June 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 6

Cell Phone Access

My Trials and Tribulations Learning the iPhone with VoiceOver

When I heard Verizon Wireless would be offering the iPhone, I was ecstatic. I immediately started learning about the phone and VoiceOver, its built-in screen reader. Though in the end it was well worth it, I didn't know how steep or frustrating the learning curve would be.

In their book Getting Started with the iPhone: An Introduction for Blind Users (reviewed in this issue of AccessWorld ), Anna Dresner and Dean Martineau write:

You'll enjoy learning the phone more if you are gentle with yourself. This is a new skill, and the only way to learn is to make mistakes, probably repeated ones. Be assured that by trying to learn the phone, you will not harm it, even when you make mistakes, or when things seem to be getting out of control. Keep breathing fully and relax! If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed, take a break.

Those are great words of advice and encouragement.

Even though I researched the iPhone before getting it, when it was finally in my hands I realized that I had a lot to learn. My plan for the first day was to learn how to text, make and receive phone calls, and set up my voice mail. Although my computer skills are very good, using the iPhone was different. At first it seemed almost overwhelming and I did not accomplish the above tasks in one day.

As I was learning to use the phone, I got information from many sources. After struggling on my own for a few days, I purchased Dresner and Martineau's book, and it was extremely helpful. Apple's accessibility website and blindness related e-mail lists were also very useful. I had an in-person meeting with a device specialist at the Verizon Wireless store, but that was less helpful. I also used Google on occasion if I needed a quick answer. For example, I'd forgotten how to delete old voice mail messages on the iPhone, so I typed, "iPhone VoiceOver, delete voice mails" and activated the search button. I went through the results and quickly found my answer.

Unlike Windows-based screen readers, Apple's VoiceOver has the user interact with the phone by touching various locations on the screen. The iPhone 4 and iPhone 3 do not have physical QWERTY keyboards, but instead use a virtual keyboard that comes up on the touchscreen when it is needed. The only tactile button is below the actual touch screen. Pressing this button will bring you back to the home screen, so don't be afraid to use it.

Aside from entering information, most interaction with the iPhone is done through gestures. Sometimes there is more than one way to accomplish a task. For example, to activate a button you can find the button, keep your finger on it, and tap the screen with another finger, or you can locate the button, wait for VoiceOver to say that the button is selected, and then double tap the screen anywhere. It's important to learn all the gestures that VoiceOver uses. A good place to start is in the VoiceOver practice section, located in the settings menu. Go to Settings, then General, then Accessibility, and select VoiceOver/VoiceOver Practice. There you can do the various gestures on the screen and VoiceOver will say the name of the gesture and what it accomplishes. For me, the toughest gesture was "flick," where you quickly move a finger or fingers across, up, or down the screen. Flicking one finger to the right will activate the next element and flicking to the left will bring up the previous one. This is a good way to review the items on a screen. If you accidentally do a three finger double tap, which I've done, this will turn VoiceOver off. The only way to get VoiceOver to come on again is to do another three finger double tap. There is an option in the VoiceOver menu to have hints speak, which explains what to do in a specific situation. This helped me a lot. I still keep my hints turned on even though I know all the gestures and what they accomplish. Sometimes there are applications where having hints turned on is very useful such as with setting a clock or entering information into the phone's calendar.

Here are some problems I had and how I was able to solve them.

Answering and ending a call. One way to answer a call is to quickly double tap with two fingers, but I found that method didn't work consistently. Another way is to use the headset that comes with the phone and press its middle button. Although that method works, I didn't want to be carrying a headset with me all the time. The third option is to activate the answer button, slightly above and to the right of the home button. To end a call, select the end button, slightly above and left of the home button. This is the method that I use. If your screen is locked when you receive a call, it's necessary to tap the screen once and then double tap it. This will answer the call and you don't have to worry about finding specific buttons. In the beginning, I'll admit that I didn't unlock the screen on time for the first few calls I received.

Setting up voice mail. The first thing I wanted to do was let people who called know that I was learning the iPhone and if they received a voice mail message to please call me again. It's possible to do this directly on the phone, but since it was my first day with the unit I wanted a method that didn't involve activating any buttons. All I needed to do was call my phone from another phone. When the standard voice message came on I pressed the pound (#) key. I was then prompted to create a password and record an outgoing voice mail message.

Making calls. Making calls can be done by voice command, choosing someone from the contacts or favorites lists, or by bringing up the virtual phone keypad. I found that using voice controls usually worked, but I wanted additional options. A few times I accidentally called someone when browsing through my contacts list. It's a good thing I didn't accidentally call my cousin in Australia. One way to avoid making calls by accident is to go into the Settings menu. The first control is Airplane Mode. Turning on this option will block the phone's ability to make calls. This option is also initially useful when editing your contacts list. In the contacts list is an option to add the contact to the favorites list. Basically it's a list of the numbers you call most frequently. It's Apple's answer to speed dial. Once a contact is added to the favorites list, it takes fewer steps to call him or her. Open the phone application, then activate the "Favorites" button, which is the first button. This will bring up a list of your favorites. Locate the name of the person you wish to call and double tap it.

Typing. My previous phone was an LG EnV2. It had some accessibility including the ability to send and receive text messages. The phone had a QWERTY keyboard and I learned how to type with my thumbs. Unless you choose to use a braille or Bluetooth keyboard, you will need to use the phone's virtual keyboard.

There are several ways to type on the iPhone. I tried double tapping, where you tap the designated character twice to add it to a document, and touch typing, where you put a finger on the character, wait for VoiceOver to say the letter or number, and when the finger is lifted, the character is added. This method was definitely the one I preferred. There are settings to have the iPhone use auto-correct which will anticipate what you want to type. Learning to type on the phone's virtual keyboard took practice, but eventually my speed increased. The Notes app, which comes on the phone, is a good place to practice. Should you decide that you don't like the virtual keyboard, the app Dragon Dictation is free from the App Store and allows you to record your message rather than type it. Even with this app, you will have to type in at least the recipient's name if you are sending an e-mail or text message.

Texting. In order to send a text message, you need to choose a recipient. As with many things on the iPhone, there are several ways to do this. One way is to go through the Contacts list, find the person you want to text, open the contact, and activate the text message button. If the person is someone you text frequently, it might be easier to put the person in your Favorites list. In that list, select the "more info" button to the right of each person's name. This will open the contact information, where the text message button is located. I found this extremely useful, especially in the beginning while I was learning to use the keyboard.

Another way is to start typing the recipient's name in the "To" edit box. The more letters you type, the fewer results you will get. A list of people with the names beginning with the letters you typed will come up. From there, double tap the person you wish to text. If a contact has more than one phone number, you will need to be careful to select the one you want.

On my old EnV2, I was able to bring up the person's name by voice, even though the phone's voice recognition wasn't always correct, so it took time for me to learn how to choose a recipient. The first text message I sent from my iPhone was to my husband. The message said, "I hate this phone." Now, I absolutely love it.


Here are a few of my favorite resources.

AppleVis. This is an excellent website which rates apps, gives information on how to accomplish tasks, has links to informative articles and podcasts, and much more.

Apple's accessibility site. The site contains information about VoiceOver.

All With My iPhone. Cory Ballard presents tutorials on a wide variety of apps, some of which are developed specifically for users with vision loss, while others are mainstream.

Getting Started with the iPhone: An Introduction for Blind Users by Anna Dresner and Dean Martineau, published by National Braille Press.

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