Those of us using mobile devices alongside a visual impairment are in a much better position than even 10 years ago. For a long time there was only one game in town when it came to accessible phones, but Talks and Zooms from Nuance were only available on a limited range of handsets from one manufacturer. It wasn’t perfect but at least it was there.
And then there was Apple. The introduction of the iPhone 3GS and iOS 3 in 2009 brought with it a whole new way of working with what was becoming the most popular handset on the market. Four iterations later and the Apple model is holding strong and seems to be the de-facto choice for anybody with sight-loss. But there is a strong alternative which brings with it a range of further options to choose from and decisions to make.
Most people have already made their choice (or had it made for them), but with new Android-based handsets being released all the time and a new iPhone on the horizon, now might be the ideal time to see what the two main sets of accessibility can and can’t offer before you make your next purchase. This piece is aimed mainly at visually impaired and blind users but may also be of use to people who just want something that will make their phone or tablet use a little easier.
First of all, let me set out my position. I am visually impaired but I have what some would call ‘useful’ sight. I use magnification generally when I’m in one place, and screen readers when I’m on the move or want to work in public without being nosed at! I use Apple iOS 7.1 on an iPad Air and iPhone 5. I also use Android 4.3 on a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. In this article I will give an overview of both options and leave it to you to decide. I wont give you a detailed guide on how to use individual features (these are numerous and can be found easily). The information is also based on using an unrooted/non-jailbroken device, so that no additional tech knowledge is necessary. It covers
Speech and Magnification Combined
Accessibility for non-disabled users
1. Screen Readers: Apple’s ‘VoiceOver’ and Android’s ‘TalkBack’
Let’s go from the beginning; both screen readers can be activated “out of the box”, because the option to enable them is present as part of the setup procedure. This means that – on iOS at least – you can switch on and set up totally unassisted (for TalkBack, sighted help may be needed solely to activate speech). In addition Apple accessibility settings can be configured from a connected computer via iTunes.
Once you’re up and running, the settings for both systems can be found within sub-menus. Shortcuts exist for toggling speech on/off without having to leave your current screen, but a big difference is that the VoiceOver Rotor can be used to quickly fine-tune settings (language, volume, typing mode etc) from anywhere, whereas many of the TalkBack settings can only be tweaked from within its menu. Talkback has a comprehensive tutorial to teach gestures, notifications and options. VoiceOver includes brief guidelines and a practice area where you can make ‘dummy’ gestures which are spoken to you without affecting the app or device. This will give you a fair grounding in the basics but for both systems the only way to get familiar and proficient is practice. Sorry!
VoiceOver and TalkBack offer much the same in the way of actual use; swipe a finger left, right, up or down to navigate the screen elements, text or graphics. Double-tap a finger to make a selection. You can also easily read a page by character, word, sentence, paragraph or even the whole screen at once.
Both can provide feedback via pitch-changes (to differentiate between a highlighted keyboard character and one that is entered) and overall they are well up to the job. They also make use of “contextual menus” in order to make changes to the way you read and manipulate text in different settings, so you will get different options depending on the app you’re using (or even your current position within the app). Interestingly enough, Talkback has the option to only read aloud the content of secure fields when earphones are connected, whereas iOS will always speak the character you just entered. If you’re likely to be using more than one Android device (or want to be able to use a friend’s one without too much fiddling)) you can import and export your settings for quick transfer.
Voice and Language
As with most screen readers, voice characteristics can be customised in both systems to give a range of language, quality, speed and verbosity. The range of voices, genders and bit-rate vary but Talkback allows additional TTS (text-to-speech) language data to be downloaded at will. Voice package updates are also released by Google separately to the periodical operating system updates.
Screen-reader users are familiar with the puzzled looks that sighted people have when they encounter a computer being used with a blank display, and this feature already extends to the mobile world. VoiceOver’s ‘Screen Curtain’ blanks the display without otherwise affecting the phone use. This is an excellent option particularly as reading personal or sensitive data in public may take a sight-impaired person significantly longer than usual. Android doesn’t have any form of screen-blanking for its software, and although the screen brightness can be reduced, this is not a reliable substitute as the brightness on a phone or tablet never truly reaches 0%.
VoiceOver makes extensive use of mutli-touch flicks, taps and twists for its interface, while most of Talkback’s gestures involve a single-finger tap, flick or right-angle movement. The VoiceOver model means that a wide variety of commands can be accessed quickly (from starting/stopping music to re-labelling a screen element). Talkback’s single-finger method might make it easier for use by those with reduced motor or mobility function, although ‘split-tapping’ in VoiceOver allows both hands to be used as an alternative. Talkback’s single-finger control also means that the device’s standard multi-finger gestures (such as pinch-to-zoom) still work while it is running. Thankfully when you switch your device off, both screen-readers will automatically start up when you power on (as long as it was on before!)
