Personal Power; The iOS Edition

Last modified
Tuesday, August 25, 2020
Club AppleVis Member

Due to its length, this page contains only the first few pages of Michael's book. The full version is attached below as a downloadable file. More information on the book and downloadable versions in other file formats are available on Michael's website at


Hello everyone. I wrote this preface because I believe some of you may want a more in-depth explanation about what compelled me to create this frankly mammoth guide and then to ultimately give it away. I have a number of reasons for both decisions. Let's start with why I'm making this guide freely available. Mainly, I think we're in a situation where the people who need this guide the most literally don't know enough to perceive its value to them. This isn't at all a case of wilful ignorance or laziness on their part. Rather, the basic premise puts up a huge barrier. The thought of using a touchscreen to do things competently, enjoyably, and independently as a blind person seems at best unintuitive and more likely downright absurd. For blind people who haven't tried an iOS device, it seems crazy paying to learn what might be possible using something with almost no tactile elements to orient oneself.

If you had never seen what things looked like from the top of what appears to be an incalculably high mountain, how much effort would you put into climbing it with the vague understanding that the view would be spectacular upon reaching the top? Would you pay extra for instructions that no sighted people who use these devices need to pay to become competent? I think many blind people who might benefit tremendously from using an iOS device and accessible apps have approached things with that very naturally skeptical outlook and decided not to acquire smartphones and tablets. Even worse, they went ahead and got these devices thinking that they would be just as intuitive for blind people to master as they were for people who could see. They then grow increasingly bitter because the information they lack prevents their experience from even approaching what was advertised.

By sharing this guide with no financial strings attached, I hope to fundamentally change the equation. I'm not in any way being paid by Apple to do this. Nor am I being financially compensated by blindness organizations who I sincerely hope will help spread this guide to their clients and benefit from it. There are a great many more enjoyable ways and potentially a few more profitable ways I could have spent the considerable time and effort I've put into this guide. What has kept me going is my deep sense of how much joy and fulfilment my iPhone has allowed me to experience. I strongly believe that if more blind people can share in this enjoyment, their gains will enrich their lives greatly. Further, this will in turn increase my own enjoyment as well as that of people who already do even more with their devices than I've ever imagined was possible.

Many people don't share the blessings of family and friends who keep me as informed as I tend to be and give me a measure of safety trying out new things. If these people are going to pay money for apps that might well drastically change their lives, they will first need to be convinced that it is possible; that a flat screen is somehow the gateway to great potential for enrichment of life that is nearly inconceivable before it is experienced. They will need information about the view at the top of that mountain so they know what they strive for. Also, they'll need the start of the climb to be as gentle as possible.

I hope that by making this guide a free resource, more minds will be opened to the magnificent possibilities that I have been blessed to benefit from over these past years. While these opportunities have not, for the most part, resulted in financial gain, they have saved me a lot of money. More importantly, they have enriched my personal life with uncounted pleasures and points of meaningful interaction with others that I would never have otherwise experienced. These things have real value to me, and they'll have value to other blind people plus value to the societies they are more fully able to engage with.

I'm unemployed and on a fixed income. Counterintuitively, part of the reason for my benevolent act is the many rules surrounding this fixed income. When you introduce extra uncertain income that fluctuates radically from month to month, there's a danger of actually losing more and falling short in a given month as the systems can't adjust quickly. I would need to report any income to two separate government agencies. One of these provides social assistance, while the other makes the apartment I inhabit affordable on that fixed income. Breaking the rules around either agency could make things much harder going forward. Frankly, there wouldn't be enough steady income realized through selling this guide to make it worth the risk. The audience for this sort of thing is mainly blind people and perhaps interested sighted developers and others. We're not dealing with a bestseller here. For all its faults, the social support provided to people with disabilities who can't find work has given me a safe and secure economic and physical space to inhabit. From this vantage point, I can contemplate and execute large projects like this without constant worry about how to survive. Unless a way is found to completely eliminate the need for social assistance, I would much rather see people benefit from my efforts and reap whatever unexpected rewards come my way while moving onto the next project. If there were a way to earn a secure living offering people this kind of help gaining the most enjoyment and fulfilment from their iOS devices and other technologies, I would indeed be very interested. Most especially if that career didn't involve the pressure to sell products. I've never felt comfortable in the role of salesman.

What got me started on this gigantic project? The path that led me to decide to write this guide stretches back to the unexpectedly favourable and large response I received after publishing the original Personal Power guide and lectures in 2009. I wrote the original Personal Power guide to help people who had obtained or been given computers running Microsoft Windows and powerful screen-reading software but who were left without any idea of the many things these computers could help them do to enrich their personal lives. The guide ended up helping far more people than I ever imagined. These people were a somewhat different but no less deserving group than who I wrote the guide for. I was in a South African newspaper, interviewed for several podcasts, and spoke to many online groups interested in what I had done. Add to this thousands of appreciative emails. Many of these were from countries I had never heard of. To everyone who took the time to write me, thank you very much for being the positive proof that my efforts made a real difference. It is largely because of such a response to my initial guide that I felt I could once again step up to the plate and offer something helpful and meaningful here.

