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What’s New in iOS 8 Accessibility for Blind, Low-Vision, and Deaf-Blind Users – Part 1

iOS_8_3This article is written by guest blogger Scott Davert, M.A., VRT.  Scott is an AppleVis Editorial Team Member and a regional representative for the Region 8 Rocky Mountain area with the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults. Thanks to Scott for letting us share this piece that was originally published here at AppleVis.


It’s fall, which means it’s time for another iOS update to fall on to your iDevices. That is, if you are using an iPhone 4S or later, iPad 2 or later, or iPod Touch fifth generation or later. This year, Apple introduces a lot of new mainstream features such as the ability to share purchased items with family members on joint accounts with the iTunes and App Store, the further harmonization of iOS and OS X, interactive notifications, wifi calling – just to name a few. Many mainstream sources will be covering these features in great detail, so this article will focus on changes in accessibility. Just like all of my articles dating back to iOS 5, this one doesn’t claim to have everything that’s new. I, along with a few of the other AppleVis Editorial Team members, have taken time to work with the betas of iOS 8 since its first build was released to developers in June.


Hey, Siri!

If you’ve ever wanted to use Siri hands-free, in iOS 8 you now have that ability. If you go into the settings for Siri (Settings > General > Siri), you will now find an option called Voice Activation. Turn this on, and you can yell at Siri without ever having to touch your phone. As this feature would eat your battery for lunch, it is only active when your iDevice is plugged in to a power source – so be sure to plug your phone in before you start yelling.

Name That Song

Siri can now listen to a song playing and tell you what it is. Just ask Siri something like, “what song is this?” and Siri will listen for a few seconds, then try to figure it out. If Siri can identify the song, it will tell you the name and artist – then offer to let you buy the song on iTunes. This is great for when you are listening to a song on certain radio services or stations where the song information is not accessible to those who are blind. It can also come in handy when at a store or restaurant and you hear a song you like, but you have no idea what it is.

VoiceOver changes

I’ll Take a New Voice, Alex

That’s right, if you’re running the iPhone 5s or newer (sorry, the 5C doesn’t offer this), the iPad Air or newer, or the iPad Mini with Retina Display or newer, you can now use Alex (from Mac OS X) as your default voice for VoiceOver. This is a voice many users of the Mac have grown used to over the years, and many users will no doubt be happy to have it residing on their iDevices. This is also going to be a welcome addition for those users who have both vision and hearing loss – where their loss is higher in frequency – making understanding female voices more difficult. You can find and download the Alex voice, which is not on by default, by going in to Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Speech > Default Dialect. Under the U.S. English heading, you will find the option to download and then use the Alex voice. Be sure you have plenty of space available, as this speech synthesizer weighs in at a hefty size near 900 megabytes. Also, it appears as though after downloading the Alex voice for the first time, one must restart VoiceOver before using it.

And the Possibilities Keep Growing!

With iOS 7, you could download multiple enhanced quality voices for both multi-language support and for access to other dialects of languages such as English and Spanish. With iOS 8, you can now download enhanced quality versions of voices on the fly if you are connected to wifi. Alex voice users can even add a second instance of U.S English as a dialect, which will give you the familiar Samantha voice which one can then switch to on the fly if “language” is enabled in your rotor settings.

All of These Voices are Taking Up So Much Space, I Need a Disk Diet!

If you find that too many of the enhanced quality voices are installed on your device, you can remove the ones you are not currently using. Once you have multiple voices added to your device, go to the speech button under VoiceOver settings and you will find an edit button. You will see a delete option next to each voice; just double-tap that and confirm your choice, and the voice will be removed – creating more space for other stuff.

Keep it Cranked!

A new rotor item, Audio Ducking, is available in iOS 8. No, activating this rotor option will not make VoiceOver sound like Donald Duck, but it will let you toggle Audio Ducking. What is Audio Ducking, you ask? Audio Ducking is when iOS decreases the volume on whatever other audio is playing when VoiceOver is speaking. It has done this for quite some time, but you can now disable this feature if desired. You can accomplish this by turning your rotor to “Audio Ducking” and flicking up or down with one finger. If Audio Ducking isn’t in your rotor, head over to Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Rotor, and then select the Audio Ducking option. Once selected, Audio Ducking will always be available in your rotor.

Is That the End?

Another minor change is that when you are browsing Settings you will now occasionally hear VoiceOver announce “Footer” after reading a block of text. This has been added to help identify the text which gives information about the specific setting. The choice of “Footer” could be confusing to a new user, as they may think that they are at the end of a page when they actually are not.

VoiceOver, No Longer Interrupted …Sort of.

Prior to iOS 8, when you were reading text (such as an e-mail or audiobook) using the Read All gesture, VoiceOver would interrupt whatever it was you were doing to let you know of notifications such as Twitter replies, Dice World rolls, breaking news, etc. This no longer happens, with the exception of text messages. So, read away–just make sure no one texts you at the same time.

More E-mail, More Options

In the Mail app, the Custom Actions option in the Rotor setting has been modified. When you were on a thread or message in previous versions of iOS, “Trash/Archive” and “More” were your only options. Now, added to the list of custom actions and not requiring the selection of the “More” menu are Flag, Mark As Read/Unread, Archive, and – yes – More. The “More” menu now consists of Reply-all, Forward, Flag, Mark-as-Read/Unread, Move to Junk, Move Message, and Notify Me. The “Notify Me” option allows you to get push notifications when there is a reply to a certain thread of messages.


In addition to Standard and Touch Typing for touchscreen input, there is now a new option called Direct Touch Typing. If you are in a text field and move to the Typing rotor option, you will still find the Standard Typing and Touch Typing selections available. Direct Touch Typing is similar to Standard Typing in that you can find a key with one finger, then tap another finger on the screen to enter the character. The difference with Direct Touch Typing is that if you touch a key and immediately lift your finger, that character is entered. If you’re extremely confident in your ability to locate the key you want on your first try, Direct Touch Typing is for you. You can also find the key you want by dragging a finger around the onscreen keyboard, then touching the same spot quickly to type that key. Typing feedback is, as with the other typing modes, based on the verbosity settings that you have set in Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver> Typing Feedback > Software Keyboards.

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