My Top 10 Accessibility Wish List for iOS7

For many of us, Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference, WWDC, evokes the same kind of excitement and anticipation that birthdays used to when we were kids. Things have changed a bit now, of course, but even post-Jobs, Apple are still masters of the big reveal.

Tomorrow, Apple will release the first build of iOS7 to people who are part of the Apple developer program. Those who pay to play will be able to have the latest bleeding edge iOS tech on their devices, with all the thrills and pitfalls that come with it. I was sceptical about how committed Apple would be to improving VoiceOver on iOS. But with every major release of the operating system, they’ve delivered significant enhancements, and I’m confident this year will be no different.

While many blogs covering iOS from a mainstream perspective seem to have no issue disrespecting Apple’s NDA, this one is not going to join in. So, here are some of the things I want to see in iOS7, before I have a clue what’s in it. Let’s hear yours in the comments.

1. Improved braille back translation. 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 also toggle contracted braille off. But these steps are not 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. Improvements to Notifications.
If you do a lot of reading on your iDevice, you’ll have come across this scenario. You’re reading away with your two-finger flick down, and a notification comes in, interrupting what you’re hearing. One the notification has finished speaking, the text you were reading resumes. However, for the remainder of the present paragraph, the text is now littered with characters such as %\100\ for a comma, and %\300\ for a full stop. These are supposed to be characters sent to the text to speech engine, to tell it how much to pause when it sees punctuation. But this bug, present since the initial release of iOS6, means reading can be a frustrating experience.

While we’re dealing with the way VoiceOver handles notifications, let’s introduce an option not to be interrupted at all when doing a continuous read. If you’re reading a book on your phone, you may want to hear the alert tone, but check Notification Center later to find out what the alert said. It would be less intrusive and make book reading a far more pleasant experience.

3. Alternative keyboards

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 BrailleTouch. Their utility is impeded by Apple’s sandboxing approach, a practice Apple needs to relax even a little, either through the provision of new API technology, or an even more radical overhaul of the structure of iOS. The bottom line for users is that they should be able to choose a third party keyboard to replace the stock Apple one. Fleksy did some pretty major lobbying of Apple through a request feature in their app, so let’s see if it’s worked.

4. Safari Improvements

I’ve been using Google Chrome for iOS more and more, because of general flakiness navigating on certain pages reliably. It will be of great benefit to see these issues tidied up.

5. Keyboard Shortcuts

It shows how far we’ve come that in 2013, we as blind people can say that there are some things that are just more efficient to do on a touch screen. Locating the “Reply” button in the email client is far easier by touch, than by grabbing your Bluetooth keyboard and navigating by element. There’s really no reason why we can’t have the best of both worlds. For example, on the bus, or the plane, I’d like to be able to keep my iPad out of harm’s way, and just use the Bluetooth keyboard with a set of headphones. Continuing with our mail example, there’s no reason why Command+R couldn’t reply, and the delete button delete. It would also provide a way to perform some features efficiently with the keyboard that are tedious for a blind user to do now, such as deleting all the email in a folder, or all your text messages.

There could be two approaches to implementing better keyboard support. Apple could lead the way by example, putting a great range of keyboard commands into their standard apps. It would be a popular feature for efficiency nuts who happen to be sighted. I can imagine the Lifehacker article now about these new features for power users.

In addition, how about a utility allowing you to assign keyboard commands to certain gestures on an app by app basis. This would see the introduction of Activity Manager, a feature already on Mac, to iOS.

6. Braille Keyboard manager

If you’ve ever sat down and talked with other blind people about their braille reading technique, yeah I know I need a life, you’ll know that braille reading styles vary 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. While Apple tends to be pretty minimalist when it comes to settings on iOS, 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. Siri wants to be Free

I bought the iPhone 4S, even though I had the 4, because of Siri, and I don’t regret it. It’s a great interface to the Calendar, Reminders and many other practical tasks. In New Zealand, it can’t look for businesses, so I find myself using Google voice Search quite a bit too. But I want to be able to use Siri with other apps. It would be great to tell Siri to play a podcast in Downcast, start reading me that document in Voice Dream Reader, or open a document for editing in AccessNote.

8. More Choice of Voice

This one comes back again to the whole sandbox approach, a stance which I think Apple will find it harder to be so rigid about in the face of competition. 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.

When thinking about accessibility, I also try to think about whether there are any bigger picture wins as well. The more users who can benefit from a feature, the more likely it is to be adopted. There’d certainly be benefits to sighted users if they could personalise the voice of Siri, making the digital personal assistant reflect their personalities and preferences.

9. Pronunciation Dictionary

This is such a fundamental screen reading feature that I really don’t know why it isn’t there already.

10. Lose the Clicks when Braille is Enabled and Speech is Silent

I regularly use my iDevices with Braille enabled and speech off. When I do this, I want to hear the regular alert sounds the device makes, such as for notifications and when a call comes in. Since iOS6, Apple has forced me to hear the clicks VoiceOver makes when I navigate. I can see why some users may want this, for example someone could inadvertently do a three-finger double tap and find that their phone has stopped talking. Those clicks would give a user some confidence in that scenario that the phone hasn’t locked up. But please, if there is a use case for this, make it a toggle. In fact, maybe the solution is to allow users to toggle these clicks on and off even when a Braille display isn’t active, since when reading in iBooks and other long passages, it can be kind of distracting. The bottom line is that I shouldn’t be required to mute my phone just to get rid of these click sounds when working with Braille.

