Mobile Device Accessibility: iOS and the Android Accessibility Suite

One aspect of modern technological life that might help us to keep some faith in humanity are the comprehensive assistive technologies that are built into, or free to download for mobile computing devices. Accessibility features, as they are loosely called, are a range of tools designed to support non-standard users of the technology. If you can’t see the screen very well you can magnify text and icons (1) or use high contrast (2). If you can’t see the screen at all you can have the content read back to you using a screen-reader (3). There are options to support touch input (4, 5) and options to use devices hands free (6). Finally there also some supports for deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) people like the ability to switch to mono audio or visual of haptic alternatives to audio based information.  

With their mobile operating system iOS Apple do accessibility REALLY well and this is reflected in the numbers. In the 2018 WebAim Survey of Low Vision users  there were over 3 times as many iOS users as Android users. That is almost the exact reverse of the general population (3 to 1 in favour of Android). For those with Motor Difficulties it was less significant but iOS was still favoured.

So what are Apple doing right? Well obviously, first and foremost, the credit would have to go to their developers and designers for producing such innovative and well implemented tools. But Google and other Android developers are also producing some great AT, often highlighting some noticeable gaps in iOS accessibility. Voice Access, EVA Facial Mouse and basic pointing device support are some examples, although these are gaps that will soon be filled if reports of coming features to iOS 13 are to be believed.

Rather than being just about the tools it is as much, if not more, about awareness of those tools: where to find them, how they work. In every Apple mobile device you go to Settings>General>Accessibility and you will have Vision (1, 2, 3), Interaction (4, 5, 6) and Hearing settings. I’m deliberately not naming these settings here so that you can play a little game with yourself and see if you know what they are. I suspect most readers of this blog will get 6 from 6, which should help make my point. You can check your answers at the bottom of the post 🙂 This was always the problem with Android devices. Where Apple iOS accessibility is like a tool belt, Android accessibility is like a big bag. There is probably more in there but you have to find it first. This isn’t Google’s fault, they make great accessibility features. It’s more a result of the open nature of Android. Apple make their own hardware and iOS is designed specifically for that hardware. It’s much more locked down. Android is an open operating system and as such it depends on the hardware manufactured how accessibility is implemented. This has been slowly improving in recent years but Google’s move to bundle all their accessibility features into the Android Accessibility Suite last year meant a huge leap forward in Android accessibility.

What’s in Android Accessibility Suite?

Accessibility Menu

Android OS Accessibility Suite Assistant Menu. An onscreen menu with large colourful buttons for features like, power, lock screen, volume
The figure highlighted in the bottom corner launches whatever Accessibility Suite tools you have active. If you have more than one a long press will allow you switch between tools.

Use this large on-screen menu to control gestures, hardware buttons, navigation, and more. A similar idea to Assistive Touch on iOS. If you are a Samsung Android user it is similar (but not as good in my opinion) as the Assistant Menu already built in.

Select to Speak

The select to speak tool when active on a webpage. large red button to stop speech. Arrow at left to extend menu, pause button

Select something on your screen or point your camera at an image to hear text spoken. This is a great feature for people with low vision or a literacy difficulty. It will read the text on screen when required without being always on like a screen reader. A similar feature was available inbuilt in Samsung devices before inexplicably disappearing with the last Android update. The “point your camera at an image to hear text spoken” claim had me intrigued. Optical Character Recognition like that found in Office Lens or SeeingAI built into the regular camera could be extremely useful. Unfortunately I have been unable to get this feature to work on my Samsung Galaxy A8. Even when selecting a headline in a newspaper I’m told “no text found at that location”.

Switch Access

cartoon hand activating a Blue2 switch. Android phone desktop with message icon highlighted

Interact with your Android device using one or more switches or a keyboard instead of the touch screen. Switch Access on Android has always been the poor cousin to Switch Control on iOS but is improving all the time.

TalkBack Screen Reader

Get spoken, audible, and vibration feedback as you use your device. Googles mobile screen reader has been around for a while, while apparently, like Switch Access it’s improving, I’ve yet to meet anybody who actually uses it full time.

So to summarise, as well as adding features that may have been missing on your particular “flavour” of Android, this suite standardises the accessibility experience and makes it more visible. Also another exciting aspect of these features being bundled in this way is their availability for media boxes. Android is a hugely popular OS for TV and entertainment but what is true of mobile device manufacturer is doubly so of Android Box manufacturers where it is still very much the Wild West. If you are in the market for an Android Box and Accessibility is important make sure it’s running Android Version 6 or later so you can install this suite and take advantage of these features.

