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Teaching iPhone with VoiceOver to Adults

Strategies for introducing an iPhone with VoiceOver to an adult family member who recently lost his/her vision

Multiple times each month, I receive emails from people who have a family member with recent vision loss who are seeking information on how to introduce technology (typically an iPhone) with a screen reader. Often the family member with the vision loss is a senior citizen who may or may not have tech skills prior to their vision loss. While Paths to Technology’s mission is focused on education for students with visual impairments, there are many appropriate posts for learning tech at any age. This post may also be appropriate for an older student with a recent vision loss or change in vision. The strategies in this post were specifically written to support an adult  (Mary) who is interested in introducing her mother (a senior citizen) to using an iPhone with VoiceOver.  Mary’s mother has tried to use magnification, Speak Screen, and other accessibility features but Mary reports that her mother does not have enough vision to access these tools. Mary is unable to meet with her mother in person due to the Pandemic. Below are the suggestions and strategies that I shared with Mary.


Since your mother’s vision loss is significant, learning to use a screen reader is going to be the best option for accessibility. Teaching students is a little different than teaching adults as the goals are a bit different. Paths to Technology is geared for teaching students, but with that being said, there are many posts that would be appropriate for you/your mom.

Establish Goals

With adults – especially seniors – the iPhone goals are usually to use the phone for phone calls, text messages, and maybe some internet searches or emails. (Students are using devices to access classroom materials and to complete assignments, so they need to know more complex commands and have a deeper understanding.)

If possible, initially have someone with your mom in case she needs assistance. When I train students remotely, I love to use a Zoom meeting or FaceTime on a second device, so that I can see the student’s figners on his/her device. Since your mom is learning to use tech with a screen reader, she may not know how to join a Zoom meeting or FaceTime. If possible, have someone there at the least first lesson to set up a virtual meeting. It’s challenging to train remotely if your mom cannot use tech independently or only has her phone – the device you are training her on!

Note: If both of you have Apple devices, try FaceTime, as she simply has to answer your call with a two-finger double tap if VoiceOver is running. You will need to figure out how she can position the FaceTime device so you can view her hands on her iPhone.  


Set Up

Make sure that she is successful from the start. This means that someone needs to initially set up her phone for her, including adding in phone numbers and emails (if desired) of people that she might want to contact. Also add VoiceOver as an accessibility shortcut so that it can be turned on/off with a triple click on the Home button.

Settings > Accessibility > (scroll to bottom) Accessibility Shortcut > select only VoiceOver


I would suggest teaching these tasks in order.


Always practice the skills yourself before asking your mom to do them!

Depending on her confidence, you can choose to teach a bunch of Siri commands to do various tasks or you can start teaching VoiceOver gestures.

Additional Siri commands include (but not limited to):

Again, tailor the lessons to what she wants to learn.

Have your mom practice the skills regularly (daily if possible) before adding a new skill, unless she is a quick learner or has previous tech experience!

Phone Call

Practice answering and hanging up a phone call with VoiceOver.

Learning VoiceOver Skills

Next, work on learning the basic understanding – such as the general layout of the phone, what apps are, how text messaging works, etc. She may already know these things from using technology before her vision loss. I would confirm understanding of the general layout of the home pages and then of an app that she wants to use.

Turn on VoiceOver (use Siri or triple-click home). Have her drag her finger systematically (left to right starting in the top row) around the home screen and listen to the information given. If she wants to open an app, one-finger double tap (quickly) or drag and split tap (drag with the index finger, leaving the index finger on the screen, drop a second finger briefly on to the screen).


Getting Started with VoiceOver on the iPad (this post is about iPads, but iPhone is the same. The only difference is that the iPad will sometimes have two columns such as in the Settings app and some mail apps) but the iPhone will only have one column due to the small screen size.

Teaching VoiceOver Gestures: 1-Finger Tricks and Tips (first in a series of gestures) Be sure you learn about Drag and Split tap!!

iCons and Earcons: Critical But Often Overlooked Tech Skills – listening to the VoiceOver earcons (sounds that have meaning) is critical! Be sure and read this post to better understand screen readers like VoiceOver.

When you are ready to dive deeper, go to my YouTube channel (Diane Brauner) and look at the playlist, iPad Accessibility for Teachers of the Visually Impaired. There are short video tutorials here to help you with more complex tasks. The videos are a few years old, but the basic information is still viable.

Remember, YOU need to learn VoiceOver first. I recommend that YOU turn VoiceOver ON and leave it on your phone for two weeks! Work at your mom’s speed. Break everything down into small steps and set her up for success! Many seniors are not tech savvy, so take it slow, have patience, let her learn and practice until she “gets” it and becomes independent and comfortable with that task. REVIEW and practice to build muscle memory so that she does not have to think about what she is doing!

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By Diane Brauner

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