By the time I made the decision to get my first iPhone, there seemed to be plenty of help for blind users already available. All my friends, both online and off, seemed to have a good grasp of what their iOS devices could do and where to find out what they didn't know. For several years, I didn't realize how blessed I was to be in a large and well-connected social circle. I don't tend to think of myself as all that special. While I believe that's a good attitude to have overall, it can lead to presumptions that others are equally as fortunate in their company and circumstances. Over time, these presumptions began to erode as I encountered people with iOS devices who were truly shocked when I spoke about a technique, capability or app I had used for years. This included things I regard as absolutely basic and essential to know to do much at all with the expensive devices they owned. For example, a lot of people were never told about the VoiceOver screen reader. Generous friends or family would give blind people iPods, iPads, or iPhones as gifts. They would show them Siri, the digital assistant that you talk to. The presumption of these well-meaning sighted people was that Siri made these devices accessible to blind people. Sadly, most sighted people are completely unaware of the VoiceOver screen reader that actually serves this purpose.

Without learning about and using VoiceOver, the built-in screen reader that Apple includes free of charge with these devices, there are a great many things blind people will not be able to do without sighted assistance. They won't be able to shop in the app store for life-changing apps that would read their mail or tell them where they were. They couldn't review their calendar or reminders. Once VoiceOver has been mastered, these same things, plus a great many more, are easily accomplished without needing any help from sighted people.

The more I looked into why these unfortunate blind owners of the same devices that had made such a powerful difference to me were left out, the less able I was to rest easy in my enjoyment. These people weren't living under a rock or anything unusual. Circumstances had simply worked against their finding out about the growing online community and resources enjoyed by those of us who had been well connected and interested in technology to begin with. It's not caused by any lack of drive or laziness. Rather, it is the same kind of genuine unawareness that results in a blind person slipping on a patch of ice or a handkerchief lying on an already smooth floor.

There is a real digital divide among blind people that seems to have several major root causes; economics is a large part of it. A statistic often tossed around is that roughly 80% of blind people are unemployed. If money is tight, you're not as likely or able to try new technology unless you have enough experience or information to understand how helpful and/or cost-saving it will be in the long run. This information is out there, but it's still a case of being connected to the right people or organizations who are forward-thinking enough to stay informed. Sometimes, direct experience is the only way to be convinced enough to invest time, effort, and money into something new. While iOS devices are widespread, the knowledge necessary to demonstrate the VoiceOver screen reader or knowing which apps are accessible and easy to grasp for beginners is less common.

Another big reason is conceptual. At a purely intuitive gut level, it seems absurd that a device with a touchscreen would be at all useful, much less truly coveted among blind people. Knowledge of how VoiceOver and other accessibility features work isn't widely spread among sighted people who sell these devices. Everyone knows about Siri, but comparatively few know about VoiceOver, which is the built-in screen reader developed specifically for blind users. There's no widespread sense of how capable it is and how many totally different apps it makes accessible to blind users. Without such information, it's hard to make a very good case to a potential blind owner. Harder still for that owner to conceive of the possibilities without being able to try things out.

The summer of 2016 was a pivotal one. During those hot months, my wife Sara and I attended a reunion at the W. Ross Macdonald school for the blind in Brantford, Ontario. Had it not been for her involvement with the school alumni, I might never have gone to one of these reunions. During that occasion, I had several key conversations with fellow attendees that would have far-reaching effects on what this guide has ultimately become. Later that Summer, Sara and I went on a week-long trip to visit our good friend Stephen Murgaski. I had decided to leave my laptop at home and simply bring my iPhone and accessories along. I had begun using it for writing my blog entries and was contemplating starting a more serious writing project using the Ulysses app. I didn't miss my more bulky laptop at all that week away. I could do everything I wanted to with the iPhone and a Bluetooth keyboard I still use when travelling to this day. I remarked on this to Steve during one of the marvellous conversations we always have while together. He does a splendid job at being devil's advocate. We explored the potential gains and shortcomings of using an iPhone as a computer replacement over the rest of the week. While I failed to convince him that I was right beyond my own personal use case, we discussed a broad range of situations and areas of utility. This exploration has deeply impacted my approach to this guide. he has been a good friend and sounding board for my approaches to explanations throughout the writing process.

A couple of other pieces fell into place during that trip. One of these was listening to an audiobook by Chuck Klosterman called But What If We're Wrong. In this book, Chuck explores the premise that we might one day look on things we're very certain of now with the same scorn and derision as we level against notions from the past that were once certain but have been disproved. Notions like the premise that Earth was flat and stationary with the rest of the universe moving around our world. He covers a series of things such as which pop culture would ultimately stand the test of time and areas of physics that might undergo radical changes in understanding such as gravity, etc. He puts forward the idea that we can be trapped within a false sense of certainty made stronger by living in an age of so much shared information. Reading this book put me in a good frame of mind to examine all my thoughts that there was sufficient available help for blind people who had iOS devices but weren't as well connected as I was. Perhaps, I was wrong, and it wasn't due to simple indifference and apathy. Perhaps, there were other causes I hadn't considered. Maybe, my vantage point was more skewed by a social bubble I hadn't even been conscious of as it formed around me.

