iPad Accessibility

by Maurie Hill on June 7, 2010

Picture explaining how iPad's VoiceOver screen reader worksAs promised in the last post, we’re going to dive into the built-in accessibility features – after all, these are what allow me to really be able to use the iPad. After a few weeks of learning about my new iPad, I was able to answer the question of whether or not a visually impaired person, like me, could use this device. I sure can.

When you turn the iPad on for the first time, the Accessibility options are not on.  So what do you do? You can turn the iPad Accessibility options on directly through your iPad or through iTunes on your computer – this way you can do it at home with the help of tools you are already familiar with.

The three major components of iPad Accessibility that can be useful for people with low vision are:

  1. White on Black
  2. Zoom magnification
  3. VoiceOver screen reading

The White on Black feature reverses all of the colors on the screen.  I use this feature because it’s easier on my eyes to see white text on a black background.  Even with the better contrast offered by White on Black, I still cannot read the unmagnified text, but it does make the onscreen keyboard letters easier to see.  For those of you familiar with ZoomText, the iPad’s White on Black feature is similar to ZoomText’s Reverse Video color enhancement.

The Zoom feature offers full screen magnification in levels up to five times magnification.  Zoom magnifies everything on the screen, which means you will not be able to see your entire screen at the same time.  The quality of the magnified text is a bit blurry – kind of like using Windows Magnifier.  Zoom works fairly well, but would be an inefficient way to use the iPad all the time, especially at high magnification.  The screen does not track to a focus area; for example, when a pop up window came up on my screen, the screen didn’t automatically move to it so I didn’t know it was there.  And instead of navigating with the mouse, you use your fingers on the iPad’s touch screen to navigate.  I would suggest using VoiceOver screen reader on the iPad as the standard mode of operation, and use Zoom as you need it.

With VoiceOver, the iPad will speak while you navigate the screen and will read the text on the screen when you ask it to.  For example, it will read the icons on the home screen, read your Inbox, mail messages, attachments, and web pages.  It works quite well and I enjoy using it.  Sometimes you have to repeat finger gestures, but overall, VoiceOver is pretty reliable.

The first thing you should know if you’re considering the iPad for its built-in accessibility features is that the VoiceOver and Zoom features cannot be used at the same time.  I found this very disappointing at first, but it really isn’t efficient or realistic to use Zoom all the time on this device.  With certain gesture options, you can quickly change from Zoom to VoiceOver, and vice versa.


The Apple iPad is in fact “cool”.  The big bonus is that it’s a tool to make my life a little more normal as a visually impaired person.  It’s designed well – it often does things the way you want or better than you expect.

It’s not just one feature or App that puts it over the top for me.

It’s a combination of being able to catch up on local news while lying on the living room floor (like other people!).  It’s sharing my slide shows at the spur of the moment.  It’s watching a movie on an airplane.  It’s having an updated calendar with me at all times.  It’s attending a meeting from a coffee shop instead of a hot stuffy room where I can’t see the slide show presentation anyways.

So far, the Apple iPad has not been a life changing tool for me, but I would definitely describe it as a game changer.  It makes what I can already do easier, more compact, more portable, and certainly more fun.

Stay tuned later this week for a video post that will show you exactly how to use each of the accessibility features!

  • Lorraine Demeter

    Apple, please work the bugs out of Zoom!!! My 3GS Zoom crashed so often I was given a new phone. Now after about 2 months, the Zoom is crashing on the new one. PLEASE correct this problem!!!

  • Andrew Sydlik

    Nice blog–the iPad sounds like an appealing device for me, especially since it sounds as if I'm about at the same level of vision as you (I use ZoomText at 4 to 6 x magnification).
    One thing though–the color scheme of the blog makes it hard to read (dark blue background and black font). Can you lighten either the background or font?

  • http://www.aisquared.com Becca Proskin

    Thanks Andrew! As for the color scheme, you're the second person that has said that…and from what we see on our screens, there is no black font on blue anywhere…where are you seeing this?

  • http://www.aisquared.com Becca Proskin

    Sorry you're having issues with the Zoom feature, Lorraine. We recommend you submit a bug report to Apple's feedback page (http://www.apple.com/feedback/iphone.html) or check out the Apple forums (http://discussions.apple.com/).

  • jim

    I use Zoom Text and AOL software under Windows VISTA with some problems! But I have no problem with colors on this blog = It shows up black text on white (but I have ZT change the white to a more pleasant pastel color!) I can get the black on blue effect if I select all the text and continue to drag the mouse off the window. Maybe you can use this trick to remove the offending color scheam temporarily?

  • http://www.aisquared.com Becca Proskin

    Hi Jim – turns out it was an issue with using Internet Explorer 6 only. We have since changed the blog's code and this has been fixed.

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  • Mike

    Can text to speech software Panopreter(http://www.panopreter.com) run on iPad? Thansk!

  • http://www.aisquared.com Becca Proskin

    Mike, we're not familiar with Panopreter…sorry about that. Maybe one of the blog readers is though!

    I looked at their website briefly and it appears to be a software program just for the Windows platform. You could always check the App Store and see if there's something else like it.

  • Mjohnsonmoore

    My husband uses ZoomText on a daily basis to do all of our bookkeeping(QuickBooks and Excel), read email, surf the net, etc. on Windows based PC’s. Upgrades often present problems as the two manufacturers aren’t always in sync, but he notifies the parties and it seems to eventually get fixed. Over the holidays, a customer took an interest in lack of vision and especially the commiseration that he could no longer read books. Books on Tape put him to sleep, ereaders don’t have font big enough for him to see and words, when magnified don’t “WRAP”, but get pushed off the screen, making it hard to find the beginning of the next line. Then, he arrived with his IPAD and IBOOKS (which has the ability to do all of the above). He can now read a book at a font level (his handheld magnifier is 5X and zoomtext might be at 6 or 7) that he can read, “turn” pages like a real book and have the text wrap (there are not many words on a page, but for him, it does not matter.) Needless to say, we went out and bought an IPAD the next day. He has found other benefits, too. He now has a “mobile” device. He follows the stats on TV while a football game is on (he can’t read things on the TV screen, but can now keep up with the help of Yahoo Sports on his IPad magnified. As you know, there are many tools and they all can help.

  • Sharon WZ

    It sounds great I think I have similar vision but not so much technical expertise. But can the iPad work with my PC that has Windows 7 ? What about Internet hook-up? Will it use my current wireless service provider?

  • Derek Bove

    Hi Sharon,

    The iPad works with any PC or Mac, it just requires that you have iTunes installed. You can go to http://www.iTunes.com if you don’t have it already.

    As far as internet goes, as long as you have wi-fi in your house, you’ll just connect to that.


  • Timsniffen

    I’d like to encourage AiSquared to create a screen magnification product that works in sync with Apple’s VoiceOver on the Macintosh platform to aid low vision users. Zoom on the Mac, like Zoom on the iPad, does not track the VoiceOver focus. If you could develop a magnifier that would follow along with VoiceOver, low vision Mac users would come in droves!

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