What you need to know about Accessibility in iOS 9

As Apple famously did with Snow Leopard on the Mac, this year's version of iOS primarily focuses on better stability and more polish. While there may be fewer "big" features in iOS 9, that doesn't mean that there are zero new things. If you're anything like me and Federico Viticci, champions of iPad productivity, then the tablet's new multitasking capability is headlining in itself. And, as I recently wrote for TechCrunch, Apple continues to push forward in its support for the accessibility community.

Touch Accommodations

Touch Accommodations lets people adjust the sensitivity of an iOS device's touch screen. This feature is largely targeted at people with motor delays, who may have problems tapping the screen. More specifically, Touch Accommodations is designed to help people limit the amount of spurious input from unintended (or unregistered) touches.

When Touch Accommodations is enabled, there are several options that can be used to customize the experience. One example of this is Hold Duration, which allows people to define a set amount of time the screen is to be held before a touch is registered. Again, this kind of feature is useful because it prevents accidental taps.


There's a new Keyboard pane under Accessibility in iOS 9, replete with options for hardware and software keyboards.

Hardware-wise, iOS 9 adds enhanced support for Bluetooth keyboards. There are new toggles for Key Repeat, Sticky Keys, and Slow Keys, all of which come to iOS from OS X. In a nutshell, these options are to hardware what Touch Accommodations is to software. Things like Key Repeat and Sticky Keys help people with motor impairments to better control the typing experience by preventing spurious input and unregistered keystrokes.

In terms of software, the addition here is an option to Show Lowercase Keys. Turning it on will change the casing on keyboards (both system and third-party) from uppercase to lowercase when the Shift key is pressed.

Xcode Accessibility Debugger

This feature is a developer-facing one, but I'm including it here because it's so cool. I first learned about it while listening to episode 124 of John Gruber's podcast, The Talk Show, during which Gruber and guest Guy English talk briefly about Apple's efforts in supporting accessibility.

With the new Accessibility Debugger in Xcode, developers are now able to debug, in real time, problems with their app's accessibility. For example, a developer using VoiceOver can now make sure that text labels and images in their app work properly with VoiceOver. If problems are found, developers can fix them right away. (A similar, but not new, feature is Xcode's Accessibility Inspector, which also helps in gauging app accessibility.)

While bugs are inevitable and beta testers valuable, the addition of the accessibility debugger is huge insofar that Apple is giving developers another tool with which to best support accessibility. In the grand scheme, such a tool only benefits users, as more apps will be open (read: accessible) to those with special needs.

Small but substantial

As I wrote at the outset, iOS 9 doesn't deliver as much in terms of quantity as its predecessors. Even so, the things that Apple is adding to the new operating system are substantial nonetheless.

Touch Accommodations is a good example. My cerebral palsy causes me to have bouts of involuntary movement, which oftentimes results in accidental touches on my iPhone or iPad. While I've yet to play with the iOS 9 betas, I can imagine that Touch Accommodations will be really handy in this context. No longer will I have to worry so much about tapping the wrong button and triggering an unwanted action because of spastic movement. I can simply use, say, the Hold Duration feature to define a time before a touch event is read.

While iOS 9 is effectively a "Snow Leopard" release, Apple still is striving to innovate and iterate in myriad ways. As iOS as a whole has matured, so too has its Accessibility feature set. There is a bevy of diverse, robust features, and Apple continues to invest in making them better and more inclusive. Touch Accommodations and especially the developer tools are shining examples of this.

The accessibility community has lots to look forward to this fall.

Steven Aquino

Steven is a freelance tech writer who specializes in iOS Accessibility. He also writes at Steven's Blog and co-hosts the @accessibleshow podcast. Lover of sports.