Accessible click and drag on the iPad

The latest iPad OS 13.3 allows you to perform an accessible drag with dwell selection using AssistiveTouch. And there are at least three other methods that might meet your needs for a more accessible drag. Here’s a step-by-step guide to go through each option and help you choose the one that’s best for you.

Accessible click and drag on the iPad. Image of an iPad with the words "accessible drag" drawn on the screen.

This post is inspired by a question that came in to the QIAT listserv. The student in question uses an external trackpad to access the iPad, with dwell selection instead of physical tapping. The question was how to do a click and drag with this setup, which is a task the student needs to do for completing assignments.

In this post, I’ll share four ways of doing a click and drag on the iPad, including a method that meets this student’s accessibility needs.

Overview

Click and drag is a basic action used to do things like: move an item to a new location, highlight a specific section of text, draw things like lines and shapes, and more. Now that the iPad supports the use of mice and other external pointing devices, users can do click and drag with their pointing devices, not just their fingers. This opens up the possibility for a more accessible drag action, if the usual finger method is difficult or impossible. But how exactly do you do it?

Let’s look at four different ways of doing an iPad click and drag with a mouse or other pointing device. We’ll go through each one with an eye toward the accessibility of each one for people with physical impairments.

My setup and the basic drag method

These methods will work with any pointing device that acts like a mouse, such as a trackpad or a trackball, whether connected via USB or Bluetooth. When I was testing out these methods, I used a regular USB mouse connected to my iPad Air 2, with a Lightning-USB adapter to connect the mouse. I’ll use the term mouse button or click to refer to the click action on any pointing device, like a single tap on a trackpad, or a button on a trackball.

My basic click and drag task for this post was to do freehand drawing within the Notes app. The iPad supports the “typical” drag method, where you hold down the mouse button while moving the mouse cursor at the same time. So to draw in Notes with the basic method, I just move the mouse cursor to where I want to start, then hold the mouse button down and move to draw.

Need for a more accessible drag

The basic method is fine for some people and some usage scenarios. But having to hold down the mouse button while you move the mouse can be inconvenient, tiring, or impossible, especially if you have any upper extremity impairments. A more accessible drag action would let us separate the mouse button hold from the cursor movement, so we wouldn’t have to do both at the same time.

One general way to do this is to tell the iPad that we want to start a drag, and have the iPad virtually hold down the mouse button for us. Then we’d just move the mouse to accomplish the drag. We’d need a way to tell the iPad when we are done with the drag, so that it can “release” the mouse button. The Drag Lock method and the Hold and Drag method below both use this approach, in slightly different ways. A second general way to separate the button hold from the cursor movement is to use a physical button, as in the latching button method below.

Drag Lock method

The Drag Lock method allows you to activate a drag lock so that you can drag without having to hold down the mouse button at the same time. Drag Lock is a setting within AssistiveTouch, an accessibility feature built-in to iPadOS. You need to set it up before using it.

To set up Drag Lock:

  1. Turn on AssistiveTouch. Settings > Accessibility > Touch > AssistiveTouch.
  2. Turn on Drag Lock, within the AssistiveTouch settings (near the bottom of the page).

To use Drag Lock:

  1. For a regular click (no dragging), click the mouse button briefly.
  2. To activate a drag lock, press and hold for about a second, until you hear a beep to indicate that drag has turned on. When you hear the beep, release the mouse button.
  3. Move the mouse to accomplish your drag. Drag mode should be locked (as if you are holding the mouse button down).
  4. Press briefly to release the drag lock. Now the mouse will function as usual.

Thanks to Dave Gilbert of Pretorian UK for clarifying exactly how Drag Lock works — it’s not immediately obvious and not documented anywhere that I could find.

See this video for how Drag Lock works:

So using Drag Lock depends on the user being able to press and hold with enough control to: activate the drag as desired (hold for about 1 second) and not activate the drag when not desired (hold for less than 1 second for a regular tap). Finessing the mouse button like this is not easy or possible for some users, so let’s look at a couple of other options.

