What's New in iOS 9 Accessibility for Blind and Deaf-Blind Users Part 2: 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.

In Part 1 of his review, Scott discussed VoiceOver enhancements and updates/changes in accessibility features. In Part 2, Scott discusses new gestures, braille screen input, and braille display changes.

The Need for Speed!

Along with the additional variants of speech in VoiceOver (see Part 1 for more information about additional VoiceOver Voices via the Siri speech synthesizers), it's now possible to speed speech up more than it had been in the past. You can do this quickly from anywhere in iOS if you have the speech rate option enabled in the rotor, or you can configure this under VoiceOver settings.

Is It Tap Tap, or Tap ... Tap?

With this new VoiceOver setting, called "Double-tap Timeout," the choice is yours. One of the issues I've encountered from time to time when teaching individuals on the touch screen is the inability to do the double-tap gesture fast enough due to lack of motor skills or limited dexterity. To reconfigure this setting, head over to the VoiceOver settings and find it near the very bottom of the screen.

Once you double tap this button, you will have the ability to control the period of time that elapses between the two taps, enabling VoiceOver to recognize the two taps as a double-tap gesture. If you do not wish to type in a value for the time period, flicking to the right once will give you a decrement button, followed by an increment button. The default is 0.25 seconds, but you can go way up from there as needed.

I Will Select Simplicity

A piece of feedback I and others have offered Apple over the years is that selecting text with the touch screen and the pinch gesture is a rather cumbersome, and not so effective, way to select text. In iOS 9, a new way to select text has arrived. You must first enable it in your rotor settings, by enabling text selection.

Once you have located the text you want to select, find the rotor option. Now, you can flick up with one finger to cycle through the list of choices. The options from top to bottom are Character Selection, Word Selection, Line Selection, Page Selection, and Select All.

After deciding which element type you would like to select, find the beginning of the text in whatever way is most comfortable for you. Then, begin flicking right to highlight text, and left to deselect it. I find this to be a much more manageable way of selecting text, and I suspect many who use the touch screen as their primary way of selecting will agree.

This will also be more efficient when trying to select text on a Bluetooth keyboard or braille display. One slight inconvenience of this feature is that you cannot select text when moving backward. So if you are reviewing a document, for example, and find something you want to delete, you have to go to the beginning of the text you wish to remove, and start your selection from there.

Caps Lock Becomes a Multipurpose Key

One of the complaints over the years, more so with the Mac than iOS, is that certain keyboard commands require the pressing too many keys at once. Apple has partially addressed this issue by adding the caps lock as a modifier key to the VoiceOver cursor. With older versions of iOS, it was necessary to press the Control and Options keys on a Bluetooth keyboard in conjunction with another key or two on the keyboard to carry out VoiceOver-specific commands.

You will find this new option, called "Modifier Keys," under the VoiceOver settings. Your options are Caps Lock, Control + Option, or both. Just like when you make the Caps Lock key the modifier on other screen readers, you can press the Caps Lock key twice quickly to toggle, whether you write in all capitals or not. It's worth noting that when you press the Caps Lock key twice, VoiceOver reports the wrong key setting. For example, if you hit the key twice, and VoiceOver reports that your Caps Lock is off, it's actually on.

Braille Screen Input (BSI): Just the Way You'd Like It to Be

Originally introduced in iOS 8, BSI has lacked the customizability that many users would like to have throughout the operating system. One of the issues for some has been the lack of clarity of what specific gestures are available when your device is set to BSI mode. No longer is this the case! If you have BSI enabled in your rotor, when you go to the Practice Gestures feature under the VoiceOver settings, you will now see two tabs: General and Braille Screen Input. This does not allow you to practice writing braille – it is only the gestures associated with BSI.

One of the new gestures that you will find is swiping up or down with three fingers. This will lock, or unlock, your screen orientation. This is handy if you are moving around but don't want your screen orientation doing the same.

Continuing with the new BSI features, you can now control where it shows up in your rotor. In iOS 8, BSI would follow you around the operating system, always being one rotor turn away. Now, you can put it wherever you desire within your rotor options, just like all of the other choices you have in the rotor. You can even have BSI behave as it once did by making it the first option within your rotor.

You can now also control the amount of spoken feedback offered by VoiceOver as you are inputting text with BSI. Find this configurable setting in the VoiceOver settings under Typing Feedback. Your choices are Characters, Words, and both Characters and Words. This works great with uncontracted braille, but there still appears to be no speech feedback provided when inputting characters in contracted braille.

New iPad Features Bring New Gestures

With the new ability to run apps in split screen mode and a new feature called Slide Over, come new gestures, along with new Bluetooth and braille keyboard commands. Since I'm only documenting changes with accessibility in this review, I will not go into great detail about how to use these features, but I will cover the different ways in which you can interact with them.

