Cell Phone Accessibility
An Evaluation of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean Using the Nexus 7
For the past couple of years, AccessWorld has highlighted the benefits and pitfalls of Android accessibility in several evaluations. While some Android features have been accessible for quite some time, many shortcomings have prevented the Google mobile operating system from achieving widespread adoption. Manufacturers have released models without the required accessibility features built in. Phones without physical keyboards have offered limited functionality. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the latest version of Android will be available for any given device. Therefore, while many tech-savvy users have indeed conquered and are currently using an Android device, much improvement still needs to be made.
Google aimed to solve some of these concerns with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. This version allowed, for the first time, touch exploration of the device, access to the built-in Web browser, and improved access to many built-in Google applications. Darren Burton and Matthew Enigk evaluate an early version of Android 4.0 in the March 2012 issue of AccessWorld, and although some of the concerns outlined in that article have been addressed, there is still room for improvement.
Android 4.1, known as Jelly Bean, is the third major stab at accessibility support from Google. This latest version of the Android operating system first appeared on the Asus Nexus 7, a 7-inch budget wi-fi tablet, available in 8GB and 16GB models. Jelly Bean has since been made available on several phones, including the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy S3. Will the third time be the charm for Google?
Android 4.0 includes a rectangle gesture for turning on speech upon initial launch. Drawing this shape proved difficult to many, primarily with difficulties in activating accessibility features. Android 4.1 adds a second option, a two finger tap-and-hold gesture. For best success, place two fingers, slightly spread apart, in the middle of the device and press down for a few seconds. If you are successful, you will be prompted to keep holding your fingers to enable accessibility. While this gesture is a vast improvement over the rectangle gesture offered in Android 4.0, some users still report problems activating accessibility features.
Furthermore, if the initial setup screen is bypassed for any reason, sighted assistance is still generally required. The fact that this issue remains to be addressed is appalling to say the least. At minimum, there should be a way to plug a device into a computer and activate accessibility using software installed on the computer. The lack of a backdoor way to enable speech in case of an emergency is a major oversight that Google has been aware of for quite some time.
If accessibility does activate as documented, the user is presented with a modified tutorial that guides the user through some of the new gestures and features of Jelly Bean discussed below.
Gestures in Jelly Bean
Getting past the initial setup, the new interface for Android 4.1 is a vast improvement in many areas. TalkBack, the built-in Android screen reader, now includes a gesture mode that allows the user to navigate around the screen and activate items. Some gestures will seem quite familiar to iPhone users, such as swiping right and left to move through items and double tapping to activate the last spoken item. The problem of activating the wrong item in the Android 4.0 Explore by Touch mode has been eliminated.
Android 4.1 also includes gestures that allow the user to navigate by character, word, or paragraph. To cycle through various navigation levels, use an up-down gesture by swiping up and back down without lifting your finger. The opposite down-up gesture cycles through the various navigation modes in reverse.
Additional gestures are included, such as the ability to navigate through lists a page at a time (right-left and left-right) and the ability to quickly jump to various phone screens, such as the Notification Bar or Recent Apps.
Other accessibility features are being added as the gesture mode evolves. A recent version has added support for continuous reading, either from the current position or from the top of the screen. Speech can now be silenced by putting a finger near the light or proximity sensors on a device.
In addition to the gesture mode, Explore by Touch is still available for jumping quickly to a specific part of the screen. A common method for navigation is to tap the screen near the area where you believe the icon is and then to swipe right or left until the icon is located. It's worth noting that the status icons displaying battery life, signal strength, network connectivity, and other information are treated as a single icon in TalkBack, making it difficult to quickly obtain a single piece of information (such as the date, the current time, etc.). While one could install widgets to place these individual items on the home screen, this is an issue that should be resolved.
The Chrome browser ships with the latest versions of Android and is largely accessible, but navigating through complex websites can cause the browser to freeze. The simple navigation levels discussed above can be used to move through Web pages. Some additional controls, such as the ability to navigate by headings, lists, or tables, would be effective additions. Indeed, some of these options are possible using a Bluetooth keyboard, but this is not always a practical solution. The Mozilla Firefox Web browser discussed below is also another option to consider.
