Historic event: Google expands “accessibility” to include cognitive disability

I’ve never seen anything like this from Microsoft, Apple, or Google — until today …

Action Blocks: one tap to make technology more accessible

we’ve been experimenting with how the Assistant and Android can work together to reduce the complexity of these tasks for people with cognitive disabilities…

… Googler Lorenzo Caggioni used the Assistant to build a device called DIVA for his brother Giovanni, who is legally blind, deaf and has Down Syndrome. DIVA makes people with disabilities more autonomous, helping them interact with the Assistant in a nonverbal way. With DIVA, Giovanni can watch his favorite shows and listen to his music on his own. ..

… Action Blocks is the first of our many efforts to empower people with cognitive disabilities, help them gain independence, connect with loved ones and engage in the world as they are. 

The product is still in the testing phase, and if you’re the caregiver or family member of someone with a cognitive disability that could benefit, please join our trusted tester program. Follow us @googleaccess to learn more.

I’ve been making noises for years that smartphone accessibility should go beyond hearing and vision to cognitive disabilities. The silence has been complete. I thought action would require litigation or regulation.

I’m so pleased Google is taking this step. They went first. Nobody can take that one away! I am disappointed that Apple has done nothing. Maybe Google’s lead will move them. I have many many ideas Apple is free to use.

My book project is about iPhones, not Android phones, but if we were using Android phones I’d sign up for that tester program.

Managing web access on iOS for Explorers (and for younger children)

My current thoughts on managing web access on an iPhone. I wish Apple gave us better options, I haven’t heard of any improvements coming with iOS 13. I don’t mention third party solutions — I tested those extensively years ago and decided they weren’t worth pursuing. That’s not a fault of the vendors, Apple needs to do more.

When it comes to giving parents and Guides web management tools Apple has left room for improvement.

My first recommendation for managing web access on the iPhone is to disable it completely! This seems extreme, but in practice most of the things we do on our iPhones are better done using an App rather than using Safari. In addition Apple’s other solutions, like “Limit Adult Websites” don’t work reliably.

To disable web access I recommend two measures, though in theory either would suffice. From Settings:Screen Time tap on “Content & Privacy Restrictions”, then tap on “Allowed Apps[1]” and toggle Safari off. On the same settings screen find “Content Restrictions”, tap on “Web Content” and set it to “Allowed websites only”.

For most Explorers that will suffice. Some Explorers, however, will discover that installing Chrome, or any of dozens of App Store browsers designed to circumvent Screen Time, will defeat these restrictions.

If there truly is a need to maintain restrictions then the next step is to remove all alternative browsers and either turn off the App Store or set an Apps age limit of 12+ (see Managing app installs). This is extreme, but I haven’t found anything else that works and is practical to maintain.

If an Explorer makes developmentally appropriate web content choices, and is not particularly vulnerable to exploitation, another approach is to accept Apple’s default settings and use Screen Time reports to monitor web sites visited. This requries configuring Screen Time to show web sites. I have more on that below.

I’ve not discussed Apple’s option to “Limit Adult Websites”. There’s no documentation on how Apple does this and in my experience it’s not reliable. There’s one circumstance it which it may be useful though. If an Explorer has a problem with a particular web site, and just wants help avoiding it, you can enable this feature and then block a particular site (ex: reddit.com). It’s easy to work around this kind of block, so this is for a mature Explorer who wants help avoiding a particular site. You will find this setting under Content Restrictions:Web Content.


Managing the apps an Explorer can add to their iPhone

This is my understanding of the iOS 12 options a Family Organizer can use to manage what apps a family member under 18 [1] can install:

IOS app installation control

Disallow install: Screen Time:Content & Privacy Restrictions:iTunes & App Store Purchases
Set age limit: Screen Time:Content & Privacy Restrictions:Content Restrictions and tap on Apps
Ask to buy: Organizer Apple ID:Family Sharing. For each family member under 18 enable “Ask to Buy”.

For now Guides supporting an Explorer’s application use will usually want to enable “Ask to Buy”. It doesn’t help much with managing App installation, but it’s important for managing expenses.

If an age limit works for an Explorer that’s a relatively effective option.

If an Explorer needs at least one adult app, but needs to avoid some of them, you can’t use the age limit method. A Guide has to disallow app installation, which hides App Store.app completely. In this case an Explorer cannot browse the App Store. This is not a great solution.

