Beginning VoiceOver for iOS

What is VoiceOver?

VoiceOver is a Screen Reader. Screen readers are software applications that will attempt to identify, interpret, and read the information being presented on the computer’s screen.
VoiceOver is built in to iOS devices including iPad, iPhone, iPod, and OS X machines including the desktop and laptop computers made by Apple. OS X is Apple’s operating system for desktops and laptops. iOS was built off of and is closely related to OS X, but they are not one and the same.
OS X VoiceOver and iOS VoiceOver are not the same either. OSX VoiceOver operates off of keyboard input like other screen readers such as JAWS, NVDA, Window-Eyes, and Dolphin. iOS VoiceOver operates off of touch screen gestures similar to other mobile device screen readers such as Android Talkback and Windows Narrator.

What is a Gesture?

A gesture is the way in which you touch the touch screen display of your iPad to perform actions like opening apps, having text read, and moving through items.
Different gestures require different types of touches and different amounts of fingers.
Gestures require anywhere from one to four fingers.
Some gestures are performed by dragging your finger along the screen, tapping your finger on the screen, or some combination, repetition, or sequence of both .

Turning VoiceOver On and Off

There are three different ways for users to turn on and off VoiceOver. If you are connected to WiFi, the easiest way is to use Siri. Users can always navigate through settings to turn VoiceOver on and off. There is also a great feature that can be set up called the Accessibility Shortcut which will be the easiest way to turn VoiceOver on and off.


Siri is built in to iOS and lets users speak into their device to do a variety of things like checking email, doing simple web searches, checking the time, and more.
You may have heard of Siri before, but did you know Siri stands for Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface?
To activate Siri, simply press and hold the home button for about 2 seconds. When Siri is ready for you to speak you’ll hear a tone.
To have Siri turn on VoiceOver, activate Siri and say, “Turn on VoiceOver.” Siri will take a moment and then say, “OK, I turned on VoiceOver.”
To have Siri turn off VoiceOver, activate Siri and say, “Turn off VoiceOver.” Siri will take a moment and then say, “OK, I turned off VoiceOver.”


Navigating through settings is the most difficult way to turn VoiceOver on and off. However, if you are not connected to WiFi and you don’t have your accessibility button setup for VoiceOver, you may need to do this. For users who cannot see the screen, you will likely need sighted assistance to turn on VoiceOver for the first time.
Settings appears as an application icon, just like any other app on the iPad. In Settings, go to General. Within General, go to Accessibility. In Accessibility, beneath the Vision heading, go to VoiceOver. In VoiceOver, the first item should be a button called VoiceOver. Pressing the button will turn VoiceOver on, and, if you do this correctly, you will hear VoiceOver state, “VoiceOver on”.
To turn off VoiceOver in settings, touch the VoiceOver button once again. You’ll hear VoiceOver say, “VoiceOver on. Double tap to toggle setting.” With a single finger, tap the screen twice in quick succession. Doing so successfully should result in VoiceOver stating, “VoiceOver off”.

Accessibility Shortcut

The easiest way to turn on and off VoiceOver is to use the accessibility shortcut. This allows users to triple tap the home button to turn VoiceOver on and off. Using this feature does not require Wifi and is generally quicker than using Siri once you get the hang of it.
The accessibility shortcut requires some setup and generally does not come enabled on most iPads. What accessibility features the shortcut controls is customizable.
To setup the accessibility shortcut to work with VoiceOver, go to Settings, select General, then select Accessibility. The last item in the Accessibility section is the Accessibility Shortcut, select it. In this section, you’ll see text that says, “Triple-click the home button for:” followed by this list of items: VoiceOver, Invert Colors, Grayscale, Zoom, Switch Control, AssistiveTouch. Select VoiceOver. Note that if any other items on this list are selected, the functionality of the accessibility shortcut will be different. For now, I recommend only having VoiceOver selected.
Now that your Accessibility Shortcut is setup, click the home button 3 times in quick succession and you’ll hear “VoiceOver on.” Do the triple press again, and you’ll hear, “VoiceOver off.”
Triple clicking the home button is a skill. Starting out, you might accidentally go to the home screen (single press), start Siri (single press and hold), or start the app switcher (double press). Keep working at it, you’ll get better.

