How The Blind Can Show Sighted People Aspects Of The iPhone

iOS & iPadOS

Hi, I'm not sure if this is the right way to head this, so here's my dilemma: I'm totally blind, have used VoiceOver on my iPhone for 5 years, and now my sighted wife is getting into the game. She's not very technical, and goes a lot by pictures and icons. I was trying to show her the Messages app the other day, and VoiceOver does things like announce Compose button, Back button, More Info, etc. Problem is that if I tell my wife to look for a Compose button, she's not seeing that. And this goes on for other icons and buttons, too. I'm also looking for tips on how to describe what the screens for different apps look like, so I can tell her things like where to look for the area where you type messages. The biggest challenge for me is that I can't have VoiceOver on while she's working with her phone because the behavior is so different.

I'm betting others of you out there have run into the same situation where you're wanting to train a friend or significant other, so I'm reaching out for suggestions on where I can go to look. Are there any write-ups out there, even on Applevis? I'm embarrassed to admit this, but it may very well be that I should more closely explore around screens. I hope I'm making sense here, and really do appreciate any thoughts or suggestions.



Submitted by Ganahee on Friday, June 23, 2017

Hi Pete,

Hey, I've had precisely the same problem as you. My parents both got iPhones, back in the early Summer of 2014, I believe it was. They're both in their 70s, and, as you might guess, they're both not the most tech-savy, folks. My mom is, more so than my dad.

Early on, my mom wanted to print her bank statements from her bank's site. Well, I told her that she needed to go to "Share", then "Print", etc. Seems that, unbeknownst to me, the Share icon is a little house. If memory serves, I had to use Siri to turn VO on, on her device, then flick to the icon, and she was able to tell me what it actually was. Unfortunately, I had sight, up till Summer of 1987, about 6 years before the very first smart device was built. As such, I've never seen what a GUI, of any kind, looked like, don't even remember seeing the GUI on the first Macs, back in '84.

I've long wrestled with this issue, as it's very frustrating to say the least. I want to help, where I can, but sometimes I feel woefully inept doing so.

There are a couple thoughts which come to mind here, as to possible solutions to this dilemma.

1. Some sort of guide, compiled through a collaborative effort between blind and sighted iOS users, describing the icons, and what their VoiceOver counterparts are.

2. Apple could build into a future version of their operating systems, a mode where, when switched on, would give the VO user a verbal description of what a sighted person would see for each icon. This 2nd idea might pose an additional difficulty for debs, when it comes to making apps accessible, but, if they follow Apple's SDKs and accessibility guidelines, this difficulty should be minimal, I'd think?This is a fascinating topic, and I hope others feel free to chime in and offer their experiences, solutions and ideas for how to bridge this gap.


Submitted by gregg on Saturday, June 24, 2017

The voiceover cursor is a little box that surrounds the object in focus. It is visible to all sighted people. That should tell them what voiceover is looking at.

Submitted by Jeff on Saturday, June 24, 2017

This problem works the other way around as well. My sighted wife is forever describing an icon and asking me what it does. Or she's looking for the icon she needs to tap for a function and describes what she sees on her screen, but I have no idea what these "pictures" mean or do. The only solution I've found is to turn on Voiceover and have it read the buttons. Some of them, such as the Share button, are pretty standard and she's learned to recognize that one, but we've been using iPhones for over 3 years and we're still encountering these issues.

Actually, my wife hates the use of icons because she can seldom understand what they mean. She doesn't like them on other devices and equipment either, even our car. Unfortunately, I don't have an answer for how I think it should work.

Submitted by Tracings on Saturday, June 24, 2017

As a sighted person, I use VoiceOver a lot to tell me what the tiny icons on the phone screen mean. Since iOS 7, they've been particularly hard to decode. For example, Share used to be a nice big arrow going somewhere; now it's a thin arrow coming out of a box -- and it does indeed look like a house, so I initially I thought it meant "go home". Thank you VoiceOver for telling me what it means.