Could you name the Apple iOS features?

  1. Zoom
  2. Display Accommodations or Increase Contrast   
  3. VoiceOver
  4. Assistive Touch
  5. Touch Accommodations
  6. Switch Control

New Windows 10 accessible updates

Microsoft has been making huge strides in the realm of accessibility with each successive update to Windows and have invested in updates to improve the user experience for people with disabilities.  The improvements in their Ease of Access features include eye tracking, the narrator, low vision features, and reading and writing improvements.

 

Eye Control

Eye Control delivers new exciting updates and new tools.  For users who can’t use a mouse or keyboard to control their computer, Eye Control presents a convenient entry point to a windows computer using eye-tracking technology. Having access to your computer via Eye Control gives individuals a way to communicate, the ability to stay in the workforce, and so much more!

What began as a hack project during a One Week Hackathon, has become a product concept for the Windows team.  Microsoft has introduced Eye Control, which empowers people with disabilities to use a compatible eye tracker, such as a Tobii Eye Tracker, to operate an on-screen mouse, keyboard, and text-to-speech in Windows 10 using only their eyes.

demo of shap writing on Eye Control - works like swiping on a touch keyboard. dwell on the first letter of a word, glance at subsequent letters and dwell on last letter. word is entered

 

Microsoft Learning Tools

The New Learning Tools capabilities within Microsoft Edge Microsoft Learning Tools are a set of features designed to make it easier for people with learning differences like dyslexia to read. In this update, a user can mow simultaneously highlight and listen to text in web pages and PDF documents to read and increase focus.

Now with the addition of the Immersive Reader functionality of Learning Tools you can photograph a document, export it to immersive reader and immediately use the tools to support your understanding of the text.

https://youtu.be/L1vq4Ma0lt4

 

Narrator

Narrator will include the ability to use artificial intelligence to generate descriptions for images that lack alternative text. For websites or apps that don’t have alt-text built in, this feature will provide descriptions of an image.  Narrator will now also include the ability to send commands from a keyboard, touch or braille display and get feedback about what the command does without invoking the command.  Also, there will be some Braille improvements – Narrator users can type and read using different braille translations. Users can now perform braille input for application shortcuts and modifier keys.

https://support.microsoft.com/en-ie/help/22798

Desktop Magnifier

Desktop Magnifier is also getting an option to smooth fonts and images, along with mouse wheel scrolling to zoom in and out. It is now possible to use Magnifier with Narrator, so you can zoom in on text and have it read aloud.

https://support.microsoft.com/en-ie/help/11542/windows-use-magnifier

 

Dictation on the Desktop

This feature already allowed people to speak into their microphone, and convert using Windows Speech Recognition into text that appears on the screen. In the Windows 10 Update, a person can now use dictation to convert spoken words into text anywhere on your PC

To start dictating, select a text field and press the Windows logo key  + H to open the dictation toolbar. Then say whatever’s on your mind.

As well as dictating text, you can also use voice commands to do basic editing or to input punctuation. (English only)

 

Colour filters

If it’s hard to see what’s on the screen, you can apply a color filter. Color filters change the color palette on the screen and can help you distinguish between things that differ only by color.

To change your color filter, select Start  > Settings  > Ease of Access  > Color & high contrast . Under Choose a filter, select a color filter from the menu. Try each filter to see which one suits you best.

 

Read the full Microsoft blog on the accessibility updates in Windows 10 Fall Creator.

Fair play to Microsoft for investing so heavily in developing their Ease of Access features.

Controlling your home appliances with you voice

You know a particular technology is fast approaching mainstream when every manufacturer seems to be developing add-ons to make their products work with it.

From Samsung’s SmartThings to August Smart Home Locks, 3rd-party developed skills are voice experiences that add to the capabilities of any Alexa-enabled device (such as the Echo). For example “Alexa, set the Living Room lights to warm white” or “Alexa, lock the front door.” These skills are available for free download. Skills are continuously being added to increase the capabilities available to the user.smart controlled lock on a door

smart controlled lighting in a living room

he Amazon Echo is a smart speaker developed by Amazon. It is tall cylinder speaker with a built-in microphone. The device connects to the voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant service Alexa, which answers to the name “Alexa”. The device is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic, and other real-time information
However, it can also control many smart devices using itself as a home automation hub.
The videos below give an example of using your voice with smart home products.
https://youtu.be/V7WfxI3ecVI
https://youtu.be/pH8fg1noIj0

The good: As far as price goes, the Amazon Echo comes in various forms, the
Amazon Echo Dot costs £44.99 which seems affordable. All the Amazon skills that add to the capabilities of any Alexa-enabled device are free.

