Smartphone Accessibility for the Blind – How are we doing?
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.
To 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I 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