• Smartphone Accessibility for the Blind – How are we doing?

    By Jon , August 17, 2016 - Leave a comment

    Blind woman with cane using her iPhone in a park.

    This article comes compliments of Steve Nutt at Computer Room Services.

    Introduction – What Is Accessibility Anyway?

    Accessibility, in this context, is where a smart phone has inbuilt capabilities to either speak, display its information in Braille, or both. Braille can only happen if you have what is known as a refreshable Braille display.

    The aim of this writing is not to explain accessibility in detail, but to summarise the accessibility landscape and to try to explain what makes a phone accessible, as there are several parts to this. In order to do so, I will take the main operating systems and explain the accessibility pros and cons.

    This article is not about personal preference, I am just trying to be impartial about phone accessibility. Also, the order in which I am placing the operating systems is purely alphabetical, and does not indicate a particular preference on my part.

    I would say the hardest part of accessibility comes from third party apps. Some are great and some are totally inaccessible. The way to make an app accessible is to follow the accessibility guidelines of the OS manufacturer, whether that be Google, Apple, or anyone else. Not all app developers follow these guidelines by any means. Indeed, some developers don’t even know that accessibility services exist in phones, while others try to make their apps as accessible as possible. I have found though that usually, if I report accessibility issues to a developer, they are more often willing to work with me to resolve them, than not. There are exceptions to this, but not many.

    Android

    Android has a built in screen reader, developed by Google, called Talkback. You can also download a service from the Play Store called Brailleback, should you have a Braille display.

    AccessibilityTo turn it on, go to Settings, Accessibility, then Talkback. You will land in a Talkback tutorial. I suggest going through it, if you are not familiar with how Talkback changes the gestures.

    As with all other operating systems, the gestures are changed to assist blind people in operating the device without activating things by accident. What happens is you can either flick left or right with one finger to get all the screen elements in order, or you can feel round the screen. If you do this, the icon on which your finger lands is announced. You then simply lift your finger and double tap or tap twice, anywhere on the screen, to open the icon you last heard. If you are using the flicking method, you simply double tap the screen when you hear what you want to open. This is common to all operating systems. Beyond that, they each have their own gestures to help someone with visual impairment move effectively around the operating system.

    Accessibility services also includes magnification, but as I am totally blind, I don’t feel qualified to talk about that here, but it does exist in some form in all of them.

    Android, while being the most customisable in general, has upsides and down sides where accessibility is concerned. The biggest problem with accessibility on Android can be the extra “Skin” or “Overlay” that manufacturers put on top of Android.

    It is true to say that the best accessibility experience is with a Google Nexus phone, because it is stock Android with no additional bells and whistles. The one shining exception to this rule is Samsung. While some of their apps could be considered in general bloatware, they are the best, other than Google themselves, at providing accessibility capabilities in their phones and tablets. HTC just happen to be one of the worst.

    These problems are also compounded by custom ROMs. The Wileyfox Swift for example, is a great little phone, but Cyanogen Mod seem to be a little behind where accessibility is concerned. The phone app itself is an example of an app that has accessibility issues. The four tabs along the bottom can not be seen by Talkback and simply do not read. This is because they have not followed Google’s accessibility guidelines, see web page links at the end of this article.

    In general though, Google’s implementation of accessibility is great, but they have really just caught up in the last year or so. Prior to that, accessibility was there, but was more clunky than, for example, iOS. Google have pretty much caught up though and accessibility can be seen across Google apps. Accessibility was first introduced, I believe, in Gingerbread, and has come on in leaps and bounds.

    BlackBerry

    Blackberry have a very basic screen reader, simply called Screen Reader for their operating system. To me, it never really seems to have progressed beyond very basic functions. However, with phones like the Blackberry Priv being an Android phone, this should improve accessibility to Blackberry no end, although I have not tested the Priv as yet. Generally though, I would say accessibility is relatively poor here.

    iOS

    Apple’s screen reader is called Voiceover and provides both speech and Braille on iOS devices. To turn on VoiceOver, you can simply triple tap, that is tap three times quickly, the home button and the phone will immediately enable accessibility services. To turn it off again, simply triple tap the home button.

    Apple introduced accessibility to their iPhones way back, beginning with the iPhone 3GS. They have a very strong commitment to accessibility. Until recently, I would say that they were the best devices to get for accessibility, but Android are now levelling out with them. The advantage of iOS in terms of accessibility, is that every phone and iPad has the same level of accessibility. There are no custom skins, ROMs, no manufacturer bells and whistles that can change the way Apple delivers accessibility services. In the case of third party apps though, they can be just as accessible or inaccessible as those on Android, if Apple’s guidelines are not followed. If they are though, iOS is a great operating system for accessibility.

