My Top 10 Accessibility Wish List for iOS 8

As I write this, we’re around 10 days away from the big reveal of iOS 8, which will occur at the keynote that kicks off apple’s Worldwide Developer’s conference. I have everything crossed that Apple will stream the event, due to take place on 2 June at 10 AM Pacific, 1 PM Eastern, 6 PM in the UK, and bright and early at 5 AM on 3 June in New Zealand.
Typically, once the feature set is announced at WWDC, a first beta is released to anyone who is a member of Apple’s iOS Developer Program. That means if you’re willing to pay, you’re able to play. I produced an audio tutorial on how to beta test iOS. If you are interested in trying iOS 8, I recommend picking that up and taking a listen.
Last year, I posted my top 10 accessibility wish list for iOS 7 prior to its release to beta. A few of my wishes even came true! I thought I’d produce an iOS 8 version, open it up for discussion, and find out what you’d like to see in the new release.
1. Improved braille back translation. This was top of my list for iOS 7, and it remains top of my list for iOS 8, with unsatisfactory efforts to address the issues last year. The iPad is revolutionising the classroom, but as an assistive technology consultant, I cannot recommend the iPad as a viable tool for a student learning contracted braille at the moment. Adults can work around the quirks, but we shouldn’t be teaching kids bad braille habits. The iOS back translation, the process by which contracted braille is converted to standard text, is unorthodox and clunky. Let’s walk through an example to illustrate the problem.
Braille the word “Aple” into an edit field using a refreshable braille display connected to your iDevice. Clearly, we meant to write “Apple”, but we accidentally omitted a P. To correct this, route the cursor so you’re in the correct place to insert the second P. Braille the P with contracted braille enabled. Just by inserting that second P, iOS has come back with the word “appeoplele”. What happened? What happened is that the second letter P was fully back translated to the contracted Braille single letter abbreviation for “people”. There are ways around this. You can insert a letter sign before you insert the letter, or you can prefix the inserted letter with the computer braille symbol. You could toggle contracted braille off. You could disable iOS 7’s automatic Braille translation mode and not see anything you’re Brailling until you empty its buffer. None of these steps are necessary in any other company’s contracted braille support. They’re counterintuitive and simply not correct in terms of braille conventions.
Apple has always prided itself on things being super-intuitive. It all just works. For the most part, they deliver on that promise. Braille support is presently not worthy of the Apple name.
2. Notifications alert toggle. I am still genuinely grateful on a regular basis for the fact that we now have access to so many books at the same time they’re released to sighted people. Reading via the Kindle and iBooks app is fantastic. There’s a “but” coming though. It makes for a distracting, disjointed experience to be reading a book, only to be interrupted on a regular basis with notifications. When a notification comes in, VoiceOver stops what it’s reading, speaks at least part of the notification, and then if you’re lucky, resumes reading.
I’d like a setting, available on the rotor and in VoiceOver settings, to be able to specify whether notifications interrupt what’s being read. This would be particularly useful to those of us who make extensive use of custom tones. All the important people in my life have unique ring tones and text alerts. I have a special sound assigned to VIP email. So all this means that when a notification comes in that I know I may want to look at right away, the tone will tell me I should stop reading my book and check my notification. When I hear other alert sounds, I know that they can keep until I want to take a break from my book. It sure would beat being interrupted all the time.
3. Local Dictation. Currently, when you dictate to your iPhone, the voice clip is sent up to a server, and the text is sent back. If you have dodgy cellular coverage or are just dealing with some congestion, this all takes time. Mavericks introduced the option to store voice recognition files locally so there’s no need for server-side processing, and it’s super snappy. It will take some space, but on an iPhone with larger capacity, it’s not a deal breaker, and it would be optional.
I would think the 5S and latest iPad are the only currently available devices on which they’d probably want to offer this feature, due to the amount of processor power involved.
And who knows, maybe Apple might get really ambitious and allow a bit of voice training for really accurate recognition.
4. A keyboard API. I get Apple’s sandbox approach. I really do. There’s an awful lot of malware around on other platforms. But Apple needs to be careful not to make consumers feel deprived of choice and extensibility, and in the highly competitive mobile space, I’m not convinced they have the balance quite right. One way to address this is through use of application programming interfaces, and a keyboard API is high on the list for me. There are many ways we can now get text into a device running iOS, one of the many things that have improved since VoiceOver was introduced in 2009. We can connect Bluetooth keyboards and refreshable braille displays, and touch typing has been added as an option in the virtual keyboard. We’ve also seen a number of apps offering alternative methods of text input. The most popular of these are Fleksy and mBraille.
Fleksy has done some innovative stuff with their SDK, but really, we should have the right to choose our keyboard, built into the OS.
5. Safari accessibility. Browsing the web from anywhere is a cool concept, but it is far too frustrating far too often, because of odd focus issues that persist with Safari. Let me balance that criticism by saying that on pages where it’s available, Reader Mode rocks!
6. Braille Keyboard Manager. I know Apple doesn’t like to have too many options in iOS, but the way we read Braille varies a lot. When using my braille display with my iDevices, I know I’d be a lot more efficient if I could reverse what the thumb keys do. My braille reading style suits having the left panning button advance the display, and the right one reverse. This is the opposite of how Apple have chosen to implement things, and there’s no way of changing it unless you jailbreak. If it’s deemed appropriate to offer brightness and wallpaper settings, then giving us more flexibility over the functions each control performs on a braille display is a reasonable request.
7. More choice of voice. You can get a range of other voices on your iDevice, but they are tied to a specific app. Voice Dream Reader, which has become one of my favourite iOS apps, has an excellent range of voices available. In some cases, those voices may be on your device two, three or more times, taking up valuable space. For example, The Read2Go app uses Ryan and heather, and Voice Dream Reader can use it too, so you may end up with two, three or more copies of the same voice. If you have an 8 or 16GB iPhone, that’s a big deal.
But equally important, these voices should be available to VoiceOver as a whole, giving us much more choice over how our device sounds. Text to speech is a personal and subjective thing. The clearest, most wonderful voice to some is unintelligible or annoying to others, so choice is the best option.
My hearing impairment has an influence over the voices I like to work with, and I’d absolutely love for the Neospeech James voice I use in Voice Dream to be available to the whole phone.
It will be interesting to see if the new Siri voices will be selectable from VoiceOver, or whether their responsiveness isn’t up to it. I understand you can make them available now to VoiceOver if you jailbreak, so if anyone has any experience of how responsive they are under VO, please do share.
iOS 7 made it possible for apps to hook into the built in text-to-speech. That’s an excellent development. Now let’s go one step further by allowing voices to be installed that hook into that API.
8. Liberate Siri! Unless you jailbreak, it’s difficult to get Siri to do anything other than what Apple wants it to do. Facing stiff competition from Google Now, a Siri API would make all the difference, allowing your favourite apps to do cool things with Siri. Imagine if you could ask Siri to search for a book in one of the repositories supported by Voice Dream Reader, perform a voice search through BlindSquare especially for those of us who live in countries where Siri can’t look for businesses, and so much more.
9. More Touch ID coolness. Touch ID is presently available only in the 5s, but newer models of iPhone and iPad are almost certain to include it too. Making greater use of Touch ID is not only beneficial to those of us who use the virtual keyboard with VoiceOver, but it’s also good for those with dexterity issues.
10. Pronunciation Dictionary. This is such a fundamental screen reading feature that I really don’t know why it isn’t there already.
I’ve no doubt Apple will have some cool surprises in iOS 8, for all users and specifically for those of us who use VoiceOver. I will, of course, be covering them in-depth in “iOS 8 Without the Eye”, which you’ll be able to pre-order soon.
In the meantime though, with no one yet under NDA, we can speculate and dream. What would you like to see in iOS 8? I’d enjoy reading your own wishes in the comments.

