March 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 3

Cell Phone Accessibility

Android Ice Cream Sandwich: Evaluating the Accessibility of Android 4.0

Our May 2010 AccessWorld evaluation of Android 2.0 and 2.1 found some positives to report, but a lack of e-mail and Web browser accessibility left a lot to be desired. At the time, we concluded that the platform had potential despite its shortcomings, and promises from Google staff left us optimistic about future improvements. Though there are third-party screen readers and apps available that enhance the accessibility of Android phones, this article focuses on the built-in, out-of-the-box accessibility that Google has designed into their Android 4.0 operating system, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich.

We used the Samsung Galaxy Nexus for this evaluation. The Nexus is a touchscreen phone; the only physical buttons are the power/lock button on the right side panel and a volume rocker on the left side panel. For this article, we began our testing with Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 and continued testing with subsequent upgrades through version 4.02.

Initial Setup

Previous versions of Android required that a user who was blind or visually impaired get sighted assistance to turn on the screen reader. Ice Cream Sandwich attempts to address this limitation: After you feel a few short vibrations upon booting up the phone, using your finger to draw a square clockwise on the screen (starting at the top left corner) should activate the screen reader. This was erratically successful during our testing. Your chances of success will be improved if you ensure that you don't touch the screen anywhere else first, and make sure to keep your finger on the active area of the screen. Once activated, the screen reader will remain active; you won't need to draw the square again.

An accessible tutorial comes onscreen when the screen reader starts, and the Talk Back speech synthesizer talks you through practicing how to use Explore by Touch, which will be discussed in the next section of this article.

We found the rest of the setup process to be a mixed bag as far as accessibility. We do suggest getting some sighted assistance to complete everything with minimal frustration. We found some unlabelled elements on the setup screens, and typing information into the required edit fields using the onscreen keyboard was frustrating at best.

Explore by Touch

Ice Cream Sandwich has the Talk Back, Sound Back, and Kick Back accessibility features found in the Android operating system. Older versions also featured the "Eyes-Free Shell," a home screen that gave people with vision loss a more consistent and well-integrated interface for navigating and using an Android phone. Ice Cream Sandwich features "Explore by Touch" instead, which allows you to move your finger around the screen while Talk Back indentifies the elements that are onscreen beneath your finger. When you get to an element you want to activate, such as the Web browser icon, you simply lift your finger and tap the screen at that location. Although that sounds simple, even our lab testers with years of experience with technology didn't always tap in the correct place, especially when two icons were located very close to one another on screen. In addition, even when sighted testers confirmed that an icon was tapped properly, it often didn't open.

The Onscreen Keyboard

Previous versions of Android required a physical QWERTY keyboard and a D-pad or track ball for accessible navigation. Ice Cream Sandwich allows the use of the phone's virtual onscreen QWERTY keyboard for things like filling out online forms and creating your contacts list. When you tap on an input field, the virtual keyboard appears on the bottom portion of the screen. In theory, Talk Back identifies each key as you move your finger around the keyboard; when you hear the letter you want, you lift your finger to activate the key. We found significant inconsistencies when trying to type with the keyboard. The keyboard itself often seemed to disappear, as sometimes nothing would be spoken when gesturing over the area where the keyboard was supposed to be. On those occasions when the keyboard was spoken, a letter different from the one indicated was often entered into the field. The testers evaluating the keyboard functionality often used the phrase "life's too short" to describe their frustrations with the erratic functionality.

Although it's not built into Ice Cream Sandwich, Eyes-Free Keyboard is a free app from the Android market that you can download to help with this problem. Although we found significantly less inconsistency when typing with Eyes-Free Keyboard, the process was still not 100-percent accurate. The free app also includes a virtual D-pad that can help with general navigation and with activating icons and buttons. When you are not in an edit field for typing, the bottom portion of the screen contains the D-pad, the use of which allows you to swipe up, down, right, or left to move from icon to icon or among other screen elements. Simply tap anywhere on the D-pad portion of the screen to activate an icon or button. Though it functionality was also inconsistent, at times we found using the D-pad to be easier than Explore by Touch to focus on and activate screen elements. The D-pad also doesn't work with menus and pop-ups, so you have to use Explore by Touch to access those items. The D-pad has more uses while browsing the Web (see below).

We also tested Android 4.0 with our Apple wireless keyboard. This worked very well for accessing the features of the phone, and the wireless keyboard was much more consistent and useful for navigating the screen and activating icons. That said, it is not realistic or desirable to have to carry around a keyboard just to use your phone.

Using Apps

We tested a few of the main built-in apps on the Galaxy Nexus.

Making a Call

The Phone app is much improved since our May 2010 Android evaluation. The dialing and other buttons were read quickly and clearly by Talk Back, and Explore by Touch worked consistently to locate and activate buttons. You use the same Explore by Touch technique of finding, lifting, and tapping to activate the buttons within the Phone app, so you do have to be accurate when tapping. The dial pad remains active during a call so you can interact with automated phone tree systems, but you do have to be pretty fast to get your buttons pressed in time.

Talking Caller ID, which speaks the name and number of callers who are in your People list, worked well. If a caller is not in your People list, Talking Caller ID speaks the number and state from which the caller is calling. One glitch is that sometimes the app continues to speak caller ID information after the feature is switched off.

The Call Log, Favorites, and People lists were a bit more difficult to use. Explore by Touch had difficulty locating entries in the lists; we had much more success using our wireless QWERTY keyboard to do so.


Overall text messaging was difficult to use in Ice Cream Sandwich. Although we could read our list of message threads, we were unable to get Talk Back to read the actual text of the messages when using Explore by Touch. We were able to read the messages using the Eyes-Free Keyboard D-pad to navigate, but it would only read a message in one big chunk. Reading by line, word, character, etc., was not possible. Dealing with text messages in general was difficult to figure out, and it took a lot of scrolling around to get to the text of the messages.


We ran into real problems with settings using Explore by Touch. We could read and activate each item on the main Settings page, but when we tried to drill down and actually change a setting, the functionality was lost. Most didn't read at all, and we were unable to change any of them, including the accessibility settings. Using the D-pad, however, we were able to read and activate all the settings.

Web Browsing

To use the native Web browser in Android, you have to first install the Web accessibility scripts, which are found in the accessibility menu. Though the Web browser is accessible with Talk Back and Explore by Touch, using these tools for exploring the Web is not a pleasant experience. It's difficult to navigate a page and activate links with Explore by Touch, and Talk Back only read large blocks of text. We also had trouble getting Talk Back to stop after it began reading an entire Web page.

The Eyes-Free Keyboard D-pad helped with navigating webpages. Similar to using the iPhone rotor, swiping right or left changes the navigation element, and up/down moves around by the element you have chosen. The navigation elements include group, object, sentence, word, and character. We're not exactly clear what a group is, but an object is any HTML element on a page, such as a graphic, a list, a block of text, or a table. Using the D-pad, we were also able to navigate within a table as long as we were not moving by the group element.

Although this evaluation is focused on the built-in accessibility features of Ice Cream Sandwich, we thought it would be useful to mention Ideal Android Vox browser from Apps4Android as a better alternative to the built-in browser. The Vox browser greatly improves the browsing experience, with enhanced tools for navigating by a variety of elements such as heading, table, form, sentence, word, and character. In order to use this functionality, you must have a phone with a QWERTY keyboard or use an external wireless keyboard. We tested Vox with the Apple wireless keyboard. It worked very well, and was a vast improvement over the built-in browser with Explore by Touch.


Although we had no luck with the phone's native e-mail app, we were able to access our Gmail accounts. Navigation was a bit clunky at times, but we were ultimately able to read and compose messages.


Explore by Touch was again difficult to use when accessing the Music app, and several elements could not be accessed. Once again, the D-pad made significant improvements. The biggest obstacle was hearing Talk Back when music was playing, as there is no automatic dip in music volume as there is on the iPhone when VoiceOver is speaking.

Other Miscellaneous Issues

A variety of additional issues to note with Ice Cream Sandwich:

  • The phone is now easier to unlock. Press the Lock button, run your finger up from the bottom of the screen; when you feel the haptic vibration, swipe to the right to unlock.
  • Easier to answer an incoming call. A haptic vibration alerts you when to swipe to the right to answer a call, or to the left to send it to voicemail.
  • The Android Market worked well, except for the advertisements for apps and movies.
  • The Notification Shade, which appears at the top of the screen and tells you about incoming mail and messages, wouldn't work with Explore by Touch. It was more accessible with the D-pad.
  • The D-pad sometimes blocked the Home button, which appears at the bottom of every Android screen.
  • During limited testing we found Android's voice input features to be similar to older versions, but with some improvements in voice recognition accuracy.


Just as we reported in our May 2010 article, the lack of available documentation, such as a user guide or quick start guide, makes it difficult to learn how to use an Android phone with Ice Cream Sandwich. The tutorial that appears during initial setup is insufficient. The additional Google documentation we could find were a couple videos, also very limited.

Low Vision Accessibility

Previous versions of Android offered nothing in particular to accommodate people with low vision, but Ice Cream Sandwich has made some improvements in this area. In addition to the high-definition display on the Galaxy Nexus, there is now a setting to increase the font size globally, which also reflows the text so that panning is not necessary. You can zoom in on certain elements with a pinch gesture, and you can set the phone to reverse polarity for a white-on-black display. Finally, Ice Cream Sandwich features default text in the Roboto typeface, a sans serif face that people with low vision often find easier to read than other common typefaces.

The Bottom Line

Android accessibility has certainly improved since our initial evaluation in 2010, but the platform's out-of-the-box accessibility is still not close to reaching the level of accessibility and usability found in the Apple iPhone. Our testers were unimpressed with Explore by Touch. The lack of any useful documentation or a central online resource for people with vision loss makes it very difficult to learn how to use an Android phone. If we hadn't found some online podcasts on the subject, we never would have learned about Eyes-Free Keyboard, which makes a very poor out-of-the-box experience more tolerable. Such functionality should be included in Android's built-in technology.

In our limited testing, we found significant improvement in features for low-vision users; we'd like to hear reader comments about using Android with low vision.

The very nature of Android's open-source operating system expands possibilities for clever designers to invent more and better access solutions. What we seem to have so far is fragmentation of access and of information, making it difficult to figure out what is required for an accessible experience.

Of course, there are useful third-party screen reader and access apps (see Resources, below), but for some, researching and learning additional apps simply adds to the confusion.

At this point, Android phones are probably more suited for techies who like a challenge and are willing to spend the time and effort to figure out even basic functionality. People who are less comfortable with technology might have real problems with Android's demands for accurate interaction with the touchscreen. The Android OS is now four years old, and it's time that Google delivered a built-in solution to rival that of the iPhone.


Android Accessibility

Google's Eyes-Free Group

Author's Note: As we were posting this article, we did find a useful site that centralizes information about Android accessibility.

Videos from Google

Demonstration of Initial Setup

Demonstration of Explore by Touch

Other Resources

That Android Show podcast, featuring AccessWorld author J.J. Meddaugh

Accessible Android blog

AccessWorld article on Mobile Accessibility

Helpful Third-Party Apps

The Spiel screen reader for Android

Mobile Accessibility for Android

AT&T offers a light version of Mobile Accessibility for Android at no cost for their customers with vision loss; learn more in their press release.

Sprint has also announced that it will offer the full version of Mobile Accessibility at no cost for their Sprint and Boost Mobile customers with print disabilities. Sprint has also announced Five Accessibility Sprint ID packs, which are bundles of apps from Apps4Android designed to accommodate people with print disabilities. More information is available from Sprint's Press Release.

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