Phone Accessibility for People with Disabilities
Can someone use a phone if they can’t see, hear, or move as well as the average user? if you’ve never thought about these issues, take a moment to learn about the depth and breadth of accessibility features on modern devices and help build awareness by sharing with others. From built-in features like Android’s Talkback settings to specialized apps for a range of different disabilities—including hearing and visual impairments, physical disabilities, and alternative methods of communication—here’s a look at smartphone accessibility, why it matters, and which tools and apps are the most helpful.
It’s the Law
The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA) mandates that all-digital, broadband and mobile innovations must be accessible to people with disabilities. Today, thanks to companies like U.S. Cellular® making a commitment to fairness, smartphone accessibility has massively improved. With advancements in the Internet of Things and 5G on the horizon, it won’t be long before a person with a disability will be able to do something as simple, yet radical, as answer a smart doorbell with a touchless gesture to their phone.
Accessible Operating System Features
Both Android and iOS operating systems have amazing built-in accessibility features, like enhanced sound processing, support of hearing aids and real-time text for persons who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
General accessibility features and apps:
Virtual Assistants (Android and iOS)
Virtual Assistants like Google Assistant, Samsung’s Bixby, and Siri on iOS provide voice control, allowing users with visual impairments or physical disabilities more flexibility in how they operate their devices.
Sort of like Yelp for people with disabilities, the Ability App helps you navigate public spaces by providing information about accessibility features like wheelchair ramps and doorways, accessible parking spots, braille menus, sign language communicators on staff and much more. It is currently beta testing in select cities across the United States.
For hearing impairment:
Live Captions (Android 10)
The latest Android update includes one of the most sophisticated accessibility features: live captions. It will offer closed captions on all audio and video for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. The best part is, all captions happen locally, on your device, so Internet access is not needed.
Navigating the world as a person with a hearing impairment can be very difficult, especially if you don’t have a solid understanding of lip-reading or sign language. One of the most helpful technological aids for hearing impairment is speech-to-text functionality.
That’s where Dragon Anywhere comes in. It’s an easy-to use, all-in-one app that accurately translates speech into visual text, saving you the time and frustration of typing out long blocks of text on a smartphone. Available on Android and iOS.
For visual impairment:
Voiceover (iOS) & Talkback (Android)
Voiceover and Talkback provide screen reader functionality for people with visual impairments. Both features are gesture-based. When Voiceover is enabled, users can triple-click the home button to hear a description of everything happening on the screen, from battery level to which app their finger is on. Talkback settings enable users to explore their screen by touching or swiping to hear items in order.
Perfect Keyboard is an Android app with adjustable settings to improve the smartphone user experience for people with visual impairments and/or limited dexterity. Users may choose to increase text size and space between rows to make onscreen text easier to read or increase the key height to make it easier to avoid hitting multiple keys at the same time.
Most highly magnified images are shaky and unclear, which can be particularly challenging for people with moderate to severe vision impairments. SuperVision+ Magnifier offers supreme live image stabilization to maintain maximum text and image clarity. It uses your smartphone’s camera to zoom-in on printed text and images and even offers a high-contrast black-and-white mode and large text and buttons. Available for Android and iOS users.
NotNav GPS Accessibility
NotNav is a walking navigation tool for people who are blind or who have vision impairments that offers turn-by-turn directions and continually announces the nearest street address, compass heading, nearby crosswalks and points of interest. It is voice-operated and can be calibrated for language and accent to suit most linguistic needs. Available for Android only.
Be My Eyes
Be My Eyes is an app available for Android and iOS users that is designed to help people with visual impairments while traveling. It works by connecting users via video call with a sighted volunteer who can provide assistance navigating an unfamiliar environment.
For physical disabilities:
Switch Control (iOS) & Switch Access (Android)
Switch Control and Switch Access are features for people with physical disabilities who cannot use a touchscreen or who have limited mobility. Switch Control on iOS enables users to control their devices using one or more designated “switches,” like touching and holding the screen or moving your head to the left or right. Android’s Switch Access works similarly and features several types of switches, including external Bluetooth-enabled devices and spoken feedback.
Gesture Control (Android)
Some of the latest smartphones, like Google Pixel 4, feature touchless gesture controls that enable users to operate their devices without the use of hands. People with physical disabilities or limited mobility can use gesture controls to silence phone calls, adjust the volume of music, dismiss alarms and more.
Operating a smartphone can be a particular challenge for people with physical disabilities. Assistive Touch, a mobile app available for Android and iOS users, provides a unique solution by enabling the use of devices without physical touch. Instead, virtual buttons navigate home or back, take screenshots, adjust the volume and even turn the device on and off.
WheelMate is incredibly useful for people who use wheelchairs: it provides an instant overview of accessible bathrooms and parking spots on an interactive map. The app also enables users to update and verify locations themselves, ensuring that the map is accurate and works the way it should. Available on Android and iOS.
For alternative methods of communication:
Expanding on text-to-speech functionality, JABtalk assists people who use communication devices to interact with the world. The mobile app, available only for Android users, transforms your device into an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device. This gives users the ability to construct complex sentences, organize words into user-defined categories and import audio and visuals.
The technological gap for people with disabilities is shrinking, but there are still improvements to be made.