Accessibility With Apple

Apple’s commitment to accessibility generally and to special education specifically has long been the best amongst major technology companies. I have seen that impact first hand in my district and my classroom where students are literally given a voice, mobility, and independence they wouldn’t have otherwise. Those efforts have even been featured on the news several times. That includes CBS Sunday Morning featuring the work of my friend and Apple Distinguished Educator, Adam Goldberg as he makes music with students with autism as an iPad band. Or NBC News featuring my coworkers demonstrating how Maeve, a student with spinal muscular atrophy, can use a robot to participate in learning with her peers.

App Store AccessibilityEven if Apple’s operating systems weren’t innately accessible (which they are), their accessibility collection in the App store along with their integrations with other accessibility companies would make them worthy of consideration. While other companies are gladly making major strides in this area (which I’ll discuss in future posts), Apple continues to lead the way. In fact, every photo and video on their site is made accessible with captions for the hearing impaired (in multiple languages) and audio descriptions for those with visual impairments. Even basic features you like are accessible in ways you may not have considered. Consider the Apple Watch with taptic feedback for the visually impaired or fitness information that is adjustable for wheelchair use.

One of Apple’s resident accessibility experts, Dave Marra (@marrathon), was recently able to train the tech liaisons in my district on all that Apple offers for special needs students. The following is by no means a comprehensive list, but it can give you an idea of the tools you can use to make learning available to all. Most of these can be accessed under the accessibility settings (in system preferences on a Mac or in General Settings in iOS). It’s really amazing how these tools allow a blind man to take photographs, a struggling student to read, or Sady Paulson, a teacher/editor with cerebral palsy, to create a commercial.



Along with basic text-to-speech and speech-to-text features consistent with most browsers, Apple takes it even further. VoiceOver support is built to work throughout the system, so visually impaired users have access to the full range of features. That means in iOS it can be easily adjusted with gestures or the rotor (see the picture). It can even be connected to a Braille display. Alex is the standard voice but many options are available. It is so accurate that a sentence filled with homographs (i.e. “King Louis IV needs an IV in St. Louis”) is still spoken accurately.

I make sure speech remains on regardless of a student’s visual skill since it’s beneficial even for struggling readers. I also set up zoom shortcuts, because they are useful for showing specific information closely which benefits all students. On an iPad, this can be done with a 3-finger tap. One great feature is the ability to convert text into a spoken word track in iTunes (a paragraph or a whole story). That is essentially an instant audiobook. Simply right-click and choose services after selecting the content.


The magnifier feature on iOS now also gives a way to improve your vision in the real world apart from the device. Hitting the home key 3 times gives you quick access to a magnified camera screen.


Students with auditory impairments can shift the audio balance, access a Bluetooth hearing aid, or use FaceTime in addition to being able to edit and adjust the format of captions. Bluetooth paired hearing aids are also able to tap into iOS and use it as a microphone or even for geographic adjustment of sounds based on the person’s location (outdoors in the forest, in an auditorium, etc.).

“Focus not on the differences of people with disabilities but the talent of the individual.”

– Neil Milliken, Head of ATOS Accessibility & Dig. Inclusion


accessibility-ios10-assistivetouch-use-assistivetouch-screens-01.pngThis covers keyboard settings, AssistiveTouch, and switch control (including eye gaze input). Pressing OPT-CMD-F5 is a quick way to open most accessibility options.

AssistiveTouch is for iOS and allows you to set up multi-touch functions to work from a simple press input. It is fully customizable. You can also set up the iPad to ignore repeated taps so only the initial or final touch location is registered. On the Mac, the mouse keys, sticky keys, and slow keys serve similar functions to allow for multiple key presses or delayed keystrokes to still serve their intended function.

As for switches, you can set up screen scanning connected to whatever type of switch you may need including the space bar on a Mac or the screen itself on an iPad.  The iPad can also be set up to track head movements as the switch. I recommend the wireless Blue 2 switch for iPads. Ablenet and Tecla have a number of switch options available. There is now even switch control for Apple TV.


The Mac can also be set up to use dwell control (under keyboard settings). There are a number of expensive setups that require extra cameras and tracking devices, but Glassouse is an elegant and effective tracking device.


Let’s begin with the fact that Siri is capable of far more than you may realize. You can ask Siri to show pictures from last week, files I worked on today, or any family movies playing in the area. If it’s a noisy area you can even type to Siri by enabling it in accessibility settings.


Guided AccessIn addition to allowing speech and dictionary access to be turned on for all students (to help with literacy), I also recommend using Guided Access. It allows teachers to temporarily restrict access to certain features, disable areas of the screen, and set timers. Using additional keyboards/fonts is useful as well. The Keydogo and OpenDyslexic utilities are great for struggling readers. The Notes app now allows document scanning and handwriting recognition/searching to help those same students.

In addition, you can extra tools like notes, screen recording and guided access to the Control Center. Apple Classroom is also much more teacher-friendly, not requiring an MDM for controlling a classroom set of iPads.


There are a number of helpful apps for accessibility. Here are a few we like.

“There is no greater disability in society than the ability to see a person as more.”

-Robert M. Hensel

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