Cartoon drawing of an iPad with speaker symbol indicating VoiceOver talking.
Guide

How to Use VoiceOver with low vision

An overview of VoiceOver screen reader settings that are helpful for low vision users.

I used to struggle a lot when using VoiceOver with low vision because I didn’t realize how many customization settings and gestures there were for VoiceOver users until one of my friends with no usable vision sat down with me for a few hours and demonstrated several different features. Since that initial lesson, I’ve become much more comfortable with using the VoiceOver screen reader to navigate my iPad, iTouch, and the occasional Mac computer. Today, I will be sharing my favorite tips for how to use VoiceOver with low vision, with a special shoutout to my friend IP for showing me a bunch of cool features!

VoiceOver vs spoken content/speak text

What’s the difference between a screen reader like VoiceOver and text-to-speech like Speak Text?

Speak Text reads text, image descriptions, and icons on a page, but does not impact how a user interacts with content or announce navigational information, repeat text, or announce information unprompted. Speak Text is activated with a two finger swipe down gesture, by selecting from a drop-down menu for a text selection, or with another shortcut.

VoiceOver reads out all information, all the time. Text, image descriptions, icons, navigational information, keyboard input, VoiceOver always has something to say and is continuously enabled unless a user turns it off. VoiceOver also has more options for customizing speech output, braille displays, and other accessibility features.

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Options for configuring VoiceOver

There are a few different options for turning VoiceOver on and off, including:

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Adjusting voice settings

Speaking rate

Speed up or slow down the speed for VoiceOver speech output. I feel most comfortable with a slower speed, though many of my friends with no usable vision use it at a much faster speed. The speaking rate for VoiceOver can be customized separately from the speed for spoken content/speak text.

Speech

The default VoiceOver voice on my device is Samantha at 50% pitch, a female American voice. There are several different VoiceOver voices for different languages that are available, and users can have different voices set for different languages. Anecdotally, many of my college friends prefer British or Australian English voices because they are easier to identify and they emphasize syllables differently.

Another setting that can be configured in speech is pronunciations for words, acronyms, symbols, and similar information. For example, I added the correct pronunciation for my friend’s name since VoiceOver did not recognize it.

Braille

I don’t read braille, but users have the option to connect VoiceOver to display text on a refreshable braille display, and adjust braille screen input and output settings.

Verbosity

My friend was surprised that I had struggled so much with learning VoiceOver since I normally have pretty strong tech skills, but I told them that I often felt overwhelmed with everything that VoiceOver had to say. They then asked me if I knew how to make VoiceOver be quiet, and apparently turning the device off was not the correct answer.

Verbosity controls what information is spoken by VoiceOver or that has an audio cue assigned, such as:

Users can customize how they want this information to be conveyed with speech, braille, sounds, pitch changes, or not conveyed at all/do nothing. One setting I found particularly helpful was to add the emoji suffix, so that I would know if something was an emoji vs written out in text.

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Commands and gestures

There are a few different options for creating custom commands and gestures, with the main two I use being touch gestures and keyboard shortcuts.

For touch gestures, users can customize what actions take place when tapping, swiping, rotating fingers, or scrubbing with 1-5 fingers. For example, a two finger single tap can toggle speech on and off for VoiceOver, while I created a custom shortcut for turning on the screen curtain/turning off the display of the device.

For keyboard gestures, users can modify or delete keyboard shortcuts by creating their own commands, which are prefixed with the VoiceOver modifier key Control + Option.

More on the screen curtain

The screen curtain turns the device display off, but the device remains fully functional with VoiceOver, allowing users to navigate their device with gestures and no visual display. A couple of my friends prefer to use their phone this way while out in public, though it is also helpful for practicing VoiceOver gestures in an assistive technology lesson.

Customizing VoiceOver activities

Sometimes, I want to use different VoiceOver setttings for certain activities or applications- for example, I might be able to use a faster voice speed for checking my email. Users have the option to create custom routines and settings with the Activities feature, which allows for custom speech and audio, verbosity, typing, braille, and other types of settings. Activities can be automatically activated when opening specific apps, or apps that fit in a given category such as messaging, word processing, or social media.

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Typing with VoiceOver

If I have VoiceOver on, I prefer to type with a physical keyboard as I find it more comfortable to work with, though users can also use swipe gestures or double tap on letters to type with the touch screen keyboard. Another popular method with several of my friends is to use dictation or ask Siri to send a message, though I would caution against relying on Siri since that requires an internet or data connection.

Other tips on how to use VoiceOver with low vision

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com

Updated August 2023; original post published September 2018

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