The accessibility features of the iPad

By Guest Blogger Amanda Johansson (Testfreaks.com), Disability Blog, January 26, 2011

Today, computers have infiltrated almost all aspects of modern life, and they serve as great tools in those activities. On the heels of desktops and laptops are electronic tablets, and they are now being accepted en masse in our everyday lives. In fact, the most popular tablet to date, the iPad, has been sold by millions to people across all walks of life.

But to someone with special needs, using a tablet might be difficult. Luckily, like most modern computers, the iPad has accessibility features built into the device, and such features may prove to be handy for a wide variety of users. Exactly what are these accessibility features? Let's take a look.

VoiceOver

Image of iPad's VoiceOver menu

VoiceOver is perhaps one of the biggest accessibility features on the iPad. VoiceOver allows users to access the device by giving verbal descriptions of where they tap the screen or the keyboard. This feature is helpful for users who are blind or have low-vision, as well as those with dyslexia and other conditions.

VoiceOver is actually comprised of several components. Gestures allow users to do certain tasks with different finger combinations and swipe directions. The gestures on the iPad are designed to be forgiving in their execution while remaining easy to master. The iPad provides a practice area where users can test their gestures to ensure they are being done correctly.

In addition, VoiceOver can auto-read Web pages as you browse them. This feature provides a Web page summary, informing users of the page size, any headers, links, tables and more. VoiceOver also allows users to navigate tables on Web pages by prompting them with the table’s row and column as it reads the selected cell contents.

Web Rotor

Image of iPad's Web Rotor tool menu

The Web Rotor is a virtual dial that can be used to navigate Web pages in various ways. To use the Web Rotor, users simply create a virtual knob with a pinch on the screen. Then they can "turn" the knob to make the desired selection. The Web Rotor menu allows users to fine tune interface interactions.

Language Rotor

The Language Rotor function allows users to quickly select alternate languages for VoiceOver through another virtual dial control. The supported rotor language can be pre-selected for ease of use.

VoiceOver with a Braille Reader

Image of a Braille Reader

VoiceOver will also work with a Bluetooth connected Braille reader. A Braille reader is a device that allows trained users to read textual components through its Braille output. Devices vary as to their input methods; however, on typical Braille readers, you can find inputs such as "wiz wheels," scrollers, router keys and simple buttons.

Once the iPad is connected to a Braille reader via Bluetooth, it will automatically adjust to suit each model's characteristics. This feature allows users to immediately start using the device's navigation keys without having to adjust the configuration first. Of course, users can reassign reader keys by selecting a VoiceOver command and holding the desired keys. VoiceOver will play a tone as it programs the reader and signal completion with a chime.

Typing Feedback

Image of iPad's Typing Feedback menu

Typing support is also built into VoiceOver; the iPad incorporates this feature in a similar fashion as a Mac computer. However, the iPad has separate settings for software, (on-screen) keyboards and hardware Bluetooth keyboards. This capability lets you set the typing feedback to work differently depending on how you are using your iPad, which could come in handy when you switch to a different location.

There is a difference between "character" and "word" in the Typing Feedback menu. If users choose “character,” the VoiceOver will say the letter when it is touched. If users select the "word" option from the menu, the VoiceOver will use the phonetic alphabet (i.e. "tango" for "t" and "India" for "i"). Of course, users can select both options as well.

Home Key Feature

The Home Key on the iPad serves as another accessibility feature. The button can be set to toggle VoiceOver, toggle White on Black or “Ask” when triple clicked. The VoiceOver toggle is simple enough to understand – basically it activates and de-activates the VoiceOver functionality.

Image of iPad's White on Black (also know as high contract) feature

The White on Black accessibility feature turns the screen into reverse (or high-contrast) colors. This function serves to make the screen easier to read in situations where its contrast may interfere with readability or usability. It might also be good to mention that turning this feature on can make it very convenient to adjust the screen for easy nighttime reading.

Zoom

Image of iPda's Zoom menu

Zoom makes it easy to enlarge portions of the screen as needed to make it legible. While most iPad users are familiar with pinching the screen while browsing to increase the screen size – the accessibility zoom feature is different, because it works with any screen element.

Once you turn it on, three fingers easily control zoom. Double tapping with three fingers toggles zoom, and dragging with three fingers moves you around the screen. Combining these gestures enables users to have fine control over the amount of zoom.

Large Text

With the Large Text feature, you can override the default font settings in the “Mail” and “Notes” sections without affecting other areas. You can adjust the setting from 20 to a screen-grabbing 56 point font, allowing most users, who have low vision, to read their e-mails without reaching for their reading glasses.

Speak Auto-text

Image of iPad's Speak Auto-speak feature on the Accessibility Menu

Speak Auto-text announces auto-corrections and auto-capitalizations as you type on the iPad. This capability informs you that your typing has been corrected, and it is one feature that all users may find convenient if they are often caught by surprise by any forced "corrections."

With the release of tablets like the iPad, computers help many users in various settings. And with built-in accessibility options, such tablets may find a ready home with users of all ages and abilities. In my opinion, these features might make the iPad one of the most user friendly computer systems to date.

Amanda Johansson works at Testfreaks.com, a product review site. She loves gadget and enjoys writing about them.

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