The final push came through hearing from a volunteer who had read some remarks I had made about the KNFB Reader app. He wanted to put me in touch with a lady named Joann who he thought I might be able to help. She had an iPhone but had never been shown how to use VoiceOver. She had also never learned of the KNFB Reader app. Nor had the representatives of an organization helping blind people who she had contacted. Once I had returned home, Joann and I had a number of conversations over the rest of the summer. These gave me a far better grasp of how lucky I was to have the resources and friends that I do. Joann also clearly illustrated to me how tragically likely people were to remain ignorant of the very resources I had taken for granted and presumed everyone knew about. Very quickly, as I explained the various aspects of iOS to her, I sensed the need for a guide like the one I have written here. Had I never learned about or talked with Joann, this guide would never have happened. Her situation gave me the final push and radically changed the three and a half years it has taken me to bring this project to a satisfactory conclusion. She provided me the newcomer's perspective that all my experience and skill had largely robbed me of.

The scope that this guide seeks to encompass is very different from a traditional user manual. Essentially, I am attempting to present the wisdom and experience I've gained through having used an iPhone to enhance my own life over the past decade. Rather than be a manual, I want this guide to be a resourceful, encouraging friend to new blind owners of iOS devices. Much of this has been made possible through various apps created by developers from around the world who have chosen to make their apps accessible to blind people.

Apple doesn't provide a lot of starting instructions for anyone really. In a book I thoroughly enjoyed recently on my iPhone called The One Device by Brian Merchant, one of the creators of the iPhone, commented that the prevailing thought was that if you had to ship a user manual, you had already failed to create a compelling device. For a very large slice of the general public, this philosophy really seems to have been correct. People who can see do find these products quite intuitive once they get started. When my father bought his iPad, a helpful salesperson made certain he understood how to navigate and knew where to find the manual in the Apple Books app. Back then it was called iBooks. This didn't take longer than ten or minutes. For blind people to receive comparable assistance would, frankly, require considerably more time. I would want at least an hour to go over basic concepts and teach enough for someone to then be able to take their device home and have a satisfactory experience exploring the capabilities of their new device on their own.

Even if a salesperson shows a blind customer how to get into Apple Books, it is doubtful they know enough about VoiceOver to give useable instructions on how to obtain, navigate, and read the user guide freely available in Apple Books using VoiceOver. A "Getting Started" card that helps sighted people know enough to learn through experimentation comes with iOS devices. However, there is no such card for blind users. This is a profoundly unfortunate situation, since neither the possibilities nor operating techniques are anywhere near as intuitive at the start.

This is particularly the case when blind people are given these devices as gifts or when they are ordered online. I've talked to blind people who heard how accessible iOS devices were supposed to be, ordered an iPhone online, and then had to find sighted help to even get it turned on and set up to the point where they could use Siri. Unless such sighted help was familiar with the Accessibility section in the Settings, they wouldn't know about VoiceOver or other accessibility tools built into iOS.

Adding to the problem, organizations supposed to help blind people simply weren't as aware of developments as I had presumed them to be. Given the many incredibly useful apps and possibilities like GPS guidance, object identification via the built-in camera, and apps capable of reading printed pages in mere seconds like KNFB Reader, it seems criminal that this was ever the case. Particularly sad and more often the case in more remote areas like northern Ontario. Even if someone is given or obtains an iOS device, there's nothing that makes certain that they are given a chance to learn about VoiceOver. There is no built-in tutorial. There really ought to be one for VoiceOver that is present on every device and waiting for customers in need of it. If, by chance, you thought to look in the VoiceOver settings found in Settings, Accessibility, you would find a very meagre explanation. This leaves blind beginners at a sharp disadvantage as they struggle to grasp the basics of making effective use of a touchscreen without being able to see it.

Thankfully, this landscape of ignorance has drastically improved since I started this project. Blindness organizations and agencies have truly awakened to the potential contained in smartphones and tablets. There are now all sorts of training initiatives and programs to help blind people obtain both the devices and the training needed to get started. I'll steer you to some of these many resources in a section at the end of this guide.

Knowledge of communities like where blind people can find out about accessible apps as well as tutorials is not very widespread among the general public. This means that even if blind people figure out enough to get online, they don't know where to go. The user guide available in Apple Books would be helpful provided that a new blind owner was aware of Apple Books and understood how to use it.

Presuming you gain knowledge of VoiceOver and the skills to use what's already on your iOS device, there's yet another uphill battle that I really hope this guide helps blind people win. The expression "There's an app for that!" has become very familiar in the sighted world. If accessible apps were as widely talked about and advertised as popular and accessible games and apps, blind people might connect the dots as many sighted people do and think to check the app store to see if there's an app that will do what they require. Outside of initiatives like Blind Cool Tech, AppleVis, and Blind Bargains, however, not a lot of attention is usually paid to apps made especially for the blind. Also, there is as yet no way to search specifically for apps that are known to be accessible to blind people and support the VoiceOver screen reader. While a collection of "apps that support VoiceOver" can be found under the Quick Links heading in the app store, it's a small and very infrequently maintained collection.

For example, nothing was there to tell me that the app that my bank developed for people to use was accessible to me as a blind person. Given past experience, the natural assumption would be that I'd be wasting my time trying it. Yet, when I did try it, I was amazed at how very intentionally accessible it turned out to be. It's even better and more convenient than the completely audio telephone banking I used for decades. I haven't called that number in years now thanks to this banking app. The developers even responded to constructive criticism and improved the app's accessibility over time.

