What's New in iOS 9 Accessibility for Blind and Deaf-Blind Users Part 1: Scott Davert, AppleVis Editorial Team

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Guest blogger Scott Davert, M.A., VRT, is an AppleVis Editorial Team Member and the Coordinator of the New York Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, administered by the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults.

The Program provides no-cost communication and technology training to persons with significant combined vision and hearing loss who meet federal income guidelines. Equipment can include smartphones, tablets, computers, screen readers, braille readers, and adaptive software.

In past reviews, Scott has compiled his personal picks for book-reading apps and iDevice apps that are user-friendly and accessible to braille, and also speech, users.

According to Scott, "As a power user of braille devices on iOS, it's very liberating to me, as a deaf-blind person, to be able to take full advantage of the technology we have in our society today. Just a decade ago, my access to resources was much more limited if braille was my only means of accessing the world. Today, with the help of technology, I can be just as well-informed about what's going on around me as my sighted and hearing counterparts."

This week, Scott is reviewing Apple's new iOS 9 release, with an emphasis on accessibility features for users who are blind and deaf-blind. iOS is Apple's mobile operating system, or OS. Originally developed for the iPhone, it has since been extended to support other Apple devices, such as the iPod touch and iPad. In June 2010, Apple rebranded the iPhone OS as simply iOS.

About the iOS 9 Release

It's September, which means that my annual reminder that I'm growing older (i.e., my birthday) has arrived. It also means that Apple is doing their annual "coming out with more new stuff," or in my case, birthday presents. The good news is that if you have been running iOS 8, your device is going to be able to run 9. As a general rule, 9 seems to run about as well as 8 has on other devices, so if you find that the features are worth an upgrade, go for it.

As in past years, there are many mainstream enhancements to iOS 9. Some examples include a new news app, a more advanced Notes app, a new low power mode, and many enhancements to iPad multitasking. This review, however, will focus on the changes related to the accessibility features for users who are blind or deaf-blind.

Without a doubt, there will be other features not documented here that people will discover as they get their hands on the new iOS. While I've been running the betas since June, I am certain I will learn even more things about it as the masses get their opportunity to play with it. Please note that this review is not intended as a comprehensive guide to iOS; rather, it is designed to document the changes in iOS 9.

Astute readers have probably noticed that I did not include low vision in the title of this review. This is not due to an error; rather, it is due to the fact that I did not receive what I felt was sufficient feedback from low vision users to comment on the changes related to low vision. To date, comments from the low vision community indicate that very little has changed, other than the new keyboard enhancement found under Settings > General > Accessibility > Interaction.

Some Mainstream Stuff

Search for It

One of my complaints about the Settings application is that it is very complex. For example, if I want to change a setting in braille that is not included in its set of commands, I previously had to navigate to Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Braille. It was not even possible to ask Siri to open the settings for braille.

With iOS 9, once you go in to the Settings application, the first thing you are presented with is an optional search box. If you navigate past this option, you'll still find many of the settings you know and love the same way as before, but the search function can make some tasks much faster to carry out. Unfortunately, I still cannot go directly to braille settings; instead, I can type VoiceOver into the search box and get that option to come up. This is also good for people who cannot speak clearly who want a faster way to access certain settings that are hidden deep within this screen.

Hey Siri, Are You Understanding Me?

New in iOS 9 is the ability to have Siri better recognize when you say "Hey Siri" when this feature is enabled. When you first turn this feature on, you will be prompted to do a short set of voice exercises. In addition, thanks to new dedicated components inside the latest iPhone models, you can now have "Hey Siri" enabled even when you're not connected to AC power with the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. I'm not sure if this function is to train Siri to recognize anyone saying the phrase, or if it's supposed to help it recognize just your voice, but time will tell.

What Are all of These Keyboard Commands on the iPad?

On the iPad, you can get a list of keyboard shortcuts while in an app, if the developer has put these together. You can launch "keyboard hints" by pressing and holding the command key for a few seconds. I tried this in the Mail and Notes apps and learned that VoiceOver will read only the function the keyboard command carries out, but not the actual keyboard command.

Also, not all commands are listed with VoiceOver. For example, in the Mail app, just like on the Mac, "command R" will reply to a message if you have an email open, "command shift D" will send your message, etc. While these keyboard commands also work on the iPod and iPhone, pressing and holding the command key offers no such keyboard hints.

Apple Maps Gets Public Transit Support

While it's only available in select cities at the time of release, you can now use the Maps app to plan routes using public transit. If you want step-by-step instructions as you go, this does have its limitations. When I used this to plan a route from Long Island to the Google Building in Manhattan, for example, the route planning worked well. However, as any New Yorker can tell you, getting cell service in the subway system is very challenging. So while it's helpful in terms of getting train information, it's not always useful. If you want directions to be updated as you travel, it's not possible without cell service.

