There’s no denying that Apple led the way when it came to mobile accessibility for people who are blind or vision impaired. In 2009 when Apple released it’s iPhone 3GS, its integrated VoiceOver screen reader was revolutionary in making mobile touchscreen devices accessible. Over the past 10 years, competitors have gradually caught up meaning that both Apple iOS based devices and Google Android devices are largely comparable in terms of accessibility features out-of-the-box for people who are blind or vision impaired.
So why is it then that blind and vision impaired Android users still feel inferior when standing next to a person with an iPhone? It largely comes down to the apps. With Microsoft putting a lot of its accessibility emphasis into the Apple platform with apps such as Seeing AI and Soundscape, it often feels like Android users with vision-related disabilities are shut out of the benefits mobile devices can provide.
Yet it may surprise many to learn that the world’s most popular mobile operating system has a lot to offer people who are blind, or vision impaired with an assortment of useful apps and features. That’s not to take way from the iPhone, which is certainly a great device, but for those on a budget, here’s some guidance on what blind and vision impaired users can find if you are a Google Android user.
TalkBack screen reader
First up it’s important to acknowledge that Google Android has a great built-in screen reader called TalkBack. On most Android devices this can be found by going into Settings then Accessibility. If TalkBack is not there, you can usually install it by downloading the Android Accessibility Suite in the Play Store which adds several great accessibility features.
Select to speak
Rather than turning on TalkBack, you can just select text, and have it read out which can be very convenient for people who just need some text read out occasionally.
This is a feature that lets you zoom into a portion of the screen similar to a magnification tool on a desktop computer. This can be very useful for people with low vision who need to see a larger part of the screen.
For people with a colour vision impairment, Android has a number of features which that allow the user to modify the colour palette so everything on the screen can be seen.
Volume key shortcut
If you share a phone with others, you can quickly toggle an assistive technology feature such as TalkBack on or off by holding the two volume keys together for a few seconds. For example, you may want to turn off the screen reader when using a Camera app, then re-enable it after a photo is taken.
While Android is yet to receive some of the great Microsoft apps available on iOS, there are a number of Android apps which have some similar features and work really well.
Earlier in the year I was contacted by an Israeli engineer that developed and launched the free app Speak! This app is mainly designed to read out text with an auto-read feature so you can move the phone around and it’ll keep reading whatever text it finds. It also has useful text orientation features and works well if you want to read whole pages from books or menus. While the app may not be as polished as some similar apps, it meets two very important criteria – it works, and it’s free. I’d strongly recommend that every blind or vision impaired Android user download this app as soon as possible.
Another favourite app is Eye-D. There’s a free version available but I’d recommend paying for the Pro version which is very reasonably priced at $AUD6.99. Eye-D is a ‘swiss army knife’-style app which has a large number of tools including an accessible camera, a ‘where am I’ feature, the ability to find out what services are nearby and makes use of Google Maps to navigate you there, the ability to identify images and text in images just to name a few. Given its large number of features it’s another app worth considering if you have a vision impairment.
Heavily inspired by Microsoft’s Seeing AI app on iOS Envision AI also features a variety of tools relating to image and text recognition, it also has the ability to read out handwriting and scan barcodes. I used the app during its free demo period, and it worked very well. However, while Seeing AI on iOS is free, Envision AI are charging a hefty $AUD221.99 for a lifetime subscription which is apparently a discount price. For this amount you may be better off paying for an iPhone and then using the free apps available instead if this functionality is critical to your needs or consider the previous two apps which are far more reasonably priced.
A well-established app that can also help in reading out text in books and menus is the KNFB Reader. As with the above it also has a demo mode after which the price of purchase is $AUD159.99. Again, there’s no denying the effectiveness of the app, but I’d certainly recommend trying the free options first.
Magnification using the camera
In addition to speaking apps, there are many magnifier apps that can use your phone’s camera to view print up-close and inverse the colours of needed. There’s no one app to recommend as there are lots of good free options on the Play Store, but it’s worth spending some time trying them out to find out what works best for you.
If you want an app that can describe your environment, Google Lens is a great option. It can be used both as a standalone app or as part of most Android camera apps, Lens allows you to take a photo and then have the scene described to you. Google is working on integrating search functionality and other helpful features so if you want to have Lense, have a look at your phone’s camera app and see if it is supported.
It’s fair to say that Uber Eats is not an app designed specifically to assist people who are blind or vision impaired, but it is an important one to note for people that have the service in their area. Uber Eats is a food delivery app and unlike most websites and apps associated with food delivery, Uber Eats is completely accessible with the TalkBack screen reader. This means that you can confidently select a food outlet, choose items form the menu, pay and keep up-to-date with the delivery status without any accessibility issues. Given the challenges in trying to go out for food when you can’t drive, getting the food delivered to you in a convenient and accessible way can be a very positive experience for people who are blind or vision impaired.
One of the best things about Android is that unlike iOS, your launcher can be replaced with one that better meets your needs. There’s a large number of custom free launchers available with Nova Launcher being one very accessible example. My personal favourite is BIG Launcher which works well for my needs by simplifying the interface making use of a high contrast theme and working well with TalkBack. It also allows me to customise the buttons such as putting my news app on the home screen. However, at this time of writing, the full version has been removed from the Play Store due to some issues with Google’s new policies on using the app for messaging. Hopefully it’ll return soon but in the meantime you can try out the demo.
ANDROID V IOS – WHICH IS BETTER?
If a direct comparison were made between the latest version of Android and iOS for a person who is blind or vision impaired, I’d say that Apple still wins out due to iOS being so well established in the community and the wealth of app options. However, if you’re looking for accessibility on a budget, it’s still worth considering Android due to it’s great out-of-the-box experience and some great free apps – and lunch thanks to Uber Eats!