Sadly, people are still vastly more likely to come across inaccessible apps if they do decide to look around. The path to satisfaction and real competence is far easier to find for sighted people. I'm quite certain that if my father decided one day that he wanted to garden, fish, brew beer, or damned near anything else, he wouldn't have to try very hard to find an app that would be in some way helpful to the endeavour of his choice. For blind people attempting the same thing, they must also determine whether an app is accessible with VoiceOver. The description of an app often makes it seem like a certainty that it would be accessible. However, after purchasing the app and running the word processor or calculator, or the text-based, story-driven game that piqued their interest and sounds like it ought to be accessible, they find that it in fact isn't at all useable for them. The new blind user may quickly stop experimenting if he or she finds too many inaccessible apps before being pointed to the thousands of fully accessible ones. Nobody who makes accessible apps has the advertising budget to make it generally known that blind people can use them. Therefore, they might never discover that their bank's app is as accessible as mine turned out to be. They might never find a writing app that suits their needs if they start with the idea that it isn't worth trying to look for accessible apps that absolutely exist. They might never delight in the extensive efforts by many developers to create welcoming, accessible experiences for blind users who dare to venture into the world of the touchscreen.

Meanwhile, for sighted newcomers, it's easy to become downright overwhelmed with information about apps that are totally useable for them. The possibilities are seen everywhere from popular TV shows to ads seen on Facebook while playing games. A major objective I have in writing this guide is to point blind people to a great many fully accessible apps so they have positive initial experiences with their iOS device.

All of these barriers can leave blind people walking around with very powerful life-changing devices that they can barely use at all. They don't know what they're missing out on. Nor, most likely, do those who help blind people accomplish things that they, if properly equipped and informed, could easily do for themselves. This unfortunate circumstance bothers me deeply, nagging at my conscience. Especially when all that it would take to solve the problem is having the right information available. Precisely the situation I found regarding Windows computers when I wrote the original Personal Power guide. Sadly, history really does repeat itself.

In this case, the sense of missed opportunity is exponentially more profound. There's no outcry because the dots simply haven't been connected in the common mind. It's different for me. Those dots are very much connected. I know that there is a lot of potential for good among blind people who have thus far been left out of the growing community taking advantage of this new portable economic space. If these people are let in, everyone wins. They will have an affordable means of engaging with the online world. The more blind people there are who use these devices, the greater our engagement with the online world and our economic leverage will become. They simply need a boost up the initially steep learning curve to a point where they're connected with the online community of helpful people and resources.

Although I've discovered a lot on my own over the years of using my iPhone, I write this guide while standing on the shoulders of generous giants. Please take the time to explore the resources I've listed in the Helpful Resources section located at the end of the guide. Many of these resources were around to help me get started on my own journey with iOS devices. A good many other friends and family helped get me out of jams my explorations got me into. You can read a little about them in the Acknowledgements. Consider this guide to be my way of passing the generosity that I experienced onward.

If this guide enables someone to connect more with the people around them, share their enthusiasm and interests online, express themselves, travel and exercise with greater confidence, or enjoy the many digital entertainments that I've been blessed to enjoy, then I will count this project a success. I will consider myself even more richly rewarded if readers of this guide choose to share their talents, personal interests, and knowledge with the online community I have hopefully enabled you to connect with. Tell us about your discoveries of accessible apps or techniques for getting things done using iOS. Share your adventures in the form of reviews of apps and postings to blogs or social media so that others can benefit from your success. Be a positive part of the online world that I've come to appreciate. Having that world grow richer and more vibrant through your efforts and shared experiences will be reward enough for me.

In my quest to share what Apple has made it possible to equip myself with, I lack the resources and infrastructure to distribute this guide in alternative formats to those who would benefit tremendously from this being done for them. All I can really do is set this loose on the Internet in the hope that the right people will find it and pass it on to where it'll do the most good. Please pass this guide to whoever you think should read it. If I had my way, it would be on every iOS device owned by a blind person and would be as simple as possible to access and learn about. Any organization or library for the blind should feel free to post this guide in any format. All I ask is that I be given proper credit for my work and that the content not be changed beyond whatever is necessary to produce this guide in alternative formats or make it easier to navigate.


On the first of February 2011, I took what felt like a bit of a gamble. My mother had broken her cellphone and needed a replacement that was fairly basic and easy to use. I had a phone that would suit her. It had raised number buttons on it so that I was able to dial numbers with it. That was the whole reason I had bought it. However, all of its other features were utterly inaccessible to me. She would make much better use of it presuming there was a more accessible option out there for me. I had previously been given an accessible cellphone designed for blind people that had physical buttons and synthetic speech. This had let me send and receive texts, use the address book, and perform other functions common to earlier cellphones. Unfortunately, it stopped working rather suddenly and proved impossible to get repaired. The phone I was now planning to donate to my mother had been purchased in a hurry. When your phone is what you use to let people into your apartment and you mainly shop online, having a working phone is about as essential as things get. I was happy to have something with a raised keypad. I never would have expected that two years after that frantic purchase, there would, indeed, be a more accessible phone that blind people would be raving about.

From what I had heard, the iPhone, despite having a flat buttonless touchscreen, was nonetheless the new, amazingly affordable, accessible option for blind people. On a fixed income, the only way I could afford this gadget was to sign a three-year contract with the phone carrier I still use today. Unlike other options, that contract would cost me the same as any other sighted person who bought an iPhone. I wouldn't have to pay a cent to make it accessible for me. That was an absolutely monumental selling point. Provided I could really cope with the touchscreen effectively, I'd gain some tremendous capabilities if what my friends and online acquaintances had told me was true. I had no real cause to doubt them. They're a fabulous and thoughtful bunch of people. It was just that the kind of stories they told of having wonderful experiences on a touchscreen despite being totally blind seemed so out there. Was it really possible to quickly answer a phone call on a device where you couldn't feel the right button? How on Earth would you type in a password while browsing the web? How quickly could you really do things competently when time was of the essence?