So there you have it, my top 10 wish list, a few of which don’t have much hope of coming to fruition tomorrow. But it’s fun to just dream about your ideal WWDC.

Every piece of software has bugs, and any product could be improved. But I have huge admiration for what Apple have done in this space. The experience is polished, constantly improving, and innovative.

How about you? What do you think of this list, and what new features would you like to see that aren’t mentioned here? Share your views in the comments.

18 Comments

  1. Krister Ekstrom

    Hi, One thing that i’d love to see in a future version of both MacOs and IOs is a typical european braille option, namely to independently use speech and Braille. Example: I want to read a text or navigate my way around the screen of a computer or a smart phone. As it is right now, Braille follows speach and repeats what speech says and does, rather like the Structured mode in Jaws for Windows. That may be good in some situations but imagine how nice it would be if you could use the braille display rather like you can in Line mode of Jaws for example, where Braille follows speech when that is necessary, but when you operate the braille display you could do it freely. I don’t know how this would work from a programmers perspective, but i could see two ways in which this could be implemented, 1 an option to have braille follow VO cursor or vice versa, or you could implement a Braille cursor that could either be linked to the VO cursor or operate freely. Hope this makes some kind of sence.
    /Krister

  2. Robin

    The two wishes I agree with most wholeheartedly are the ability to use Fleksy as an alternative keyboard (although I think Apple will have to buy the company before that happens) and the exceptions dictionary function. That’s always felt like a major omission.
    I’d also like (and I know this might seem picky) to have the ability to have all Siri outputs spoken but not the confirmation of what I said to her. This could be a toggle of course, but I’d like to see what it feels like to ask and just get the answer without my phrase spoken back first – I think it would feel more natural.
    I’m sure there are other wishes I have, but the old brain isn’t coughing them up right now.
    Great article.
    Thanks, Robin.

  3. Peggy Kern

    I’d like to a see a command that always always always starts VoiceOver and doesn’t have the option to do something else. Some of us have had instances where our phones have locked up and had to be reset, and we’ve lost all our settings, which means triple click home won’t start VO. The only solution at present is to hook the phone up to a computer and use iTunes (assuming you’re near a computer), or find a kind sighted person. We need a way that we can start VO independently if there’s a crash.

  4. Jane Jordan

    I definitely think we should have the ability to use whatever keyboard we like. I’d love to see Fleksy used anywhere in IOS7.

    I also think that it would be very, very, very nice if Apple fixed it so when we use our Braille displays we can keep scrolling and not have to turn pages in iBooks, Kindle, or any other reading app. For that matter, I wish Braille would stop having randomly indented lines. It’s disconcerting to read along, only to find a blank space at the start of a line when there’s no need for one. I’m not talking about BARD books with paragraphs, I’m talking about stuff in iBooks or Kindle or Read2Go, where this seems to happen for no rhyme or reason.

  5. Andy

    I agree that voices should be able to be used with all apps, and that we should be able to use alternative keyboards universally.

  6. Christopher J Chaltain

    I’d also like to see IOS and VoiceOver do a better job of handling volume and the numeric keypad when on a call. I shouldn’t have to resort to using a headset whenever I want to interact with the phone while on a call.

  7. zoe

    My problem is that I use two languages and unfortunately ever since ios6 the language detect does not work properly. I half to manually change the language settings and set the whole phone to my native tongue so I can read something in my language, and then manually change the settings back to English language. Without getting into detail and with the limited description I gave, you can imagine what a hastle this is especially when I find my self changing the language layout of the whole phone three and four times a day. I called apple about this, there answer was they know about the bug and hope to have it fixed in the next update. One or two updates have come and gone, and still no fix, hopefully ios7 will fix this. I would also like to see more voice options, I also wish the dictate feature become available with my native tongue. I also hope that apple would allow more apps in a folder. My games folder of course holds only 12 apps, but of course I have 35 games on my phone at the moment, therefore I have had to create folders such as kids games, and games 2 etc. These are my main wishes and even though it may sound like I’m dissatisfied, I must emphasize how many doors I feel apple has opened for me, and I’m greatful to them, and I love my Iphone and if a few little things are taken care of then I think I’ll just kick my spouse out of our bed and sleep with my Iphone, lol. Great article and I agree with most points.

  8. Veronica Elsea

    First, great article. I particularly agree with the desire to not have to hear the clicks when using braille. I would like to see the sorting out of different Bluetooth protocols though. I hate to keep having to unpair my BrailleSense OnHand in order to not lose wifi. I would also like to se a “jump to” feature of some sort. It’s one thing to just put your finger somewhere but often quite annoying to scroll and swipe and swipe when using braille. Also, if I mute my phone and don’t want to hear VoiceOver, please have the phone stop reading me the time when a notification comes in. And I imagine they’ll keep working on improving Siri’s dictation smarts in the new IOS.. Great product and great comments here. Can’t wait to see what happens!

  9. Mohammed Al Shara.

    Excellent article, and I happen to agree with most of your wishes. I would like to also see some improvements to automatic language switch and have some Arabic braille bugs fixed.

    WWDC and other Apple events have become something that I can’t wait for every year. Thank you Apple for all the great access features in your products.

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