Dwell selection

First, a bit of background on dwell selection. Dwell selection allows you to execute an action, like a tap, by holding the mouse cursor still for a settable amount of time. It’s built-in to iPadOS. To use it, turn on Dwell Control within the AssistiveTouch settings. This can be a good alternative to physically pressing the mouse button, but you can’t use dwell selection to use the Drag Lock feature described above. That’s because there’s no way to create a quick-press vs. a press-for-1-second using dwell.

That’s the problem faced by the student in the original QIAT post, who uses dwell selection for clicks and an external trackpad for cursor movement. Windows and macOS have long had a solution to this problem, but there hasn’t been a built-in iPad solution until very recently. With the release of iPadOS 13.3, we now have a Hold and Drag action — let’s see how that works.

Hold and Drag action method

iPadOS 13.3 now includes a Hold and Drag action within the AssistiveTouch menu (on the second level, under Custom). So when you use AssistiveTouch, this Hold and Drag action is automatically available to you. (I haven’t found any documentation on this action, but it is there.)

If you are using dwell selection, here’s how you can use Hold and Drag to execute a drag action:

  1. Select Hold and Drag from AssistiveTouch menu (requires 3 dwells, by default: choose AssistiveTouch menu, choose Custom, choose Hold and Drag).
  2. Dwell on the drag starting point
  3. Drag as desired by moving the mouse cursor
  4. Dwell on the end point to release the drag

This does take a total of 5 dwells, which could be a bit time-consuming depending on your dwell time, but I think it is the only method that works with dwell selection. See this video for how the Hold and Drag action works:

The Hold and Drag action also works with regular physical button presses, offering an alternative to the Drag Lock feature, for those who prefer this method.

If you like the Hold and Drag action, you can put it on the top level of the AssistiveTouch menu, thus saving one selection for every drag. This will displace an existing top-level action if you already have 8 actions on the top level, but it may be worth it if there is an action you don’t use all that much.

Latching button method

OK, so far we’ve reviewed 3 methods of dragging on the iPad: the usual hold-the-button-down way, and two methods within AssistiveTouch — the Drag Lock feature, and the Hold and Drag action. A fourth method is to use a latching physical button dedicated to the drag function. Some accessible pointing devices like trackballs and joysticks have a drag button built-in, such as those produced by Pretorian Technologies. Some of these also allow you to connect a switch of your own choosing to serve as the drag button. You’d want to make sure that the pointing device itself is a good fit for your needs, for cursor movement and other features.

To drag using the latching button method:

  1. Click the dedicated drag button.
  2. Move the mouse cursor to accomplish the drag.
  3. Click the drag button again to release the drag.

So this method does require a physical button press (rather than a dwell selection). In that sense it is very similar to the built-in Drag Lock feature, with the important difference that it uses a button devoted to the drag action, so it does not require a timed press-release the way the Drag Lock feature does. Compared to the Hold and Drag action method, the latching button method may be more efficient, since you do not have to first dig into the AssistiveTouch menu to select the Hold and Drag action before executing your drag.

Another way to provide a dedicated drag latching button is to use something like the Ablenet Dual Switch Latch & Timer. This requires some extra hardware and interface cabling, but I’ll mention it in case it sparks a useful solution for someone with unique needs. (Feel free to comment below if you’d like more details about this option.)

Which method should I use?

Here are some general guidelines for choosing each method of click and drag, in rough order of consideration:

  1. Basic – consider if you have no trouble holding down the mouse button while moving the mouse cursor
  2. Drag Lock – if you have no trouble producing a quick-click vs a 1-second-click with the button on your pointing device
  3. Hold and Drag action – if you use dwell selection successfully (and have trouble with physical button pressing)
  4. Latching button – if it is easy to physically press the drag button. For buttons built-in to the pointing device, make sure you also like that pointing device for its cursor movement and other features. If using as a separate switch, make sure you are OK with the cabling and positioning.

Feel free to comment below (or email me at hhk@kpronline.com) to discuss details about how these methods might meet particular needs.

It is amazing how much there can be to say about one seemingly simple action (drag) on one platform (iPad).

What methods have you tried???

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