2. Magnification: Apple’s ‘Zoom’ and Android’s ‘Magnification’
These programs allow for magnification of all or part of the device screen (I know!) Both can be run invisibly, so ‘standard’ device usage can take place, and at any time a single gesture will invoke magnification temporarily or permanently. While magnified, the screen can be panned in order to see other areas, although this is achieved more easily depending on the size of the device screen (and your fingers!)
General Settings and User Interface
Magnification is less complex than screen reading, therefore options are relatively straightforward. You’ll need to be able to get through the menus in standard view to activate, but after this you can set a fixed magnification factor which the screen will zoom to/from whenever you perform the gesture (Android uses a single-finger triple-tap while Apple opts for a three-finger double-tap).
While performing this gesture you can keep your finger(s) on the screen to make fine changes to the magnification factor. Zoom fixes the new level once you lift your fingers. Android Magnification allows you to temporarily magnify, pan and change the zoom factor all in the same sequence. Changes to the zoom factor on both systems are very smooth and you can move the focal point using two or three fingers. Standard gestures such as pinch, flick and swipe still work while magnified and with Zoom, touching an edge or corner of the screen will scroll the zoomed area in that direction (horizontally, vertically or diagonally).
Zoom retains your magnification factor at all times until you deactivate or change it manually. This includes lock screen and keyboard entry. Android Magnification returns to zero magnification upon changing app, so you have to perform the magnification gesture again if you want to continue zooming. Although this may seem silly, it does give you an overview of the screen before you decide where to zoom. Neither system retains the magnification factor when the device is restarted.
Android Magnification has the option to split the screen during text-input. This means that the edit box can be magnified while the on-screen keyboard remains standard. This is great when typing text although you will need a good grasp of the keyboard layout. Although Zoom retains your setting while changing apps, it magnifies without discrimination so for example you can’t easily enter text using the on-screen keyboard as this is magnified along with the rest of the display. On Android can also use text-prediction and drag-typing while magnified.
Speech and Magnification Combined
Some low-vision users want to use magnification with speech as a backup (or vice-versa) and both manufacturers’ systems allow for their screen reader and magnification to run simultaneously without any problem. When this is happening, gestures for each program are effectively combined so a single-finger flick right will speak the next item and a two/three-finger drag will move the zoomed area.
VoiceOver changes the display focus to the area currently being read, so if you are performing a continuous read the screen moves to each section as it goes along. Android retains the magnified area of the screen even if you change the Talkback focus.
Another thing to note is that VoiceOver makes slight changes to the gestures if you run it with Zoom. Normally a three-finger double tap will toggle speech and a three-finger triple-tap will toggle the Screen Curtain; with Zoom activated the double-tap toggles the zoom factor and the speech and screen curtain options require an extra tap each to work.
Accessibility for non-disabled users
Although created specifically for disabled users, some Apple and Android features can be used by those with no ‘formal’ additional need, simply to make things a little easier. A screen-reader is unlikely to fall into this category but options to enlarge fonts, reverse the colour scheme or make gestures easier to perform (eg by voice or with only one finger) have numerous applications for many. Apple and Android include all these options, so a light-on-dark display or the ability to turn an e-book into a talking book is very handy (and most people don’t know they already have it!)
While writing this, I received a firmware update for Android KitKat (version 4.4.2) which includes options for closed captioning on video clips. I haven’t had an opportunity to test this yet but again, it may prove to be a useful option for ‘standard’ device users as well as those with impairments.
So, What’s The Choice?
Short answer: it’s up to you. For many it will come down to what is familiar. I’ve heard lots of people say that “this system is easy” or “you don’t want to go with that one”, but like anything else, it’s only easy if you already know what you’re doing.
Some things to bear in mind when choosing:
VoiceOver/Zoom gestures are fixed and universal so moving from one device to another is seamless. The same applies to Talkback but it also gives you some control over which gesture is assigned to which command
A number of companies make Android devices and they come in a range of system configurations and sizes. They may offer options such as connection to/controlling TVs etc.
All iPhones and iPads have the same basic layout so when you pick one up you immediately know what bits do what
Depending on the manufacturer, Android devices have greater potential for expansion and upgradability, whereas all Apple devices are fixed and not easily user-modified
Apple has a more widely-established user base, and support will always come from one unified point
Keep in mind the level of compatibility between screen-readers and apps. With both systems you can add or change a label for any element that doesn’t have one but this should be the exception rather than the rule so make sure the apps you’ll want to use are designed with accessibility in mind.
If you want to use magnification, both systems will enlarge the screen regardless of the app you are running so the only consideration is whether you can read the screen at your desired zoom level.
Well I’m certain I haven’t covered everything about both systems. You may be no closer to making a decision and you might be giving no consideration whatsoever to switching from your current setup. Hopefully though, you’re a little more informed. It’s easy to lose perspective on what is out there and yes, trying a new system may be daunting or not possible but it doesn’t hurt to be informed. And remember, the popularity of accessibility apps can go down as well as up!