This was such a big change in how blind people did things that signing the contract was a tad scary. Before reaching this point, I had prepared as best I could. I had learned about the still new AppleVis community formed by blind people who had made this leap of faith a year or more before me. I had also acquired a book of instructions written to help blind people start using these things effectively. I signed the contract and was handed my new iPhone 4. Lifting it, I was surprised at how light and thin yet solid it felt. It was just as I had been told it would be; a flat, thin and totally smooth rectangular slab. To people with sight, I presumed it looked somehow fancy and sophisticated. For me, it felt rather like one of those smooth small cup coasters that your drink all too easily slides off of if you don't set it down very carefully. Had I just done something beyond daft?

The salesman and my father got the initial setup completed for me. I found out later that even in those early days, I could have done this by myself and that it would have talked right from the start. I was then able to tell them how to turn on VoiceOver. This was a screen reader that Apple had included free in its iOS operating system that made it possible for blind people to use their smartphones. My father understood that the iPhone had a screen reader that would make it possible for me to use. In contrast, I don't think the salesman actually knew about VoiceOver. When I started figuring out the very basics standing at that shop counter, the realization that the iPhone was talking to me about what I was touching amazed him.

Gaining real competence took a couple of weeks of trying out various apps and learning good technique performing the various gestures. At the start, I sometimes declined calls I meant to accept and made other mistakes. However, it was apparent after less than an hour of use that I would actually be able to master this smartphone and use it efficiently. It was just a matter of practice and time. Thus began my journey to competence, unimaginable capability, and endless amusement all to be had from a small flat slab easily pocketed or held in one hand.

If you had told me ten years ago that I would one day walk around with a flat rectangular device in my pocket that could tell me where I was, identify groceries using pictures I took with a built-in camera, let me play games I never dreamed would be accessible, could read printed pages in mere seconds, and allow me to carry over a thousand books in my pocket, I would have laughed long and hard at you. The idea would have struck me as utterly preposterous. Even after a year of owning my iPhone 4, I never would have imagined that I would one day be sitting on my apartment balcony on a warm summer afternoon writing a guide using an iPhone 7 rather than the laptop sitting unused on my desk mere metres away.

Until you experience these things, it seems like something from science fiction. The last ten years have totally changed my perspective. The iPhone, which I never go anywhere without, has steadily increased in capability as new accessible apps are created to take advantage of the technology housed within. It is undeniably the most versatile and downright useful piece of technology I've ever had. Let me be your guide into a whole new paradigm of connective, powerful, and affordable accessibility. Through this free guide, I hope to make your journey to competence using iOS devices much easier, less costly, and more enjoyable than my own was. Perhaps, I can add a measure of the delight that some of my stumbles cost me as I mastered my iPhone.

Make no mistake. This is not a manual. Those valuable documents are written with people in a heaping hurry in mind. Others have already written those, and I haven't set out to reinvent the wheel. Think of this more like a traveler's journal and guidebook written for people with time to explore and make the most out of wandering through a new place. I focus just as much on giving you a sense of what's awaiting your possible interest as on explaining how to get around. I view both as being equally important. Rather than a crash course, this is more of a leisurely tour given by someone who deeply appreciates what he's found and wants others to share in that enjoyment. Hopefully, you'll never find yourself reading through long stretches of instructions without having an idea why you might actually want to know how to do something. I want my readers to have a good sense of what's possible for them as early in the learning process as can be managed. You, my readers, should feel comfortable going in your own direction and pursuing your own interests long before reading more than a small fraction of this document.

I haven't written this thinking that people will read it all the way through like you'd read a novel. Instead, I've written this with the presumption that people will skip over what doesn't interest them at the moment and read sections out of order. Maybe you have already heard a lot about the Apple ecosystem, and someone has told you what the buttons on your device are. If this is the case, you can skip right to the section on VoiceOver and get cracking. Perhaps, you already know how to navigate the iOS operating system and simply wonder what interesting things I've found. There are hopefully some treasures here worthy of your attention too. I've included numerous lists of podcasts, apps, books, games, and even musical favourites. I don't consider such things to be fluff. They've taught me things, brightened my days, and given me motivation and reason to use my iPhone to the fullest. I hope they will give newcomers to this digital world somewhere to start enjoying. You'll also find other meandering asides such as when I discuss social media. Rather than just giving you the bare bones of how to use various apps, I try to illuminate the perils, pleasures, and pitfalls that I've found while using social media of various sorts. When I discuss security, I tell you about the various options and also about why you should care about available options and measures taken on your behalf. I want my readers to have the best possible chance to truly thrive and become responsible considerate citizens of the online world. That requires more than just knowing how to do things with your iOS device. You need to have a sense of context to understand and choose how, why, and when you might want to engage with the online world.

Consider this guide to be your friend, teacher, and tour guide. Turn to it whenever you get stuck, curious, or confused. You might not find coverage of exactly what you're trying to do. However, you'll almost certainly find the necessary skills discussed as well as something comparable to what you're doing. Through examples drawn from my own personal experiences, I'll help you understand why blind people have made the leap and why you, too, may want to. I'll take you on the incredible journey Apple's iPhone has allowed me to travel. You will have a far better grasp of the possibilities of your device and can determine what capabilities are worth your effort to master.

