Posted on by & filed under accessibility, epub, html5, ibisreader.

Liza and I have long been interested in making ebooks more accessible. Both Bookworm and Ibis Reader reflect that goal (with limited success—accessibility can almost always be improved). However, our focus has always been on improving the web version of Ibis Reader rather than the installable HTML5 App that many people use on their iPhones, iPads, and (increasingly) Android devices. Some of our users wanted to try out the installable App, which has the benefit of working offline, using Apple’s VoiceOver on their iOS device. Happily, a recent performance update (switching to columns-based layout) means that Ibis Reader is much more usable in VoiceOver, so I wanted to document how to use the two systems together.

Note: Many users may still prefer ebook applications that offer a more straightforward interface to VoiceOver than what I’ve described—I’m just happy we have a starting point from which to improve.

[Update: The reading mode has just been updated to have more useful “Next” and “Previous” links, as I describe in Reading, below.]

As a sighted user, I’d love to get feedback on how to make these instructions clearer and how we can improve the accessibility of Ibis Reader.

VoiceOver and iOS

Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader is available on both the Mac and on iOS devices. There’s a good web overview and a much longer Accessibility section in the iPhone User Guide [PDF].

You’ll need to turn on and get used to the VoiceOver gestures before trying the steps below.


Start the installation process by opening the Mobile Safari browser as usual. Next, visit the URL, where you’ll immediately be prompted to “Increase Database Size?”. Select the “Increase” button (on the right) to give Ibis Reader some space for storing ebooks on your device. Next, you’ll install it.

“Installing” an HTML5 App like Ibis Reader is mostly just getting it onto your Home Screen:

  1. Select the “Utilities” (VoiceOver’s name for it) button from the center of the bottom row of buttons. It used to be a plus symbol in previous iOS releases and is now a box with an arrow to the right.
  2. Select the second button in the Utilities menu, “Add to Home Screen”. This will give you an “Add to Home” form with an Ibis Reader icon (just like any other App from the App Store) and an editable name (the default is “Ibis Reader”, unsurprisingly).
  3. Finally, select the “Add” button from the top right (it’s one left-swipe “before” the editable name, where the focus starts).
VoiceOver selection of the Utilities menu button for the install page

You’ve now got an Ibis Reader icon on whatever page of Apps iOS fancifully decides to place it. Discover and open it in the usual way.

When it opens for the very first time ever, Ibis Reader has a brief introduction screen that pops up. You’ll need to follow the “Start Reading” link, which is the third or fourth item on the page. After that you’ll be sent to the “Get Books” section, which I describe below in Finding Books, but I’d actually sign in or register first.

When we first launched Ibis Reader, we were focused on making it as straightforward as possible to get started reading with a minimum of hoops to jump through. That means that we let people browse for new books before logging in and made the login and register screens exactly the same (they’re both tiny, with just an email and password field). However, if you’re just starting with the App, go ahead and follow the “Sign in” link first (it’s the link in the top right corner of the screen or the third item from the top of the screen). Fill out the fields as normal and you’ll be sent to the My Books section (which will be empty).

Basic Interaction

Ibis Reader is, at its heart, a web application. That means that you should be able to use most of the VoiceOver gestures and navigation techniques you’ve learned from browsing the web in Mobile Safari inside the Ibis Reader App. However, there are few parts of the Ibis Reader interface that are based on “touch” events rather than HTML links, so you’ll need to get used to the double-tap+hold gesture (accompanied by a rising series of three tones), which switches you between VoiceOver’s gesture mode and the “native” one. [Update: We’ve improved the UI to make these “touch” events unnecessary for VoiceOver users.]