What we really need is an “Ask to install” in addition to “Ask to buy”, but what we have is Disallow install. I haven’t heard if iOS 13 is better.

– fn –

[1] At this time Guides of special needs adults need to set the adult’s Apple ID birthdate so their calculated age is 13-15 years old.

Letter to Senator Amy Klobuchar on Apple’s Screen Time failures

I wrote a few weeks ago that iOS 12 Screen Time bugs blocked book work. Today I returned to the fight and this time I found more reports on Apple Support and on Twitter. In one case a very tech savvy user fought their way up the tier of Apple phone support before they were dropped.

Maybe Apple will fix this is in iOS 13 — but I’ve not seen reports of any fixes. My guess is their original design needs to be redone. That’s expensive, and by and large the media and politicians have moved on. They may assume that Apple actually did provided an effective solution rather than an effective description.

That’s why I wrote this letter to the Senior Senator for Minnesota. Please consider writing a similar letter to your Representative or Senator.

Dear Senator Klobuchar,

I’m writing as a parent, a healthcare provider, and as someone with a special interest in using smartphone technology to enhance the independence of special needs children, teens and adults.

I’d like you and your staff to be aware that Apple is not living up to its promises to provide “Screen Time” tools to manage how smartphones are used and abused by vulnerable persons. The tools they provided in iOS 12 last year look good in demonstrations, but they have serious bugs. In testing I’ve done as part of a book project (smartphones for special needs independence – www.sphone4all.com) I’ve seen Screen Time simply stop working. I’ve seen this happen with non-test devices too. There are unanswered reports on this in Apple Support. Twitter has reports of users pursuing this high in Apple Support without a response.

There are many more things we need Apple to do beyond fixing their existing product. They should open the API to 3rd party products that can better serve vulnerable users of all ages. They need to redo some poor design decisions. But first they have to produce a working product.

I’m hoping that Congress won’t be fooled by Apple’s marketing. They have strong incentives to not provide a working solution that reduces device misuse. We will need to hold their feet to the fire for years to come. Thank you for your help with this!

Book hiatus: iOS 12 Screen Time is a mess.

I’ve spent about 8 weeks plugging away on one critical chapter in my iPhones for All book project on supporting independence for special needs adults. It’s a chapter on enabling safe use and it’s forced me to do a deep dive into what works and what doesn’t work with iOS 12 Screen Time.

Today I gave up. The proverbial last straw was when I used remote Screen Time to disabled “Store Purchases & Redownloads” and … nothing happened. It believe this worked before, but this time it had no effect.

I might have triggered the bug by toggling it on and off and exploring “Ask to Buy” behaviors or by switching “Content Restrictions”. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. It’s not the only bug I’ve run into, it’s just the latest one.

iOS 12 (remote) Screen Time is a mess. I’d read that it was a rush job. I’m sure it was. I think Apple bolted it on to their problematic Family Sharing infrastructure and discovered too late that the challenge was ten times bigger than they thought it was.

I don’t know if Apple will fix Screen Time in iOS 13. I’ve seen rumors that they might redo it, but I fear the problems are too deep to be fixed in a single release iterations. I also worry that the political pressure is off of Apple.

I’m going to focus on other parts of the book project and wait and see if iOS 13 is any better.

Apple “Ask to Buy” isn’t useful for managing app installation by children or Explorers

Apple’s Family Sharing has an “Ask to Buy” option for users (Explorers) under the age of 18 [1].

It seems like a good option for managing installation of apps and media. It isn’t. It’s only a good option for managing initial purchases. 

If an app or media has been previously purchased by a family member or by the Explorer, it can be downloaded without creating a request to the Family Organizer [2]. 

Incidentally, the way Family Sharing works family members over 18 can download without Ask to Buy and the Family Organizer will be charged for the app. Apple really doesn’t want adults using Family Sharing, including dependent adults.

– fn –

[1] Most of Apple’s parental control features only work when their Apple ID birthdate gives a calculated age of under 18. A birthdate over age 13 can be changed, a birthdate under 13 cannot be changed.

[2] If you try this by the way you’ll see a longstanding problem with family sharing by the way. There’s nothing in the initial display to show that a commercial app is free to download. A family member user only learns it’s free after they request it and are told it’s available for free.

Managing iOS web restrictions – the web problem and the Chrome problem

[Special thanks to one of my Explorers for teaching me about this.]