I don't presume that everyone reading this will want to do everything with their device that I have with mine. I also don't believe I've learned anywhere near everything there is to know. Hopefully, this guide can be a steppingstone allowing you, my readers, to discover new possibilities and bring them to my attention and share them with the quickly growing community of blind users. I'd like more blind people to be able to use these devices to help them live even more engaged lives than my own.

There are many areas where an iOS device may be helpful that fall outside my enthusiastic interest. I have endeavoured to go beyond my own areas of competence and interest to create a more helpful and comprehensive resource. When we come to areas where I feel it is warranted, I will explain where I feel less competent so that you may better judge what I say about apps and capacities available on iOS devices to get help from people better informed in these areas than I am.

This guide has three levels of headings to help you get where you want to go. Headings at level one divide the guide into major sections. The preface is one such major area. The next is the introduction you now read. Subsequent sections go into greater detail about the iOS operating system and your built-in screen reader VoiceOver. There's no need to read the major sections in order. However, I recommend you read the sections about iOS and VoiceOver before going very far into the rest of the guide. There are many key concepts discussed in those sections that it helps to be familiar with right away before you start to explore the apps already on your device and those developed by people all over the world. Second-level headings divide major sections into subsections that focus more on important concepts but are still a part of the overall area of interest. For example, the "rotor gesture" has its own subsection within the major section devoted to VoiceOver. Second-level headings may also serve to denote a shift of focus onto different but similar apps within a major section. Third-level headings are used to begin shorter noteworthy items within a subsection. These items precede things like detailed descriptions of a gesture or a list of step-by-step instructions on how to perform a task within an app. Other times, third-level headings will mark places where different areas of an app or different options are discussed in detail. Things proceed in that fashion as required. The higher the level of heading, the more granular the focus will be. Those of you wanting the "how to" steps and lists should be looking for third-level headings.

The order of major sections was carefully considered to maximize the ease and enjoyment of learning. We start out with familiarizing you with the VoiceOver screen reader and iOS operating system so that you have a sense of what to do when we discuss other apps and capabilities in a more casual fashion rather than complete step by step instructions. Beyond that, I feel that it's important to convey the staggering possibilities for fun and entertainment these devices open up to us. The section on accessible games is, therefore, found in the first half of the guide rather than being tacked on at the end. These devices are as much about fun as they are about accomplishing things and connecting with people. Too often, blind people are introduced to technology as a means of work, leaving them resenting the technology rather than enjoying it. That simply won't happen on my watch. Other areas of entertainment are positioned to break up more serious groups of topics. Also, where it makes sense to do so, related major sections are placed one after another. These thoughts were all in mind as I came up with the order of presentation.

This guide attempts to make learning about the iOS operating system more manageable and less overwhelming by breaking up the experience into constituent parts. Many aspects of it such as the app store, Siri, Settings, etc., have their own separate sections. This will hopefully allow you to focus on each aspect as you need to and not feel that you must grasp everything all at once before starting to use your device in earnest. I think that it's important to start using your device to pursue your own entertainments and interests as soon as possible. Long before I knew much about iOS, I was already buying apps, taking notes, answering phone calls, setting reminders, and checking the weather.

There is another absolutely crucial piece to the puzzle of how blind people can maximize the benefit and enjoyment they get from iOS devices. Finding the apps that are accessible to blind people among the countless apps available can be a discouraging hunt particularly for beginners. The app store has no really good mechanism for flagging apps that offer VoiceOver support. What's more, app developers often don't have much of an advertising budget or know where to spread the word they've created apps that are accessible to blind people. While I can't wave my magic wand and fix these ongoing circumstances, I can, and have, taken what actions I'm able to in this guide to mitigate them. To this end, I have used some third-party apps as examples when explaining how some concepts work where this makes sense. The use of these apps will be thoroughly described and explained. Many sections of this guide are completely about third-party apps that are fully accessible. Games are a perfect example of this, as none are included with iOS itself to await your pleasure right from day one. If any interest you, they will be available in the app store unless they have been retired from the store since this guide was written. This absolutely will happen over time. However, any techniques discussed will be applicable to other alternative apps.

I have also incorporated app store expeditions throughout this guide at the end of major sections. These are all second-level headings found at the end of a major section. I will point my readers to apps that are known to work well with VoiceOver. The apps or other resources covered in such expeditions are somehow related to the section above. These apps or other resources are briefly reviewed and described but learning how to use them is largely left up to the reader's own initiative.

As improvements are made to iOS and various apps, the precise methods for achieving things may change. As new versions of iOS appear, overall concepts taught in this guide should remain largely valid. However, some of the specific steps and methods may no longer apply as improvements are made. More lasting than the "how-to" are the basic possibilities, capabilities, and concepts that iOS devices make use of. Those tend to remain the same. Similarly to my first Personal Power guide, I hope that this also stands the test of time remaining largely useful years from when it was completed.