15 Comments

  1. Justin

    The only custom voices that you can put on the iPhone if jailbroken are the vocalizer TTS voices. Apple’s drivers currently don’t support anything else. As for responsiveness, the Siri voices are a lot less responsive then the main voices with the exception of on an iPhone 5s. Even on the fiveS you can still tell that ithas some lag. This is due to the fact that the dictionary for these voices is around 20 MB. As for other custom voices under the vocalizer TTS such as Tom, it’s about the same responsiveness as you would get with the default voices.

  2. Amanda

    I’d like to see Hebrew as one of the languages supported by VO. I remember hearing a couple of years ago that this was on the horizon, but never heard anything after that.

  3. David Harvey

    More voices, Acapella and Eloquence which is what I have on my Android phone, and the ability to grab the iOS versions of apps which will save time for those switching platforms.

  4. Chanelle

    A switch to turn on/off all notifications or a rotor setting to stop reading them, a more cooperative Safari that doesn’t lose focus, the ability to use any third-party keyboard, and maybe even a feature that would give more guidance on positioning the camera for identifying objects or reading texts are my top accessibility requests for iOs 8. Making Siri more useful by allowing it to perform more functions and improving its recognition and understanding abilities would make me more willing to give it a try. In my opinion, Siri is useless for dictation, calling or texting contactsand for everything else except setting a timer for which it only performs 50’% of the time. Improved Braille back translation would be nice as well.

