What’s New and Changed in iOS 9 Accessibility for Blind and Deaf-Blind Users

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team


It's September, and that means my annual reminder that I’m growing older has arrived. It also means Apple is doing their annual “coming out with more new stuff,” or in my case, birthday presents. The good news is that if you have been running iOS 8, your device is going to be able to run iOS 9. As a general rule, iOS 9 seems to run about as well as iOS 8 has on other devices, so if you find the features worth upgrading to, go for it.

Just like each year previous to now, there are many mainstream enhancements to iOS 9. Some examples include a new news app, a more advanced Notes app, a new low power mode, and many enhancements to the iPad related to multitasking. This article will not focus so much on these changes, but the less-documented changes related to accessibility features impacting those who are blind or deaf-blind. Without a doubt, there will be other features not documented here that people discover as they get their hands on the new iOS. While I've been running the betas since June, I am certain I will learn even more things about it as the masses get their opportunity to play with it. Please note that this article is not intended as a comprehensive guide to iOS as a whole; rather, it is only designed to document changes in iOS 9 likely to be of particular interest to users who are blind or deaf-blind.

Those of you who pay attention to such things may have realized that I did not include low vision in the title of this article. This, sadly, was not due to an error, but is due to the fact that I did not get what I felt was sufficient feedback from low vision users to comment on the changes related to low vision. As such, it is my hope that someone from the low vision community can cover these features in more detail and with more real life experience than I can. The general comments from those with some vision have been that very little has changed other than the new keyboard enhancement found under Settings/General/Accessibility/Interaction.

Some Mainstream Stuff

Search for it

One of my complaints about the Settings application is that it is very complex. For example, if I want to change a setting in braille that is not included in its set of commands, I previously had to navigate to Settings/General/Accessibility/VoiceOver/braille. It was not even possible to ask Siri to open the settings for braille. With iOS 9, once you go in to the Settings application, the first thing you are presented with is an optional search box. If you navigate past this option, you'll still find many of the settings you know and love the same way as before--but the search function can make some tasks much faster to carry out. Unfortunately, I still cannot go directly to braille settings, but I can type VoiceOver in to the search box and get that option to come up. This is also good for people who cannot speak clearly and who want a faster way to access certain settings THAT ARE HIDDEN DEEP WITHIN this screen.

Hey Siri, are you Understanding me?

New in iOS 9 is the ability to have Siri better recognize when you say “Hey Siri” when this feature is enabled. When you first turn this feature on, you will be prompted to do a short set of voice exercises. In addition, thanks to new dedicated components inside the latest iPhone models, you can now have “Hey Siri” enabled even when you’re not connected to AC power with the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. I’m not sure if this function is to train Siri to recognize anyone saying the phrase, or if it’s supposed to help it recognize just your voice, but time will tell.

What are all of These Keyboard Commands on the iPad?

On the iPad, one can get a list of keyboard shortcuts while in an app--if the developer has put these together. One launches "Keyboard Hints" by pressing and holding the Command key for a few seconds. I tried this in the Mail and Notes apps; sadly, VoiceOver will read only the function the keyboard command carries out--but not the actual keystroke itself. Also, not all commands are listed with VoiceOver. For example, in the Mail app, just like on the Mac, command-R will reply to a message if you have an email open, command-shift-D will send your message, etc. While these keyboard commands also work on the iPod and iPhone, pressing and holding the command key offers no such keyboard hints.

Apple Maps Gets Public Transit Support

While it’s only available in select cities at the time of release, you can now use the Maps app to plan routes using public transit. If you want step-by-step instructions as you go, this does have its limitations. For example, when I used this to plan a route from Long Island to the Google Building in Manhattan, the route planning worked well. However, as any New Yorker can tell you, getting cell service in the subway system is very challenging. So while having public transit directions in Maps is helpful in terms of getting train information, it’s not always useful; if you want directions to be updated as you travel, it’s not possible without cell service.

VoiceOver Enhancements

Is that Siri or VoiceOver?