Not all change in the world of iOS is positive. iOS 13 has proved to contain a good many serious bugs. Despite a flurry of updates since its release, many issues remain unresolved including some that effect the VoiceOver screen reader. In this guide, I describe how features are supposed to work but often may not due to these glitches. The spellcheck rotor feature is a personally painful example as I conclude work on this guide. If you try something repeatedly and find that it doesn't work, keep in mind that you may be dealing with a bug rather than your own lack of skill or experience. Apple has taken drastic steps to improve iOS development in light of these bugs, which range far beyond accessibility issues. I have high hopes for a much smoother experience with iOS 14. Meanwhile, be patient with yourself and your device and hang in there.

I'm always keen to hear from my readers. Any thoughts or questions are most welcome. Email or Twitter are the best methods for making contact with me. On Twitter, my username is mfeir. My email address is

There are times when I get quite a lot of emails and tweets, so please be patient. Remember that I'm doing this on my own time. Nobody paid me to produce this guide or answer questions from whoever reads it. I love to help people and will do my best to respond to everyone in timely fashion. However, there are other projects and activities in my life that also deserve my attention. As long as you remain civil and considerate of this, I'll be happy to help. However, I won't hesitate to block and report abusive behaviour. That said, I hope you enjoy the rest of this guide and look forward to encountering you online.

Quick Start

Note: This Quick Start section gives a bare minimum of instructions needed for blind owners of iOS devices to start using them effectively. The reader is strongly encouraged to read further in this guide and/or seek more instructions elsewhere to fully grasp the potential of their iOS device and learn how to optimize their experience. Three resources are mentioned later in this section. Many more can be found in the section called Helpful Resources located near the end of this guide.


If you have an older iOS device, it may have a round concave button at the bottom of the touchscreen. This is called the Home button. Hold your device with this button nearest to you. On the left and right edges of the device, there are long thin buttons. The button on the right edge is the Power On/Off button. The shorter buttons along the left side are Volume Up/Down. Along the bottom near the Home button, there is a small port called a Lightning port. This is used for charging your device and also for connecting accessories like EarPods. More current iOS devices do not have a Home button. However, they will still have an Action button on the right side and Volume buttons on the left. To turn on your device, find the single button along the right or top edge of your device. This is the Action/Power button. Push and hold it in for around four seconds and then release. This should activate your device presuming the battery is charged. Plugging in your device or properly placing it on a wireless charging pad is a certain way to cause your device to turn on. If your device is plugged in, there will be a small chirp when it has finished booting and is ready presuming that the mute switch on your device is set to unmuted and the volume is above minimum.


These instructions presume that sighted help is available or that you have experienced help at hand. For more detailed instructions suitable for blind beginners who need to set their device up on their own, go to the final second-level heading in this Quick Start information.

Your device has a built-in screen reader called VoiceOver that makes it useable for blind people. Presuming your device is powered on, the first thing to do is activate this feature. If you are setting up your device, it may not be connected to cellular data or WiFi. In this case:

  1. Press the Home button three times very quickly. If your device doesn't have one, press the Action button on the right side three times in quick succession. This will cause VoiceOver to activate during the setup process. If you want to be able to activate and deactivate VoiceOver in this manner after setup is complete, set the Accessibility Shortcut to VoiceOver. Find it in Settings, Accessibility. This should be done as soon as possible once setup is complete so that blind users can always restart VoiceOver regardless of connectivity circumstances.
  2. During the setup process, you may hear your device begin to say "hello" in English and other languages. The easiest way of getting past this is to use the Back button found in the top left corner. This will exit the language selection process, and setup will proceed with the default language for the region your device determines itself to be in. Otherwise, you can find and double tap the button that says "hello" in the language you wish when that language is currently displayed on that button.
  3. Follow the instructions to set up your device. Read them by flicking left or right with your finger to go forward and backward. Tap twice quickly on things you want to interact with. When typing, double tap on an edit field to enter it. VoiceOver should say "is editing" when ready to type. The default method of typing is called "standard typing". Feel around the onscreen keyboard until you find the letter, number, or symbol you need. Then, tap twice quickly to enter that character. Alternatively, you can hold your finger down on the item and tap with another finger anywhere on the screen. There are three alternative methods of typing to choose from as you gain proficiency.
  4. When creating an Apple ID, choose carefully. You can use an email address you already have, if you prefer, and need not use iCloud for email. Choose a password that is easy to remember. It is your key to everything!
  5. The same goes for a passcode, which is like a PIN number you might choose to secure your device. Choose a number you won't forget.

If you purchased this device in a store and there is help available to set things up, it is even easier to activate VoiceOver. Once you are connected to cellular data or WiFi, do the following:

  1. Press and hold in the Home or Action button until a beep is heard.
  2. Say: "turn on VoiceOver".
  3. The device should then say "OK. I turned on VoiceOver".
  4. Press the Home button to return to the home screen. If your device has no Home button, touch the bottom of the screen. Hold your finger down once you've heard a short low beep or tick. You'll also feel a slight bump. Slide your finger upwards until you hear a higher short beep, and then lift it from the screen to return to the home screen.

Now that VoiceOver is on, your device will behave in a manner more suitable for sightless exploration and operation. Be aware that this will make it harder for sighted people, since they are used to different gestures and behaviour. Touching anywhere on the screen will read what is directly beneath your finger. Unlike other screen readers, VoiceOver doesn't simplify screen layout. Instead, it facilitates blind navigation and exploration.

