Android’s accessibility features continue to improve

JChacon, Tuesday, 5 March, 2013 - 00:00

Google has recently released the 4.2.2 version of its operating system for mobile devices, which includes some major accessibility improvements which make Android devices more accessible to all users.

Android’s general accessibility features

Some improved features included in this update are the following:

  • Talkback: Android’s most used screen reader
  • Magnification gestures: a one finger triple tapping gesture will zoom in the area tapped enabling the user to see the screen in more detail.
  • Font size customization for the entire system: users are now able to customize the font size in messages, general content and device’s controls, according to their needs.
  • Press power key to end calls: an accessibility shortcut that helps users who have trouble finding the device’s controls to quickly end a phone call.
  • Auto-rotate screen control: users who prefer keeping their screen in portrait mode are now able to uncheck the auto-rotate screen option.

The latest version of TalkBack includes braille display support thanks to the Brailleback app and a new gesture that allows enabling TalkBack at any moment.

Accessibility-enhancing applications

However, some major accessibility improvements included Android’s latest update do not come directly from Google but rather from concerned developers who are interested in enabling mobile devices to act as intermediaries between people with special needs and their environments. These developers have made available some assistive technology alternatives for users who are not comfortable or do not feel satisfied with those provided by Google. For example, Spiel is a very good alternative to TalkBack; eSpeak offers a lighter and more agile metallic voice input than Google. It also provides better accent management and consonant sounds, and pronounces with more enthusiasm than Google’s voice latest versions.

Because Android’s platform is far more open than Apple’s iOS or Windows Phone, it is possible to run it across a wide range of devices including phones, television sets, home automation controls and other specifically designed gadgets. This enables the development of applications that help enhance accessibility features or provide alternatives in order to accommodate the specific needs of users with disabilities.

Android accessibility enemies

Notwithstanding, Android’s openness can also act as an accessibility barrier. The fact that it offers developers a wide range of possibilities for configuration and customization can result in some important accessibility features getting disabled. In addition, because it is available in a wide array of gadgets featuring different screen resolutions, processors and hardware elements, it is nearly impossible for developers to tests their accessibility services in all devices.

Furthermore, Google itself is at times an enemy to accessibility. It seems that the company sometimes forgets its accessibility objectives and even makes confusing interpretations of accessibility and usability. Other times it surprises users by launching inaccessible services or products, or by removing accessibility features from product updates.

A promising future we will reach with patience

Since the launching of Android 4.0, accessibility solutions provided by the operating system have been improving. It now allows blind people to use applications they couldn’t before as well as some Android-powered phones. However, it is still inaccessible for people with certain disabilities. Also, special care must be taken when buying a new Android device in order to make sure it includes the necessary accessibility features to enable a person with disability to enjoy the gadget to its fullest.

We hope Google keeps working to improve the usability of its accessibility solutions. We also hope it keeps encouraging developers to create more accessible applications and to force manufacturers to respect accessibility guidelines when designing new products.

This post was originally published in Spanish in Jonathan Chacón's website Programar a Ciegas, that offers more information about accessibility.

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