  5. Chancey

    More granular braille navigation;
    Keyboard commander, as in OS X;
    Touch ID differentiated actions for different fingers;
    Siri empowered to add contacts, delete reminders;
    Boost to top possible speech rate, and choice of speech engine;
    Control of Siri’s own voice rate;
    Correction and formatting capability within dictation;
    Customizable actions for headphone remote to control Voiceover speech;
    Siri empowered to provide nearest intersection (she already answers “where am I” with a street address)

  6. Aleeha Dudley

    I’d love to see the “slide to unlock” back. Sighted people can still do it, but we can only do it with a dodgy three finger swipe right or by performing a passthrough gesture and then sliding. I’d also like to see better voices, Siri rate adjustment, better keyboards, better Braille support with the HumanWare displays that like to lock up, I could go on for days.

  7. Chela Robles

    I’d like to see the ever annoying “App Switcher” message displayed in both audible and braille cues, once you close the app switcher, to disappear and I agree with the original post about Safari not focusing. I do not think that Eloquence can be ported to iOS but it is quite snappy in response. I do have to say if I wanted a natural like voice I’d choose IVona Joey, if I am indeed spelling it right. I can’t wait to get the pre-order of your book John. Best of luck writing and having fun preparing it for us! I’ll definitely stay tuned for sure. I also would like snappy response from Siri which I have noted a bit of lag. Maybe it is just me though. We trumpeters like it bebop lightning fast!

  8. Mike Arrigo

    A very nice post. I agree that a keyboard A P I is a great idea. We should be able to install other keyboards and make them the default, which would allow them to be used system wide. Also, I think the ability to install other voices and use them system wide is important. It’s silly to have more than one copy of the same voice on your device. There are a few things I would love to see that were not mentioned. First, the ability to clear all notifications at once. This is very easy to do on android, and if you have several notifications, having to clear them one at a time can take quite a while. The other feature I would like to see is file management. Every other operating system, whether mobile or desktop has the ability to browse and manage files. Also, it’s very easy to copy files to and from a computer with other platforms, and I O S should provide this as well. I am not saying I O S should become exactly like android, but I would like to see I O S become more flexible. Really, what some of this comes down to is, at this point, unless you jailbreak, you cannot change anything that affects the entire system. You can’t change default applications, install other keyboards and use them system wide, or use voices system wide. Apple needs to allow more access to the inner workings of the platform and make it more flexible.

  9. Dave Redmond

    I hate notifications when reading blog posts if it’s a long post like this one I have to start at the start again
    Also this maya be irrelevant but if you jailbreak you can get a tweek called
    Fleksy enabler
    It makes fleksy available right threw the o a

    Ps great work on Speke easy could not call but I was there
    In the future check out a Skype like program I think it’s called team chat
    The sound is 10 times.better than Skype

  10. Carmen Hernandez

    I would like to see siri delete voice message and enable flashlight, do a timer and voice control to take picture. better control over video and camera modes. better results with auto-focus when voice over is on. more accessible GPS navigation with voice over. Have had issues with wifi sync being greyed out and not working. Reported this to apple few months ago. Not sure if it has been worked on, but hope it works better in 8. Possibly custom screen lock tap touch command to keep kids from being able to type wrong passcode to the point you are locked out for while. Built in translator for recording specified language to then convert into native tongue. Good for those moments when you can’t read subtitles in TV shows and movies. That might be asking too much for long strings of speech, however even limited duration would be better than nothing. Having a way to change the color of clock time on lock screen so that it will contrast with backgroung would be nice.

  11. Barry Hill

    Ideally, I would love Siri to be able to control all functions of the iPhone, but just being able to control more would be a bonus. I would also like to be able to bulk delete in emailsand to have an ‘Undo last command’ button.

  12. Tasha

    I totally agree with all of these, especially the keyboard API, more flexibility with TTS voices, and improved web accessibility. If you can believe it, I am still using a Symbian phone. As suckalicious as my E5 is, I can type easily, I have a TTS voice I like, and web-browsing is consistently easy and thoughtless. I’d be sacrificing all these things if I got an Iphone, and as of yet, I haven’t been willing to do that. I really really hope IOS 8 will be my ticket out of 2005.

  13. Eddie

    I agree with all of the suggestions so far post it. This is what I would like to see. Fast forward and rewind for Voice over so that one can skip over text that they don’t want to spend time reading or care to read. Jaws has this ability and I find it helpful when reading long articles.
    Also, I would like to have the ability to have voice over jump to the last location that it was in. I don’t know how many times I have been reading an article or email and suddenly I touch the screen and jump to the top of the screen just because I was jostled by the movement of the train or bus that I was in. This way, you can return to the previous location that I was editing or reading.

  14. Luis

    Jonathan, I agree with all of your suggestions, especially those concerning Siri. I would add the suggestion of having a gesture to go down to the bottom of a long list that uses several screens.

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