The iOS Home Screen

Before we start using VoiceOver, we need to understand the environment we’re going to be working in. The main interface of iOS is referred to as the Home Screen. When you do a single press of the home button, this is where you’ll land. This part of the interface will give us information about our system and access to our apps.
The home screen is organized into three distinct sections. The status bar, apps, and the dock.
The Status Bar Along the very top of the home screen, users will find a variety of status icons. What appears here depends on your device, but typically users will find information on their phone signal strength, service carrier, WiFi or mobile data connection, the time, battery power, and more. The status bar is the smallest part of the home screen and will not change as you switch app pages (see below).
Apps The majority of the home screen is a grid of app icons. On earlier iPhones (4 and earlier), this was a 4 by 4 grid. With the iPhone 5, this became a 4 by 5 grid. With the iPhone 6, this is now a 4 by 6 grid.

As you apps, they will fill up this app grid starting from the left and moving right and from the top and moving down. Users can customize the order of their apps. However, the apps cannot have space between them. This means that users can have 3 apps in the top row and one app in the second row. Blank app spaces will automatically be filled by apps.

You can multiple pages of apps.

The Dock At the bottom of the home screen, there is a space for four apps. This is called the dock. Like the status bar, the dock doesn’t change as you switch app pages. This is a space can be filled by any apps the user chooses but generally should be reserved for your most highly used apps.

Starting VoiceOver Tips

An important and sometimes difficult concept for using VoiceOver is to listen. It sounds easy enough but can prove more difficult when exercising it in action. Listening as VoiceOver speaks is critical. VoiceOver will explain the context your in and will often give you directions about what gestures are relevant. So, taking a deep breath and being patient, it extremely important. If I do a gesture while VoiceOver is speaking, VoiceOver will stop speaking about the last active item and move to the new item. This means that if we rush around, we’ll miss what could be critical information.
Don’t get discouraged. This technology (like most technologies) is not perfect. Occasionally you will perform a gesture that VoiceOver will interpret as a completely different gesture. Sometimes your iOS might slow down and VoiceOver might start going slow. Sometimes you will be completely baffled. It’s all part of the process.

Starting Gestures

Single Finger Tap This gesture selects an item. What does that mean? Well, it moves the iOS focus to that item. Visually the item becomes outlined. However, having focus means that we can perform an action on that item. For example, to open an app in VoiceOver, you’ll first need to select it and bring the iOS focus to it.
Single Finger Drag The problem with the single finger tap is that it requires you to tap on something. For users who can’t see the screen, being able to find and tap the correct area of the screen is much more difficult. Instead, users can do a single finger drag. This will move the focus around the screen as you drag your finger. Whatever item was last announced by VoiceOver is the item that has focus. This gesture is extremely useful for finding apps, moving through controls, and using the on screen keyboard.
Single Finger Flick Left and Right Another important gesture for moving the focus around is the single finger flick. If you’re a Windows user, you can think of the single finger flick as being analogous to the Tab key. The flick will move you forwards and backwards through available items. If your focus is on the app in your home screen that is in the top left grid space, a single finger tap will move you to the next app in the top row. Continue to perform this gesture, and you’ll eventually move through all the apps on the first page of your home screen.
Single Finger Double Tap The single finger double tap is how you activate an item. This gesture is critical. You will use it to open apps, submit forms, toggle settings, and more. As you can tell from that list, exactly what this gesture will do varies depending on the active item. If the active item in an app, it will launch the app. If the active item is a hyperlink, it will send you to that page. If the active item is text, it won’t do anything!

The Home Button

Triple TapActivate the accessibility button

The home button is another critical concept for iOS. The number and nature of clicks to the home button will change what the button does.
Single Tap Pressing the home button once will bring you to your home screen.
Single Tap and Hold Activate Siri
Double Tap Open the App Switcher

Follow-up Exercise

1. Wake up and unlock your iDevice. Press your home button and use the single finger swipe to move through all the apps on your first app page. What happens when you move to the right of your last app? If you have multiple pages, how can you move between pages? Move to the next page and continue to take inventory of your apps.
2. Use the single finger drag to make your status bar the active item. Then use the single finger swipe to go through all the items. What happens when you move to the right of the last item on the bar?
3. Use VoiceOver to cycle through the Apps on your dock.
4. Find the Settings app and open it using VoiceOver.
5. In the Settings app, try dragging your finger around. What happened? Now, try single finger flicking to the right. What happened? Which gestures works better for moving through the options in Settings?
6. We’re going to use VoiceOver to navigate through Settings to turn VoiceOver off. We’ll then turn it back on using our accessibility button. In Settings, go to General. In the General menu, go to Accessibility. In the Accessibility menu, go to VoiceOver. In the VoiceOver menu, toggle the setting for VoiceOver to off. How did that go? What was hard? What would have helped? Now that VoiceOver is off, use the accessibility button to turn it back on.

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