The not so good: Requires internet connection to work. If your internet goes down then your ability to control the devices around you also does too.

The verdict: A good way to dip your toe in the Internet of Things waters, more capabilities on the way.

Accessibility Checker for Word Tutorial

The Accessibility Checker feature has been part of Microsoft Office for the last few iterations of the software package. It provides a fast and easy way to check whether the content you are producing is accessible to users of assistive technology. By making accessibility accessible Microsoft have left no room for excuses like “I didn’t know how…” or “I didn’t have time..”. You wouldn’t send a document to all your colleagues full of misspellings because you were in a hurry would you? The one criticism that could have been leveled at Microsoft was perhaps they didn’t provide enough support to new users of the tool. As I said above it’s easy to use but sometimes users need a little extra support, especially when you are introducing them to something that may be perceived as additional work. Thankfully Microsoft have filled that gap with a 6 part tutorial video which clearly explains why and how to get started using Accessibility Checker. Part 1 is a short introduction (embedded below) followed by a video on each important accessibility practice; Alternative Text, Heading Styles, Hyperlinks, File naming and Tables. Each video is accompanied by a short exercise to allow you put your new skill into practice immediately. The whole tutorial can be completed in under 20 minutes. This tutorial should be a requirement for anybody producing documents for circulation to the public. Have a look at the introduction video below.

Global Accessibility Awareness Day – Apple Accessibility – Designed for everyone Videos

Today May 18th is Global Accessibility Awareness Day and to mark the occasion Apple have produced a series of 7 videos (also available with audio description) highlighting how their products are being used in innovative ways by people with disabilities. All the videos are available in a playlist here and I guarantee you, if you haven’t seen them and you are interested in accessibility and AT, it’ll be the best 15 minutes you have spent today! Okay the cynical among you will point out this is self promotion by Apple, a marketing exercise. Certainly on one level of course it is, they are a company and like any company their very existence depends on generating profit for their shareholders. These videos promote more than Apple however, they promote independence, creativity and inclusion through technology. Viewed in this light these videos will illustrate to people with disabilities how far technology has moved on in recent years and make them aware of the potential benefits to their own lives. Hopefully the knock on effect of this increased awareness will be increased demand. Demand these technologies people, it’s your right!

As far as a favorite video from this series goes, everyone will have their own. In terms of the technology on show, to me Todd “The Quadfather” below was possibly the most interesting.

This video showcases Apple’s HomeKit range of associated products and how they can be integrated with Siri.

My overall favorite video however is Patrick, musician, DJ and cooking enthusiast. Patrick’s video is an ode to independence and creativity. The technologies he illustrates are Logic Pro (Digital Audio Workstation software) with VoiceOver (Apple’s inbuilt screen-reader) and the object recognizer app TapTapSee which although has been around for several years now, is still an amazing use of technology. It’s Patrick’s personality that makes the video though, this guy is going places, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had his own prime time TV show this time next year.

The Big Life Fix

Just when we thought 2016 couldn’t get any better (in an AT sense) BBC make a prime time TV show with a huge focus on the design and construction of bespoke AT solutions. Although aired in December on BBC due to regional restrictions it’s not available to many on this side of the Irish Sea on iPlayer so you may not have had the chance to see full episodes yet. The good news is full episodes are beginning to make their way onto YouTube and are well worth a look. The general theme of the Big Life Fix would be how technology has the power to improve lives. Although not just about what we call assistive technology, it is more broad in scope covering many different types of technology challenge with the goal of democratising and demystifying solutions. AT does play a big part in many of the challenges however.

The first episode (a clip of which I’ve embedded below) introduces us to James, a young photographer who is having difficulty operating his SLR camera. The solution created for James features all the exciting technology and techniques being utilised every day by Makers around the world: Arduino microprocessor, 3D printing, AppInventor as well as some good old fashioned hardware hacking. The iterative nature of the design process is well illustrated with James critically evaluating the initial prototype and providing insights which significantly change the direction of the design.The other AT related challenge in this first episode features a graphic designer called Emma who due to tremors which are a symptom of her Parkinson’s, is unable to draw or sign her name. After a number of prototypes and lots of research a very clever solution is arrived at which seems to be extremely effective, leading to a rather emotional scene (have the hankies ready).

