Apple's built-in accessibility features have revolutionised access to technology for the visually impaired. In this article we focus on VoiceOver, the screen reader feature integrated into all of Apple's devices. (Other features are covered in How to use accessibility on macOS & iOS.)

Learning how to use VoiceOver can be quite arduous. Let's simplify it down and teach you the basics.

What is VoiceOver and how does it work?

VoiceOver is a screen-reading feature that works on your iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. (It's also built into your Mac, Apple Watch and even Apple TV. However, we're going to be focusing on the iOS devices.)

The feature talks to you so know what options you're selecting on screen, and lets you perform various gestures on your touch screen - swipes, double-taps and rotations, rather than simply tapping things  - to produce desired effects more easily.

But first, you'll need to activate the feature. The simplest way is to hold down the Home button and ask Siri to "turn on VoiceOver". Or, you could go to Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver, and then tap the VoiceOver switch so it turns green.

How to use VoiceOver on iPhone: Turn on VoiceOver

Performing VoiceOver gestures

Now that VoiceOver is on, a black box 'target' will appear on screen, by default sitting on the icon or option at the top or top-left of the screen you're currently on, or the icon you had selected last time.

If you tap or drag your finger anywhere on the screen, the target will move and your device will speak aloud whatever your finger is touching (rather than activating the app or option touched). So for example, if your finger is on top of the Messages app, VoiceOver will say "Messages".

How to use VoiceOver on iPhone

If you want to enter the app or activate the option, you have to double-tap, but you can do this anywhere on the screen. This is one of your main gestures.

Swipe to navigate

You don't have to touch or drag your finger to the desired icon or option, however; you can just swipe left or right to navigate them in order.

Let's say you didn't want to go into the Messages app, but wanted to go to the Phone app, which is on the dock. Simply swipe right and your target will switch onto the next item. Keep swiping right until you hear "Phone". Then double-tap if you want to open it.

These are the three main gestures you need to know to navigate your phone.

  • Drag/tap to target something on the screen.
  • Double-tap to open it.
  • Swipe right or left to navigate to the next or previous item.

Scrolling

To scroll up and down in a page (a Safari web page, say, or a page within another app), double-tap the screen but hold down on the second tap, then drag your finger up or down for precision scrolling. Or more simply, you can use three fingers on the screen and swipe up or down using all three fingers. This will scroll the page up or down, depending on the direction in which you swipe.

If you want to pause the speech, simply tap once with two fingers and your device will stop speaking.

Once you've mastered the basics, you'll want to learn to use the rota. The rota allows you to read, navigate and control your device more efficiently.

The rota

To use the rota, place your thumb and forefinger on the screen and rotate, as if you were turning a dial. VoiceOver will begin reading out different functions available on the rota.

With the rota, you can read what's on the screen by characters, words, lines or even paragraphs so you have more control over what you're reading. For example, if you want to read a page and you come across a word that you can't quite understand, you can use the rota to navigate to 'Characters'.

  1. Spin the rota by using your thumb and forefinger. Keep rotating until you hear 'Characters'.
  2. Now when you're on a body of text, begin swiping one finger up to hear the next letter.

You can perform the same rota gestures to hear words or lines.

Also in the rota, you can change the speech rate, language and other options. Just perform the rota gesture and then swipe up or down to go through the targeted rota option.