Editor’s note – This is the first in a five part series focusing on accessibility features in today’s most popular operating systems. It also marks the first contribution to Tech50+ from veteran journalist Eric Taub, a regular contributor to the New York Times and other publications.
When it Comes to the OS, Size Does Matter
by Eric Taub
Watching teenagers play with their smartphones, it’s clear that when it comes to kids, size really doesn’t matter. Thanks to their perfect vision and hearing, most of them are happy to watch videos and send Instagram photos on the tiny screens of their Apple or Android phones or tablets.
But we all know what happens when we age: as our vision and other senses worsen, we need a little help with smartphone tasks that used to be a slam dunk.
For some of us, advancing age has cut down our ability to see or hear much at all, or even move as we used to. Then, using a smartphone may seem to be impossible.
If you’re in that boat, don’t give up hope. Apple and Android have designed hidden accessibility features into their operating software, creating clever workarounds to make a wide variety of tasks much easier.
The number of accessibility features for Apple’s iOS operating system are far too numerous to mention. But here’s a snapshot of the most important ones. Once you master these tasks, you’ll be able to build on the more subtle ones from there.
Here are some of the things you can do with Apple’s iOS Accessibility features:
Have all the text spoken to you, at the pitch and speed you desire
Use finger swipes to change volume and other commands
Speak to compose emails and texts
Invert the screen’s colors, or make it grayscale
Play audio through your hearing aid
Turn on descriptive text in a video
Make the text large and bold
Rename menu commands
Flash the LED when a phone or text arrives
Control the iPhone with external switches
Create custom gestures to control opening and using apps
Eliminate screen elements to reduce clutter
And here’s what you can do with the Apple Watch:
Have the text spoken to you
Change the screen to grayscale
Add on/off labels
Increase text size
Change stereo audio to mono
How to Get Started
In iOS (iPhone or iPad), go to Settings/General/Accessibility/VoiceOver. Turn on VoiceOver. Now, whenever you touch a part of the screen, a box will appear around it, and a voice will read its function and the words that are there. If it’s an app or instruction box, once selected, double tap it rapidly to open.
Now that you have to double-tap to open things, you scroll by dragging two fingers up and down the screen.
Don’t like the name of a label? With VoiceOver on, you can change that as well. Double tap the text field and hold it down with two fingers. A box will appear that allows you to change the field’s name.
Swipe two fingers up to read from the top of the screen.
Swipe two fingers down to read from where you are in the screen.
Swipe three fingers up or down to scroll one page at a time.
Swipe three fingers left or right to go to the next or previous grouping of apps on the Home screen.
The VoiceOver Rotor
With VoiceOver activated, you can control what happens when you swipe up or down the screen using multiple fingers.
You do this by activating the Rotor; twist two fingers around the screen, and a rotor appears with various commands. Turn the rotor until the command you wish to employ is selected.
The commands that are available depend on what you’re doing. For example, if you’re reading email, swiping up and down can switch from reading the email word-by-word, to character-by-character.
You can also add more commands to the rotor by going to Settings/General/Accessibility/VoiceOver/Rotor.
If you add handwriting mode to the rotor you can then select Handwriting with the rotor when you’re in the email app, and trace letters on the screen with your finger. The iPhone converts them into standard screen type.
Switch from stereo to mono audio
Some people may find audio easier to understand when both channels output the same audio track. To switch from stereo to mono, go to settings/general/accessibility/mono audio
Using the iPhone with your Hearing Aid
Go to settings/general/accessibility/hearing aids to see if your product is on the list of Made for iPhone hearing aids. If it is you can:
Use the iPhone as an external microphone, so you can place the iPhone closer to the action, and have those sounds transmitted to your hearing aid.
Stream music from your iPhone into your hearing aid, when accessing phone calls, Siri, music, or videos. If you switch from your iPhone to your tablet, the new device automatically connects to your hearing aid.
Assign ringtones and vibrations
While not restricted just to visibility needs, you can assign specific ringtones to specific people. That way, you’ll know who’s calling without having to read the number on the screen.
You can also assign specific vibration patterns, and even make your own, for messages from certain people, to notify you when an email has arrived or been sent, someone is trying to reach you via the FaceTime video messaging feature, you’ve received a new Facebook post, and other actions.
Go to Settings/Sounds to change your sounds and vibration notifications.
To change the sound and/or vibration for a specific person who might be calling, go to their entry in your Address Book, click on Edit and scroll down to the Ringtone and Text Tone settings area.
Want to know more?
The best way to find out what else you can do is simply to play with the settings in the Accessibility menu. Textual explanations are given for many of them.
And, if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can always read Apple’s iOS manual. To download it, go to http://apple.co/1ecEZNs.
About the Author
Eric Taub has been writing about the intersection of technology and society for more than 20 years. Hundreds of his articles have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Emmy magazine and many other publications. He is also the author of three best-selling non-fiction books that look at Hollywood, the automobile industry and digital technology. He is a technology consultant for such companies as Apple, Audi, Panasonic, and others.