settings > Accessibility > AssistiveTouch). It helps people who can’t access the physical phone buttons and instead do it on a menu on the screen (e.g. home button, volume, lock screen).
Thank you Emma for the valuable input!
(Settings > General > Accessibility > Larger Text)
As the name suggests, this allows me to set a particular text size, which is then used by apps that support the Dynamic Type feature. Not all apps do support it, but it’s useful for those that do.
Mind you, when an app does use it, it’s not always perfect. The Wetherspoon app, in which you order food and drink from their pubs, has an accessibility fail early on because of this. It asks you to confirm where you are, with text and a map – but with large text turned on, the Confirm button disappears off the bottom of the screen and you can’t scroll to it!
So to click Confirm, we had to back out of the app, go into our Settings, change the text size temporarily and then go back in again. Not ideal at all. Shame though, as it’s a good app otherwise, and our food and drink came very quickly once we were able to get in and order it.
So it’s great when app developers incorporate the Dynamic Type option, but they need to be careful that it doesn’t make things more difficult in the process.
Reduce Transparency, Darken Colours & Bold Text
(Settings > General > Accessibility > Increase Contrast)
(Settings > General > Accessibility > Bold Text)
These options help items on the screen to stand out a bit more clearly, by making them a bit more distinctive against the background.
Speak Selection & Speak Screen
(Settings > General > Accessibility > Speech)
This isn’t VoiceOver, which is a completely different feature that I don’t use. VoiceOver basically speaks everything on the screen to you and gives special gestures for navigating the touchscreen. It means people with severe sight loss or complete blindness can still use the device like everyone else. So it’s a very cool and hugely important feature.
I can see well enough not to use VoiceOver. However, it is still useful to have things on the screen spoken to me sometimes, especially if there’s a lot of text on the screen or it’s very poorly contrasted against its background. So that’s why I have these 2 options enabled.
Speak Selection means that if I highlight text in an app, the pop-up menu will have an additional Speak option, in addition to Cut, Copy, etc. So clicking Speak reads the selected text to me. And if I want to hear everything on the screen, such as a long article, then the Speak Screen option means all I have to do is swipe down from the top of the screen with 2 fingers, and everything will be read out.
(Settings > General > Accessibility > Audio Descriptions)
As discussed in my previous post and elsewhere in this blog, having audio description can be very useful. It’s rare that I watch videos on my phone given the screen size, unless it’s something that’s mainly speech I can listen to, or I want to look at something relatively short. But just in case I do watch any media that has the action described, I have this option turned on to hear it automatically. This option will only affect videos you watch in the Videos app, and content downloaded from the iTunes store. It won’t turn it on for third party apps like BBC iPlayer, Netflix, etc, as they have their own settings for audio description already.
Incidentally, the RNIB have just launched an audio description campaign, so if you want to find out more about it and its benefits, do go and check that out.
(Settings > Siri & Search)
(Settings > Accessibility > Siri)
Siri is the voice assistant for Apple products that everybody knows about, so its settings are under the main Settings menu. You talk to Siri with any queries or commands, and it responds with speech as well. There are some additional options for Siri in Accessibility as well though, including the ability to type to Siri rather than talk. I don’t need to use Siri a lot, but it does come in handy sometimes.
Keyboard dictation is useful for speeding up typing, as it’s not always easy to type on a touchscreen. So by tapping the microphone icon on the bottom row of the on-screen keyboard, I can say what I want to type, and the phone will translate my words into text. It’s pretty accurate as well – not perfect, but good enough to save me time, as all I have to do then is make any small corrections afterwards.
I’m not going to list every app I have, I’m just going to discuss my favourites that I use a lot. However, I do also have a list of all my apps, which I’ll try and keep up to date as things change, if you’re interested in knowing what I have.
Twitter is my favourite social media app, because it allows me to keep up to date with things and it’s very accessible.
I use it in Night Mode, because it inverts the colours, placing white text on a dark blue background, making it really easy to read. And thankfully the Smart Invert feature on the iPhone recognises this, so it doesn’t flip it the other way round. You can quickly turn on Night Mode by clicking your profile picture in the corner, and then tapping the crescent moon icon at the very bottom of the menu.
And in the Settings & Privacy menu in the Twitter mobile app, there are various options that I like. In the Display & Sound section, I’ve set the text size there to the largest it can be, as Twitter uses its own text settings rather than the Dynamic Type I mentioned in the main iPhone settings earlier.
Then under Accessibility, I’ve turned on Compose Image Descriptions, which means every time I upload an image, I can type a description that blind people will hear spoken to them through their screen readers. So everyone should turn that on as a bare minimum, because image descriptions are very important, and it would be great if it were turned on by default really.
There is also an option under Accessibility to Open Links in Reader View, which means when you open a weblink, it will load a much simplified version of the page’s text, with no graphics in the way or anything like that. And you can adjust the font, font size and colours in that view to make it easier to read. So that’s quite useful, as a lot of web pages are very cluttered otherwise.
In terms of other social media apps, I also have Facebook and Messenger for keeping in touch with friends, plus Instagram and Layout for photos, and Skype, Facetime and WhatsApp. I don’t like the way Microsoft updated the Skype interface a little while back, as it’s not as pleasing on the eye or as easy to navigate as it used to be. I’d never used WhatsApp at all before, and still only use it a tiny bit now, but it has been useful recently for working on a few bits and pieces with other members of the Aniridia Network. And none of my friends call me on Facetime, as they have other ways to get hold of me, so I’ve never used that.
If you want some more ideas for apps, I can also recommend a recent video by Fashioneyesta (Apps That Make My Life Easier) and a post by The VI Critic (Apps For The Visually Impaired). I also have a list of Assistive Technology Links you might want to check out, and an Assistive Technology playlist on my Youtube channel with videos that I recommend.
You can read Glen’s full blog post ‘My Assistive iPhone Features & Apps’ which was originally published on his blog Well Eye Never.
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