Apple products are notoriously closed-off to tinkering – you can either jailbreak your device, or you can use it as intended: carefully polished, one app at a time. There’s one very important significant exception to this golden rule: accessibility settings.
To accomodate people with special needs; decreased vision, hearing, physical or motor skills; some leeway is given to make Apple devices accessible in a wide variety of usage scenarios. Or like Apple puts it: “We’ve done everything possible to make anything possible.”
These accessibility settings are built right into the iPhone, just like on Mac OS X. It’s the place to look if you have difficulty using your device with factory settings, but also if you’re just looking for increased flexibility. In both cases, these accessibility settings make an already easy to use product, incredibly easy to use.
How to Configure Accessibility Settings
There are two ways to configure the accessibility settings on your iPhone. The first way, which is how Apple recommends you do it, is to set things up on your computer. Plug in your device and select it in iTunes. At the bottom of the Summary tab, under the Options header, there’s a button labeled Configure Universal Access… and most accessibility settings can be configured right here.
The second way is to skip iTunes and configure it on your phone. Open the iPhone’s Settings and select General > Accessibility. You’ll be able to turn the individual accessibility settings on or off, just like in iTunes.
The main advantage of the first approach is that if you use assistive hardware to interface with your technology, you can use a computer that’s already properly configured to enable accessibility options on your phone.
Hard to use gestures and easy to miss buttons are no match for the Assistive Touch accessibility feature. Essentially, this gives you access to a shortcut menu, putting a wide variety of device functions like Rotation, Siri and custom gestures within reach. It doesn’t matter which app you’re in: after enabling Assistive Touch, a little overlay button appears which you can drag around.
Tapping the overlay button opens the shortcut menu:
Assistive touch solves another elusive issue: locking your device in landscape mode. As you might have noticed, locking the screen orientation of your iPhone in the multitask bar (opened by double-pressing the home key) always reverts the device orientation to portrait mode.
With your orientation locked, open Assistive Touch and go to Device > Rotation. If you use these buttons to rotate your device, it’ll stay temporarily locked in landscape position!
Another accessibility feature aiming to help legibility is Invert Colors. Depending on the apps you use, inverting the colours on your screen can notably improve contrast and, as a result, the ability to read what’s on your screen.
As mentioned above, your mileage may vary depending on the apps you use. An interesting alternative use for the Invert Colors feature is for nightly use of your device. Unless you’re using iBooks’ night mode, the bright light of an iPhone screen is literally an eye sore if you have little ambient light. Inverting the colours when you’re reading an eBook or otherwise engaged after the lights have gone out is a great way to spare your eyes.
There’s a variety of options if you have trouble making out the text on your iPhone’s screen. Also in the Accessibility settings, you can increase the text size for some of Apple’s core OS elements like notifications and Mail, look for these options listed under Large Text.
An alternative that works for all apps, even those that haven’t built in explicit support for the accessibility function is Zoom. After enabling this option, you will be able to zoom in on any iPhone app window by tapping with three fingers on the screen. To change the degree of magnification, similarly touch the screen with three fingers and drag up or down.
I don’t have much trouble seeing (yet), but the Zoom feature helps me read those tiny letters in applications that normally don’t support rescaling.
Forced Mono Audio and Volume Balance
Most audio you will encounter these days uses two distinct channels: one for your left and one for your right ear. We call this stereo, and while it’s generally preferable over mono (one channel) audio; there are exceptions to almost every rule.
Under the Hearing section in Accessibility options, you can force your iPhone to use mono audio so both of your ears receive every sound. For people who hear better in one ear than the other, this is a lifesaver. But even if your hearing is fine, this accessibility feature comes in handy when you’re only using half of your earphones (e.g. in traffic or at the store), or sharing a pair with someone else.
When your hearing has faded, try real-time text calls on your iPhone or Mac.
Although most of the above accessibility features tend to add functionality to the device, Guided Access aims to remove it, selectively. Using Guided Access, you can keep your iPhone locked down to a single app and render certain parts of the app’s interface unresponsive. Start by enabling the feature under Guided Access, opening the app of your choice and triple-clicking the Home button.
The main purpose of this feature is to prevent unwanted touches. This can make an app easier to use for people of limited mobility. Guided Access also makes it easier (and safer) to pass your device to your kids. Another possibility is to create an iPhone kiosk using Guided Access; useful for product demonstrations or for use in classrooms when you want people to have access to only a single app.
Speech Accessibility Features
If you have trouble seeing, one option is to use Zoom or Invert Colors, as described above. Another possibility, which serves to largely circumvent your dependency on the written word is VoiceOver. After enabling this feature, single-tap any UI element or message to have your iPhone speak the item’s text. Activating items or scrolling can be achieved by double-tapping or swiping three fingers.
A similar effect can be achieved for all selectable text like text in input fields, or even on webpages. From the Accessibility overview, select Speak Selection. Enabling this gives you a new Speak option when you select text.
Home Button Tinkering
A single click of the Home button brings up your home screen. Pressing it twice opens up the multitasking bar. You’ve probably never had to press it thrice, unless you were using Guided Access (as mentioned above). Near the bottom of the accessibility options, you can change the behaviour of this triple-click using the Triple-click Home option. Here you can choose for it to activate VoiceOver, Assistive Touch, or to give you a choice of what to do every single time.
Having a hard time triple-clicking, or even double-clicking the Home button? Select the Home-click Speed option under the Physical and Motor accessibility settings to have your iPhone register slower than regular multi-clicks.
Have you enabled any accessibility features on your iPhone? Which do you find the most useful? Add your tips and gripes in the comments, below.