Android operating system icon

Unlike Apple, Google allows other companies to install the Android operating system on their own devices, and to make changes and customizations to Android. That is why you will discover such a wide variety of Android phones and tablets from different manufacturers like Samsung, LG, HTC, and Sony.

Having a wide selection of models and form factors is good news, but it comes along with bad news. In the early days of Android, many phones included several physical buttons, even a slide-out keyboard you could use to enter text. These days, most of these keys are no longer included on Android phones. Most slide-out keyboards are a thing of the past, along with many of the essential hardware controls. Nowadays many phones contain only a single Home button, physical navigation buttons, like Back and Recent Apps, have been replaced with touch icons located on the left and right bottom corners of the touch display. A quickly increasing number of phone models do not even include a physical Home button, replacing it with a touch control.

There is also a matter of which Android version any particular phone may be running. When Apple releases a new version of their operating system, iPhone and iPad owners can download the update directly and install it. Consequently, it is easy to stay current and benefit from any improvements in functionality. Upgrades to an Android phone are available only when and if both the mobile phone maker and the service carrier decide to push out the update. Since device manufacturers can customize the version of Android they install, extensive testing is required to make sure that changes to the operating system are compatible with their hardware before they can approve the update. Then the carrier must also approve the update and release it. Unfortunately, this does not always happen in a timely fashion, or even at all.

Consequently, three different phones might be running three different versions of Android, with three different levels of accessibility. Google names their Android releases after various treats and desserts. The latest three versions, from oldest to newest, are: Jelly Bean, KitKat, and Lollipop.

Mobile accessibility is usually enabled by a combination of low-level programming capabilities and a higher level screen reader, screen magnifier, and other apps. In this arena Android definitely outshines iOS. VoiceOver, Zoom, and other accessibility updates must wait for the next version release or update for improvements to functionality. The main Android access apps, TalkBack and BrailleBack, are separate from the main operating system and can be updated at any time to introduce new features or to squash known bugs and incompatibilities.

In this guide we cannot hope to teach you everything you will wish to know about operating an Android touch screen device with accessibility. What we can and will do is show you what is possible using an Android device with accessibility, and teach you the basics: how to turn accessibility on and off, how to adjust the main settings to your particular needs, how to use various touch gestures to operate your device, and, most importantly, where to get help and learn more.

The TalkBack Android Screen Reader

TalkBack is the built-in screen reader app that comes pre-installed on all new Android devices. Since TalkBack is separate from the Android operating system, it can be improved and updated with more regularity than the Android operating system itself.

If you obtain a new Android phone or tablet, you can start TalkBack right out of the box. Here's how.

  1. Turn your device on by finding and pressing the Power button, often located on the upper right side edge of the device.
  2. Lay two fingers on the display, spread at least an inch apart.
  3. Continue to hold them there until you hear the audible prompt asking if you would like to enable TalkBack.
  4. Continue holding your fingers against the screen until the device reports that TalkBack has been successfully initialized.

The first time you start TalkBack you will be prompted to work your way through a brief, interactive Explore by Touch tutorial. You can pause this tutorial at any time and restart where you left off, or restart it from the beginning at any time using the TalkBack Settings menu option.

This tutorial will teach you nearly all of what you need to know to perform most tasks on your Android phone or tablet using TalkBack. We encourage you to make good use of this excellent, onboard resource.

TalkBack Settings Menu

You can reach the TalkBack Settings menu in two different ways:

Use the Global Context Menu. In one smooth movement, slide one finger down the left side of the screen, then, without lifting your finger, slide to the right. This gesture may take some practice to perfect, but you will know when you have it right because you will hear a series of clicks to let you know the context menu is now on screen. You will then hear instructions to "Touch the screen and explore in a circle to find an item, then lift to select." Select the TalkBack Settings menu.

Use the System Settings menu. Select Accessibility. First, check the checkbox to turn TalkBack on, if it isn't already. (Note: This is a good way to toggle TalkBack on if you are borrowing someone's device.) A bit lower, you will find the TalkBack Settings menu, the same menu you can reach via the Global Context Menu.

Here is a description of the major TalkBack settings and what they do:

  • Speech Volume: You can set this to match media volume—meaning, TalkBack will speak at the same volume level as music, videos, and such—or you can set it to speak at a percentage of the media volume.
  • Keyboard Echo: Select whether you wish to hear keyboard characters spoken as they are entered.
  • Use Pitch Changes: Speaks keyboard feedback in a lower-pitched voice.
  • Speak When Screen is Off: As various notifications appear on the screen, your phone may become a bit verbose, even when the screen is turned off. You can stop this extra speech here.
  • Use Proximity Sensor: With this option enabled, waving a hand near your device's top left corner will silence speech automatically. Tablets do not always include proximity sensors.
  • Shake to Start Continuous Reading: This is a quick way to have a screen spoken aloud. You can adjust the level of force required to activate the reading so your device won't start speaking in your pocket every time you take a step.
  • Speak Caller ID: Some people want to know who's calling. Others prefer to keep this information private.
  • Launch Explore by Touch Tutorial: If you missed the opening tutorial, or wish to run it again, double tap this option.
  • Manage Gestures: This screen lists the default L-shaped gestures and their functions. You can change these gestures to perform functions you use frequently.

Third-Party Language and Voices

The last setting we will discuss here is the ability to choose other text-to-speech voices and languages. Android comes with the Google Text to Speech Engine pre-installed. You can add new voices via download from the Google Play Store. After the new voices are installed, go to Language and Input under the System Settings menu, select Text to Speech Output, and choose a new voice. You can also change the voice rate and pitch.

Two popular publishers of Android-ready text-to-speech engines are Acapela and IVONA.