VoiceOver Enhancements

Is that Siri or VoiceOver?

With iOS 9, all users of iDevices now have additional VoiceOver Voices in the form of the Siri speech synthesizers. This means, for example, two new American Voices, two new British Voices, two new Australian Voices, etc. Even better is the news that the Siri Voices will work on older devices, such as the iPhone 4S, iPod 5, and all devices that can run iOS 9 that have been released that do not have a 64-bit processor.

To check out these new voices, go to Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Speech, or type VoiceOver in the new handy search box and it should take you past most of those menu options. Once you find the Speech button and activate it, you will now see the default language option, followed by rotor languages.

If you only wish to have one voice on board and available quickly, you only need to set up the default option. You will see a list of available speech synthesizers for your chosen language; double-tapping the option you want will switch to that choice, and if necessary, will download to your device. You will need to be connected to WiFi to download the new synthesizer.

It's also worth noting that each synthesizer has a "default" and "enhanced" option. The default option allows you to run the synthesizer as it is currently installed. The quality is lower, but it also consumes much less disk space and system resources. Double-tapping the option you want will activate it and will begin downloading the chosen selection if you are connected to WiFi.

If you want to add more speech synthesizers, you will need to flick past the option for the default speech setting and find the "add rotor languages" button. Just like with iOS 8, you will need to find and double-tap the language you wish to add to your rotor. Once you have done this, you will see other options such as "enhanced" versions of the default voice and Siri Voices.

Note that you can only use one variant for each language, other than the language you have set as your default as described above. So, for example, if you wish to have the Siri Mail Voice and the traditional Samantha Voice available on the fly, you can still do that by setting Alex as your default, adding the U.S. English voice to your languages rotor, and choosing U.S. English.

Changes in Accessibility

New Ways of Interacting

The Accessibility menu under Settings has again been reorganized with a new heading called Interaction. In addition to housing the Assistive Touch and Switch Control functions, this heading has a few new options. One of these new feature sets is called Touch Accommodations, which allows the user to adjust the sensitivity of the touch screen and limit input from unintended screen taps. The purpose of these settings is to assist the user with motor challenges who may have difficulty touching the screen. While I'm not familiar with each of these settings in great detail, here is a brief explanation of each setting:

  • Hold Duration: Allows the user to define a set amount of time to hold a screen touch before the touch is registered, which can help prevent unintended screen taps. iOS then recognizes the touch as a single gesture, instead of as multiple actions.
  • Ignore Repeat: Allows the user to set the amount of time during which a series of touches will be interpreted as one gesture. Multiple touches within the specified time duration are then treated as a single touch.
  • Tap Assistance: Allows the user to configure which kind of touch should be interpreted as a tap. It's quite flexible, as you can set it to use the Initial Touch Location on the screen or the Final Touch Location before raising your finger.

Keyboard Enhancements

Still under the Touch Accommodations heading, iOS 9 sports a few new options to help the keyboard function better for users with certain disabilities. Under the software keyboard setting, you will find the ability to show or not show lower-case keys. This setting will allow you to show lower-case letters in upper case, which may help some users with low vision to better see the on-screen keyboard.

With hardware keyboards (those connected via Bluetooth), iOS 9 has the following new assistive features:

  • Key Repeat: When turned off, allows keys to be held down without registering multiple presses of the same key.
  • Sticky Keys: Allows you to set certain keyboard combinations which will register without having to hold down multiple keys. Once enabled, Sticky Keys can be toggled by pressing the shift key five times, just like on Windows. You can also configure whether a sound is played when modifiers are set, which can be turned on or off as needed.
  • Slow Keys: Allows you to adjust how long you need to press and hold a key before iOS registers it as pressed.

Shake It Off!

The Touch Accommodations heading also contains a feature that can now be turned off. Some people love the Shake to Undo function which, when typing, allows you to shake the phone to undo the last action. However, not everyone is in love with it for various reasons. I do not enjoy Shake to Undo because if I'm in a moving vehicle that is on a bumpy road, for example, this feature may accidentally activate. In iOS 9, however, it's now possible to disable this function.

This Is Giving Me a Bad Vibe, Stop It!

I think the Disable All System Vibrations feature should have much more exposure than it does buried in the Accessibility menu, as it can potentially benefit everyone – not just users with disabilities.

For example, sometimes an individual may want to watch the time on their phone during a meeting while also demonstrating to the people in the room that they are paying attention to the meeting. To do this, the person may put their phone on the table. However, unless the phone is set to Do Not Disturb, the vibrations will still go off, even when the phone is muted. Now, you can choose to disable all system vibrations and still get notifications visually without any movement or noise from the phone.

What's New in iOS 9, Part 2

In Part 2 of his review, Scott discusses more iOS 9 accessibility changes, including new gestures, braille screen input, and braille display changes. For more information, you can contact Scott at scott.davert@hknc.org.

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