With iOS 9, all users of iDevices now have additional VoiceOver voices in the form of the speech synthesizer(s) used for Siri. This means, for example, that users now have two new American voices, two new British Voices, two new Australian voices, etc. Even better is the news that the Siri voices will work on older devices such as the iPhone 4S, iPod 5, and all devices that can run iOS 9 that have been released that do not have a 64-bit processor. That doesn't mean you cannot run these Siri voices on your newer iDevice, but that you just have more possibilities. To check out these new voices, go to Settings/General/Accessibility/VoiceOver/Speech, or type VoiceOver in the new handy search box and it should take you past most of those menu options. Once you find the Speech button, activate it and you will now see the "Default Language" option, followed by "Rotor languages." If you only wish to have one voice onboard and quickly available, you only need to set up the default option. Upon activating this button, you will see a list of available speech synthesizers/voices for your chosen language; double-tapping the option you want will switch to that choice, and if necessary, will download the voice to your device. Note that if this is the case, you will need to be connected to Wifi to download any new voices. It's also worth noting that each voice has a "Default" and "Enhanced" option. The "Default" option allows you to run the voice as it is currently installed. The quality is lower, but it also consumes much less disk space and system resources.

If you want to add more voices,, you will need to flick past the option for the default speech setting and find the "Add Rotor Languages" button. Just like with iOS 8, you will need to find and double-tap the language you wish to add to your rotor. Once you have done this, you will see other options such as "Enhanced" versions of the default voice and Siri voices. Note that you can only use one variant for each language, other than the language you have set as your default as described above. So, for example, if you wish to have the Siri mail voice and the traditional Samantha voice available on the fly, you can still do that by setting Samantha as your default and adding the U.S. English voice to your languages rotor and then choosing the Siri Male voice.

The Need for Speed!

With all variants of speech in VoiceOver, it's now possible to speed speech up more than it had been in the past. You can quickly do this from anywhere in iOS if you have the speech rate option enabled in the rotor, or you can configure this under VoiceOver settings.

Is it Tap-Tap, or Tap ... Tap?

With this new VoiceOver setting, the choice is yours. One of the issues I've encountered from time to time when teaching individuals on the touch screen is their inability to do the double-tap gesture fast enough due to lack of motor skills or limited dexterity. This option is called "Double-Tap Time-Out," and it should hopefully help in this type of situation. To reconfigure this setting, head over to the VoiceOver settings and find it near the very bottom of the screen. Once you double-tap this button, you will have the ability to write in your own duration of time that elapses before VoiceOver will recognize the 2 taps as separate from one another. If you do not wish to type in a value, flicking to the right once will give you a Decrement button, followed by an Increment button. The default setting is 0.25 seconds, but you can go way up from there as needed.

I Will Select Simplicity

A piece of feedback I and others have offered Apple over the years is that selecting text with the touch screen and the pinch gesture is a rather cumbersome, and not-so-effective, way to achieve this task. In iOS 9, a new way to select text has arrived. You must first enable it in your Rotor settings, by enabling text selection.

Once you have found something you would like to select, find the Text Selection rotor option. Now, you can flick up with one finger to cycle through the list of choices. The options from top to bottom are: Character Selection, Word Selection, Line Selection, Page Selection, and Select All. After deciding which element type you would like to select by, find the beginning of the text in whatever way is most comfortable to you. Then, begin flicking right to highlight text, and left to de-select it. I find this a much more manageable way of selecting text, and I suspect many who use the touch screen as their primary way of selecting will agree. This will also be more efficient when trying to select text on a Bluetooth keyboard or braille display. One slight inconvenience of this feature is that you cannot select text when moving backwards. For example, if you are reviewing a document and find something you no longer want to be there, you have to go to the beginning of the text you wish to remove and start your selection from there.