    Braille_Display

    Windows Phone

    Microsoft used to be more accessible, ironically, with Windows CE, Windows Mobile. Then with Windows 8 and 8.1, they pretty much dropped the ball with it I’d say. However, now with Windows 10, accessibility is coming together again, although I would say it is nowhere near as polished as iOS or Android’s implementations.

    In my limited testing, I have a Nokia Lumia 950, I found Microsoft’s own apps to be accessible, but whereas Facebook have made some effort on iOS and Android to be accessible, none is made in the case of Windows Phone. I wonder if this is because of the popularity of the operating system itself? It seems to me that Android and iOS are the most dominant platforms now and fortunately for us, they are the two most accessible operating systems out there.

    Conclusion

    As a blind person, I would say we’re in a great place right now, as far as accessibility is concerned. Android and Apple have really raised the bar in terms of what phones we can now buy with the confidence that we can use them. The others mentioned above have it, but accessibility doesn’t seem so polished with them. It is great to know that we, like a sighted person, can walk into a store, pick up a phone and have it talking, so that we can decide on whether to buy it or not. I would say, if you’re an Android or iOS fan, go for it. The times have never been so good for accessibility as they are now, and they are getting better all the time. Microsoft and Blackberry have some work to do, but I am hopeful they will get there.

    Web Sites

    Google Accessibility: http://www.google.com/accessibility
    Blackberry accessibility: http://uk.blackberry.com/legal/accessibility.html
    Apple accessibility: http://www.apple.com/accessibility
    Microsoft accessibility: http://www.microsoft.com/accessibility

    About Me

    Computer Room ServicesI am a completely blind accessibility consultant and self-confessed geek. I run my own company, Computer Room Services, and can be found at http://www.comproom.co.uk. I sell goods and services to enhance the everyday lives of blind and partially sighted people, including many of the mobile devices mentioned above. I also provide training to anyone, vision impaired or not, who want to get the most out of their mobile technology. Most of all though, I am passionate about access to technology for all.

    Finally, I am proud to be a partner of Clove, who supply me with the majority of the mobile technology that I buy. To that end, I’d like to thank Jon of Clove for sometimes sending me phones to test for accessibility, but mostly for being there for me when looking for great phones for blind and vision impaired people.

    Image Source: Apple 

    Jon

    Constantly challenging opinions and looking for new opportunities, Jon develops the product ranges and business activities and very much strives to maintaining growth and taking Clove in to the future.

    Never knowing when to stop, he spends a lot of time coming up with ideas.

    When he does relax, however, he can be found out in the forest walking his Dog, down the pub or enjoying food at local restaurants.

    Comments

  • As a charity that supports blind and partially sighted people, this is a really interesting article – we were not aware that there was such a thing as a Braille keyboard. We have a member of staff who is blind and uses an Apple mobile, so this is useful to know. A bit ironic that it does not appear to be stocked by Clove though!

    • Hello Steve, thanks for the comment. The article is copied over from Steve Nutt at the CompRoom. Jon here at Clove has known him for some time and often sends him hardware to evaluate.

      You’re correct, we don’t stock the Braille keyboards. They’re a niche item and Clove is primarily a mainstream retailer. We try to cover more interesting topics on our blog where we can though. If you (or your staff member) is interested in the Braille keyboards, then send Steve Nutt an email, I’m sure he would be happy to talk through the available options in more detail: http://www.comproom.co.uk/?page_id=89

  • Hi Jon, great article something very close to my heart as my wife and eldest son are both blind and both have hearing problems, my wife Julia had no hearing up to a couple of years ago, then she had a cochlear implant a few years ago, and now after thirty 30 years of silence she is able to hear enough to use a smartphone, using speech software. Julia is able to do text and emails with her phone, but finds it almost impossible to use things like Facebook and browsing the internet, screen readers are fine but they read everything on the page which makes it very frustrating trying to find what you want to read. Julia uses a Samsung S5 mini, but finds it’s a bit too small, she is hoping to at some point buy a new Samsung phone with a larger screen, as she wants to use the same software that our son Ricky uses called Synapptic Software which is very good and easy to use, it’s a touch software that reads what ever is under your finger and activates an item when you take your finger off, but even this software can be difficult to use with web browsers. I still feel there is a long way to go before a blind person can fully use a smartphone.

    • Hi John,

      Wow what a surreal experience that must have been for your wife. 30 years like that; I can only imagine initially it is immense happiness that must have come from that but probably followed by quite some time getting used to the concept and adjusting.

      Those additional comments are invaluable, thank you for sharing.

      I do believe we have a way to go and in time it will get better I am sure.

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