Android accessibility reviewed

Android accessibility reviewed

The accessibility of Android has certainly increased since the release of the first version of Android in 2009. The most recent release of Android, version 2.2 codenamed Froyo, introduces even more accessibility features designed to make Android apps more widely usable by people who are blind or vision impaired.

Unfortunately, buying an Android device that supports accessibility is not straightforward for the following reasons:

  1. Different versions of Android support different accessibility features.
  2. Not all devices are running the latest version of Android, and older versions of Android cannot be easily upgraded.
  3. Companies can customise Android for individual smartphone or tablet models, and there is no guarantee that the interface is accessible.

Android does not have what is commonly known as a screen zoomer, or universal support for large font sizes.

Android versions and accessibility

One of the difficulties with Android and accessibility is that different versions of Android support different accessibility features. Furthermore, upgrading Android from an earlier to a later version is not straightforward.

Android has been updated a number of times since its release in February 2009:

  • Android 1.5 (codenamed Cupcake)
  • Android 1.6 (codenamed Donut)
  • Android 2.0/2.1 (codenamed Eclair)
  • Android 2.2 (codenamed Froyo)

Each new version of Android from version 1.6 onwards has added accessibility features. Visit the guide to accessibility features for each version of Android introduced in each version put together by Project Eyes-Free for more information.

When you are looking at Android device to buy, it is important that you look at the version of Android that the device is running. Different Android devices will run different versions of Android, and it will not necessarily be the latest version which has the most advanced accessibility features.

Upgrading to newer versions of Android

Later versions of Android have more accessibility features, however Android device owners cannot simply download and install a newer version of Android onto their Android device when it is released by Google.

The reason is that each manufacturer (e.g. HTC, Samsung, Sony, etc.) can and often does create a customised version of Android for each of their smartphone or tablet models. When a new version of Android is released, Android owners cannot simple download and install the upgrade, but must wait for their manufacturer to release a new, customised version for their device.

For Android device owners with accessibility needs, this can be frustrating as manufacturers often take months to release a new custom version or in some cases, do not release an upgrade for that version at all. In some cases, new accessibility features (in the form of apps) may be manually downloaded and installed, but only if the update is compatible with an older version of Android. This adds yet another layer of complexity to making your Android device as accessible as possible.

Custom interfaces can affect accessibility

Android is designed so that manufacturers can create customised versions of Android for different smartphone or tablet models, and often manufacturers customise the user interface. If manufacturers haven’t considered accessibility when designing their custom interface, the interface may not work with Android’s core accessibility services such as the text-to-speech software TalkBack, and therefore will not be accessible to people who are blind or vision impaired.

If you do purchase an Android device that has an inaccessible user interface, consider downloading and installing the Marvin shell, a simple, custom-built home screen for single-touch, eyes-free use that can replace your standard home screen.

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