Siri Shortcuts: A Quick Path to Accessibility for Blind and Visually Impaired Users?

iPhone Users Living with Visual Impairments May Benefit Most from Siri Shortcuts

October 10, 2018
blind couple walking and logos of siri and shortcuts app

Siri Shortcuts, made available on iPhones following the release of iOS 12, allows both simple and complex commands actions to be performed with a single voice command. For users who are blind or visually impaired, the new functionality may prove not only convenient, it could help improve accessibility.

“Hey Siri, Let’s Get Going Today”

Michael Babcock has been blind since birth.

When he awoke on the morning of September 16, Michael’s routine started by opening the settings in his iPhone X and turning ‘do not disturb’ mode off.

He then double tapped the ‘Lire’ app icon – his RSS reader of choice – and found the refresh button, which also required a double tap.

Next, he swiped to a different page and did the same to open ‘Overcast,’ an app for playing podcasts, searched for the most recent episode, and hit play.

Finally, he found his way to his task manager app, OmniFocus, and check his inbox.

The following day, thanks to the release of iOS 12 and Siri Shortcuts on September 17, those steps could be replaced by one simple phrase spoken aloud: “Hey Siri, let’s get going today.”

After Siri delivers a friendly ‘good morning’ and tells Michael the time, all of the above actions are performed automatically.

While such shortcuts make life easier for any user, for those who are blind, visually impaired, or indeed anybody who has difficulty interacting with touchscreens, the benefits may prove to be particularly distinct.

Shortcuts in Short:

  • Released along with iOS12 in September.

  • Allows many functions of apps to be triggered by custom voice commands. For example, saying “Hey Siri, is my flight on time?” can trigger TripIt to bring up your flight details and speak them aloud.

  • Some apps, including TripIt, Google News, MyTherapy, and The Weather Channel, can automatically prompt you to create a shortcut for key features.

  • More complex chains of command that trigger actions from multiple apps, such as Michael’s “let’s get going today”, can be created within the Shortcuts app.

  • Websites such as Sharecuts allows users to share their custom shortcuts for others to use and modify to suit their own needs.

What Are Siri Shortcuts?

With the release of iOS 12, Apple allowed app developers to build ‘shortcuts’ directly into apps, which allow particular functions to be performed by Siri with voice commands of your choice. You can trigger these commands through your iPhone, Apple Watch, HomePod, and via Apple CarPlay.

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You can add shortcuts when prompted within apps or in the Siri area of the settings. Siri will also recognize patterns and make shortcut suggestions based on your behavior.

As well as making your most-used features available via a voice command, Apple has allowed developers to make use of the Siri interface, which means apps don’t actually need to open to perform the task. Siri simply responds with the relevant information.

These shortcuts are used to execute simple commands. More complicated strings, such as Michael’s, can be created using a dedicated app called Shortcuts.

The app allows you to string together multiple actions, both from apps and system-level functions such as WiFi, Bluetooth, and volume controls.

They can also be used to control certain home automation functions via HomeKit, as well as third party apps that support Siri shortcuts, such as Philips Hue.

Users not familiar with the precursor to Shortcuts, Workflow, may find the app somewhat complicated and overwhelming.

“We sometimes forget, those of us who love this stuff and find it intuitive, that touch screens are not intuitive for everybody and they are actually quite daunting for some people who see them as a necessary evil to get the apps that they really want to use,” said The Blind Side podcast presenter, Jonathan Mosen, in a recent episode discussing Siri Shortcuts.

He believes assistive technology (AT) instructors can play a key role in enabling a wide range of users to benefit from shortcuts.

“If you’re an AT instructor you could create these shortcuts, learn how to do them and create these shortcuts for other people and, I guess, make the learning curve a little bit less steep.”

As more people share their shortcuts online, it will also make it easier for users to benefit from their functionality without needing to write the shortcuts themselves.

Does Siri Shortcuts Increase Accessibility?

Shortcuts may not strictly be classed as an accessibility tool, but it could be argued it is capable of making apps more accessible.

“For a blind individual specifically,” explains Michael, who provides coaching for blind business owners and hosts the Your Own Pay podcast, “Siri Shortcuts helps him or her have to not flick and double tap through the interface of applications that might be accessible, but sometimes take a bit more to get through.

“A great example was recently displayed on a podcast called The Blind Side [mentioned above], talking about a radio tuning application that was not very accessible.

“However, with Siri shortcuts, the presenter was able to set up a shortcut to play his favorite station, and then trigger this via his voice.

“This then allowed him to play the station via his voice and interact with player controls such as pausing with built-in iOS playback features.

“In doing so, he made a fairly inaccessible application accessible to him.”

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Michael also points out that being unable to see where an app is or the location of a particular button within an app presents challenges. Having a tool that reduces the need to do so can reduce one’s reliance upon VoiceOver – the function that reads aloud what is on the iPhone screen.

Chris Danielsen, of the National Federation of the Blind, does not consider Shortcuts to be an accessibility tool, but agrees that blind and visually users will benefit from the new features in much the same way sighted users will.

“Our definition of accessibility is that a blind person can obtain all the same information, perform the same functions, and engage in the same interactions with an app, with substantially equivalent ease of use to that experienced by sighted people,” Chris explained.

“Since to our knowledge Siri doesn’t allow a blind person to access all functions of any given app, it doesn’t provide true accessibility, although it does provide a convenient way to access some app functions, as it does for everyone else.

“Again, this isn’t to minimize the impact of Shortcuts; they can make everyone’s life more convenient, including the lives of blind people. Furthermore, we are pleased that blind people, like everyone else, can create our own Siri shortcuts, because the Shortcuts app is itself fully accessible.

“No doubt, blind users will find many ways to make many tasks quicker and more convenient through Shortcuts, as will sighted users. But at least in the view of the National Federation of the Blind, accessibility has to encompass all the functions of an app, not just selected ones.”

Early Days for Siri Shortcuts

Only a handful of apps currently support Siri Shortcuts, and many of those that do have only scratched the surface of what is capable.

In the coming months we will no doubt find more apps adding support for shortcuts, doing so in more advanced ways, and even new apps being released that are specifically designed to work efficiently with shortcuts.

While all iPhone users stand to benefit from these developments, those living with visual impairments may do so most of all.

Take a look at some of the other posts on the MyTherapy blog:

screenshot of MyTherapy medication reminder

Your accessible medication reminder app

MyTherapy medication reminder app is compatible with accessibility features such as Apple VoiceOver and Android TalkBack. It is one of the first apps compatible with Siri Shortcuts, making it the perfect medication reminder for anyone living with visual impairment.