Are you the only person in your family still using a flip phone? Maybe that phone has some text-to-speech capabilities built in that allow you to still use it even though your vision is deteriorating, or perhaps has gone altogether. Despite the urging of younger family members, you have resisted switching from the familiar interface of your old phone to a smartphone such as an iPhone. Maybe you received an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad as a gift over the holidays and now you're wondering how on Earth you go about actually using this new-fangled gadget.

This article is by no means a tutorial on how to use the accessibility tools that are built-in to Apple's array of mobile devices, but it does provide some tips and, more importantly, resources for further exploration.

By now, you have most certainly noticed that there are few if any buttons on the surface of your new device. Older devices such as the iPhone 8 Plus, which I own, have a circular Home button at the bottom of the unit, and some buttons on the side. Apart from these, however, the glass surface of the phone is completely smooth. Newer phones such as the iPhone 10 do not have any buttons on their front surfaces. Phones such as the iPhone 8 Plus that still have a semblance of a Home button don't have an actual button at all. A vibration tells you that you have depressed the area where the button should be, giving the impression that you have clicked a physical button. A raised ring indicates the location of the home button on devices, such as the iPhone 8+, where this button is simulated making it little different from a physical button. For information on gestures that have changed due to the loss of the Home button on the iPhone X and newer phones, see this AccessWorld Article. Note that in most cases where the Home button is referenced, the Power button will perform the same function on the iPhone X and newer devices.

Unless otherwise stated, the concepts discussed below will center around the iPhone and should be easily adapted to other Apple devices.

Book Resources for Learning to Use an iPhone with a Visual Impairment or Blindness

So how does a person with a visual impairment navigate a smooth piece of glass without being able to see it? All of Apple's accessibility solutions are included with your new device, so you will not need to pay any extra money to use them.

Apple has developed screen magnification solutions for low-vision users. You can learn about these tools in AccessWorld contributing author Shelly Brisbin's book iOS Access for All. She keeps her book regularly updated to stay in line with the latest version of Apple's iOS operating system, which is what powers its line of smart devices including the iPhone.

If you are blind or prefer to use methods besides vision, you'll want to learn about Apple's VoiceOver screen reader. Anna Dresner's books on learning to use Apple's iOS devices as a blind person are great resources and can be obtained from National Braille Press.

The titles mentioned above are available in formats such as EPUB, DAISY, Word, and braille for easy reading by all.

Setting Up Your Device

The tricky thing about using a touchscreen with accessibility to set up your new device for the first time is that you have no experience actually using the thing to begin with, so how are you going to manage complex tasks such as entering your Wi-Fi password, setting up an iCloud account for syncing and backing up information, and getting your email up and running? One solution is to plug your iPhone into your computer and do the heavy lifting through iTunes. Another option is to connect a Bluetooth keyboard to the device at your earliest opportunity, and proceed that way. You could read this article and then dive in head first, or you could ask a sighted person to help you get up and running so you can begin exploring at your leisure.

Moving Around on the Home Screen and In Apps

Once the phone is up and running, you can enable VoiceOver. This can actually be done on a new device by pressing the Home button three times quickly, referred to as a triple-click, when the phone first starts. Once the phone has started, if VoiceOver hasn't already been turned on, you can press and hold the Home button until you hear a bell sound. At that point, you can ask Siri, Apple's voice assistant, to turn on VoiceOver. You can also ask Siri to take you into the phone's Settings menu, which includes accessibility and VoiceOver settings.

With VoiceOver enabled, you can touch anywhere on the screen and hear verbal feedback about what icon you have placed your finger on. Once you have found the desired icon, tap two times quickly with one finger anywhere on the screen to activate the icon in focus. You can move your finger around on the screen, find a desired icon, lift your finger, and then double-tap to activate. Once you get familiar with the layout of any screen on your device, exploring by touch is great. I can often place my finger exactly on the icon I want because I've done it so many times. If I'm not exactly where I want to be, I know what direction to slide my finger in to find my target. When I just want to explore a screen to learn what is there, exploring my touch is not nearly as helpful. A better option is to place your finger anywhere on the screen and then flick right or left to move icon by icon across the screen. Flicking works in other ways as well, but we'll talk about those later.

Some have compared this flicking gesture to flicking a piece of dust off of your screen. It doesn't have to be a hard gesture, and it will eventually become quite natural. I don't generally have difficulty flicking in a straight line, but you might practice by placing a ruler or piece of paper on a table or your phone if this is a problem for you. Also, SpeedDots sells tactile screen protectors that help orient you.