Basic VoiceOver Gestures

Tapping twice quickly with four fingers spaced slightly apart will activate VoiceOver Help mode. This mode lets you practice gestures and announces what they will do when performed outside of Help mode. When you're finished with Help mode, a four-finger double tap will exit. Pressing the Home button also exits Help mode but also exits whatever app you might be working in, bringing you to your current home screen. VoiceOver should speak short instructions such as "double tap to open" as you move around the screen. If you don't hear such advice, go to the Verbosity section in the settings for VoiceOver and enable Hints.

Touching anywhere on the screen will speak what is displayed. To activate an item or choice, tap twice quickly on it with one finger. This is called a one-finger double tap, since you are performing two quick taps with one finger. Alternatively, you can examine the screen with one finger and select or activate things by holding your exploration finger on the desired object and then tapping anywhere on the screen with another finger. This is called a split tap. Another very useful gesture to know right away is called a two-finger double tap. This involves tapping twice quickly using two fingers at the same time. This answers and ends phone calls or causes audio such as music to pause or resume.

You can explore the screen by flicking your finger left or right. VoiceOver will move to each element starting at the top left and moving across and downward to the bottom right row by row. Flicking downward with two fingers causes VoiceOver to read continuously from the currently selected position. This allows continuous reading of books with automatic page turning. During such reading, a single tap using two fingers will pause and resume progress. Flicking with three fingers left or right will scroll one page in the opposite direction of your motion. Flicking left or right with four fingers will switch between apps you currently have open.

The Rotor

This gesture is essential for efficient use of VoiceOver. Take two fingers and imagine there is a small knob on the screen. Place the tips of your fingers on the screen as if you were grasping a knob. Rotate your fingers clockwise or counterclockwise as if you turned a knob. This will bring different settings and options into focus. An alternative method for turning the rotor is as follows:

  1. Place a finger from your left hand anywhere along the left side of the screen and a finger from your right hand across from it on the right edge. Your two fingertips should be pointing at each other.
  2. Move one finger upwards while moving the other downwards. For example, move your left finger upwards towards the top of the screen while your right finger moves downwards towards the bottom. Both fingers should move at the same time. This will turn the rotor one selection to the right. Moving your right finger upwards while the left moves downwards will turn the rotor to the left.
  3. To interact with the option selected by the rotor, flic up or downward with one finger. This will change the value of the option. For example, if speech rate is selected, flicking upwards will increase the speed, while flicking downwards will slow speech.
  4. While learning how to use your device, remember to leave the rotor on a safe option such as Characters or Words. This will prevent accidentally disabling Hints or changing volume or speech rate. Be aware that in an effort to be helpful, the rotor will automatically set itself to the Actions setting if you move onto an element that has options available.


The Settings icon is on your home screen. Double tapping it takes you to where you can configure all aspects of your device. Many settings are found within subsections of the main collection of Settings. Flicking left or right will navigate through Settings. Double tapping on a desired item will activate it. Should you wish to back out of a setting or subsection, find the Back button located at the top left of the screen, and double tap this with one finger. Many settings are toggles that can be on or off. Double tapping on these changes their state. If a setting says "button" after its value is stated, double tapping on it won't deactivate the setting. One such example is the settings for VoiceOver found within the Accessibility subsection of Settings. To get there:

  1. Flick right through Settings until you reach Accessibility.
  2. Double tap the Accessibility option.
  3. Flick right through these settings until you reach the VoiceOver option. It should say "VoiceOver on button". This indicates that VoiceOver is activated and that double tapping its option will move you into VoiceOver settings rather than deactivating it. Other major settings work similarly.
  4. When finished making adjustments, you can exit the Settings area by pressing the Home button or invoking the equivalent gesture on current devices with no Home button. This returns you to your home screen. The next time you enter the Settings app, you will be placed where you were when you used the Home button to exit or will simply find yourself in the top menu of Settings.

The App Switcher

Pressing the Home button twice in quick succession puts you in an area called the "app switcher". To reach this area on devices with no Home button, place your finger at the very bottom of the screen and slide it upward until a third high-pitched beep is heard. At that point, lift your finger and you will arrive at the app switcher. Flicking left and right will scroll through any apps you may have used and left open. Double tapping on the name of an app will take you into that app. Flicking upwards with three fingers will cause an app to close, and the app will no longer be active. The next time you open the app, you will start in a default position rather than where you were in the app when last you used it. Note that your place in books will be automatically preserved. When you return to a book, you are placed at the point where you stopped reading it.


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Submitted by alex wallis on Wednesday, May 6, 2020

HI, I couldn't get something mentioned in this guide to work. It states that if you move Braille screen input to the very top of the rotor that it will automatically be activated when you enter an edit field. However I haven't found this to be the case. Braille screen input is definitely in the right place as the heading was where it was supposed to be, but nothing. I have tried resetting my VoiceOver settings but no luck. Is it certain that placing braille screen input in this rotor position will auto activate it. I can turn the rotor manually to the braille screen input option and it works fine as I have used it for years, but just doesn't auto activate as this guide suggests it will, have others got it to auto activate.

Submitted by Ekaj on Friday, May 8, 2020

Michael, this is fantastic. I've been reading your guide throughout the week, and have come to realize something. I've had my Mac since the end of 2013 and got my iPhone on March 31 of 2018. I know how to use VoiceOver and am now comfortable doing so on both devices, but moreso on my Mac. In addition, I just got an email from Apple informing me that I've used over half of my free iCloud storage. Thanks to your guide and Apple's website, I've almost got the whole iCloud thing figured out. I've also had good guidance from others, but your guide is most helpful.