Caps Lock Becomes a Multipurpose Key

One of the complaints over the years, more so with the Mac than iOS, is that certain keyboard commands require the pressing of too many keys at once. Apple has partially addressed this issue by adding the Caps Lock as a modifier key to the VoiceOver cursor. With older versions of iOS, it was necessary to press the Control and Option keys on a bluetooth keyboard in conjunction with another key or two on the keyboard to carry out VoiceOver-specific commands. You will find this new option, called “Modifier Keys,” under the VoiceOver settings. Your options are Caps Lock, Control + Option, or both. Just like when you make the Caps Lock key the modifier on other screen readers, you can press the Caps Lock key twice quickly to toggle whether you write in all capitols or not. It’s worth noting that when you press the Caps Lock key twice, VoiceOver reports the wrong setting of the key. For example, if you hit the key twice, and VoiceOver reports that your Caps Lock is off, it’s actually on.

Braille Screen Input (BSI): Just the way you’d Like it to be

Originally introduced in iOS 8, BSI has lacked the customizability that many users would like to have throughout the operating system. One of the issues for some has been the lack of clarity of what specific gestures are available when your device is set to BSI mode. No longer is this the case! If you have BSI enabled in your rotor, when you go to the "Practice Gestures" feature under the VoiceOver settings, you will now see 2 tabs: General and Braille Screen Input. This does not allow you to practice brailing itself, rather, just the gestures associated with BSI.

One of the new gestures that you will find is swiping up or down with three fingers. This will lock, or unlock, your screen orientation. This is handy for if you are moving around but don’t want your screen orientation doing the same.

Continuing with the new BSI features, you can now control where it shows up in your Rotor. In iOS 8, BSI would follow you around the operating system, always being one rotor turn away. Now, you can put it wherever you desire within your Rotor options, just like all of the other choices you have in the Rotor. You can even have BSI behave as it once did by making it the first option within your Rotor.

You can now also control the amount of spoken feedback offered by VoiceOver as you are inputting text with BSI. Find this configurable setting in the VoiceOver settings under "Typing Feedback." Your choices are Characters, Words, and both characters and words. This works great with uncontracted braille, but there still appears to be no speech feedback given when inputting characters in contracted braille. This could actually be a feature, as it’s possible that that iOS has been set up to interpret contracted braille after the space gesture has been performed.

New iPad Features Bring new Gestures

With the new ability to run apps in Split Screen Mode and a new feature called Slide Over, also come new gestures along with new Bluetooth and braille keyboard commands. Since I’m only documenting changes with accessibility in this article, I will not go in to great detail about how to use these features, but will cover the different ways in which you can interact with them.

Slide Over is available with all iOS 9-compatible iPads. This feature allows you to have an app consuming 1/3 of the screen to carry out some tasks quickly before switching back to where you were originally working. Note that you cannot use this with all apps; only supported ones will work. To launch the Side App Switcher when in Landscape Mode, tap the Status Bar, and then swipe left with three fingers to bring up the new Side App Switcher. You can also achieve this on a braille display with the command space with dots 1-6. The Side App Switcher will allow you to “pin” a supported app to that 1/3 of the screen. There is then a “divider” which sits between that 1/3 of the screen and the app with the main focus. To Move between the 2 apps, tap your touch screen. If you’re using a Bluetooth keyboard, you can move between the 2 apps, and also hit the divider by using the commands VoiceOver modifier with [ (left bracket) and VoiceOver modifier ] (right bracket). Using the [ will move you backwards, and the ] will move you forward. Pressing space with dots 2-4 on a braille display will move focus to the left, while space with dots 2-6 will move focus to the right. The divider becomes important as it allows you to control re-sizing and other options when on an iPad that supports the split view feature.

Split View functions in a similar way as Slide Over in the sense that you would pin apps and move them around in the same manor I just described with Slide Over. However, Split View does add more functionality to the mix. It’s only available on the iPad Air 2 and later, as well as the iPad Mini 4 and anything that comes after that. Split View allows you to not only run 2 apps on the screen at once, but also allows you to decide how much of the screen each app will consume. The way in which you re-size apps is controlled with the divider. When focus is set on the divider, a new rotor option allows you to control how the split view operates. The rotor will allow you to launch the Side App Switcher, resize the right-hand app to take half the screen, dismiss the right-hand app altogether, or maximize the right-hand app to eliminate the app on the left side of the screen.

