Looking Back at iOS Accessibility’s Biggest Milestones 

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by my friend Steven Aquino. He is a freelance tech journalist based in San Francisco, CA, where he covers all things Apple accessibility. His work has appeared in iMore, TechCrunch, Macworld, and more.


The iPhone has been such a revolutionary, life-changing device that remembering what life was like before it existed feels almost like trying to imagine the Stone Age. The advent of the iPhone in 2007 was a seminal moment in technology history; it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime product that redefined not only smartphones but computers in general. Almost ten years later, it still never ceases to amaze me that everyone nowadays carries with them a lightweight, always-connected supercomputer everywhere they go. A supercomputer, to paraphrase John Gruber, in our freaking pockets!

Everyone knows how big the iPhone is, but for as much impact as it has had on society and culture at large, I’ve long believed it’s been equally as game-changing for people with disabilities.

The combination of its Multi-Touch interface and iOS software — particularly its Accessibility features — has opened up a world of possibilities like never before.

As a person with disabilities, I can attest to the iPhone’s influence on my life. iOS has empowered me to do more than I ever did on a traditional computer, even a Mac. The 12.9″ iPad Pro is my “laptop” of choice for these reasons. Put simply, tap-and-swipe beats point-and-click for me.

With the final release of iOS 10 drawing near, it’s fun to marvel at just how mature the operating system has become since its inception. The App Store, app extensions, third-party keyboards, widgets, and more — these all are features that have come since the early days of “iPhone OS 1.0.” As someone who’s been using iOS every day for the last nine years, it’s been exciting to watch the OS evolve over time.

As iOS has evolved, so too has its accessibility features. What started as a small feature set has grown into a comprehensive suite that has won Apple critical acclaim as the best in the industry for its remarkable breadth and depth.

With this sentiment in mind, here’s a look at what I consider to be five milestone iOS accessibility features.

VoiceOver

VoiceOver is perhaps the canonical accessibility feature. It’s the most well-known and typically the first that third-party developers support in their app(s).

VoiceOver has been around for a long time, but it hasn’t been around since the beginning. Believe it or not, the first two generations of iPhone, the original and the 3G, had no accessibility features whatsoever. It wasn’t until the iPhone 3GS shipped in June 2009 (with VoiceOver) that iPhone OS started becoming accessible. Along with VoiceOver, iPhone OS 3 also included features such as Zoom and Mono Audio.

Although VoiceOver was included with the iPhone 3GS, its roots trace back to the buttonless iPod Shuffle.

Launched in March 2009, a mere three months prior to the iPhone 3GS’s debut, Apple described the third-generation iPod Shuffle as “the first music player that talks to you” by way of its “revolutionary new VoiceOver feature.”

In short, VoiceOver was able to read song titles and names of artists and playlists.

Given VoiceOver’s importance and reverence, it’s hard to believe the screen reader has only been around for seven of the iPhone’s nine years of existence. While I don’t need to use it, I have a ton of respect for VoiceOver. It’s great, and Apple deserves all the kudos for continually supporting and improving on such a crucial part of iOS for so many people.

Guided Access

Guided Access, a feature whereby certain interface elements (e.g., the Home button) can be disabled in order to restrict user input in apps, is notable in two ways.

First, it’s one of the few accessibility features to receive prominent stage time at an Apple keynote. (The other, to my knowledge, is watchOS 3’s “wheelchair mode” at WWDC this year.) Guided Access was introduced by Scott Forstall at WWDC 2012 as a “tentpole” feature of iOS 6. Forstall explained Guided Access as being two things: (1) a tool for children with autism; and (2) a de-facto “single app mode,” useful in situations such as test-taking and using kiosks in museums.

Secondly, I can directly relate to Forstall’s comment about children with autism. As someone who spent nearly a decade working with preschoolers with special needs, I spent many days using an iPad to augment the curriculum with our students, many of whom were on the autism spectrum. Before iOS 6, keeping students focused and on-task was difficult because oftentimes they would “escape” to play Angry Birds or some other game. Thus, Guided Access was our savior.

