iPhone doesn’t have to be so complicated: using Assistive Access with Sight Loss

Assistive Access open on iPhone screen with large app icons

by David Redmond

Let’s get some small bits out of the way. If you’re already a pro-VoiceOver user, using your iPhone without issues, and doing all the normal iPhone things, then this feature isn’t for you. It may well benefit people you know though so stick with me.

What is Assistive Access?

In its simplest form, Assistive Access simplifies iOS by only including core features. Everything gets cut down and made much bigger, resulting in it oftentimes being easier to see. While you can use third-party apps, the beauty of the feature is in its customised apps for calls, messages, photos, cameras, and music.

Everything becomes a list. The Home Screen is a simple scrolling list of apps, the call and message apps are just lists of contacts with big photos to guide you, and the music app is a simple list of playlists. And when you want to go home, just press the big back button at the bottom of the screen.

There are no gestures, tabs, notifications, settings, pop-ups, none of it. If you want a walled garden experience that ties you just to the features you need, then this is how to do it.

This way of working has many advantages. Some people simply don’t want the complexity of a smartphone, calling and texting is all they want. You could set up the phone with just the desired apps, let’s say in this example, calls, messages, music, and RTE News. Then that’s all that shows up on the massive home menu.

There’s no fear of going into something and getting lost, you’re using the iPhone with ultimate safety rails on. It’s limiting, but for some people that simple predictable interface is a dream.

Cool features

The simplified apps are highly customisable, and you can add or remove features you want. The likes of a dial pad, on-screen keyboard, and video recording, that’s all optional. There are some hidden features though that are incredible, yet they’re not part of mainstream iOS.

In messages, you can have the phone read a message by simply tapping. No VoiceOver needed. Just tap and it’s read. This is a feature I would be setting up for everyone if it were in mainstream iOS. Sure you can hold and select speak from a menu in standard IOS, but touch-to-read is just better.

Siri can work, as can VoiceOver, but both must be enabled before putting the phone in Assistive Access mode. You can’t adjust any settings in assistive access, and VoiceOver is no exception. Your accessibility shortcut will not work, with the triple click instead asking for your Assistive Access exit code.

Alphabetic passcodes for phone unlock are not supported, so the passcode must either be numerical or disabled. A separate code is required to exit the mode and return to normal iOS, and this code is mandatory.

To avoid pop-ups, you must go through all an app’s permission requests when adding it to the mode at setup. Once the mode is configured you’re really not going to be touching it again.

Apple Pay is disabled and be warned that if you remove the passcode from your phone to test the feature then all your cards will need to be re-added when you come back to normal. This caused me some issues with AIB and Revolut, so just be aware of that if you decide to play around.

Who is this feature for?

Those who use this feature are not going to be using a smartphone. They will effectively be using a simple phone in a smartphone’s body. This might be great for kids who just need a few games and to be able to call mam or dad. It might also be brilliant for older users who don’t want all the bells and whistles of a smartphone.

The way the feature is designed I could also see it being very beneficial for those recovering from a stroke for example. Because everything is large and simplified it’s a lovely tool to help people build up to standard iOS again if that’s what they want.

There really are many use cases for this feature and I’d love to see it be further developed in the years to come.

Is it good?

Look, I’m not in the market for this feature, but I can still appreciate this in the same way I can appreciate something like Dolphin’s Guide Connect.

For some people, a full operating system is just too much, and this gives those people the opportunity to use an iPhone instead of just being handed a Doro phone by their family.

While I do think it does need some more features, the ability to have third-party apps is a brilliant opportunity to create an experience that’s accessible to all users.

With that though an awkward question must be asked.

Has technology become too complicated?

I’m a tech nerd, so in a way, I almost feel dirty asking this question. I’m 22 and have no issue working with insanely complex apps, but the vast majority of people I find myself working with are over 60, and many don’t want all the complexity. They just want the simple solution to do what they need.

If I look at apps I use on a daily basis such as TFI Live, Revolut, Just Eat, Amazon, and Fitness, these apps are all extremely complex. Why can’t we have an app that just shows in big writing when the next bus will come, or how many steps I’ve taken? I can see a real market for developers to provide light versions of apps for those who simply don’t want all the fancy stuff.

I have family members who use Revolut, but get me to do the admin because it’s just, too, complicated. They don’t care about crypto trading or wealth management, they just want to know if there topped up enough for the weekly shop in Aldi.

While I’m always going to love complicated tech stuff, I can definitely understand the frustrations of people who just don’t want to deal with it. Apple’s Assistive Access mode is a great start, but it doesn’t fix the societal problem facing many of the people who will likely use it.


Assistive Access is really interesting. It feels simultaneously impressive while also being super simple. It does create many questions though. Some are just standard like why can’t we have tap to read messages in standard iOS? But others are far more fundamental around how technology has left some generations behind.

Hopefully, the feature will benefit many in the future, and it’s great as always to see Apple’s innovation with accessibility.

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