Android 4.1 has eliminated the need for a third-party keyboard, bringing the previous features of the Eyes-Free Keyboard into the latest version. To use the Eyes-Free Keyboard, move your finger to a letter, symbol, or function icon, then lift your finger to activate the button. This generally works well, but we would like to see some increased responsiveness in this mode. It's also possible to navigate through typed text to make changes and corrections. By default, for security reasons headphones are required to enter passwords. While this is a good idea in theory, the option should probably be turned off by default, especially to allow for entering wi-fi and e-mail passwords during the initial set-up.
Google has vastly improved Voice Search in Android 4.1, allowing for spoken answers to many common queries. For instance, one could ask "What is the temperature in Seattle?" or "What was the score of the Tigers game?" and receive a nearly instant spoken response. This feature works well with VoiceOver silenced to allow for the voice query to be spoken.
Jelly Bean includes a new instant dictation feature, which is a mixed blessing for TalkBack users. Now, TalkBack correctly speaks words as they are typed, but this can interfere with the voice input, causing words to be entered more than once if the microphone hears TalkBack's speech. Possible workarounds are to use headphones or to turn the speech volume down to a level where the microphone does not detect TalkBack. Android 4.1 also includes support for offline dictation, meaning an Internet connection is not required to use voice input as is the case for other devices.
I was pleasantly surprised to find an entire chapter dedicated to accessibility in the Nexus 7 manual. The chapter describes the available accessibility gestures and gives tips for navigating around popular applications. Slowly, more resources are appearing to offer users assistance with their Android device or provide step-by-step instructions. As more users adopt the platform, these resources will likely expand.
While this review has focused on the built-in accessibility features of Android 4.1, some additional apps are worth mentioning.
Shades is a simple app that allows you to turn the screen brightness down to zero, similar to the screen curtain feature on the iPhone. This allows for increased privacy and is also likely to save battery life. It's compatible with Android 2.3 and up.
Mozilla has made significant strides with the accessibility of the Android version of the Firefox Beta Web browser. Users may prefer the increased navigation options available when compared with the built-in Chrome browser.
Several additional text-to-speech voices are available for Android, giving the option for more human-sounding speech synthesis. One of the latest additions is the familiar suite of voices from Acapela TTS Voices. These voices have been found to be highly responsive and a welcome improvement when compared to the built-in offerings.
BrailleBack is an initial attempt at braille display support for Android. The current implementation was quite unstable and only included support for grade one braille output. While I appreciate the initial progress in this area, this is an app that could use some major improvement.
There are several additional accessibility features that would improve the Android experience for users who are blind or have low vision. For instance, there is currently no way to programmatically turn speech on or off, a feature often useful for applications with built-in gesture support or for having a non-speech user use your device temporarily. Other welcome additions would be the ability to add alternative text for unlabeled icons and a method to control the verbosity level of the screen reader. It's worth noting that Android has vastly overhauled its accessibility services for developers, which means that chances have improved that a third-party screen reader including many of these requests will be developed.
Android on the Job
Determining if Android is a suitable platform for your employment needs will depend largely on your job requirements and daily routine. Like most mobile operating systems, the strengths of Android include managing contacts, reading e-mail, and browsing the Web. If you need to check your messages while traveling, schedule appointments, utilize GPS tools, or keep simple notes, Android 4.1 includes all of the tools necessary to accomplish these tasks. For producing large documents, managing spreadsheets, or updating databases, a laptop computer may be a better mobile aid. Indeed, many business professionals use a combination of mobile devices and laptop or desktop computers, providing higher productivity while on the job.
To be fair, it's difficult for most reviewers to give a truly unbiased review of Android accessibility. Those who use the iPhone as their primary device are likely to have different expectations than someone who has been a regular Android user. Ultimately, you will need to evaluate the various solutions currently available and decide which features are most important for your situation. While not perfect, Android 4.1 has taken some major strides toward a complete accessibility solution, but some additional customizations or third-party apps may be necessary for an optimal experience. I look forward to further developments from Google and hope they come sooner rather than later. Google has the tools to become a leader in accessibility and should do all it can to further explore this opportunity.
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