By Shelly Brisbin
February 8, 2023 9:30 AM PT
Checking in on the accessibility of the Dynamic Island
Every hardware innovation from Apple brings some version of this question to my mind: “Yeah, but how does it work with VoiceOver?” Or any other relevant accessibility tool, for that matter. Before I got my hands on them, I asked this question about Apple Watch, Apple TV, and even the MacBook Pro’s touch bar. And as part of my ongoing adventure in documenting everything the iOS platform offers for accessibility, I needed to pay a visit to the iPhone Pro’s Dynamic Island.
The island is an interface that also hides Face ID and the front-facing camera. You’re meant to interact with the pill-shaped space visually, glancing at it to unlock the phone, or to gather tiny bits of information about what’s going on in a supported app.
Now, being visual doesn’t make an iOS feature inaccessible. Far from it. But it raises questions for the accessibility nerd about how information will be delivered to to a non-visual user, and what gestures are needed to get and control it. Most times, it’s extremely straightforward — notifications can be read by the VoiceOver screen reader, and they can be interpreted by other accessibility tools, too. You can have VoiceOver speak the notifications if you want. (I do not want, by the way.)
But my curiosity about the Dynamic Island centered on the seemingly incidental nature of the data offered – the status of a phone call, duration of a timer, or what song Music is playing. It’s not necessarily a notification, meant to capture your attention. And even if Dynamic Island could give up its secrets to VoiceOver, would the user get anything from it they couldn’t find elsewhere? Can a VoiceOver user save taps and swipes with Dynamic Island the way a non-VoiceOver user can? Is Dynamic Island a selling point for the Pro phones if you’re blind?
Is it, or isn’t it?
First of all, the Dynamic Island is accessible. If an app puts content there, VoiceOver will be able to read/speak it. The screen reader does not announce that there’s currently information on the Dynamic Island, a la notifications. But you can flick through the status bar or explore by touch – essentially, drag your finger in the general vicinity of the island until you hear its contents spoken. When you encounter Dynamic Island with VoiceOver on, it’s selected, just like any other screen element. That means you can double-tap (the VoiceOver equivalent of a single-tap) to open the current host app, or use a double-tap-and-hold or a rotor action to expand the island’s display. Either is the equivalent of a standard long press. The rotor also includes Activate and Dismiss actions, to open the app or empty the island’s contents.
Expanding the Dynamic Island gives VoiceOver access to whatever control the current app provides. Adjust volume in Music, mute your mic during a phone call, switch to the Remote app while AirPlaying to an Apple TV. Just as in any app, the controls are accessible to VoiceOver with a double-tap, and you can collapse the display again by double-tapping outside it.
Flexible little pill
I set a lot of timers: sometimes it’s my sandwich in the toaster oven. Or maybe I’m reading a script aloud and need to know how long it took. An active timer’s countdown appears in the island. Just pass your finger over the pill to have VoiceOver read the display.
If something else, like Music, is already displaying data there, a timer button appears in a space of its own, to the right of the main Dynamic Island. Visually, the timer button updates with a visual representation of how much time remains. To access the countdown with VoiceOver, you’ll need to expand the timer. It would be great to have VoiceOver read time remaining when I flick to the unexpanded timer button.
There’s one way in which the Dynamic Island experience with VoiceOver is superior: If you’re listening to audio, whether from Music, Spotify, Overcasts, Audible, or another supported app, swiping into the island causes VoiceOver to read the track and artist. Visually, there’s only a tiny album art thumbnail at one end, and a pulsing waveform indicator on the right, that tells you something’s playing.
Island on the go
Maps has a few Dynamic Island tricks. Just as the app will display a card if you’re not in the Maps app as you navigate, Dynamic Island delivers tiny status updates instead, including arrows indicating turn direction and distance. VoiceOver speaks these, just as it does when cards appear onscreen. If you expand the island’s contents, you can even end a route immediately. This is a real time-saver over returning to Maps, pulling up the card and choosing the End Route command.
More and more third-party apps offer Dynamic Island support. For a busy traveler using VoiceOver, FlightAware’s updates save both time and lots of flicks and taps. If I were a baseball fan, I’d want my scores flashed atop my phone screen, once again saving me the trouble of digging into the app that provides them.
Though Dynamic Island might not be enough of a justification on its own for some people to splurge on an iPhone Pro, it’s not only well-implemented for VoiceOver, but occasionally provides info more quickly than a host app can.
[Shelly Brisbin is a radio producer, host of the Parallel podcast, and author of the book iOS Access for All. She's the host of Lions, Towers & Shields, a podcast about classic movies, on The Incomparable network.]