It’s Time to Go Mobile

by Maurie Hill on August 1, 2014

Picture of someone using a touch screen phoneWho would have thought a decade ago that a smartphone or tablet device with a non-tactile touch screen could be operated completely non-visually? With Apple’s VoiceOver and Google Android’s TalkBack as the major players in touch-based screen reading, one can slide, swipe, and tap on the screen to make a phone call, check the weather, look at your calendar, or even play a game without seeing what’s on the screen. There’s not a lot of memorization or training required because the screen reader tells you what you’ve selected and then may give you hints on what to do next. Zooming in is also an option if you have partial sight, but I use this only occasionally to view a picture or familiarize myself with an app. On small touch screens, I find zooming is just not an efficient way to navigate around.

On the Apple iOS side, which is all I’m familiar with, you can pretty much bet that you’ll have complete access to all the native apps that come pre-installed on the device using VoiceOver. For example, when sliding your finger over a button, VoiceOver will tell you what that button is. Now you can double tap anywhere on the screen in order to select the button that was just announced. As for third party apps that you download for free or purchase from the iTunes store, it’s anyone’s guess whether you’ll have VoiceOver access to all the buttons and features within the app. Then there’s the question of whether updates to the app will decrease the accessibility. For the sighted, updating is usually a good idea, but VoiceOver users tend to hesitate or simply cross their fingers and hope for the best because it’s not possible to “go back” and download a previous version from the iTunes store.

The notes and reviews for the app in the iTunes store or the AppleVis website might give you some clue regarding the app’s level of accessibility, so it’s always good to check before you download. As an example, when a developer doesn’t label a button, you may come across the ever-helpful announcement of “button” for some (or all) buttons. While the user has the ability to label buttons, this may be futile if the app keeps changing in subsequent updates. The best solution for developers is to use the tools that Apple gives them to make their app accessible. Depending on the app, this may take little to no extra effort at all on the developer’s part.

At any rate, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is resolved to encourage Apple to not accept apps into the iTunes store until they are accessible. Apple is adding even more features in its developer toolkit to make it pretty effortless to do so. So in the Apple world, I suspect the frustration of purchasing an app that you can’t effectively use with VoiceOver will become a thing of the past in the next few years.

If you still haven’t jumped into the mobile market due to your low vision, or can’t decide which solution is right for you, here are some articles that might help:

  • Quintin Williams

    Well, I was an iOS user for four plus years, and I decided to make the switch, simply because I was bored with apple.
    So, just over a year and a half ago, I bought a nexus tablet, and experimented with that for about four months before I decided that I could make the switch, and use an android device as my daily driver.
    So, I purchased the HTC One, and at the time, I wanted to explore what it was like to run custom roms, so I rooted my device, and ran the latest version of android via CyanogenMod.
    After running that for quite a while, I decided that I would really like the Moto-X, because of the voice controls, and because of its basically stock android experience.
    I have been using the Moto-X ever since, and I couldn’t be happier.
    Android meets most all of my needs, and I find a lot of things easier to do on Android, including organizing apps, copying and pasting text, and a variety of other things.
    I have found the developers to be very receptive, and I would encourage anyone interested in getting a smart phone to consider android.
    It is not for everyone, but in my opinion, android is quickly becoming a viable alternative for those who don’t want to give apple their business.
    One thing I will mention, is Samsung has done a great job with the Galaxy S5, and if you are switching from an apple device, a lot of what Samsung has done will be familiar to you, so that might be the phone you want to consider.
    However, if you want a hassle free, totally stock android experience, I would highly recommend either the nexus 5, or the Moto-X.
    Good luck, and I hope that more people give android a chance, because competition is what drives innovation!

  • Maurie Hill

    Thanks Quintin,
    This is great information for those trying to decide which way to go.

  • Tom Coburn

    We originally invested in the IOS line, because at the time 2-3 years ago, iphone was the only accessible option.. Now if I had to make the choice again, I don’t know which one I’d pick, Android or IOS. Would be a tough choice. but one thing I do know, is now that we’ve invested so much cash in IOS apps, wouldn’t be a good idea to switch to Android now because we’d loose out on all that money we’ve spent on various IOS apps over the years. 99 cents here 1.25 there, adds up after awhile, and to have to start all over again with an Android buying all those favorite apps all over again, doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.

    However, I have been curious about the Androids talkback phone, to see how it differs, but what I’ve never liked, is its not like you can just walk into a verizon or at&t store and say, can we test-drive an android for 30 days to see if we like it? no you can’t do that, So it would be frustrating to decide, because once yo do decide, you’ll pretty much be sticking to that decision for life..