After quite a bit of experimentation I’m sort of satisfied with a fairly simple approach to managing iOS Screen Time for everything except the web.

I start by defining all the apps that always available: email, iMessage, Calendar, Find Friends, Music and so on. It’s a list of useful but kind of boring apps that Explorers can have available anytime.

Next I set an overall daily limit for use of all apps. Lastly I set Downtime for work on day breaks. It’s not a perfect solution [1] but it covers the bases for all but the web.

The web is another story. Apple isn’t much help here and I’m not sure anything works that well. I am coming around to the idea of blocking all web access for younger or more vulnerable Explorers. To do this you have to do two things:

  1. Toggle Safari off in Content & Privacy Restrictions:Allowed Apps
  2. Set Web Content to Allowed Websites Only and delete the items on the Allowed Site list.

The second measure blocks Chrome use and I believe it will block many embedded browsers as well. 

Blocking all web access has less impact now than it would have had five years ago. A lot of functionality has moved from the web to apps.

If you want to allow web access things get complicated. Apple’s iOS 12 Web Content restrictions work for both Safari and Chrome [2], but the “Limit Adult Websites” doesn’t work very well [3], and there’s no longer a way for an Explorer to request adding a blocked site to the “Allowed Websites” list. (In prior versions of iOS an Explorer could remotely request additions. I miss that feature.)

The best I’ve been able to do with Apple’s iOS 12.2 tech is to:

  1. Set Web Content to Allowed Websites Only.
  2. If Chrome or other browser is installed set App Limit on Chrome to 1 min (we want a 0 min limit, but that’s not available). Alternatively, if you have limitations on app installation, remove Chrome and don’t authorize reinstallation.
  3. Set App Limit on problem websites to 1 min.

How do you set App Limits on individual apps or websites?

Well, thanks to Apple’s famous focus on user experience and intuitive user interfaces that’s really easy …

Hah, hah. Just kidding. It’s insanely obscure.

From a Guide’s iPhone go to the Explorer’s Screen Time settings. Enable “include website data”.  Now tap on the Report of time used. Yeah, tap on the Report of hours and minutes.

You’ll now see the Secret Power User Screen Time Controls (SPUSCTC). Look at Most Used. You can toggle between Apps & Websites and Categories. From Apps & Websites you can see individual sites visited in Safari, not in Chrome or other browsers, just Safari.  You can tap on an App like Chrome.app, or an individual web site, and set a limit. You can’t set a limit of 0 minutes (that would be nice), but you can choose 1 minute.

If you do this regularly for a few weeks you may be able to manage high risk web activities for a vulnerable Explore. Or you may find you just need to turn the web off.

You have to block Chrome by preventing installation or limiting use to “1 minute” because these site specific restrictions only work for Safari [4]. An Explorer who installs Chrome can bypass them all. 

PS. Dear Apple, I’d be willing to redesign your Screen Time app for very modest fee. I swear you don’t need to add a lot of new features or do anything hard.

– fn –

[1] We’d be better off if Apple added an Apple Limit Category of “All but always allowed”. That would significantly improve Screen Time use. Define always allowed, then set a time cap for everything else. I’d rather listening to music didn’t count against the time cap.

[2] You may need to toggle airplane mode on a Guide’s iPhone to see the effect of changes. Otherwise they take a while to show up.

[3] Pornhub and other well known sites are blocked, but it’s not hard to find a universe of unblocked adult sites.

NYT on Apple’s Screen Time failures and the assault on third party alternatives

The New York Times has a pretty good article on the existential crisis facing vendors who have tried to provide parental control (parenting support) services for iOS devices:

Apple Cracks Down on Apps That Fight iPhone Addiction – The New York Times, Jack Nicas, April 27, 2019
… Over the past year, Apple has removed or restricted at least 11 of the 17 most downloaded screen-time and parental-control apps, according to an analysis by The New York Times and Sensor Tower, an app-data firm. Apple has also clamped down on a number of lesser-known apps.

In some cases, Apple forced companies to remove features that allowed parents to control their children’s devices or that blocked children’s access to certain apps and adult content. In other cases, it simply pulled the apps from its App Store…. 

…. On Thursday, two of the most popular parental-control apps, Kidslox and Qustodio, filed a complaint with the European Union’s competition office. Kidslox said business had plummeted since Apple forced changes to its app that made it less useful than Apple’s tool.