Slide Over

Slide Over is available with all iOS 9 compatible iPads. This feature allows you to have an app consuming 1/3 of the screen to carry out some tasks quickly before switching back to where you were originally working. Note that you cannot use this with all apps, only those that are supported.

When in landscape mode, to launch the Side App Switcher, tap the status bar, and then swipe left with three fingers to bring up the new Side App Switcher. You can also achieve this on a braille display with the command "space with dots 1-6." The Side App Switcher will allow you to "pin" a supported app to that 1/3 of the screen.

There is then a "Divider" that sits between that 1/3 of the screen and the app with the main focus. To move between the two apps, tap your touch screen. If you're using a Bluetooth keyboard, you can move between the two apps and also hit the divider by using the commands "VoiceOver modifier" with [ (left bracket) VoiceOver modifier ] (right bracket). Using the [ will move you backwards, and the ] will move you forward. Pressing "space with dots 2-4" on a braille display will move focus to the left, while "space with dots 2-6" will move focus to the right. The Divider becomes important, as it allows you to control re-sizing and other options on an iPad that supports the Split View feature.

Split View

Split View functions similarly to Slide Over, in the sense that you can pin apps and move them around. However, Split View does add more functionality to the mix. It's only available on the iPad Air 2 and later, as well as the iPad Mini 4 and anything that comes after that.

Split View allows you to run two apps on the screen at once and also allows you to decide how much of the screen each app will consume. The way in which you re-size apps is controlled with the Divider. When focus is set on the divider, a new rotor option allows you to control how the Split View operates. The rotor will allow you to launch the Side App Switcher, resize the right-hand app to take half the screen, dismiss the right-hand app altogether, or maximize the right-hand app to eliminate the app on the left side of the screen.

Braille Display Specific Changes

Picking up Speed

This heading refers to text input with a braille display. For many users, it was very sluggish in iOS 8, particularly for those on older devices. I'm finding that iOS 9 is much more responsive in terms of typing braille, about as rapid as iOS 7 was, which is probably one of the biggest reasons for me to upgrade.

Slow Down Your Announcements!

VoiceOver gives you announcements, or flash messages, which appear on a braille display quite quickly. For a slower braille user, this leads to having to press "space with N" to read the announcement again, and then pressing "space with N" again to return to whatever they were doing. In other situations, the announcement would stay on the display for a much longer duration than a faster reader may desire.

Now you can control the speed of such announcements. In Settings, go to General > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Braille, and configure this setting to your preference under "Alert Display Duration."

Start and Stop It All

Since a few iOS versions ago, VoiceOver users have had a gesture (double-tap with two fingers), which performs a custom action. What it does depends on the context of the situation. For example, use this gesture to answer or hang up a phone call, launch dictation when in a text field, or start and stop recording in Voice Memos.

Bluetooth keyboard users have also had access to this in the form of the command "VO with – (dash)," but braille users have not – until now. To use this function on a braille display, press "space with dots 1-5-6."

Hold It

Double-tap and hold has been a gesture since the beginning of VoiceOver's existence on iOS. A couple of versions back, Bluetooth keyboard users were able to use this function by pressing "VO shift M." This feature, among other things, allows the user to move apps around their home screen, bypass VoiceOver gestures, and delete apps. It's now an option for users of braille displays as well. Do a double-tap and hold gesture on your braille display by pressing "space with dots 5-6-7-8."

Finally, Quicknav Works as Advertised!

In iOS 8.3, Apple decided to differentiate between the Quicknav keyboard commands for various actions and the Quicknav commands for navigational purposes for textual elements like headings, form controls, etc., known as "First Letter Quicknav." To activate First Letter Quicknav, a Bluetooth keyboard user presses "VO with the letter Q." With iOS 9, you can now finally use these commands directly from your braille display. Toggle this function with "space and dots 1-2-3-4-5-7."

My Conclusions

Just as in previous iOS releases, whether you should upgrade or not depends on whether (a) the bugs present in the new release will impact you on a greater level than you can tolerate, and (b) you feel the new features are worth your time. To check out a list of bugs related to VoiceOver and Braille, you can visit the AppleVis website.

Overall, I'd say that iOS 9's first release is much more stable with fewer issues than what we have seen in earlier major releases. Apple earlier this year claimed that this version of the operating system would focus primarily on polishing up what is already there. This goal seems to have been achieved, as there are far fewer bugs in 9 than what were found in iOS 8. To download the update, go to Settings > General > Software Update, and follow the prompts. Alternatively, you can update your device through iTunes.

For more information, you can contact Scott at scott.davert@hknc.org.

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Web Accessibility
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