New iOS 11 accessibility features for people with sight loss

Post date: 
Thursday, 5 October 2017
Image shows the iphone 6 in someones hand unlocked, with an Apple Mac in the background

Scott Davert, writer for AppleVis, a community website for blind and partially sighted Apple users, rounds up some of the new and improved features of the latest iOS.

iOS 11 has arrived for users of the iPhone 5S and later, the iPad fifth generation and later, and the iPod Touch sixth generation.

As is the case with all major iOS releases, there are many changes specific to accessibility which have not been well documented. And without a doubt, there will be other features not written about here that people will discover as they play with iOS 11.

Important information to know if you’re thinking of upgrading: iOS 11 has dropped support for app developed for only the 32-bit platform. Before performing the upgrade, you may wish to check your device to see which apps will no longer be supported that are currently installed (for step-by-step instructions on how to do this, consult the AppleVis guide).

General accessibility features

Type it – don’t speak it

Not only has Apple's virtual assistant, Siri, earned a spot under Accessibility Settings, but you can now type to Siri instead of speaking. This makes it possible to perform queries silently. To turn on this feature, go to: Settings> General> Accessibility> Siri and turn on “Type to Siri”. Then each time you bring up Siri, a keyboard will appear onscreen. Although if you do this, you won’t be able to speak to Siri unless you have “Hey Siri” enabled. For braille users, you can simply begin typing. Once you have completed what you wish to have Siri do, press dot 8 with space (or Enter on a Bluetooth keyboard). There is also a new Siri female voice.

More control over accessibility

In your Control Centre, you will find 17 features that you can insert or remove including Accessibility Shortcut, Flashlight, Guided Access, Magnifier and Text Size. To add and remove items, go to: Settings> Control Centre> Customise.

Answering calls automatically

If you find answering calls to be a challenge, there is now the option to have calls answered automatically. Once turned on, you can set the time your iOS device waits before automatically answering a call. To configure this setting, go to: Settings> General> Accessibility> Call Audio Routing> Auto Answer Calls. This feature also appears to function with third party apps such as Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook.


Moving apps becomes a “drag”

Instead of swiping up to “Arrange Apps,” VoiceOver users must double tap and hold to invoke “Edit Mode”. Once you are in “Edit Mode,” you have the options of delete, drag, or stop editing apps.

Previews are back

In iOS 10, VoiceOver users had to perform a three-finger single tap on an email message to hear a preview. This is now read out loud by VoiceOver without the user having to interact with their touchscreen at all.

Assigning the old new names

If you enjoyed using some of the old Siri voices with VoiceOver, you’ll be happy to know that these are still available for download, but they now have names. The old American Siri voices are now named Aaron and Nicky, the British voices are known as Arthur and Martha, and the Australian voices are known as Catherine and Gordon.

New Verbosity features

One of the new “Verbosity” features is “Deleting Text”. When you delete something, you can have the word deleted spoken or have a sound played. The same options exist for embedded links, where if you encounter a link on a webpage, you can have VoiceOver speak the word “link” or play a sound. To check out these and other new features, go to: Settings> General> Accessibility> VoiceOver> Verbosity.

I’m reading you loud and clear

New captions and subtitles features have been added under the “Media Descriptions” setting. It’s now possible to read these with speech output, braille or to have both at the same time. This will come in handy for those who watch films with subtitles or if you have hearing loss and need some textual support while watching a movie. However, this feature won’t work well for people who are totally deafblind since there is no context included within the captions.

Expansion of alt text

With iOS 11, alt text has extended to a few third party apps like Facebook. This means that when you find an image you’d like to have described, simply perform a three finger single tap when VoiceOver focus is set to that item, (Note that for this to work, you will need to have the Screen Curtain disabled – to toggle this on and off, perform a three-finger triple tap.)

Fixing misspelled words

While sighted users have always had an easy time finding misspelled words, this hasn’t been true for VoiceOver users unless you pause after each word to see if it is misspelled. There is a new rotor option called “Misspelled Words”, which works well for finding those pesky spelling mistakes quickly.

One for the iPad users

There has been the addition of a Dock, which is no longer limited to four items. To bring it up, perform a two-finger swipe up from the bottom of the screen, or press “VO” with “D” on a Bluetooth keyboard. You will find applications you have added manually, but also a list of your most recently used apps.

Features for people with low vision

General clean-up

A lot of smaller changes have been made to the appearance of iOS 11. For example, a number of default icons have been visually cleaned up to create a crisper, clearer presentation and make then more visually distinct.

The app store redesign

There have been a number of improvements to the App Store. These include:

  • the off-white background being replaced with a white theme throughout, which improves the colour contrast across the board
  • search features, install buttons and app reviews are now larger and bolder
  • having the option to disable auto-playing videos to reduce the visual burden they create.

A more dynamic operating system

In all native menus and apps in iOS 11, the line wrapping successfully shifts over lines, allowing the full body of text to be viewed. This means that the irritating cut-offs and overflows that existed in iOS 10 have been removed.

Bigger is cleaner

At a 15x greater magnification level, the Zoom window renders a much cleaner and smoother image than in iOS 10.

Invert colours is “smarter” in places

This feature doesn’t invert things like media, images and some apps that have darker colour styles. To enable “Smart Invert”, go to: Settings> General> Accessibility> Display> Accommodations> Invert Colours and enable “Smart Invert”. There are still a few issues with app buttons that begin dark against a dark background, and light against a light background. This makes it markedly worse for those who are colour blind.

An upgraded magnifier

The magnifier is now better at handling glare and adjusting to rapidly changing light. The upgrade is especially noticeable when using the magnifier to examine text, either in print or on a computer screen.


It’s worth noting that many users of braille displays are reporting that their cursor puts them in random places on the screen when attempting to edit anything over a few sentences long. If you type fast (around 50 words a minute) with the braille keyboard, it’s also been documented that the translator will miss letters. If you plan to do a lot of typing and editing with a braille display, the first release of iOS 11 may not be for you.

Different commands and customising keyboards

You can decide not only what function you would like to be able to carry out from your braille display, but also what keyboard combination you would like that command to have. If the command you desire is already in use by another function, you can change it to something else. To assign a new command, go to: Settings> General> Accessibility> VoiceOver> Braille> More Info.

The 411 on formatting

Another new feature is the ability to detect what formatting attributes are in a document using the status cell. To turn this on, go to: Settings> General> Accessibility> Braille> Status Cells and turn on "Show Text Status".

Feel those emoji’s

Braille users can now tell what emoji they are encountering, just like their VoiceOver speech-using counterparts.

Fewer spaces are good

To perform a delete or activate the Enter key, you can now simply press dot 7 or 8 without the spacebar and these functions will work correctly. However, as old habits die hard, you can still use it like you did before too.

Is iOS 11 worth the upgrade?

Apple’s work continues to keep them ahead of many other platforms in terms of in-built accessibility options. Certainly, the enhancements in iOS 11 prove this trend continues. Whether you should upgrade or not depends on whether the bugs in the new release will impact you on a greater level than you can tolerate, and whether the new features are useful for you. To check out a list of iOS 11 bugs related to VoiceOver and braille, check out this AppleVis post.


Source: This article originally appeared on the AppleVis website and was republished with permission of the owner.

Further information

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