iOS 9's Mainstream Features from a VoiceOver User's Perspective

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team


AppleVis already has posts on iOS9: we've seen an overview of the new accessibility features, a podcast covering all that iOS9 brings to the table, a list of bugs in iOS9.0, and more. This post, though, is all about the new features that are not accessibility-specific. We'll look at the "back to app" button, Notes feature, and more. Yes, these are all mainstream items, but this post aims to show you how to use them with VoiceOver. I'll go in the same order as Apple's What's New in iOS9 page.

Built-In Apps


The News app is probably the biggest announcement as far as built-in apps go, and it works very well with VoiceOver. Use your actions rotor to act on stories as you browse headlines, double tap to open a story, and use a two-finger scrub to move from a story back to the list of stories. Essentially, this app works exactly as you'd expect, so long as you remember to use your actions rotor.

The only exception is in the lists of news sources, such as in the Favorites tab. These are tricky to use, and you should use touch exploration to interact with them rather than left/right swipes.


Notes can now handle rich text formatting: insert images, add links, turn things into lists, and more. So far as we can tell, all this is accessible.

To insert an image while you are in a note, find the "show toolbar" button (above the right of the keyboard) and double tap. Swipe left to "Photos" and double tap again. You can now choose an image from your saved images, or take a new one.

To create checklists, use the "make checklist item" in the Edit rotor, or select "Checklist Off" in the toolbar--double tap that to turn it on. From now on, every line you type will become a checklist item, and a corresponding button for that item will appear outside your note, next to the toolbar. Note that these buttons seem to be invisible on the screen, appearing only to VoiceOver. Double tap one to toggle the status of its list item between complete and incomplete. To stop making each new line into a checklist item, just double tap the "Checklist" button in the toolbar again.

Adding more text styles is easy: find the "text styles presets" button in the toolbar and double tap it to open a menu of options. Choose from different kinds of lists, title, heading, body, and more. Once you select the preset you want, hit the Done button and the presets menu will go away. The chosen preset will either apply to any text you've selected, or will be in effect until you turn it off by going back into the styles menu and picking a different one.

In a folder of notes, you can browse all the attachments stored in any note in the folder. Just select the "attachment browser" button to show a list of every picture, map, link, and so on embedded in the notes in the current folder. The "done" button in the top right of this screen will return you to the list of notes.

The sharing features of Notes are worth mentioning as well. You can share links, pictures, or map locations in the usual way (just choose Share from whatever app you happen to be in) and add them right to a note. When you open a share sheet, pick Notes from the options, pick a note, add any text you want to, and you're done. The process is fully accessible.

Overall, Notes has been very much revamped. It's no Voice Dream Writer or Pages, but it is now a very capable and convenient word processor in its own right. It even supports some hotkeys if you have a bluetooth keyboard.


Unfortunately, none of us at AppleVis lives in a city where the new public transit directions feature in Maps is available. Therefore, while no one doubts it is accessible, we cannot provide specific details.

The other new feature--categories of popular, nearby locations--is very simple to use. When you open Maps, double tap the search field at the top. You can search here, of course, but you are also given a list of categories to choose from: restaurants, fun, transport, health, and more. Choosing one will open a list of subcategories; transport, for instance, will offer bus stops, gas stations, car rentals, and other transportation-related items. You will also see a list of popular locations nearby, related to the category you just chose. Pick one of these, or select a subcategory to view the places it has. From here, Maps works as you are used to.


When you are writing a new message, you can now insert files stored in iCloud Drive or other cloud services such as Dropbox. To do this with VoiceOver, make sure you're editing the body of the message, then rotor to Edit. Swipe up or down until you find "Add Attachment", and double tap. You now have a standard iCloud Drive browser; pick the file you want by double tapping it, and it gets attached. You can also choose the "Locations" button to pick a different service if you want to, then find your file in the same way. No matter how you do it, once you double tap a file, that file is attached to your message.

The only problem is that the attachment's presence is not announced by VoiceOver, unless you let it read the entire body field first. You can find any attachments by touching the screen just below the message body, but there's no way to discover them by swiping left or right. Of course, this minor problem could be cleared up in an update. Still, it's a great feature and fills a gap in iOS mail that has been there for a long time.

Apple Pay

Apple Pay has been renamed Wallet, but it still works the same way. The main difference now is that you can double click your Home button on the Lock Screen to bring it up, letting you choose a different card if you need to. Wallet has no major changes we could find, but none of us use it much and some of us lack the hardware to use it at all. If you discover anything we should note here, please leave a comment.

iCloud Drive

There's now an easy way to look at all your iCloud Drive files in the form of the iCloud Drive app. This is a very simple app: a Select button in the top right (for moving or deleting items); a search field to search across your whole range of saved items; three buttons that let you choose by what criterium files and folders are sorted; and a button to toggle between List and Thumbnail viewing modes. You then have a list of all the files and folders in iCloud, and can double tap to open any of them.

The app can display files it knows how to read, such as RTF, and offers a Share button so you can open a selected file in another app if you want to. The "Organize" button on the screen showing a file lets you move the file to a different location. There are no accessibility issues with this app that we could find, so use with confidence.