A Word of Warning, Especially for Deaf-Blind Users

There are a number of positive changes for users of braille display users listed below. However, I must first let you know of a bug that I have found. When your display is connected, if you turn on Airplane Mode, of course, all communication with the outside world is suspended. However, in iOS versions prior to now, the second you turn bluetooth back on, the braille display would typically re-connect. This is no longer the case. The only way to reconnect braille displays is to go to Settings/General/Accessibility/VoiceOver/braille and select it again. If you do not have enough residual hearing or vision to interact with the screen, this process renders your phone useless until you can find someone to assist you in re-pairing the device, or taking it out of Airplane Mode.

Furthermore, once you have reconnected your braille display in Airplane mode, if you lock your screen and come back to it later, you will also find the display will not reconnect. Just like above, to get the display to reconnect, you will need to perform the process outlined above. This bug has been reported to Apple, and it is hoped that this issue will be resolved in an update in the 9.1 update, which is already in the works.

Braille Display-Specific Changes

Picking up Speed

NO, this is not a heading describing someone making a drug run, but refers to text input with a braille display. For many users, using a Braille display was very sluggish in iOS 8, particularly for those on older devices. I’m finding that iOS 9 is much more responsive in terms of typing braille, about as rapid as iOS 7 was, which is probably one of the biggest reasons for me to upgrade.

Slow Down Your Announcements!

VoiceOver gives you announcements, or flash messages, which appear on a braille display quite quickly. For a slower braille user, this lead to having to press space with N to read the announcement again, and then pressing space with N again to return to whatever they were doing. In other situations, the announcement would stay on the display for a much longer duration than a faster reader may desire. Now, you can control the speed of such announcements. In Settings, go to general/accessibility/VoiceOver/braille, and configure this setting to your preference under “Alert Display Duration."

Start and Stop it All

Since a few iOS versions ago, VoiceOver users have had a gesture (double-tap with two fingers), which performs a custom action. What it does depends on the context of the situation. For example, use this gesture to answer or hang up a phone call, launch dictation when in a text field, or start and stop recording in Voice Memos.

Bluetooth Keyboard users have also had access to this in the form of the command VO with – (dash), but braille users have not, until now. To use this function on a braille display, press space with dots 1-5-6.

Hold it

Double-tap and hold has been a gesture since the beginning of VoiceOver’s existence on iOS. A couple of versions back, Bluetooth keyboard users were able to use this function by pressing VO-Shift-M. This feature, among other things, allows the user to move apps around there home screen, bypass VoiceOver gestures, and delete apps. It’s now an option for users of braille displays as well. Do a double-tap and hold gesture on your braille display by pressing space with dots 3-6-7-8.

Finally, QuickNav Works as Advertised!

In iOS 8.3, Apple decided to differentiate between the QuickNav keyboard commands for various actions and the QuickNav commands for navigational purposes for textual elements like headings, form controls, etc known as “first letter QuickNav.” To activate First Letter QuickNav, a Bluetooth keyboard user presses VO with the letter Q. With iOS 9, you can now finally use these commands directly from your braille display. Toggle this function with space and dots 1-2-3-4-5-7.

Other Changes in Accessibility

New Made for iPhone Hearing Aid Functions

Unfortunately, as I do not have a set of hearing aids to test these new features on, I am unable to detail the changes made in this section. It is my understanding that the ability to set up different profiles for each hearing aid now exists once your Made for iPhone Hearing Aids are paired. As an example, if you only want one hearing aid to be listening in on your call, you can set one ear to work with phone calls while the other still listens to the environment around you. It is also my understanding that you can set up specific profiles for such activities as listening to music, though again, this is a feature that only someone with compatible hardware can test.

Switching it up

Switch access has undergone a major facelift. Again, it is not possible for me to really report on this new series of options, as I do not have access to a switch controler. I’m sure that other bloggers, however, will cover this important access method.

New Ways of Interacting

The Accessibility menu under Settings has again been a bit reorganized. A new heading has been created called “Interaction.” In addition to housing the Assistive Touch and Switch Control functions, there are a few new options. One of these new feature sets is called “touch accommodation.” The purpose of these settings is to assist the user in working with their device depending on certain motor challenges. While I’m not familiar with each of these settings in great detail,I will briefly discuss each in turn.

