The mobile phone and tablet market has seen a surge in the number of devices being manufactured in recent years. Along with this phenomenon, consumers including persons with disabilities are given the opportunity to choose from the plethora of operating systems for their mobile devices. Apple’s iPhone and its accompanying IOS operating system have dominated the consumer market from 2007 to 2011. Since 2011, the Android operating system (OS) code named Ice Cream Sandwich started to gain popularity and has made its mark as a competitor to the IOS. In this second installment of a five-part series on e-Accessibility, our digital accessibility specialist, Norrizwan Rasip, reviews one of the latest Android mobile operating systems – the Jelly Bean 4.2 and explores some of its accessibility features that have been designed to accommodate users with disabilities.
To provide ease of access for users with disabilities, the developers of the Android OS had cleverly devised a solution to allow accessibility features to be turned on from the initial set-up screen of a newly purchased mobile device. To achieve this, a user may use a finger to draw a rectangle starting at the top-left corner of the device’s touchscreen to activate the device’s accessibility features. This unique feature gives users with visual impairments full independence in setting up their own devices, omitting the reliance on others.
One of the main highlights of the Jelly Bean OS is TalkBack, a screen reader for the Android platform. It helps blind and vision-impaired users to interact with their devices. TalkBack reads aloud anything that the user touches, selects or activates. Using TalkBack in the ‘Gesture Mode’ enables the user to reliably navigate the User Interface (UI) using swipe gestures. This feature is particularly useful for users who lack fine motor control in their fingers such as those with high level spinal cord injuries or stroke.
Alternatively, users with upper limb limitations can perform searches, launch applications and type via a text-to-speech feature called Voice Recognition found in most Android devices equipped with the Jelly Bean OS. One drawback of the Voice Recognition feature is that despite being relatively stable, users with speech impairments may face difficulties using this method of input.
Besides benefitting from the larger screens of most devices that run on the Android OS, users with visual impairments or age-related visual deterioration may use a ‘triple tap’ to enter full screen magnification for their devices with a new feature called ‘Magnification Gestures’. The user can then pan across the screen by dragging two or more fingers or using pinch gestures to adjust the level of magnification.
Through the Android digital application distribution platform Google Play, users with disabilities can find applications to supplement the various in-built accessibility features of the Jelly Bean OS. One such application, the AAC speech communicator, enables people with speech disabilities to form grammatically correct sentences from a list of pictograms and reads them out. Because of the use of pictograms, this application is especially good for children with limited reading abilities.
Another useful application on the Android platform is BrailleBack. This application enables blind users to use braille devices in conjunction with their Android device to combine braille and speech output. When a user connects a supported refreshable braille display via a Bluetooth connection, the screen content is presented on the braille display and the user can enter text and commands using a braille keyboard.
The accessibility accommodations on the Android platform are by no means complete in catering to the different types of disabilities. However, the Android platform and its growing network of developers are creating improvements in the OS as well as applications that focus on usability and accessibility to accommodate people with disabilities. Android has also dedicated a resource section for its developers solely for this purpose.
With developers combining user feedback and recommendations with careful considerations in areas of universal design, we hope to see more people with disabilities empowered to use technology, regardless of operating systems or platforms, as an enabler in their daily lives.