Zoomed large text of the beginning of the vision accessibility settings on iphone. The accessibility menu displays, vision, voice over off, zoom on, magnifier

iPhones: Accessibility in your pocket

In my last post, I wrote about assistive technology for using a computer. Today I’m going to take a look at the iPhone and how it’s accessibility features, such as Zoom and VoiceOver, can be used by blind and visually impaired people.

A note before I get started: I do realize that Android has many similar features, but I’m going to focus on the iPhone in this post because it’s what I, and almost all of the blind and visually impaired people I know, use on a daily basis.

Different options for your needs

The iPhone offers many built-in accessibility options so the phone can be customized to meet someone’s needs.

Accessibility settings page of an iphone. It lists voice over, zoom, magnifier, display accommodations, speech, large text, bold text, button shapes, reduce transparency, increase contrast, reduce motion, on / off labels.


Zoom creates a similar experience to using magnification software on a computer. It can be used to enlarge a portion or the entire screen, and allows for contrast tweaks such as inverting colors or showing the zoomed content in grayscale instead of color. Here’s a video showing how zoom works.

Amy use the zoom window a lot! It’s useful for apps that don’t have pinch zoom or images with text in. This is a video of Amy checking out some fantastic cat pictures on Buzzfeed using the zoom window! 


I don’t have enough vision left to get any real use out of Zoom, so I rely completely on VoiceOver, which is the screen reader built into the iPhone. VoiceOver allows the user to control the phone using gestures, essentially different combinations of finger motions. Some of the gestures include:

  • Dragging a finger around the screen: VoiceOver will announce what is under your finger as you move your finger around.
  • One finger swipe to the left or right: Allows the user to move to the previous or next item on the screen.
  • Double tap with one finger: Activates the selected item, such as pressing a button.
  • Two finger double tap: Referred to as the “magic tap”,” this gesture does different things depending on what you’re doing at the time. This control will play or pause music or a video, turn on or off dictation if you’re trying to enter text, answer or end a phone call, or take other actions if an app developer has enabled them.

The list above is far from exhaustive, and more information about all the gestures that can be used can be found in this list of all VoiceOver gestures.

All of the native apps with the iPhone, such as Mail, Calendar, Contacts, and Messages, work with VoiceOver. Many third party apps also work great with VoiceOver, including Twitter, Facebook, Lyft, Uber, and Amazon.

Amy uses voice over occasionally, for example when the text not dynamic, so it doesn’t zoom according to the iphone settings, or if Amy’s vision is reduced due to stress, tiredness or lighting. Amy uses the Speak Screen setting to temporarily activate voice over, see the short video clip section below. 

Did you notice the adorable turtle and hare buttons that slow down or speed up the text? 

There are also many apps specifically designed to help blind people perform everyday tasks, such as Be My Eyes and Seeing AI, which I’ll write about in my next post.

There are many great resources to learn more about VoiceOver. Probably my favorite is AppleVis, which is a community about all things Apple and VoiceOver. They have tutorials for learning how to use VoiceOver, as well as an app directory, blogs, podcasts, and a forum to discuss Apple products.

I realize that the above only scratches the surface of everything VoiceOver is capable of, but I didn’t want to throw too much information at everybody at once. Feel free to check out this video of VoiceOver in action.

Other Accessibility Features

While Zoom and VoiceOver get the most attention, Apple has other features that can help visually impaired people. These include:

  • Invert Colors: For someone who can’t handle the glare that can come with dark text on a light background, this setting will reverse that and show light text on a dark background.
  • Larger and Bold Text: These settings will enable bolded and/or larger text in the native apps on the iPhone. (Amy uses bold and enlarged text)

Larger Text

  • Magnifier: This allows someone to use their phone as a magnification glass using the camera on their phone. Triple tap your home button and have a go!

A full rundown of the available features can be found on Apple’s vision accessibility page for the iPhone.

About Justin: Justin works as an accessibility specialist for a Phoenix-area community college, specializing in digital accessibility. He lives in Phoenix with his wife Jennifer and Seeing Eye Dog PJ. He can be found on Twitter at @FatElvis04.

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