One of these enhancements is Hold Duration. Hold Duration, as the name implies, allows the user to control the amount of time that elapses once you touch the screen that iOS will actually recognize the gestures as one instead of multiple actions. Ignore Repeat is another function under the Touch Accommodations heading. This allows you to set the duration that a series of touches will be interpreted as one gesture. Tap Assistance is another feature under this Series of possibilities. This allows the user to configure if any kind of touch should be interpreted as a tap. It’s quite flexible, as you can set it to use the initial touch location on the screen or the final location you touch before raising your finger.

Keyboard enhancements

Still under the Touch Accommodations heading, iOS 9 sports a few new options to help the keyboard function better for users with certain disabilities. Under the Software Keyboard setting, you will find the ability to show or not show lower case keys. This setting will allow you to show lower case letters in upper case, which may assist some users with low vision in seeing the on-screen keyboard. With hardware keyboards (those connected via Bluetooth), we have a few new things that can assist the user. Key Repeat is a feature which, when turned off, allows keys to be held down without giving you multiple presses of the same key.

Sticky Keys is another option which does the same thing as the Windows Sticky Keys feature. Basically, you can set certain keyboard combinations which will register without the need to keep them held down. This can come in handy, for example, if a Bluetooth keyboard user wishes to use a keyboard command that requires a keyboard combination where the individual cannot press all of the keys at the same time to carry out the task they wish. Once enabled, Sticky Keys can be toggled by pressing the Shift key 5 times, just like on Windows. You can also configure whether a sound is played when modifiers are set, which can be turned on or off as needed. Finally, we have an option under this heading called “Slow Keys.” Slow Keys allows you to adjust how long you need to press and hold a key before iOS registers it as a key being pressed.

Shake it Off!

Continuing under the Touch Accommodations heading, we have a feature which can now be turned off. Some people love this function which, when typing, allows you to shake the phone to undo the last action. However, not everyone is in love with it for various reasons. For example, I do not enjoy Shake to Undo because if I’m in a moving vehicle that is on a bumpy road, this feature may accidentally activate. It’s now possible to turn this function off. Again, find it under the Touch Accommodations heading.

This is giving me a bad Vibe, Stop it!

Now you can. I think this should be something with more exposure than being buried in the Accessibility menu, as it can potentially benefit everyone. Sometimes, for example, an individual may wish to watch the time on their phone while in a meeting while also demonstrating to the people in the room that they are paying attention to whatever is going on around them instead of to their phone. To do this, someone may put their phone on a table. However, unless the phone is set to Do Not Disturb, the vibrations will still go off, even when the phone is muted. Now, you can disable all vibrations if you would like to do so, and you will still get notifications visually without any movement or noise from the phone.


Just like previous iOS releases, whether you should upgrade or not depends on whether the bugs present in the new release will impact you on a greater level than you can tolerate, and whether you feel the new features are worth your time. To check out a list of new bugs in iOS 9 related to VoiceOver and Braille, see this post. Overall, I’d say that iOS 9’s first release is much more stable with fewer issues than what we have seen in earlier major releases. Earlier this year, Apple claimed that this version of the operating system would primarily focus on polishing up what is already there. This goal seems to have been achieved, as there are far fewer bugs in iOS 9 than what were found in iOS 8. To download the update over-the-air, go to settings/general/software update, and follow the prompts Accordingly. Alternatively, you can update your device through iTunes.



Submitted by Teresa on Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ok, I will probably upgrade, but this time, unlike previous attempts, I'm going to wait till I get a notification to install. Some of these features sound like must-haves for me. Thanks for this.

Submitted by Chris on Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Do these Siri voices work on the iPad 2? I don't own an iPad 2 myself, but just want to know if that device will get the voices due to a lack of Siri support. I hope that I'm wrong since this is a great compromise for those still running 32 bit devices. This could have been done last year with the introduction of Alex.

