Accessibility Features on iOS

There is a misconception about accessibility on iOS, which is that the accessibility options are only for users who have special needs. But that’s the furthest thing from the truth. At its core, accessibility is about access — hence, iOS’s accessibility options are tools with which users, regardless of physical or cognitive ability, are better able to access their devices. This concept is not one that’s limited to only disabled users. By looking at accessibility in a more holistic context, one can easily see how accessibility software can prove beneficial to everyone, not just the assumed demographic.

With this idea in mind, there are many accessibility features in iOS that can enable the non-disabled to more easily use their iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. In this article, I will highlight four of these features, and explain how they make using your device(s) easier.

Reduce Motion

Found in: Settings → General → Accessibility → Reduce Motion

With iOS 7, Apple introduced a new UI Dynamics API that allows developers to use an iOS device’s motion sensors to use physics to create life-like animations. Apple itself uses this API is several ways across the stock OS, most notably in the parallax effect and in the zooming in and out of apps.

But not everyone is a fan of all the motion. In fact, there have been reports of people suffering from motion sickness caused by iOS 7’s whiz-bang animations. The motion effects have been so problematic that it adversely impacted the usability of devices running iOS 7. Fortunately, Apple added a setting in Accessibility that, when enabled, changes the standard motion effect to a far more subtle cross-fade effect. The change is a significant one, because not only does it reduce iOS’s motion effects, thereby reducing the nauseatic feelings for some, but it also improves usability.

Personally, I’m not affected by motion sickness, and I like the aesthetic value of the animations very much. Yet the fact that Reduce Motion exists for users who need it means that they’re able to use their devices without worry about getting sick to their stomach. Without it, the access to their devices would be severely compromised, because the motion so restricts the usability of the device(s).

Increase Contrast

Found in: Settings → General → Accessibility → Increase Contrast

Another visual element introduced in iOS 7 is the transparency of the interface. In the iOS 7 introduction video, Jony Ive describes the purpose of the transparency as being twofold: it provides context relative to where you are in the system, as well as provide a sense of “layering”, whereby the user is able to discern the independency of menus, the icons on the Home screen, and the wallpaper in the background.

In design terms, this rationale is valid, but it isn’t universally functional when it comes to accessibility. The most profound drawback of iOS 7’s transparency is that the low contrast can potentially be troublesome for readability, particularly for users like myself who are visually impaired. Turning on Increase Contrast removes the transparency, instead presenting menus like Control Center against a whitish background. It certainly helps overall legibility, but Apple only went halfway in its execution. The text of, say, Control Center remains white, even against the whitish background. It’s a curious oversight on Apple’s part, and quite ironic given that Increase Contrast is intended to improve the contrast of the user interface elements.

Critiques notwithstanding, Increase Contrast does deliver on its promise to improve readability by removing the transparent effects of the operating system. If you’re someone who’s bothered by iOS 7’s transparency, flipping on Increase Contrast should help in alleviating the issue. Like with Reduce Motion, I’m not bothered by the transparency and enjoy its eye candy, so I leave Increase Contrast off.

Larger Dynamic Type

Found in: Settings → General → Accessibility → Larger Type

Adjusting font sizes up or down to suit one’s visual needs is perhaps the quintessential example of “universal” accessibility. Generally speaking, the bigger the font, the better the reading experience will be for all. You needn’t have a medically-sanctioned vision impairment to reap the benefits of large text in, say, Tweetbot or Instapaper. In my case, however, as someone with a bonafide vision impairment, I find Larger Dynamic Type very useful — and very handy.

What makes Larger Dynamic Type so useful is that — assuming developers support it in their apps — it gives users the ability to set a predefined text size that is applicable throughout iOS. This obviously helps in determining the needed text size, but it’s also convenient insofar that because Large Type adjusts text size system-wide, the user needn’t have to always manually adjust text sizes. You just flip on Large Type under Settings → General → Accessibility → Larger Type, then use the slider to scale the text size to your liking.

Larger Dynamic Type is further boosted by iOS 7’s new typography. With iOS’s user interface significantly overhauled, the typography throughout the system looks even better than before. To my eyes, text is even easier to read thanks to the whiteness of the OS, and that’s without turning on Larger Dynamic Type. Of course, the Retina display has much to do with this — it’s a shining example of hardware and software interplay, as Larger Dynamic Type is made for Retina screens.

Before iOS 7 (Larger Dynamic Type is a new Accessibility feature to 7), I found it rather tedious to constantly have to adjust the text sizes within each app. Aside from the old Large Text option under Accessibility, which adjusted the text sizes of only certain apps like Mail and Messages, third-party apps from the App Store used their own text-resizing mechanisms. Hence, I was forced to fiddle with text in every app that I used with any regularity. It became very annoying after a while, so I was ecstatic to see Apple include Larger Dynamic Type in iOS 7. The feature is not only practical, but is a time-saver as well. Of all iOS 7’s new features, Larger Dynamic Type is amongst my most favorite.

Guided Access

Found in: Settings → General → Accessibility → Guided Access

Guided Access is a feature that was introduced in iOS 6. What Guided Access does is allow users to designate parts of an app’s user interface as non-tappable. That is, you’re able to mark which controls are off-limits to children or students. The intent for Guided Access is to keep children or students on task by “locking” them into an app, thereby disabling their ability to become distracted and jump into other parts of the OS.

In my case, Guided Access’s debut was significant because at the time I was using iPads with the special needs preschoolers with whom I used to work. As I wrote for The Magazine last year, the iPad is truly a magical and transformative device when utilized in an educational setting. The problem we — where by “we”, I mean the classroom staff and support staff — found, however, was that most of our students would leave whatever activity we assigned them to go play Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja. It was frustrating, and we longed for a way to keep our students in the app that we wanted them to use. Needless to say, we were very excited by the advent of Guided Access. It was exactly the remedy that we were hoping for. Guided Access works wonders in augmenting the curriculum, and it helps our students achieve their goals.

But for as much as Guided Access is a boon to special education classrooms, it isn’t just for students with special needs. As former iOS chief Scott Forstall said during his demo of Guided Access at the WWDC 2012 keynote, it can be useful across numerous use cases, including test-taking and museum tours. Moreover, parents could theoretically “lock” their child into an app the child is interested in so that they won’t back out into, say, Springboard or one of the Stores and inadvertently delete apps and/or make unwanted purchases. (iOS Parental Controls does this more explicitly, but the effect is similar.) In addition, Guided Access could prove useful during parent-child reading time, where a parent could make it so that the child couldn’t leave the book. This would help focus the child’s attention on the story, which in turn would better facilitate conversation about the story and its illustrations.

The Bottom Line

The notion that Accessibility software is exclusively bound to the domain of the disabled is something that I have written about on my blog and talked about on my podcast recently. It’s one of those “accessibility myths” that I try to dispel by advocation of the contrary, via articles like this. While Accessibility’s first and foremost focus will always be the disabled — and rightfully so — the fact of the matter is said focus need not be so myopic in scope. For as much as Accessibility opens doors for the disabled, so too can it help the fully-abled to more easily navigate their devices.

With a little imagination, it’s not hard to see how Accessibility can help us all.