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The Most Helpful iOS 8 Features for the Visually Impaired and Hard of Hearing

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
Yahoo Tech
iPhone 6


On Wednesday, Apple released iOS 8, a brand-new operating system chock-full of both well known and hidden shortcuts that will likely make your life easier. But beyond the camera’s new time-lapse feature and other fun goodies, there lies a completely revamped set of tools for people with sight and hearing impairments.

These tools fall under a sweeping section called Accessibility. They’re meant to make your phone easier to hear, see, and navigate. Though they are designed with the disabled in mind, Accessibility features are by no means exclusive to that set. A lot of folks, for instance, would prefer to see a light flash rather than hear a phone ring. Others have broken their iPhones’ home buttons and need a new way to move around.

Below is a brief guide to all the improvements Apple has made in this area, including Siri’s alter ego “Alex” and nifty new ways to improve your phone’s color scheme.

First off, here’s where all the items I’m covering in this guide live: Settings General → Accessibility.

Accessibility feature in iPhone's settings

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to it.

Though Apple has always been somewhat controlling when it comes to altering the default colors of text, iOS 8 has added a tiny bit of leeway here. You can either invert the colors or — this is new — make them grayscale.

iPhone color settings screen

Here’s what it looks like when you select Invert Colors. Good for Halloween.

iPhone home screen with invert colors turned on

SpOoOoOky. (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)

And this is Grayscale:

iPhone home screen with grayscale turned on

Restrained. (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)

And just for fun, here’s both AT THE SAME TIME:

iPhone home screen with grayscale and invert colors turned on

Trippy. (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)

Did you know that Siri has a less annoying alter ego named Alex? She’s long existed on the Mac as a natural speaking voice that helps read things aloud. Now she’s moved on to work on some of iOS’s mostly unknown speaking features, including VoiceOver, Speak Selection, and Speak Screen.

VoiceOver is a feature that narrates all your actions on the iPhone aloud. So, if you tap the Accessibility button on the screen below, for instance, a black outline will appear over it, and Alex will say, “Accessibility: Back button.” It even lets you know when things happen on your phone that you didn’t necessarily instigate. Like when your screen automatically goes black to save power, Alex will say, “Screen dimmed.”

VoiceOver controls

Navigating your phone is a little slower with VoiceOver (mostly because you have to everything you select twice), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful for the sight impaired or technology averse.

You can also adjust details of what you’re hearing, including Alexs pitch and speed of navigation. Not to mention, VoiceOver can identify and explain images. For instance, when I double-tapped a selfie I took this morning, it described it as a “Portrait. 9:42am. One face. Crisp. Well-lit image.” Though thats about as sparse as a film noir detectives notes, its still impressive.

Speak Selection is basically a more toned-down version of VoiceOver. To access it, go to Accessibility → Speech.

iPhone's Speak Selection controls

From there, you can turn on Speak Selection.

Speak Selection turned on on an iPhone

I’d recommend that everyone turn this on. It gives you the option to have a word or a piece of text spoken aloud when you select it, as you can see below:

Speak option on an iPhone

This is helpful if you want to listen to a paragraph of text with your friend (to avoid awkwardly reading over a person’s shoulder). And for non-native English speakers, it offers a vague, robotic idea of how to pronounce a word.

On the same page where Speak Selection is located, you can also find Speak Screen, another handy feature.

iPhone Speak Screen controls

This setting allows Alex to read the entire content of the screen you’re on, aloud. Just go to the page you want to hear and swipe down on the screen with two fingers. A gray control bubble will show up at the top of the page, from which you can adjust the speed, pause, or stop the reading.

iPhone Speak Screen tools

This is helpful if you need to read a story on your phone but can’t actually look at it. The only annoying part (for people who can see) is that it reads every tiny detail on the screen. When I brought up one of my recent articles, for example, it read the headline, byline, my title, and the date before it got to the meat of the piece. Nevertheless, it’s helpful in a pinch. This also works for screens that are full of buttons or navigation tools.

Guided Access

iPhone Guided Access setting

Traditionally, this feature has allowed you to lock your phone into a single app and control which parts of the screen a person can access — a tool that’s great for parents with curious toddlers. In iOS 8, Apple has added the ability to assign time limits to a person who’s using your phone.

iPhone Guided Access Settings screen

Additionally, you can visit Passcode Settings to adjust the locking process to work only with Touch ID, meaning that the only way to exit out of that mode is with your fingerprint.


iPhone Zoom command

This feature has been helping people with poor eyesight for a while now. With iOS 8, it now comes with the ability to choose which part of the screen you zoom in on. So, for instance, you can decide to just make your keyboard bigger (great for people with stubby fingers). Or you can opt for only a zoomed-in window with a regular keyboard, so you don’t have to fumble with an oversized typing area when all you want is to see a close-up of something on a webpage better.

iPhone Zoom options

And, even better, all these zooming features are now adjustable.

And some other stuff …
Other major improvements include a new six-dot Braille input system that translates taps into text, improved software for iPhone-specific hearing aids that allows easier switching between devices, and, finally, the ability to download and use third-party keyboards like SwiftKey.

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