Note that this app doesn't appear by default. You must enable it manually, by going to Settings, then iCloud, then iCloud Drive. Find the "Show on Home Screen" switch button and turn it on. You should only have to do this once. Once you do, a new icon will appear on your Home Screen called "iCloud Drive", which you can then open or move around like any other app.

iPad Multi-Tasking

The iPad is now able to do a lot more: show two apps at once, run a video on top of another app, or show a secondary app beside a primary one. VoiceOver fully supports these features, even offering keyboard and braille commands to switch apps or resize them. For a full breakdown of how these features work, we strongly recommend this post on iOS9 from an accessibility perspective.

Keyboard Commands and Text Selection

Visually, iOS9 lets users place two fingers on the keyboard and then use them to move the cursor around like on a trackpad. This makes it far easier to manipulate text, but Apple didn't leave VoiceOver users out in the cold. The text selection item in iOS9's VO rotor is new, and lets you swipe up or down to change by how much you select, and right or left to select or de-select. This is a great deal easier and more reliable than the pinch gestures we were using before.

If you are in an email and want to select some text, simply move to the start of what you want to select, rotor to "text selection", and swipe up or down to choose the increment--characters all the way up to page. Swiping right will select by the chosen increment, and left will de-select. To choose the first three words in our email, move to the start of the words, choose "word selection" but swiping up or down on the "text selection" rotor item, then swipe right three times. Now rotor to "edit", and proceed as you are used to. It is worth noting that moving by an item like words or characters will de-select everything, just like pressing an arrow key on a PC or Mac will.

At this time, swiping left to select is unreliable and fails completely if you are editing text, but sometimes works if you are only looking at text. Swiping right to select seems to be the most reliable method at the moment, but expect things to improve in subsequent iOS updates.

As mentioned, hotkeys have come to iOS in a big way. Safari, Mail, Notes, and other apps have gained them, and developers can add their own shortcuts to their apps. The only problem is that you have no way of discovering them, since the feature that displays the available hotkeys when you hold down the Command key is currently not accessible. You can, of course, use the hotkeys, but if you use VoiceOver, you may want to have sighted help finding out what they are in the first place.

Siri and Proactive Search

Siri has gotten smarter and faster in iOS9, but still works exactly how it did in iOS8, so there's nothing for us to cover here.

Proactive Search (swipe right with three fingers from your first home screen) is all new, though. It shows a search field where you can type, then recent/most used contacts, then popular maps categories, then suggested apps, then news stories. The whole screen is very accessible, but remember to use your actions rotor on the contacts to choose what you want to do with them--call, text, FaceTime, and so on.

As Apple says, this search is a great deal more powerful, able to do conversions, pull sports scores, and much more. As you search, results will take the place of the contacts, categories, and news items.

Headphone-Activated Apps

If you connect your device to bluetooth audio or plug in headphones, you will now see the lock screen appear automatically. This is because iOS is offering you an app it thinks you might want to keep using (for instance, it normally shows me Voice Dream Reader or Downcast, because those are the audio apps I use most). You can swipe right to the suggested app, or find it near the bottom of the screen between the Unlock and Camera buttons. Double tap it to open the app, or just ignore the suggestion. Either way, don't be surprised when the lock screen starts appearing each time you connect your iThing to an audio device.

Contacts, Calendar, and More

iOS9 offers intelligent suggestions: as you type a name while composing an email, you get group suggestions based on groups of people you regularly contact.

Calendar events can be made from details in emails, as can new contacts. These will appear at the top of emails, if they appear at all, above the usual email header information (dates, addresses, and so on are headers). Unfortunately, none of us have gotten such emails, so we have not been able to test this feature very extensively. From what we've seen so far, though, it's accessible. As with other items in this post, please leave a comment if you have any input on this.

The Little Things

There are small changes not highlighted on Apple's iOS9 page that are still worth mentioning. If we miss any here, please let us know in the comments.

  • If you activate a link in an app that opens another app, a "back" button will appear in your status bar, replacing the items to the left of the time. Double tapping it will do just what you think: take you back to the app in which you tapped the link. Note that a two-finger scrub gesture often does the same thing when this button is present.
  • In Settings, there is now a search field. Just as you'd expect, double tapping it brings up a keyboard, and any matches found will appear between the keyboard and the search field.

That's It

As far as major new iOS features go, that's everything. As mentioned at the start of this post, there are other refinements and new features specific to accessibility, which are all great to have. We wanted to offer you a quick look at the mainstream features as well, and give you an idea of how to use them with VoiceOver. Overall, nothing we've tested has had accessibility problems, nor has anything changed in the way iOS works in general, but if you've used a feature we haven't or found bugs we missed, please leave a comment.



Submitted by Teresa on Thursday, September 17, 2015

Has anyone found out if these are handled differently by the new text-selection options?

Submitted by sockhopsinger on Thursday, September 17, 2015

@Teresa I believe 3d touch will only be on the iPhone 6S. I am by no means certain of this, so take it with a grain of salt.

Submitted by April on Friday, September 18, 2015

Club AppleVis Member

Wallet is also Passbook. I had a couple minutes of worry before I found my tickets safely in there :)

Submitted by JDh on Friday, September 18, 2015

I am by no means experienced with siri nor most of the stuff my 6pus can do. so I have a question about something I found with the siri.
my siri seems to not recognize the button when I go to give it vocal commands, siri makes the sound that acts as though I gave it a vocal command, I press the button again and siri works fine.
I also found the bug with the onscreen keyboard as well.