Up close with iOS 5: Accessibility features

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by Macworld's Editors

Top Deals On Great Products

Picked by Techconnect's Editors

iOS 5 introduces a wealth of new features that can be used to aid people with visual, aural, and mobility impairments. You’ll find these options on the Accessibility setting screen under Settings -> General -> Accessibility.


VoiceOver is a system that allows people with visual impairments to navigate the touchscreen of an iOS device. Switch it on and your iOS device speaks to you, telling you what’s under your fingers as you touch areas of the device. As before, VoiceOver requires that you use gestures in a different way than you would with the feature switched off. For example, to activate an item, you double-tap it. To scroll a page, you flick with three fingers.

The VoiceOver pane can help people with visual impairments navigate their iOS devices.

The VoiceOver screen includes multiple functions. The first, Speak Hints, is an On/Off option. When on, VoiceOver will provide some additional detail on how to use a button or feature you’ve selected. The slider below the Speak Hints entry allows you to adjust the speaking rate of the VoiceOver voice.

The next area includes feedback options. The Typing Feedback screen, which you access by tapping the Typing Feedback button on the VoiceOver screen, is where you determine how the device indicates what you’ve typed. You can choose to have the typed characters, words, or words and characters spoken to you when you’re using either or both a software and hardware keyboard. Below this item are three On/Off options—Use Phonetics, Use Pitch Change, and Use Compact Voice (the last of which is new with iOS 5). Each determines the character of the spoken voice.

The Braille command includes a new option. In addition to support for Contracted Braille and the Status Cell option, there’s now support for eight-dot Braille devices.

The Rotor command (called Web Rotor in the previous version of iOS) includes a greater number of functions that you can control with the Rotor gesture. For example, you can now adjust speech rate, volume, hints, and vertical navigation. New spoken languages are now available from within the Language Rotor list—Irish English and South African English, for example. You can also now choose different feedback when navigating images with VoiceOver—Always, With Descriptions, and Never. Finally—also new with iOS 5—is the option to speak notifications as they’re received.


The Zoom feature is unchanged from the previous version of iOS. Enable it and you can zoom the screen by double-tapping with three fingers. To zoom out, use this same gesture. To move around a zoomed screen, drag three fingers.

Large Text

This is another unchanged feature. From the Large Text screen, you can choose a larger text size for Calendar, Contacts, Mail, Messages, and Notes ranging from 20-point to 56-point text.

If you find your iOS device’s text too small, you can enlarge it with the Large Text option.

White on Black

Similar to OS X’s White On Black feature within the Universal Access system preference, you use the White On Black option to invert the iOS device’s screen colors, making it easier for someone with visual impairments to see.

Speak Selection

Within the Accessibility section you’ll find a new Speak Selection option, which you can switch on or off. When switched on, you can select on-screen text via the usual method and then tap a Speak button to hear the text spoken.

Speak Auto-Text

Another previously available feature, Speak Auto-Text speaks any autocorrected and autocapitalized text when it’s switched on. This is helpful not only to people who have visual impairments, but also to those who don’t pay strict enough attention to a device’s desire to substitute words when it detects alleged mistakes.

Hearing Aid Mode

Another new feature with iOS 5—at least if you have an iPhone 4 or 4S—Hearing Aid Mode makes iOS devices more compatible with hearing aids.

Custom Vibrations

Create a custom vibration so you can more easily tell who’s calling without glancing at the phone.

If you can’t read your iPhone’s screen, it’s very difficult to use caller ID on a muted phone. The new Custom Vibration feature—which, like Hearing Aid Mode, is only available on the iPhone 4 and 4S—allows you to assign a unique vibration pattern to a contact. This way, when your iPhone vibrates in a pattern similar to the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (termed the Symphony pattern), you know it’s Ludwig calling.

In addition to the five included vibration patterns, you can create your own. Just choose to edit a contact within the Phone app and then tap the Vibration entry. In the Vibration screen that appears, select Create New Vibration. In the New Vibration screen, tap out the rhythm to “Shave and a Haircut” or “Jingle Bells” or “Louie Louie,” if you like. Tap Play to check your work, tap Save, and then name the pattern. Select it in the Custom area of the Vibration window, and tap Done in the top left corner to attach it to your contact. You can also change the device’s default vibration to a custom vibration.

LED Flash for Alerts

Switch this iPhone 4– and 4S–only option on, and your phone’s camera flash will blink when you receive an alert for an incoming text message, push notification, or call.

Mono Audio

Stereo is a problem for people who have difficulty hearing equally from both ears. This option alters a stereo signal through the headphone port so that both sides of the stereo stream are broadcast through each earpiece.

Balance Controls

Along these same lines, if the hearing in one of your ears is better than in the other, you can use the new Balance Control slider to make one channel of the stereo signal louder.


If you have difficulty touching the device’s screen, AssistiveTouch is for you. Switch it on, and a target-like icon appears on screen. Tap it, and a gray overlay window appears from which you can select Gestures, Device, Home, and Favorites icons.

With the new AssistiveTouch window, you can easily invoke commands that normally rely on the tap of a button.

Tap Gestures and you can choose to control your device with two to five fingers—helpful when you have little finger dexterity. Tap Device, and such common button commands as Mute, Rotate Screen, Lock Screen, Volume Up, Volume Down, and Shake appear on screen. Tap the command you want to invoke. Tap the virtual Home button to be taken to the home screen. Tap the Favorites icon to access gestures you’ve created.

You create these gestures by enabling AssistiveTouch and then tapping the Create New Gesture entry at the bottom of the screen. In the screen that appears, use up to five fingers to swipe or tap out a gesture. You can then activate one of these gestures from AssistiveTouch’s Favorites menu.

Incoming Calls

This iPhone 4– and 4S–only option setting lets you choose how incoming calls will be routed—Default (via a headset, if one is connected, or the speaker), Headset, or Speaker.

Triple-Click Home

This setting, aimed at people who will use the device’s accessibility features, allows you to configure what a triple-click of the Home button does. The options include Off, Toggle VoiceOver, Toggle White On Black, Toggle Zoom, Toggle AssistiveTouch, and Ask.

[Christopher Breen is a senior editor for Macworld.]

Note: When you purchase something after clicking links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate link policy for more details.
At a Glance
  • We've not yet met the iOS update that we wouldn't recommend, and iOS 5 is certainly the most far-reaching and feature-rich upgrade to date. That said, it's not without its bugs and strange behaviors. But it's clearly paving ground for a lot of key functionality in the future, and even a lack of polish shouldn't keep you from upgrading.


    • Finally makes iOS devices viable without computer
    • Notification system is vastly improved
    • Massive update plugs many feature holes


    • Reminders app missing logical features
    • Lack of dictation on older hardware disappointing
    • Twitter integration buggy in places
Shop Tech Products at Amazon