I use the Accessibility Shortcut (triple click home) to turn VoiceOver on, touch the mysterious icon(s), and voila! I know what's up on most apps. And then, I turn it off. The large cursor is a bold black outline around the item that VoiceOver is reading -- it's very helpful for sighted folks who want to skip all over the screen. If triple-click home is hard for the user to perform consistently, Siri can turn VoiceOver on and off, so while behavior is different when VoiceOver is running, sighted users can jump in, investigate the screen, and jump out pretty quickly.

Bonus: VoiceOver also tells me what most emojis are - my daughter once texted me a message that was comprised ENTIRELY of mysterious emojis - and VoiceOver let me know what they were.

Submitted by JeffB on Saturday, June 24, 2017

That is a neat trick. What does the compose icon look like in the messages app? Just out of curiosity.

Submitted by Siobhan on Saturday, June 24, 2017

I say we ask apple to help at least, with the native apps. I realize other devs might be screwed but at least we have a starting pint. I'm forever fixing my dad's computer, two hours of my life gone, and his phone. Trust me, for soemone who can't do any damage, he can. I showed him how to block a contact, by having my screen on, no curtain and showing him where "block this caller" was. Hope that helps.

Submitted by Dawn 👩🏻‍🦯 on Saturday, June 24, 2017

Here's what I do. I have had friends/family come to me with tech support woes and I'm more than willing to help them out. A lot of times, what I'll do if they have the same app that I do, I'll open it up with them on my device alongside them if possible. Then as they look at their screen, they can look at mine and see what I'm doing. They pretty much know that gestures are different for them without voiceover. Or a lot of times, I'll have them turn vo. on, give me the device, I fix it and either they watch or listen or both. Then I walk them through the process. If I can't be at their side's then I have them describe the screen to me in great detail. Then I have them do the step(s( and tell me as they're doing them and then what the screen looks like after completing it. I like to think of it as a kind of remote assistance. The person with the tech woe is my eyes and ears, and in general, they don't really mind disscribing screens to me and within a few minutes, I can usually fix the problem. That's what I like about vo., is that I can do the steps, and the sigted person can see what I'm doing as I'm doing it. I hope this haps some people.

Submitted by rachel on Sunday, June 25, 2017


What a very interesting discussion, and thank you so much for all the ideas and suggestions from people which will certainly now help me (I rely totally on VO and have never had sight) and my fully sighted friend who is compitent with I devices but still often forgets the fact that I don't get the same feedback from VO that he receives visually.

I have been working as an Assistive Technology Support Assistant for nearly a year now, and so far it has been mainly VO users who have approached me for advice/support with queries about using their device. However, if I am ever approached by a sighted user I'd like to think I could provide them with the same level of advice and support. To do this, I too would like to understand more about the visual feedback sighted users get when they look at the screen, which we don't get from VO. As suggested in an above comment, some sort of guide explaining thoroughly how the screen behaves when VO is disabled would be extremely useful certainly for me.

Submitted by Pete De Vasto on Sunday, June 25, 2017

Wow, I'm glad folks are finding this thread useful! I for sure am enjoying reading what others have done to handle this situation. I did find one resource that may help out even a little. Most of you probably already know it's out there, but just in case, a couple of weeks ago, I discovered a version of the iPhone User Guide that Apple, believe or not, has published which can easily be read in a browser:

I'm one of those who has both PC and Mac plus my iPhone and it works well on all the computers I use. It's a little weird how it's laid out, each general section like Message, Camera, Mail, are bulleted items, and topics within each section are links. When you go to a topic, one thing that Apple did is that for each picture there's a good alt-text description. For example, if you go to the topic Sending Messages, they describe the exact layout of the screen when you tap Compose, so you know where things like Back, the to: field, More info and everything else is located. Sadly, though, they do not describe what things like the Back and MOre info buttons look like, but it's a start!


Excellent, thanks for sharing that link Pete. I was certainly unaware of its existence, and I will certainly take time to check it out in an attempt to at least make a start trying to understand how I devices work from a visual perspective; and thanks for the warning about the strange layout - I'm easily confused hahahaha.