The Big Life Fix beautifully portrays both the potential of AT to improve the quality of life as well as the personal satisfaction a maker might get from participating in a successful solution. I can see this show sowing the seeds for a strong and equitable future for assistive technology.

Finally, the icing on the cake is that all the solutions featured on the show are Open Source with all the source code, design files and build notes that were used to print, shape and operate the solutions publicly available on GitHub. Nice work BBC. Take a look at the clip below (UPDATE: Full Episodes now on YouTube. Not sure how long they will stay there though).

Inbuilt Accessibility – AT in mainstream technology

There is of course some cross over between the different AT highlights of 2016 I have included here. An overall theme running through all the highlights this year is the mainstreaming of AT. Apple, Google and Microsoft have all made significant progress in the areas previously mentioned: natural language understanding and smart homes. This has led to easier access to computing devices and through them the ability to automate and remotely control devices and services that assist us with daily living tasks around the house. However these developments are aimed at the mainstream market with advantages to AT users being a welcome additional benefit. What I want to look at here are the features they are including in their mainstream products specifically aimed at people with disabilities with the goal of making their products more inclusive. Apple have always been strong in this area and have lead the way now for the last five years. 2016 saw them continue this fine work with new features such as Dwell within MacOS and Touch Accommodations in iOS 10 as well as many other refinements of already existing features.  Apple also along with Siri have brought Switch Control to Apple TV either using a dedicated Bluetooth switch or through a connected iOS device in a method they are calling Platform Switching. Platform Switching which also came out this year with iOS 10 “allows you to use a single device to operate any other devices you have synced with your iCloud account. So you can control your Mac directly from your iPhone or iPad, without having to set up your switches on each new device” (need to be on the same WiFi network). The video below from Apple really encapsulates how far they have come in this area and how important this approach is.

Not to be outdone Microsoft bookended 2016 with some great features in the area of literacy support, an area they had perhaps neglected for a while. They more than made up for this last January with the announcement of Learning Tools for OneNote. I’m not going to go into details of what Learning Tools offers as I have covered it in a previous post. All I’ll say is that it is free, it works with OneNote (also free and a great note taking and organisation support in its own right) and is potentially all many students would need by way of literacy support (obviously some students may need additional supports). Then in the fourth quarter of the year they updated their OCR app Office Lens for iOS to provide the immersive reader (text to speech) directly within the app.

Finally Google who would probably have the weakest record of the big 3 in terms of providing inbuilt accessibility features (to be fair they always followed a different approach which proved to be equally effective) really hit a home run with their Voice Access solution which was made available for beta testing this year. Again I have discussed this in a previous post here where you can read about it in more detail. Having tested it I can confirm that it gives complete voice access to all Android devices features as well as any third party apps I tested. Using a combination of direct voice commands (Open Gmail, Swipe left, Go Home etc.) and a system of numbering buttons and links, even obscure apps can be operated. The idea of using numbers for navigation while not new is extremely appropriate in this case, numbers are easily recognised regardless of voice quality or regional accent. Providing alternative access and supports to mainstream Operating Systems is the corner stone of recent advances in AT. As the previous video from Apple showed, access to smartphones or computers gives access to a vast range of services and activities. For example inbuilt accessibility features like Apple’s Switch Control   or Google’s Voice Access open up a range of mainstream Smart Home and security devices and services to people with alternative access needs where before they would have to spend a lot more for a specialist solution that would have probably been inferior.

ORACLE AND EDF OFFER A SCHOLARSHIP TO A STUDENT WITH DISABILITY

computer user siting on letter e

APPLY BY 15/09/2016
EDF and the company Oracle are pleased to announce a scholarship of 8.000 EUR to a student with disability of a high education programme studying in the field of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in the academic year of 2016-2017. It will be awarded based on a project or thesis that will be conducted during the academic year. The project or thesis should take into account the needs of persons with disabilities in terms of accessibility to ICT, and/or an innovative solution to enhance their access. How can you apply? Find more information on EDF’s website.

Applications to be sent by 15 September 2016.
If you have any questions, please write an email to: eaccessibility.scholarship@edf-feph.org.
DFI is a member of the European Disability Forum. The European Disability Forum (EDF), is the umbrella organisation representing 80 million persons with disabilities in Europe.
EDF have partnered with Oracle and have announced an e-Accessibility scholarship

Wheelmap.org

find wheelchair accessible places

Barriers in public environments constantly prevent mobility-impaired people from free movement and participation. A narrow doorway here, a step there – that’s all it takes. Wheelmap looks like a very worthwhile project.  It is an open and free online map for wheelchair-accessible places. It empowers users to share and access information on the wheelchair-accessibility of public places.  Anyone can participate by tagging places.