Once set up, we could provide students a structured, predictable environment — something that’s essential to anyone with autism, but is especially true of young children — while simultaneously keep them engaged in learning in a fun and interactive way.

Large Dynamic Type

Introduced with iOS 7, Large Dynamic Type is a feature that allows users to set a text size that applies system-wide. The idea is it’s easier to set text size globally than it is to manually fiddle with a text slider in each individual app. Apple supports Dynamic Type in several of iOS’s built-in apps, including Mail, Messages, and Notes.

Large Dynamic Type is arguably my favorite feature of iOS. It’s convenient, yes, but what I love most about it is there’s a public API for it. That means developers can support Dynamic Type in their own apps. As a user, what that means for me is show notes and episode descriptions in Overcast are easier to read; likewise with the chatter in Slack and my to-do list in 2Do. Sadly, however, not every app supports Dynamic Type. Instagram and Uber are two apps I use regularly that don’t, but really should. Dynamic Type makes the app experience appreciably better because of big text’s increased legibility.

Considering the usability gains I get from Dynamic Type, I strongly believe every developer should adopt it right away if they aren’t already supporting it. Text is a basic part of any piece of software, and I’m surely not the only person with low vision (or tired/aging eyes, for that matter) who benefits immensely from larger text.

Switch Control

Like Large Dynamic Type, Switch Control debuted in iOS 7. Switch Control allows users with limited (or no) range of motion in their fingers to control an iOS device withswitches. A switch — or, as it’s colloquially known in special education circles, a Big Mac, due to its resemblance to the burger — is effectively a giant button that uses a wired or Bluetooth connection. In this context, switches are used to control an iOS device, but they’re capable of controlling pretty much anything electronic, including kitchen appliances like blenders.

What makes Switch Control a noteworthy addition to iOS is that its made iOS devices more accessible to a wider range of people. In the same way wheelchair mode in watchOS 3 makes the Activity app accessible to wheelchair users, Switch Control makes iOS devices accessible to people who rely on switches.

A perfect example of this is the story of Ian Mackay, a self-professed cyclist and birder, who suffered a spinal cord injury as a result of a cycling accident. Mackay recently told Mashable’s Katie Dupere about how technology has helped him maintain an active lifestyle in spite of his injury. A heavy user of Switch Control, Mackay says before it came along, he was “very reliant on someone using the phone for me or navigating a GPS for me.” This sense of empowerment and independence is exactly what Switch Control (and the purpose of any accessibility feature, really) is designed to do.

Magnifier

Magnifier is a new accessibility feature in iOS 10, but I want to include it here because of the noticeable effect its already had on my daily life. Because of this, I think Magnifier will be a hit with everyone, regardless of ability.

I’ve been using the iOS 10 public beta on my iPhone 6s Plus throughout the summer, and Magnifier is one of my favorite features. For the uninitiated, Magnifier is built into the Camera app. It uses things like the LED flash and filters to adjust the lighting and contrast, respectively, of objects as you zoom in. Apple gets knocked around at times for its software quality, but Magnifier is further proof the company remains skillful. It’s exceptionally thoughtful and well done.

The reason I’m so effusive about Magnifier is the handiness of it. So often, I’m reading a restaurant menu or looking at price tags in the grocery store, and the print in set in small font. Where previously I would strain my eyes in order to see, now all I need to do is pull out my phone and triple-press the Home button to launch Magnifier. It makes my life much easier, insofar that small print is readable and that I needn’t carry a physical magnifier, as I did for many years. (Yes, there are magnifier apps on the App Store, Lumin being one, but I love that there’s now a built-in solution.)

While the overhauled Messages in iOS 10 gets all the glory, it’s my opinion that Magnifier is right up there as one of the best enhancements to iOS this year. And I’m not alone in that view. In time, I think we’ll see Magnifier as a standout addition to iOS because of its practical nature. It’s beneficial to not only low vision users, but anyone who wants to get closer to anything, such as a coin collection.