For much of the App, we have a header bar with three relatively big buttons showing the navigation choices. On an iPhone-sized screen, these take up roughly one third of the screen each, but on an iPad two are huddled together on the left with the third on the right. The navigation choices are:

  • My Books, Get Books, or Sign out (or in): this is the Home of the App, where you browse your library, find new titles, and where you go if you select “Home” (surprise!) from another part of the interface
  • Close, Read This Book: these are the options when you’re looking for new books
  • Home, Book Info, or Settings: this is the Reading Info section of the app, which shows your options while reading a book (this typically won’t be used by VoiceOver users)
  • Back (top left corner): this is how you return from the Book Info screen to the book text

If you’ve started reading a book, Ibis Reader will remember where you left off and open right to that page when you start the App the next time. Unfortunately, because VoiceOver users won’t need to “turn” any pages, you’ll start back at the beginning of the section each time. I’m not sure what the best workaround is for this.

Finding Books

VoiceOver selection of the first item in the Get Books list, Feedbooks: Popular Public Domain

In the “Home” section of the App, the second item on the page is “Get Books” (roughly in the middle of the top), where you can browse popular Public Domain and Original content from Feedbooks. If you haven’t used Ibis Reader before, browse or search the titles in “Feedbooks: Popular Public Domain” (the first item on the list on the page) to find something interesting. VoiceOver will read you the title and author of each book. When you’ve found one you want, select the one you want (it’ll probably repeat “[the title], link”. If you have VoiceOver read from the top of the page, it will give you the books details and a description (if present). To download the book and start reading it, select either “Read This Book” link (there’s one before and after the description). After selecting it, be prepared to wait until it has downloaded an loaded (might be a while depending on your connection. VoiceOver should read the first page when it’s ready (maybe “Cover image” or similar). Now on to the description of Reading.

If you’ve already used the (more accessibile) web version of Ibis Reader at, you’ll have titles in your library in the cloud that you can download to your device by following the “Browse your Online Bookshelf” link (about the fourth element on the page) from the My Books section. Navigating your uploaded books is exactly the same as navigating the Feedbooks content (they’re both delivered as OPDS Catalogs under the hood.)


The experience of reading works great in Ibis Reader. The normal “Two-finger flick up: Read all from the top of the screen.” gesture works well and will read a whole section of text without having to turn the page (although others looking at your screen may be confused). Unfortunately, switching between sections of the text isn’t as accessible as it could be, as it relies on both a very good TOC from the publisher inside the EPUB itself and some “native” tap gestures. [Update: Switching between sections is easy too: just choose one of the “Next” or “Previous” links from the very top or bottom of a section (these links are only visible to screen readers). Remember: You can use a “four-finger tap at top of screen” to select the first item on the page, like the “Previous” button, or a “four-finger tap at bottom of screen” to select the last item on the page, like the “Next” button. Note: For existing titles, you may have to delete the book from your device and re-download it from the “My Online Bookshelf” link to get these buttons.]

VoiceOver reading the first page of a section of content in the Reading mode of Ibis Reader from top to bottom

To get out of the Reading mode and back to the My Books section, select the “Home” link between the “Next” and “Previous” buttons.

My Books

VoiceOver selection of the third element of a My Books list, The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane

This part of the “Home” section lists the books you’ve downloaded to your device for reading. Because Ibis Reader stores everything in the cloud, you don’t need to worry about deleting titles here because we’ll keep a copy at the main website if you ever need to get it back onto your phone or tablet again. Like the Get Books list, these are just a list of the title and author(s) for each book, and selecting one will open it to your last known reading position.


2 Responses to “Using Ibis Reader and Apple’s VoiceOver”

  1. Frank Lowney

    Certainly visually impaired persons will find this a great benefit but it may have wider utility than that. Sighted persons reading a book shouldn’t always be looking at a screen. While driving for example. I have actually seen people driving on major highways trying to read paper. Maybe the iPhone readers are less easy to detect and are even more numerous – a frightening thought.

  2. Keith Fahlgren

    Some additional info on four-finger tapping: My fingers are big enough that I have to do the four-finger tap with two hands rather than one (on the iPhone, not an issue on the iPad). A single tap with all of the fingertips at once at the very top of the screen will select the first element (often the Previous link for Ibis) and a tap at the bottom will select the last (Next for Ibis). Note that you do not have to keep all four fingers exactly in a straight line. When I do it, I just have to get my first and second fingertip from each hand in the bottom quarter of the screen to do it.