Submitted by Sergey on Thursday, September 17, 2015

First of all, a short note about the start / stop command. Owners of the Focus Blue series of braille displays could perform this gesture by pressing the right select key (otherwise called a gdf key). Though the new addition is universal and available to users of other braille devices. But as for tap and hold gesture (space and 5, 6, 7, 8 dots), it seems not to work on my device.

Submitted by Saqib on Thursday, September 17, 2015

Hi. I'm not seeing this News app as I've just upgraded. I am using the iPhone 6 Plus

Submitted by Isak Sand on Thursday, September 17, 2015

A wonderful thing I noticed which I haven't seen covered anywhere yet is that you now finally can remove alarms in the clock app with the flick up or down without the need to press the Edit button. It annoyed me every time when I had a whole bunch of alarms that I did not need, when I had to press the Edit button to be able to delete them.

Submitted by sockhopsinger on Thursday, September 17, 2015

@Saqib, the News app is only available in certain areas at this time. It will depend on where you are. Typically, unless you are in the U.S., you will probably not have the News app until iOS 9.1 at the earliest.

Submitted by Matthew C on Thursday, September 17, 2015

You know how in earlier versions you could do a 3 finger swipe to the right to unlock the iPad? Well in playing I found that it works on the iPhone now also. At least on the 6PLUS. I have my phone set to require touch ID or a password. I hit the lock button and then swipe 3 fingers to the right and it askes me for the passcode.

Submitted by Teresa on Thursday, September 17, 2015

I'm using a Focus 40 Blue, and wasn't able to get dots 5-6-7-8-space to work. I did get dots-3-6-7-8-space to work, but now, every time I press it, I get "moving" (whatever object I'm on. It won't let go! :)

Submitted by dvdmth on Friday, September 18, 2015

Club AppleVis Member

I found a few new VoiceOver commands while experimenting in the practice area.

On the touch screen, a four-finger tap on the left side of the screen will move to the previous app in split view, while a four-finger tap on the right side moves to the next app. My iPad does not support split view, so I can't test them in action.

On a Bluetooth keyboard, VO-Left bracket and VO-Right bracket do the same as the four-finger taps above. Additionally, VO-Shift-F will perform a 3D touch, formerly known as force touch. On my iPad this command appears to be the same as VO-Shift-M, which does a tap and hold.

Also, this might not be new, but I wasn't aware of this before. VO-Semicolon toggles the modifier key lock, just like on the Mac. And for those who missed it earlier this year, they added VO-Q for toggling first letter navigation on and off.

Thanks, Teresa for giving a correct keystroke for tap and hold! Though I could not move any item via braille display, it, atl east, enables us easily rename folders and delete apps. Thanks once more! :-)

Submitted by Coleen on Wednesday, September 23, 2015

I really regret downloading this latest upgrade. Maybe I should have researched it more before going ahead with it. My problem is as follows:

I've been blind for a number of years now but only recently lost the majority of my hearing. When my ears encounter an unfamiliar voice they struggle to understand it, and so the fact that the Voiceover voices in IOS 9 are different is a pretty big problem for me. Operating the phone at all is a lot more difficult than it used to be, and having the Voiceover read aloud to me from Kindle and iBooks, while still technically possible, just doesn't work for me personally anymore. Regardless of the speech speed or volume it sounds like nonsensical noise to me rather than words and phrases.

I really wish I hadn't installed this update, or that there was a way to downgrade back to IOS 8.4.1.

Submitted by joanne macgregor on Friday, September 25, 2015

since I have updated my software to iOS 9. When trying to type something in a search text field, like a search field on a website, it adds extra symbols and things so you can't actually search anything because it says not found because it is added something else. A prime example I searched aftershave and it added a 20 and a percent sign so it could not find aftershave. Also when swiping right or left on certain apps to read the screen it doesn't work any more. Has anyone else had this problem? And do they know how to solve it?

Submitted by April on Saturday, September 26, 2015

Club AppleVis Member

I just want to say how happy I am that when I click a button now... it actually gets clicked the first time. Oh Apple you have no idea how much that drove me insane. This is not to be missed in all the other news, guys. That save button? Yeah! Go on, click it, and only one time. It's gonna work. Yaaaaaaay.