    If the app makers were smart, they’d make the transition better by not making us purchase apps all over again switching platforms. least then the switch even temporarily wouldn’t be so painful.

    As for voiceover & Zoom, we actually use all 3. My wife has the same eye disease yo do Maurie and I taught her to use all 3. voiceover, invert colors, and zoom. At least you can turn zoom on/off quickly using a 3 finger double-tap, and change zoom level using 3 finger double tap & hold, took my wife some time to get the hang of it but she’s getting it. Then invert colors is great for those pesy white background screens of IOS 7 that are near impossible for us to read. My wife doesn’t have that problem in zoomtext on the computer, but she does on the iphone, so like me, she’s constantly switching between invert colors & normal mode. just wish there was a “3 finger double tap” option for that too instead of having to fuss with the pop up accessibility menu. but anyway that works for us most of the time. Sometimes we have to use voiceOver but we prefer not to because of the speaking voice. unless ya put headphones on it can be distracting to other around ya, so on those times we use zoom. Its not too bad, just a constant struggle to constantly be switching invert colors & zoom or voiceover on/off all the time, causing the phone to eventually freeze switching accessibility options on off all the time, when really 99% of it is IOS 7’s horrible white colored schema. IOS 5 was better we didn’t have to use invert colors so much if at all, now its like a constant switch on off on off going back and forth between the home screen and the lock screen, its so dumb, least Apple could make their theme all one color and give us a another darker theme option, instead of making the home/lock screens one color & the phone screen a completely different color.. Its like common Apple for real???

  • Maurie Hill

    Hi Tom,
    I agree, a gesture to turn “Invert Colors” (located in Settings, General, Accessibility) would be very useful.
    Siri understands “Invert colors on” and “invert colors off” but Siri is not always available and like you said, sometimes you’re not in a situation where speaking to or being spoken to by your phone is appropriate. I just emailed and made your suggestion. If enough of us do this, perhaps it will get on the bucket list!

  • Tom Coburn

    I’ve been with Verizon ever since I’ve had a cellphone, mostly because they lead the way in signal strength, and free mobile to mobile. Before iphone, I had an HTC, was the first accessible smartphone verizon carried at the time. Everyone kept telling me to get an iphone after fussing with the HTC for so long, so I did, and we fell in love with siri. 3 years ago when I did that I wouldn’t have even considered switching, but now that samsung galaxy is out with similar improved features, its been tough to decide, but I think most of us who have invested in apps will probably stick to one platform I think I’ve got over $500 invested in apps alone. and to have to start over with Android, I don’t know…

    As for a carrier, all have their strengths, verizon leads the way in signal strength but you can’t do call waiting with verizon’s version of the iphone & data rates are expensive with verizon. at&t has weaker signal strength & cheaper data rates, but sprint has an unlimited everything option, but is the weakest in signal strength, that’s just our take on it

  • James Lathouris

    The articles were interesting. I thought I would add a piece of advice for users who don’t want to use Talkback and is a way better screen reading application for Android.

    In the Android Market Store you can Mobile Accessibilty depending on their model. It is the alternative to VoiceOver in the Android world since I’ve used it for 6 years before having to purchase a new device and the only models my carrier offered was either an Samsung or an IPhone and feel in love with my IPhone. The price for the applications is around $100 verses Mobile Speak which is $300.

  • TLB

    A few things:
    1) On the iOS device, I have the “triple home button” set to invert my screen colors. Pretty simple to do and more importantly, convenient.
    2) Apple is coming out with both, a 4.7″ and a 5.5″ phone. According to all the media hype, Apple generally announces the release of their new phones in September so we should be hearing something soon. Personally, I’m holding out for the 5.5″. It has been pegged “the phablet.” Part phone, part tablet. It’ll hopefully be easier on the eyes to view and navigate.
    3) Speaking of navigate, there is an app for the iPhone called Compass by Simple Apps. It is a GREAT tool and it’s FREE. This compass shows all the directions in BOLD large letters. To me, this is a great option.

  • Jon

    Another wonderfully informative post, thank you. Technology luckily is moving on faster and faster, i feel luck that my stargardts hasn’t progressed far enough before i can learn all the new tech. Im on a sony xperia z1, and going thro LOADS of apps right now, along with lots for the pc too, getting familiar with whats out there. Thanks again Maurie, star you are.

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