Apple also faces an antitrust complaint in Russia from Kaspersky Lab …  which said Apple had forced it to remove key features from its parental-control app. The company is exploring a similar complaint in Europe, a Kaspersky spokeswoman said.

… In early 2018, two prominent Wall Street investors urged Apple to address concerns that people were becoming addicted to their smartphones. In June, the company announced plans for tools to help iPhone owners track and limit their and their children’s phone use. It began offering the tools in September, tucked into the phone’s settings menu.

Shortly after announcing its new tools, Apple began purging apps that offered similar services.

Apple told the companies that their apps violated App Store rules, like enabling one iPhone to control another, although it had allowed such practices for years and had approved hundreds of versions of their apps.

Apple allows corporations to use such software to control employees’ phones. But last year, the company stopped apps from using the software to enable parents to control their children’s devices. The Apple spokeswoman said Apple had blocked the practice because app makers could gain access to too much information on the children’s devices. [jf: I think this means ability to access protected data that can be misused by vendors, such as Contacts.]

Unlike apps such as OurPact, Apple’s tools don’t allow parents to schedule different times throughout a day when an app is blocked — for school or family dinner. And Apple’s tool blocks adult content only on its Safari web browser and some apps, not on other browsers or many popular apps, like Twitter, YouTube and Instagram…

Apple’s tool has another shortcoming: It requires the whole family to own iPhones. Many apps removed by Apple allowed parents with iPhones to control their children’s Android devices.

Apple has also limited the options for adults who want to fight their own phone addiction. In August, it abruptly pulled down the Freedom app, which allowed users to temporarily disable certain apps and websites. Mr. Stutzman, Freedom’s chief executive, said that to return to iPhones, he was forced to stop blocking apps and to block sites only on Apple’s Safari browser.

Apple’s tool now appears to be one of the few ways to disable apps, if not the only one. Yet when a user hits an app’s time limit on Apple’s tool, it provides a single option: “Ignore Limit.” [jf: This is not quite correct, but I understand why they got his wrong.]

The app makers said they were most frustrated by the process of meeting Apple’s sudden demands. In many cases, Apple alerted them that their apps would be removed — and their businesses crippled — via a short note, according to correspondence viewed by The Times.

When app makers asked for more information, responses were often perfunctory and slow in coming…

I give the NY Times a lot of credit for tackling this topic. Mr Nicas probably needed a stiff drink after finishing this. It’s a complex problem.

On the one hand, Apple is right. I spent quite a bit of time testing Qustodio and it’s competitors prior to the release of enhanced Screen Time. None of them were acceptable. They all had business model issues or were easy to bypass, or didn’t quite work, or had weird side effects. I can believe they all broke App Store rules and that good devs would have known that.

On the other hand … Apple tolerated these apps. Then Apple both abruptly enforced rules and added new ones (allegedly blocking use of corporate MDM). Apple also shipped a half-built solution that has big bugs (if you enroll a device in remote Screen Time you can never truly remove it), almost non-existent documentation (especially for remote Screen Time), works only within the iOS ecosystem (no web interface), is both very complex and also insufficient, requires complex side-effect rich family sharing that ends abruptly at age 18, and is understood by almost nobody. Did I mention the #$! bugs?

Oh, yeah, and Apple’s new Screen Time is really lousy at managing web sites and the Safari app. It’s a significant regression from iOS 11 Restrictions. (My guess is that Apple figures the web is dead, so not worth worrying about.)

So there are sins on both sides, but as the best outside judge anyone is going to get I rule against Apple. They made a good initial effort on Screen Time but then they stopped work. They aren’t fixing their bugs. They haven’t provided a toolkit outside vendors can use to provide features Apple doesn’t provide. They have been as brutal to these vendors as they’ve been to all but the big and powerful. The one thing Apple has succeeded at is ending the external pressure they were getting.

I’d love to see Congress put some pressure on Apple. They need to finish the work they started, then they need to refine it and provide an API vendors can use to support unique needs, such as extended support for special needs adult. I’m available to testify!

Enabling remote Screen Time for an Adult Explorer

In a previous post I covered setting up local Screen Time in iOS 12. Remote Screen Time, where a Guide can manage an Explorer’s screen time from the Guide’s iPhone works similarly, but it requires setting up Family Sharing and possibly changing an Explorer’s birthdate. Here’s the draft version of that setup:


It’s great to be able to manage an Explorer’s Screen Time settings from a Guide’s iPhone. There’s some setup required however — with an extra step for an adult Explorer.

