The Android accessibility journey: a vision impaired user perspective

Tuesday, 24 September 2013 12:07pm

Despite the Apple iPhone leading in accessibility, many blind and vision impaired users eschew it in favour of Google Android phones. Dr Scott Hollier, who is legally blind, talks us through how he has made Android work for him.

In 2009 when the iPhone 3GS first appeared with a wealth of assistive features, it seemed like the Holy Grail of accessibility had been achieved. Before its launch the words ‘touch screen’ were often followed by ‘inaccessible’. But all of this changed when Apple bundled in the VoiceOver screen reader, the Zoom screen magnifier and the high contrast features into iOS.  

As a vision impaired user, it was great to experience such innovation, but it came at a price – literally. While it’s true that a more traditional solution at the time, a high-end Nokia with third-party assistive technology was more expensive, the iPhone was still at the premium end of the mainstream market and out of my price range.

So it was exciting when the fledging Google Android operating system (OS) started to appear on a number of devices, especially on eBay where phones and tablets ‘heavily inspired’ by the Apple equivalents began appearing for a quarter of the price. It was also great that the more open nature of the OS meant that you weren’t locked into some of the Apple traps such as providing your credit card details to download apps, and that you could install apps from non-Google sources.

The accessibility of Android wasn’t that great to start. My first device was a cheap tablet running Android 1.6 and I was disappointed to find that there was virtually nothing in the accessibility section that was of use to me. It wasn’t long after though when Android 2.2 and 2.3 became commonplace, and after reading about the new suite of accessibility features TalkBack, KickBack and SoundBack audio functions, I thought that Android might be a viable alternative. I took at leap of faith and purchased my first Android phone, an LG Optimus One running Android 2.3 Gingerbread.

The phone provided some great basic accessibility features: messages would be read out to me, it would tell me what program I’d launched and generally read out the screen that appeared, and depending on the app I could long-press. Long-press allowed me to press a button for a prolonged period of time to activate a menu with additional options or functionalities. The KickBack and SoundBack apps also included some audio cues which helped too.

It was during this time I also discovered one of my favourite Android apps: BIG Launcher. This app works by providing an easy-to-use launcher of six big customisable buttons in high contrast which meant I could easily get to the essentials of the phone without having to use the tiny app icons in the launcher that came with the phone.

However, while I was generally happy with Android, it still wasn’t up to the same standard as Apple’s iOS which continued to improve its accessibility with each new version. There were two features that my phone lacked which I really needed: the ability to feel around the screen to have things read out before selecting them, and a magnification feature. To compensate, Google did make a number of apps as part of their Project Eyes-Free, including a clever phone dialling app. But overall, it still wasn’t as evolved as the more expensive Apple products.

After about a year of my poor phone getting battered, I attended the CSUN accessibility conference in San Diego where there was a presentation on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and its Explore by Touch feature. As you move your finger across the screen, Explore by Touch will read out or provide audible feedback for where your finger is placed. Tempted by this and the lure of a larger screen, I took the plunge and purchased a G3 model from the Chinese brand Jiayu from eBay. According to the technology blog GizChina, the Jiayu G3 was one of the best phones out there for my budget of around $200. While TalkBack wasn’t installed on it, I managed to install it from Google Play and was amazed at how much the OS had changed. Now I could move my finger around the screen and double-tap when I needed to launch something. The improved Google text-to-speech engine made it much easier to understand TalkBack. Combined with some improvements to BIG Launcher, I had a pretty functional phone.

Another six months later Android 4.1 Jelly Bean was released. While the update wasn’t as significant for accessibility, it did provide some welcome improvements to the voice and some neat little features such as being able to shake the phone to have it read out the screen. It also consolidated KickBack and SoundBack into the TalkBack screen reader so there was now just one program to set up and customise. I also bought a cheap Android tablet for my children and TalkBack worked well on that too.

While the screen reader was now very effective for my needs, it did unfortunately highlight the issue of app accessibility.  When I would use the dialer for example, I’d put my finger on the ‘2’ button and it would say ‘button 63’ which made it impossible to use TalkBack to make phone calls. To overcome this I really needed a screen magnifier, but there still wasn’t one available. 

Today I still use a Jiayu phone but happily, it’s running Android 4.2, which now includes a full-screen screen magnifier. So with a triple-tap of the phone I can enlarge the screen  and I can read the things that TalkBack has trouble with. BIG Launcher has also been updated to include BIG Dialer so I’ve reached a point where the basic phone features work well. Similar to BIG Launcher, BigDialer is an app that provides a dial screen with large buttons. Since getting the basics set up I’ve also been exploring other apps with a number of helpful ones including ‘Where am I’ to find out my location, and was recently involved with the development of the PointFinder app. The app has been really helpful in using my phone for navigation.

While the iPhone has more apps and more accessibility functionality, it’s still more expensive. It’s great that Android has now evolved to a point where the basic OS is solid enough to do the essentials while apps are being released all the time to provide additional support.

Dr Hollier is the co-lecturer of the Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility.

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