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?
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
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”.
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.