iOS Switch Control for vision impaired users

iOS Switch Control for Vision Impaired Users

After getting a Tweet from someone who was trying out Switch Control with some blind users with CP, I decided to fire up the Speech function and try using it without sight. Here’s what happened…

[Thanks to Christopher Hills for this awesome guest article! – Ricky]

I have been using Switch Control on iOS since it came out in 2013. Being able to access a phone changed my life. I’ve demonstrated this with various videos on my YouTube channel and some presentations, but I have never talked about how the accessibility feature works for blind/low vision users. Because I don’t have any trouble with vision myself (yet), I haven’t had a use for the Speech setting available in Switch Control’s preferences (apart from testing it for a few minutes here and there).

Christopher in his wheelchair, in front of a desk featuring three screens, two large speakers, and miscellaneous other computer gear.
Here’s Christopher with his glorious Star-Trek-esque computer and iPhone setup, all controlled by him.

Having never done this before, I was wondering how switch control would work with Group Items on. It did well on the Home screen, speaking each row of apps like this: “Audible through Twitter” and so on. Thanks to this, I was easily able to open the Messages app. It got more difficult when it came to selecting a person to message. With out realising it, Messages had opened, displaying the last person I had talked to, so unfortunately I had to cheat by peeking. Once I selected the right person to message, I ran into a problem with the keyboard. Because Group Items was on, instead of reading each row of letters like “Q through P” as I would have expected, it read each row like “Row 1, Row 2” etc. This made it really hard to type as I could not tell which letter was in each row.

This was only a quick test. So a few days later, I set aside some time in order to do it properly. First thing I did was completely change my scanning set-up. This is what I did – all these settings are found under Settings > General > Accessibility > Switch Control:

  • Turned off Group Items. This makes it much easier for a user to find buttons because it scans every item on screen and reads them out individually from top to bottom. It also eliminated the problem I had with the keyboard, by scanning each letter one by one instead of in rows.
  • Made sure Auto Tap was on. I have this on anyway, as it’s quicker for me to just select items with a single tap and access the Scanner Menu with a double tap. When this setting is off, it opens up the Scanner Menu with a single tap, which complicates matters.
  • Turned Auto Scanning off and used three switches. Group Items being off meant for simpler scanning, but if I miss a button, I’m going to have to wait for the scanner to come back around and because it’s set to scan every item on the screen, that would take a while. Also the scanning speed can’t be too high otherwise the audio feedback wouldn’t have enough time to speak button descriptions. These two issues would, for me, make Auto Scanning really slow to use. The solution was to turn it off and use three external switches. Apple calls this the Manual Selection method. You could do this with a number of different switch set ups, I recommend having a minimum of three – one to move the scanner forward, one for back and the other to select.
  • Turned on Speech. You can do this from Settings, or from the Scanner Menu. Either way a carer is going to have to do this. The only issue with this might be if a user accidentally turns Speech off and needs help turning it back on.

Here’s how the audio settings were arranged and how the scanning sounds:

Once this was all set, I got someone to move the iPhone out of my sight and I began using it. Just before I lost site of it though, a Low Battery warning appeared and if I hadn’t seen it I wouldn’t have known what sort of message it was, simply because it only spoke the “Dismiss” button. This is important to note: unlike VoiceOver where it will describe what’s on the screen in detail, Switch Control will only speak the current selection.

I spent over an hour controlling my device without seeing, or touching it. Mostly, I spent the time typing a message with the default iOS 8 keyboard and, for the most part, my experience was good. The Shift key is automatically active when you begin typing and it told me this by speaking “capital” in front of whatever letter I was selecting, e.g. “Capital Q.” QuickType was also a big help, and not only for its suggestions. The QuickType button on the left reflects what you are currently typing, so if I wasn’t sure if I had typed something correctly, I would navigate to this button and it would tell me where I was up to. I could also have the whole message read back by navigating to the message content text box. A message actually came in while I was typing, which I wasn’t expecting and I missed it because once again, it only describes the current selection, not what’s going on with the rest of the device.

I eventually sent the message successfully. There are improvements that I think can be made. My opinion is, the Speech function of Switch Control has been designed more for the low vision user, not as much for the completely blind user. It would be great if some features and knowledge could be brought over from VoiceOver to improve the Switch Control experience further.

For users with some vision, there are also settings to make the switching cursor more visible, as seen here:

The point is it works. I was able to do it just with a few head-switches and a mainstream iPhone that is already in the hands of millions. I think the future is bright for the blind switch user.


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