By now you may be wondering if flicking up and down accomplishes anything useful, and in fact it does. When you are flicking right and left to hear items on the screen of your phone, you might occasionally want to hear how something is spelled. If you place two fingers on the phone and rotate them as though you were turning a dial, you will launch what is known as the rotor control. The rotor offers options for what will happen when you flick up and down. You can opt to move by character, word, line, and other options. You can customize your rotor choices in the settings app. Options include changing the voice rate and volume of VoiceOver, just to name a couple items. If you set your rotor to move by character, flicking down will move the cursor one character at a time to the right, and flicking up will move left. This is also true if you set the rotor to move by word, except that rather than moving character by character across the screen, you will move word by word.

A two-finger flick up will read the entire screen without stopping, and a two-finger flick down will read from the cursor position to the bottom of the screen. A two-finger single tap will stop reading, and a two-finger double tap does many things including answering and hanging up phone calls and pausing and playing music. In fact, the two-finger double tap is so often used that it actually has a name. It is called the "magic tap."

Your phone or other device will lock after a minute or so of inactivity, so you will need to unlock it. Simply press the home button. If you have set up a passcode for your device, you will need to enter it. You can also use the fingerprint sensor (called touch ID) available on newer devices to perform many functions including unlocking your device. Note that face recognition has taken the place of the fingerprint censor on iPhone X models and newer devices. In addition, you can adjust how long you must be inactive before the phone will automatically lock in the Display and Brightness menu in the Settings app.

It is possible to switch the orientation of your phone from portrait to landscape mode by simply turning it from straight up to sideways in your hands. I discovered that I don't always hold the phone straight, and the device unexpectedly switches on me. You can lock your screen orientation into portrait mode by swiping up from the bottom of the screen with three fingers to open the Control Center and finding the icon for doing so. The phone will still switch to landscape mode for things such as movies, but it will stay in portrait the rest of the time.

Entering Text On Your iPhone Using VoiceOver

When I first started using an iPhone, I found that to type I needed to locate the desired letter, lift my finger, and then double-tap. This was much harder than I anticipated, and took a lot of practice. I like to use my thumbs when typing. I got good enough that I could find a letter with one thumb, hold it on that letter, and tap somewhere else on the screen with the other thumb. This is called a split tap, and speeds things up a bit. Turns out you can set VoiceOver to enter the desired character on the screen as soon as you lift your finger, meaning you don't have to double-tap or split-tap at all. There is another setting that allows a character to be entered as soon as you touch it, but I have never even attempted to use this feature. I suspect a person with some vision might find this more useful than a totally blind person would.

You can also use a Bluetooth keyboard to enter text if you'd like. Finally, Apple has recently introduced Braille Screen Input (BSI), which is what I use almost exclusively now. With the back of the phone facing me in landscape mode, I am able to place the index, middle, and ring finger of each hand on the screen to form the six-dot cells that make up braille. At first, I thought that Apple had lost its mind and that I would never be able to master this concept. They hadn't, and I have.

Putting It All Together

A wealth of knowledge and an exciting new adventure awaits you if you dare to try to learn to use your shiny new Apple device. Maybe you don't yet own one, but you are ready to dive head first into this new world. I offer you a few suggestions that will help you on your way.

  1. Take small steps. There is no way that you will master all the concepts at once. You may never learn them all, but that's okay. Travel this road at your own pace.
  2. Ask for help. Websites such as AppleVis provide podcasts and written guides for learning to use your mobile device, and there are forums where you can ask questions as well. There are also people who provide individualized training for learning to use the iPhone and other devices, usually for a fee. Ask around, and you will undoubtedly find someone willing to help. And don't forget that AccessWorld regularly covers accessibility for iPhones and other Apple devices.
  3. Relax. This point seems overly simplistic, but I actually found it to be one of the best pieces of advice I ever received when I was first starting out on my Apple journey. Stress will cause you to make mistakes, thereby increasing your frustration. The never-ending cycle will cause you to throw up your hands in defeat.

Apple has shown a true commitment to including accessibility in all of its products, so don't be afraid to get your feet wet. There are many older devices that work quite well, so you don't necessarily need to purchase the latest and greatest model. After you get comfortable with using your device of choice, why not read this magazine each month right from your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch? While you're at it, practice your typing skills by leaving us some feedback.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Jamie Pauls
Article Topic
Access Technology 101