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By Shelly Brisbin

The real secrets of iOS and accessibility

To change text size for notifications, open Control Center’s Text Size option on the Home screen or Lock screen,and choose Home Screen Only.

There’s a joke I tell a lot: if you encounter an article whose headline includes the words “secret features” and “iOS”, chances are you’re about to be taken on a whirlwind tour of your phone’s accessibility settings. “Did you know you could….?” Or. “Buried deep in iOS settings, you’ll find…”

Truth is, these aren’t secret features at all; they’re just unfamiliar to people whose eyes, ears and hands operate in a typical way. And these “secrets” are rarely written about, even in comprehensive coverage of iOS. “Invisible” might be a more honest way to describe these tools.

I can make a better case for the secret feature moniker when it comes to little-known ways you can use the accessibility suite to do typical iOS tasks, whether you have a disability or not. iOS accessibility has layers, is what I’m sayin’. So let us peel some back.

Shortcut triggers

Like shortcuts themselves, some tools within the iOS accessibility suite exist to make it quicker or easier to do a thing on your device. But you can combine them: instead of yelling (or typing, which is a thing you can do if it’s difficult for you to speak) at Siri to launch a shortcut, try double-tapping the back of your phone or assigning a VoiceOver gesture. Back Tap lets you assign all sorts of system tasks to a double or triple-tap of the phone, and that includes shortcuts. When you go to Settings > Accessibility > Touch > Back Tap, you’ll find all of your installed shortcuts among the many things you can assign to one of the two available taps.

Through VoiceOver commands, you can use a touch gesture (three-finger single-tap, for example) to run a shortcut. Or you can assign a keyboard command to do it.1 In Settings, go to Accessibility > VoiceOver > Commands, then choose Touch Gestures or Keyboard Shortcuts to assign one to a shortcut (or any number of system options.) I’ve assigned a three-finger single-tap to call a shortcut that enables the Overcast podcast app’s sleep timer.

AssistiveTouch being displayed on an iPhone
I’ve added a couple of shortcuts to the AssistiveTouch main menu.

You can also kick shortcuts off with AssistiveTouch. Doing so is much like using a Home screen widget, but might appeal to someone who’s already using the AssistiveTouch feature because swipes and pressing gestures are challenging. AssistiveTouch puts gestures like summoning Control Center or returning to the Home screen into a grid of buttons. You can also create your own gestures by drawing them, then assign them to system tasks, including shortcuts.

To add a shortcut to the AssistiveTouch menu, configure it with a trip to Settings > Accessibility > Touch > AssistiveTouch. To add a button for a shortcut, choose Customize Main Menu, select a button from the grid, and choose a shortcut from the list. When you turn AssistiveTouch on, a semi-transparent button appears on the Home screen. When you select it, you’ll see the AssistiveTouch menu, including your shortcut buttons.

Per-app text size settings

Now we’re going to choose the size of text for individual apps, rather than the system as a whole. The first thing to know about text size choice in iOS is that there are two scales – the Text Size slider you’ll find in Display & Brightness settings, and the options you’ll see under Accessibility > Display & Text Size. The largest standard text size (135%) is a little under the midpoint of options within accessibility size settings. The max accessibility size gets you to about 310%. These sizes are presented in percentages because that’s how dynamic type works – sizes are relative, not expressed in absolute point sizes. If you can’t adjust text size in a particular app, it’s because that app’s developer has chosen to not support dynamic type.

But back to per-app sizes!

The ideal dynamic type size for me is usually that top standard setting, 135%. In text-heavy apps, like Mail, or a social media app, I want something a little larger. In Messages, I want the text to be larger still, so I can glance at a text quickly.

App-specific text sizing is a one of iOS’s per-app settings. The rest have to do with contrast, use of color, and the visibility and transparency of visual elements. In other words, they’re focused around features that assist people with low vision. When you add an app to the list in per-app settings, you can customize a number of appearance settings, based on your specific visual needs, and any issues the app presents that prevent you from using it.

screen shot showing mail app with different text sizes
The Mail screen on the left has text size cranked up to 135%. Using the Text Size Control Center item in per-app mode, I’ve boosted text size into the accessibility range, at 160%.

The iRobot app, which I use to boss my Roomba vacuum around, does not support dark mode. So I use per-app settings to enable smart invert colors instead. I no longer need to jump in and out of invert colors, based on whether an app supports dark mode.

To enable per-app settings, you add the app to the list in Settings > Accessibility > Per-App Settings, then configure the iOS options you need for this app. Options here include text size, but you don’t actually need to configure per-app settings to tweak the text size you see in a specific app. That’s because Control Center offers an express train to text size adjustment.

First, add the text size control to Control Center, if it’s not already there. Now open an app whose text size you want to change, and keep changed. I’ll use Mail. Open Control Center and then Text Size. Flip the toggle below the vertical slider to Mail Only. If you haven’t changed text sizes before, the slider probably shows 100% (default). I’ll raise mine to 160%, which is within the range of accessibility text sizes. When I return to Mail, list text and individual message text will reflect the change.

Try this with any app that would benefit from larger (or smaller, for that matter) text than usual. If you do this on the Home screen, notification text will change. as will some text in Today view. You can’t enlarge lock screen widget text, unfortunately, or even media player text on the lock screen. And if an app doesn’t support dynamic type, none of this will work.

Speak the screen to me

I don’t use the VoiceOver screen reader on a daily basis, but I do often like to consume text in audio form. And I like to continue using my phone for other tasks while I’m doing it. With VoiceOver on, reading pretty much takes over the device. With the Speak Screen feature enabled instead, a two-finger flick downward starts my phone reading an article or message aloud.

Like VoiceOver, Speak Screen can draw on a robust set of included voices – far more than are available to Siri – and you can make adjustments to pitch and speaking rate as you set it up. Do that in the Spoken Content section of accessibility settings. Turn Speak Screen on, and configure voice settings, if you like. But really, all you need to do is find something you’d like to read, and do that two-finger flick downward from the status bar. If you’ve chosen the Show Controller setting, you’ll see the controller onscreen, and be able to stop and start speech, change the speaking rate in real time, or dismiss Speak Screen altogether.

Building on what’s there

This isn’t a comprehensive list of cool invisible features or configuration options based in the accessibility suite. What I take from these, and the others I document when I write about iOS accessibility, is that there are usually more ways to accomplish a thing than you think, and that some of the cleverest accessibility bits in iOS can be found a few layers below the surface.

  1. Note that the VoiceOver screen reader must be running for these commands to work. 

[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.]

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