Picture of the iTunes App Store iconLured in by technology once again, I purchased an iPhone 4S before my trip to ATIA Chicago in November.  Surrounded by “iPhone huggers” there, I joked that it was really an iPhone convention. Like Dr. Seuss’ Sneetches, I now had a star on my belly.  To stay in the club, I proceeded to download all the cool apps that my coworkers were using.  Then came the big, yet short-lived, disappointment – many apps are only partially accessible for low vision use.

What do I mean by that?  In many cases, the app developer has failed to properly name all of the buttons that appear in the app.  So when you place your finger on a button, instead of VoiceOver identifying the actual purpose of the button, it will simply say “Button”.  For example, in the app called “Places”, I cannot select the “Coffee” button versus the “Bars” button because VoiceOver does not distinguish between the two – they’re both read aloud as “button”.  But now with iOS 5, there is a way to get around this problem – you can create your own custom labels – and it’s easy!

Here’s how you do it:

  1. With VoiceOver on, single tap on the button you wish to label.
  2. Perform a two-finger double tap and hold (leave your fingers down on the 2nd tap) anywhere on the screen.
  3. You’ll hear three dings and a “Label Element” edit box appears.
  4. Type in your custom label using the onscreen keyboard or a Bluetooth keyboard.

Or, on the iPhone 4S, you can dictate instead of typing!  Here’s how that works:

  1. Make sure Siri is on in Settings > General > Siri.
  2. Select the Dictate button, which is just to the left of the spacebar on the onscreen keyboard.   Wait for the hint to tell you what to do – it will say “Double tap to start dictation – two finger double tap when finished”.
  3. So, do as it says – one-finger double tap, then speak the name of your custom label, for example, “Coffee”.
  4. Two finger double tap to stop dictating.
  5. It will say “inserted Coffee”.
  6. Select “Save” then double tap.

Derek and I created a video to show you just how easy the process is.  Watch it below or go onto YouTube and watch it there:

Once you get a feel for the dictation process, you can label a screen full of buttons in no time.  I’ve relabeled buttons in the “Places” App and my new “Motion X GPS Drive App” – a walking or driving, turn by turn, navigation app.  For the benefit of all, when you discover an inaccessible app, don’t forget to leave a comment in the App Store requesting that they make their app fully VoiceOver accessible.  While testing, I deleted the Places app and re-installed it from the App Store on the same device.  I was very surprised that my custom labels were saved, so I didn’t have to label them again.

The ability to create custom labels has provided consumers who are visually impaired with a very empowering tool to use when they don’t want to wait for the developers to update the app.  Since I have carefully labeled the buttons in my GPS Drive app, I should be able to find my way home, instead of the nearest airport (that would be a long walk) and I should expect to find a cup of coffee on the way instead of being directed to the closest bar.  If that happened, I would no longer have a technical excuse for the “innocent” mistake.

Sorry for my lack of knowledge about Android but I have heard that they have a similar way to label buttons as well.  If you need help or have questions about your iDevice’s accessibility, email accessibility@apple.com.