There are two things that have to happen to enable remote Screen Time management of an Explorer’s iPhone from a Guide’s iPhone. First, the Explorer has to be part of a Family Sharing group for which the Guide is an Organizer. Second, if you want to be able to Block rather than just Remind, Apple must think the Explorer is under 18 years old.

Apple’s describes setting up “Family Sharing” in the User Guide and a support article[1]. I describe it further in Buying apps and media for an Explorer’s iPhone. Briefly, start by searching iPhone Settings for “Family”, tap on Family Sharing, and add people by their Apple ID email. You can add up to five people (Apple IDs).

Then, for the entire Family, you choose which “Shared Features” to enable. One of them is “Screen Time”. For each Family Member tap on Screen Time, then enable it. Your family member will receive an invitation to join which they can then accept. Typically a Guide would do this for their Explorer with the Explorer’s iPhone at hand.

If a Family Member is not set up as a Parent/Guardian they can have Screen Time settings. If Apple thinks a family member is more than 18 years old they will be able to override any Screen Time limits. If Apple thinks a Family Member is under 18 then limits can be created that only an Organizer or Parent/Guardian can override. Apple calls these “Blocks”

For some adult Explorers a true Block may be the best choice. To enable this you need to change the Explorer’s birthday in their Apple ID setup. This is easy to do. From the Explorer’s iPhone tap on their name at the top of Settings (Apple ID). Tap “Name, Phone Numbers, Email”. Scroll down to Birthday, tap on the Birthdate, then change it. For my Explorers I have set the birthdate so that they are “14” at the time of the change. I have not found any side-effects with changing birth dates but I suggest writing down what date you chose. That might be important if an Explorer ever needs to establish their identity to Apple.

Although this setup is not hard it’s not ideal. There’s more Apple could do to support Adult Explorers. They could separate Screen Time from Family Sharing, and they could eliminate the need to give an adult Explorer a child’s birthdate. These are topics I’d hope advocacy groups will help with. I’ll address them again in the last chapter of this book.

[1] https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT20108

Screen Time – the quick setup guide

I’m still rewriting Screen Time advice. Decided to put together the simplest possible setup for “Local” Screen Time (not using family sharing screen time). This give 90% of the value of more complex use.


Using the Explorer’s iPhone open Settings:Screen Time. Tap “Turn On Screen Time”. When asked “Is This iPhone for Yourself or Your Child” be sure to tap “This is My Child’s iPhone”.

The next screens ask about Downtime and App Limits. Tap “Not Now” for both.

Set a Parent Passcode. Don’t use the Explorer’s phone passcode! This has to be a 4 digit number and the Explorer would not normally know it. Don’t lose the passcode, you can’t reset it.

That’s It! You’ve enabled Local Screen Time. You haven’t set up any restrictions though, so your Explorer won’t notice any difference in their iPhone.

Go back to Screen Time:Settings and do these three things:

  1. Always Allowed: Tap on “Always Allowed” and add apps that every Explorer should always have access to. Basically everying that’s useful but boring[1].
  2. App Limits: Tap on “App Limits”, then “Add Limit”, choose “All Apps & Categories” and set a daily limit of, say, 3 hours. Be sure to enable “Block at End of Limit”[2].
  3. Downtime: Tap on “Downtime” and enter time that Explorer is at work or school.


That’s it. You’re done! With this setup the “Always Allowed” apps are never disabled. So your Explorer can alway use their Calendar, Reminders and so on. During work or school hours (Downtime) games, social media and the like won’t work. For the rest of the day “fun” apps can be used for a maximum of 3 hours. (Productivity apps count against this limit too, but most people use these less than 10 minutes a day.)

If an Explorer runs into a limit the non-permitted app will stop working and the Home Screen icon will show a small timer icon. They can bring the device to a Guide who can enter the security code and override the block for a few minutes or for the day.

– fn –

[1] Example: Messages, FaceTime, Maps, Books, Calculator, Calendar, Camera, Compass, Contacts, Find Friends, Health, Mail, Notes, Photos, Reminders, Voice Memos, Weather. For many add Books and Music and consider Podcasts. If your Explorer uses Googe Maps then add that too.

[2] This is easy to miss. If you don’t do this then your Explorer just gets a notice they can override. In some cases this is what you want, but that’s more advanced use. “Block at End of Limit” is the default.