Map of accessible places in Dublin

Places that are not yet marked have a grey tag and can be quickly and easily marked by everyone. The crowdsourced information is free, easy to understand and can be shared with everyone.

Logged in users can upload photos to places or write comments to further describe the wheelchair accessibility of a place! This additional information makes it easy for mobility-impaired users to determine whether they can access the place or not.

Get tagging..

Text production – Keeping focused and removing distractions

These days when it comes to writing a document most of us go straight to our computer. In the area of literacy support there are many advantages to using a computer for text production: spelling and grammar support, word prediction, speech recognition etc. However in this post I want to look at the disadvantage. Thanks to the web, the computer gives us access to limitless information resources while at the same time it is also the source of limitless distractions. Although this is a problem faced by everybody (or at least the weak willed among us) reducing the availability of distractions can be beneficial to some people with literacy difficulties who find text production more arduous. Below are a couple of products that attempt to offer the advantages of physical keyboard input, word processing and web connectivity without the potential for distraction that usually accompanies the latter. Both could be loosely called Smart Typewriters and also offer advantages over modern laptops or tablets in areas like battery life and durability. If buying an new device is not practical or perhaps a bit over the top, at the end of the post I’ll look at some browser plugins and apps that aim to achieve the same result without the need of abandoning you primary computing device.

alphasmart neo2 word processor. looks like a black keyboard with a small grey screen

The AlphaSmart Neo 2 (pictured above) is the most recent in a line of smart typewriters that were favoured both in classrooms and by professional writers and journalists for many years. It offers accessibility features like Sticky Keys and Slow Keys, Spellchecker, Typing Tutor and they claim it can sync with Google Docs (I wasn’t aware of this until now and can’t confirm it). This device was last updated in 2010 and discontinued by the manufacturer in 2013 yet I suggest it is far from obsolete. They are available on Ebay for about €25, even less if bought in bulk. It will last up to a year on 3 AA batteries and is tough enough to take quite a bit of punishment.

FreeWrite smart typewriter. White keyboard and e-ink screen at the top displaying some text

It was coming across this new product, the FreeWrite that actually got me thinking about the AlphaSmart Neo above. FreeWrite (pictured above) is a similar product except offering a (much) better keyboard, better screen and more current online syncing capabilities (Google Drive, Evernote, Dropbox currently). Details are a little sketchy on whether the FreeWrite offers keyboard accessibility features like Sticky Keys or Slow Keys or even word processing capabilities like a Spellchecker or thesaurus. However one advantage concerning accessibility it has over the AlphaSmart is that it does offer the ability to adjust the font size and a larger screen to accommodate this. The FreeWrite isn’t cheap (available for pre-order at over €550) but it looks like a quality product (the Cherry mechanical keyboard would be a joy to use and the e-ink screen will offer your eyes a much needed break from the glaring display as well as being usable in direct sunlight). I’ll update this when (or if) they come back to me about the accessibility features, without which I fear this product will remain an object of desire for hipsters and professional writers and of no practical use to many of us.

Update: FreeWrite got back to me with the following reply.

“there are no plans for a spellchecker or other accessibility features but that doesn’t mean they won’t be added by us or someone else in the future. The Freewrite is a platform that we are opening up to developers so we expect that it will be extended and modified. We’d love to support you and the needs of a lot more people!”.

I find this both disappointing and exciting at the same time. It’s a completely understandable approach for a new company launching a niche product. Do you put  resources into implementing accessibility features? or do you put them into creating the best platform possible and leave it open for other developers to adapt and build functionality. It’s like iOS v Android. Keep an eye on FreeWrite.

If leaving the computer isn’t an option or your preference, techniques like time-boxing (Pomodoro) can help you to keep focused. As can removing visual distractions, creating consistent background noise or if all else fails removing temptation by actually blocking sites. Below are some apps and plugins that might be useful in this area.

  • FocusWriter – simple, distraction-free writing environment with additional tools like timers, daily goals and sound effects
  • StayFocused – increases productivity by limiting time that spent on time-wasting websites
  • Strict Workflow – 25min/5min workflow (Pomodoro): 25 minutes of distraction-free work, 5 minutes of break.
  • Background sounds and white noise – does what it says..