Who 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: