February 2017 Issue  Volume 18  Number 2

Cell Phone Accessibility

Using Your Phone's Low-Vision Features

As people of all ages rely more on smartphones to complete a variety of tasks, the need for options that support a wide range of visual acuities has increased, too. Whether vision loss is related to age or an eye condition, everyone wants to maximize the usefulness of the vision they have, when working with mobile technology. As no two low-vision experiences are identical, it's important to understand all of the accessibility tools your phone provides, and how to create a visual environment that enhances your productivity.

Low vision means vastly different things to different users: some people require high levels of magnification, while others choose high contrast between the screen and its contents. For others, it's both. Many people also find that while a screen reader offers more spoken feedback than they want, some access to speech, especially for reading books or other longform text, provides a great compliment to other features. Finally, differences among app interfaces often play a significant role in making a smartphone easier or more difficult to use. In short, the best way to customize your phone for your visual needs is to understand how each available option works, alone or in combination with others. In this article, I'll walk you through accessibility features on smartphones that use the Apple iOS and Google Android operating systems, and show you how to choose and activate them.

I want to note a couple of things before we begin. First, though our focus will be on phones, many tablets use iOS and Android operating systems, so what you learn here applies to larger mobile devices, too. In addition, options available on Android-based devices vary, sometimes a lot. Some vendors, including Samsung, which makes the Galaxy line of phones and tablets, have accessibility features in addition to stock Android. Amazon's Fire tablets run software that's based on Android, but the names and locations of settings are a bit different. Finally, several versions of Android exist in the wild, even on recent devices, and there are subtle differences in the way each version of the operating system identifies accessibility features. So it's possible that the name or location of a setting I mention will be slightly different on your phone. But only slightly. Unless otherwise noted, I'll refer to the standard Android platform. Since iPhone users typically upgrade to the most recent version of iOS, I'll always address iOS 10 when mentioning Apple devices.

Screen Magnification

All smartphones provide at least one, and usually multiple, methods of magnifying your view of the screen. You can use zoom continuously, or use a gesture to enable it for specific tasks. Choose a magnification level that seems comfortable for you, and adjust it from there based on what you're doing. Then pan around to see parts of the screen that are hidden when you're zoomed in. In some cases, you'll even be able to use and pan a zoomed window, magnifying part of the screen, while the rest remains at standard size.

On both Android and iOS phones, begin by turning Zoom on, in Accessibility settings. On an iPhone, open the Settings app, then select General > Accessibility > Zoom. On an Android device, open Settings, and go to Accessibility > Screen Magnification. Turn Zoom or Screen Magnification on. Your screen won't be magnified immediately. Instead, your phone can now respond to a command or gesture, when you're ready to zoom. This arrangement means you won't need to dig through your phone's settings every time you want to magnify the screen, you'll just need to learn and use zoom gestures. Note that the gestures I'm about to describe assume that you're not using your phone's TalkBack or VoiceOver screen reader. We'll talk about how to use zoom with speech later.

With Screen Magnification on, triple-tap the screen of your Android device. Now, your screen view is zoomed. To see a different part of the screen, drag two fingers in the direction you want to move. Think of panning as moving a magnifying glass. You can change the zoom level by pinching in and out; place one finger of each hand on the screen and "pull" them away from one another. The magnification level increases. Pinch the fingers together to zoom out. (You can also triple-tap the screen again to zoom out all the way.) To zoom the screen briefly, do the triple-tap gesture, but continue to hold your finger onscreen. You're zoomed in. Now drag your finger to a different part of the screen to see it magnified. When you release your hold, the standard screen view returns.

iOS uses the same basic method, but employs different gestures. With Zoom enabled in Accessibility settings, here's how to magnify your iPhone screen. Place three fingers together on the screen, and double-tap. If you drag upward as you double-tap, the zoom level increases. You can pan the screen by dragging one finger.

Notice a couple of things about what happens when you zoom the screen. With Android, the navigation bar does not zoom, and if the screen contains a keyboard, it doesn't zoom either. This allows you to view the full keyboard as you type, with a magnified view of characters as you enter them. If you're zoomed in while working in an app, your device will zoom out when you leave the app.

In iOS, everything zooms by default, but you can customize the zoom experience in several ways. To zoom what you're typing while keeping the full keyboard in view, turn on Smart Typing in Zoom settings. iOS lets you choose to zoom the full screen, as described previously, or to apply magnification to a window whose borders appear when you perform the zoom gesture. If you choose Window Zoom, you can adjust the size of the zoomed window, or drag it around the screen. Finally, the Zoom Controller is a pop-up menu that gives you quick access to all zoom settings. When the controller is enabled in Zoom settings, a small circle will appear on all screens. Tap it once to view the controller menu, or double-tap and drag to zoom in, and pan around the screen.

Pinch-to-Zoom and Display Zoom

Pinching in and out, the way you do to change zoom level on an Android device, is an important option for zooming your view of apps, especially Web browsers. Most browsers, whether pre-installed on your phone or downloaded from an app store, support pinch-to-zoom. You don't need to enable Zoom first. Just open a webpage and pull out with two fingers to zoom in, pinch in to zoom out. Pinch-to-zoom is actually available in lots of apps, and it is worth checking to see whether one you're using supports it. In iOS, you can pinch within an email message (be sure to place your fingers in the message body, not the header.) In the next section, I'll describe how you can magnify text, rather than the screen, which provides a more universal, and easier reading experience than pinch-to-zoom.

When Apple released its first large phones (iPhone 6 and 6 Plus) in 2015, the company added a feature that was aimed at making the contents of the screen easier to see. It's now available on all iPhone 6 and 7 models, and it's called Display Zoom. Though it's not a replacement for screen magnification, it can help some users avoid getting "lost" on a large screen. Display Zoom does two things: it reduces the number and increases the size of Home screen icons, and it enlarges the size of objects and text in apps. To use Display Zoom on an iPhone 6 or 7 model, open Settings, and choose Display & Brightness. Under the Display Zoom heading, choose View. You next see a sample Home Screen. Tap the Zoomed tab to see how it will look if you activate Display Zoom. Flick right on the sample screen to see how Display Zoom affects a text message, and flick again to see a sample email. To try Display Zoom, tap Set, in the upper-right corner of the screen. After you confirm the change, iOS enables Display Zoom. Note that if your Home screen's bottom row of icons has apps on it, they will be moved to a new page. Just flick left to find them. Now open a few apps to see how Display Zoom affects your view.

Magnify and Enhance Text

All smartphones include options for changing the size and appearance of text onscreen. These settings typically affect the text you see within apps, but sometimes extend to the labels in the Settings app, or, in the case of Android, some of the text you see on the Home screen. Even within apps, not all of the text you see is magnified. That depends on whether the developer follows Google (Android) or Apple guidelines for dealing with fonts. Some apps, as we'll discuss later, include their own text size settings.

Typically, controlling font size means adjusting a slider in Accessibility Settings. The actual size of text you see depends on the app you are in. Text size is relative to the standard size specified by the operating system or, in some cases, by the app. In iOS, there are two text size sliders: one under Display & Brightness, and one in Accessibility settings. The latter, specifically intended for low-vision users, provides substantially larger text sizes. Let's get acquainted with text size options, which will help you decide which setting to use. If you have enabled any Zoom settings discussed earlier, turn them off so that you'll have a better idea how text size settings work alone. You can re-activate Zoom settings later, if you wish.

In Settings, tap Display & Brightness, then Text Size. Use the slider to select a larger text size. The preview text above changes as you move the slider. Press the Home button to leave Settings, and open the Messages app. You should notice that the text on the list of messages is larger than before. The difference is even more noticeable when you open an individual message thread. Try some other apps to see how your new text size looks. To use the largest text sizes available, return to Settings, and go to General > Accessibility > Larger Text. Turn on the Larger Accessibility Sizes toggle to activate the slider. Now you can select a larger text size. When you have, open Messages or Mail, to see the effects of your changes.

Android text size settings vary a bit. I'll describe the Android 7.0 (Nougat) option, and then describe some variations. Just as in iOS, begin by opening Settings from the Home screen, or from the Notification drawer, then choose Accessibility. Select Font Size, then use the slider to enlarge text. Return to the Home screen and open an app to see the impact of your changes. Some Android devices lack a Text Size slider, but allow you to choose among Small, Medium, Large, and Huge sizes. Amazon Fire tablets, which uses a version of the Android OS that has been modified by Amazon, are similar: open Settings, then choose Accessibility > Font Size. You can now pick from three options: Normal, Large, and Huge. Text size changes in Android affect fonts on the Home screen, and in the Settings app, so you can see your changes right away.

You'll find a few other text style options on mobile devices: iOS has a Bold Text toggle in Accessibility settings, which makes any supported text thicker. The High Contrast Text option in some versions of Android, including the Amazon Fire tablet, is a toggle that makes text ?pop? onscreen. On some Android devices, including those from Samsung, you can even change the typeface. In Settings, open Display, then choose Font Style, if available, and pick a font that you find easy to read. The font will then appear throughout your phone's interface.

Brightness, Contrast, and Background

Something as simple as adjusting the appearance of a phone's screen can make the device much easier to see and use. You can also adjust the contrast between backgrounds and objects and text onscreen, or even use color filters to make more precise adjustments.

You can set the brightness of Android and iOS phones from the Home screen. In Android flick down from the top of the screen to reveal the Notification Drawer. Use the Brightness slider to find a comfortable level, keeping in mind that you might need more light to focus on text or photos, less if you're photophobic. In iOS, flick up from the bottom of the screen to open Control Center. There's a Brightness slider there. Keep in mind that brightness needs are also affected by lighting conditions. If you're outside, you may be unable to make your screen as bright as you want it to be, while a medium brightness level might work well in an office environment. Finally, if your device has a night mode, which is designed to make it easier to see the device in the evening and to support sleep, turn it off while adjusting brightness. In fact, night mode can sometimes interfere with contrast and color settings, so consider disabling it, at least while you work to create the best environment on your phone. Then try turning it back on to see how it affects your view.

Unlike computer monitors, smartphones don't include a contrast adjustment slider, per se. Instead, you can change the relationship between the background (home screen or in apps) and text or objects. At its most complete, contrast adjustment in the smartphone world provides a true "dark mode," which dims backgrounds, and makes text lighter and crisper. Right now, neither iOS or Android offer a fully realized dark mode, but both environments let you get close.

iPhone users have two options for improving contrast: tweak display settings, or use color filtering to fundamentally change the appearance of the screen. To see how you can tweak the screen, open Settings, and go to General > Accessibility > Increase Contrast. Select the Reduce Transparency toggle to "harden" the backgrounds of some screens in iOS. To see how Reduce Transparency changes your view, turn it on, return to the Home screen, and flick left to open the Notification Center. The background will be more opaque. To see how Darken Colors works, activate it and open the Safari Web browser, then tap the Bookmarks button. You'll notice that tab colors are darker than before. You'll find one more contrast tweak in Display Accommodation settings, also in Accessibility settings. (If you're on the Increase Contrast settings screen, use the Back button to move up one level, then choose Display Accommodation.) Now turn on Reduce White Point. An intensity slider appears, allowing you to reduce the impact of bright screens in iOS, to make them less of a distraction, if you're sensitive to them. You'll notice the change to the settings screen as soon as you turn the toggle on. Another place in iOS where you'll notice all of these display tweaks is the onscreen keyboard. iOS uses light and dark versions of the keyboard, depending on what app you are using. Reduce Transparency and Bold Text are particularly helpful in making keyboards easier to use.

Let's take a look at contrast options in the Android world. They vary, based on the device and Android version you're using. As is usually the case, newer versions (KitKat/Android 4.4 or later, for low-vision options) are better. And Samsung devices add their own accessibility settings to stock Android, providing the largest number of choices for users with low-vision. Samsung devices, for example, were the first to provide an invert colors option.

You can use color filtering and adjustment options to make a more substantial change in screen contrast, available in either platform. Think of Invert Colors as a photographic negative of your screen. In fact, the feature is sometimes called Negative Colors, or Reverse Video. Typically, light backgrounds become dark, while black text becomes light. Of course, since everything inverts, photos and other images on your screen look like negatives, too, and an app with a dark background will be rendered light, instead. For this reason, many who use Invert Colors find themselves enabling and disabling the feature throughout the day to see content that looks odd when inverted. If your phone (all iOS devices do) includes an accessibility shortcut, you may be able to switch Invert Colors on and off quickly.

Color filters and grayscale provide a different kind of screen color change. As the name implies, a grayscale view removes all color from the screen, using a range of grays to indicate interface items. It's not a typical Android feature, but you will find it on some Samsung phones, including the Galaxy S5. In Settings, choose Power Saving Mode and choose Grayscale mode. In iOS, you'll find this option in Settings > General > Accessibility > Display Accommodations > Color Filters. Then turn on the Color Filters toggle to view options, including Grayscale. You can also choose color filters that correspond to the needs of users with specific eye conditions. They are Red/Green Filter, Green/Red Filter, and Blue/Yellow Filter. When you choose one, an Intensity slider appears. To determine whether your Android device offers filtering, go to Accessibility settings. On the Amazon Fire tablet, for example, you'll find three color filters under Color Correction.


You can use speech with your phone, even if you don't use the TalkBack or VoiceOver screen reader. You can hear an ebook or a webpage, or get spoken feedback as you type. Both Google and Apple include a speech engine that can be customized with downloadable voices, and configured to speak at a speed that's comfortable. Many Android devices actually include (or allow you to download) multiple speech engines: the Google default, speech provided by the device manufacturer, and sometimes even the ability to download one from the Google Play Store. We won't delve into the finer points of these engines, but be aware that you may have access to several. To set up speech, go to Settings > Accessibility > Text-to-Speech Output. If you have multiple speech engines installed, they're listed here. If Google Text-to-Speech is available, choose it, or select the one from your phone's manufacturer. You can adjust settings for the speech engine, and hear examples of the language and voice you choose. You can now use speech in apps that support it. These include Google Play Books, Instapaper, Pocket, Voice Dream Reader, and Easy Text Speech, which will speak the contents of the Clipboard. If you have an Amazon device, you can use text-to-speech options built into the Kindle app, and you can download compatible Android apps that support it.

iOS offers robust speech options for non-VoiceOver users. First, you'll want to choose voices and settings. In the Settings app, go to General > Accessibility > Speech. The options in the upper portion of the screen control what you do with speech. In the lower portion of the screen, you can choose a voice and a speaking rate if you like. Let's take a look at the speech features included in iOS. Speak Selection enables your phone to read selected text aloud, when you choose that option from a popup menu. Speak Screen, the most powerful of the features, uses a gesture to read what's on the screen. Enable the feature, locate a webpage, book, or other screen containing text you want to read. Doing a two-finger downward flick from the top of the screen begins speech. If you're reading a book in iBooks or the iOS Kindle app, Speak Screen will advance from page to page, reading until you stop it. Typing Feedback makes speech available as you enter text. Choose options that tell iOS how verbose speech should be, and whether and when to speak auto-correct suggestions aloud. Finally, the Highlight Content setting provides visual cues as text is spoken.

Tips for a Better Low-Vision Phone Experience

Whether you use some or all of the low-vision phone features described in this article, there are still more things you can do to improve phone usability that don't require a trip to Accessibility settings. Some involve choosing hardware and software, others are simple, and cost nothing.

  • Right-size your phone: How much magnification you need depends on your vision, of course, but also on the size of the phone you choose. If you need a high level of zoom, or larger text, you might want to pick a phone with a larger screen, which will allow more of the screen contents to remain visible when you zoom or crank up the font size. You'll find Android and iOS phones with screens up to 5.5 inches. Tablets are bigger. The challenge of a large phone for some low-vision users is the need to hold the device close to your eyes to view it. This may be hard on your wrists. Some users may also "get lost" on a too-large screen. Before you choose a phone, be sure to handle and use the model you're planning to buy.
  • Launchers: If you have an Android phone, you can replace the default look and feel of your Home screen with a launcher from the Google Play Store. I covered launchers in my roundup of Android low-vision apps. You'll find launchers with large icons, high-contrast text, and even simplified interfaces that are ideal for some seniors, or folks who use a limited number of apps on their phones.
  • High-contrast wallpaper: You can change the background of your Home screen by turning any photo into wallpaper, or picking from wallpapers already available on the device. Using a solid color, rather than a busy photo that obscures your app icons and the text on the Home screen can make it much easier to locate text and icons. If a solid background seems boring, try a starry sky or snowy scene, for a dark or light look, respectively.
  • Apps with dark mode and/or font size options: Apps that focus on reading and navigation often have their own accessibility-enhancing options. Apple's iBooks and Amazon's Kindle app allow you to change font size, and even typeface, as well as changing the background or text color of what you're reading. Seek out apps that compensate for what might be missing in your phone's operating system, or that simply offer a better experience.

Get the Most from your Phone

The good news about modern smartphones is that they all provide features to support those with low-vision or whose eyesight has simply changed due to age. Your challenge is to try out as many of these features as possible, and decide which ones are right for you.

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