Bigger text, zoom features, voice typing, and screen readers for Android phones and iPhones can make life easier, even if you don’t have serious visual impairments By Melanie Pinola
November 12, 2022
“I’ve never looked through normal eyes,” says John-Ross Rizzo, MD, who was born with a retinal dystrophy, a progressive eye disease that currently has no cure, and is legally blind.
As an associate professor at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, Rizzo works on tech initiatives to improve the lives of people with blindness and low vision. His projects include everything from wearable technology to help people navigate cities during a commute, to an app repository (or app store) for the visually impaired.
They’re not as sophisticated as Rizzo’s innovations, but modern smartphones can also ease many daily tasks for the visually impaired.
To start, Rizzo says, today’s jumbo phone screens can make a big difference. “More pixels for low vision usually means better, because you have a bigger canvas.”
In addition, both Android phones and iPhones let you increase text and icon sizes, have onscreen text read aloud, and adjust other settings. They even have braille keyboards, built right into the operating systems.
You don’t have to consider yourself visually impaired to benefit from some of these features. Even though I am legally blind in one eye and need reading glasses to use my phone, I’ve been getting by for years without traipsing into the accessibility settings territory. As it turns out, I could’ve made my life a whole lot easier if I knew about some of these options, particularly making text all bold and switching to dark mode.
Here are some of the major phone settings to check out. They fall into three main categories: making the screen easier to see, relying more on sound, and using the phone to help you see street signs and other objects beyond the phone itself.
Make Your Screen Easier on Your Eyes
Android phones and iPhones both include lots of accessibility options, but every option won’t help every phone user. “Blindness isn’t a one size fits all model, but rather a multiheaded hydra,” Rizzo says. And that goes for many eyesight challenges. It’s important to experiment until you discover what works best for you, rather than just turning on all the accessibility settings.
Use Bold Text and Increase the Font Size
Changing to bold and larger lettering can make the text stand out more not just on emails, text messages, and web pages, but on the onscreen keyboard, too.
On Android: Go to Settings > Display size and text. Toggle on “Bold text” and use the slider to make the font size bigger. Samsung Galaxy phone owners should find this feature under Settings > Display > Font size and style.
On iPhone: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Display & Text Size. Toggle on “Bold Text.” Next, tap “Larger Text” to turn on Larger Accessibility Sizes. You can use the font slider to adjust the reading size.
Make App Icons Bigger
This makes app icons easier to find and tap.
On Android: Go to Settings > Wallpaper & style > App grid. Select a grid with fewer columns and rows. Samsung Galaxy owners can go to Settings > Home screen and adjust the grid for the home screen, apps screen, and folder grids.
On iPhone: Go to Settings > Display & Brightness > Display Zoom. Select the screen with the zoomed display and tap Set. This will not only increase the size of Home screen icons, it will also enlarge the size of objects and text in apps, such as chat message boxes. Zoom In on the Screen
This is helpful for seeing any part of your screen, not just app icons.
On Android: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Magnification. Turn on “Magnification shortcut.” With the shortcut, you can tap the accessibility button at the bottom right of the screen, press and hold both volume buttons, or triple-tap the screen. See Google’s support page for more things you can do with Magnification. Samsung phone owners will find this feature under Settings > Accessibility > Visibility enhancements.
On iPhone: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Zoom. Toggle Zoom on. Now you can double-tap with three fingers on the screen to zoom in.
High-contrast themes improve the legibility of the screen by making text stand out more from the background. It can also lessen the stress on the eyes when you’re in a low-light environment.
On Android: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Display size and text. Toggle “High contrast text” on.
On iPhone: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Display & Text Size, and select “Increase Contrast.” Use Dark Mode
A dark color scheme can make reading easier for many people, especially in low-light situations.
On Android: Go to Settings > Accessibility. Under “Color and motion,” toggle “Dark theme” on. On iPhone: Go to Settings > Display & Brightness, and select “Dark.”
Some apps use blurred or transparent backgrounds and effects, which can make text harder to read. When you turn on reduce transparency, it will improve legibility-and it can also speed up your phone a bit and save battery life.
On Samsung phones: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Visibility enhancements. Toggle “Reduce transparency and blur” on.
On iPhone: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Display & Text Size, and toggle “Reduce Transparency” on.
Do Less Typing and Tapping
“Anything I can do to minimize extra screen time is really helpful,” says Rizzo, citing examples such as using Siri to pull up contacts for phone calls or dictating text messages and emails. As someone who spends most of my days in front of a computer monitor, I’m also working on reducing unnecessary screen time.
Use Voice Typing
Instead of trying to tap on a tiny onscreen keyboard, enter text with your voice.
On Android: Open the app you want to type in. At the top of the keyboard, tap the microphone icon. Note that Google Voice Typing will need to be turned on in the keyboard settings; it is by default.
On iPhone: Go to Settings > General > Keyboard and toggle “Enable Dictation” on. Then, where you want to enter text, tap on the microphone icon to start dictating.
Use a Screen Reader
Text-to-speech lets you use the phone even if you can’t see the screen by speaking aloud your actions and describing elements on the screen such as buttons. On Android, the screen reader is called TalkBack. On iPhone, it’s called VoiceOver.
On Android: Go to Settings > Accessibility > TalkBack. From there, you can go into TalkBack settings to adjust things like speech rate and pitch. Alternatively, you can tell Google Assistant to turn TalkBack on.
On iPhone: Go to Settings > Accessibility > VoiceOver and turn the setting on. Alternatively, you can ask Siri to turn VoiceOver on.
If you don’t want your phone to start reading everything aloud automatically, you can have the device just describe items on your screen, such as text or images.
On Android: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Select to Speak. Turn on the Select to Speak shortcut. You can also point your camera at pictures or text and have them read or described aloud.
On iPhone: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Spoken Content. You can turn on “Speak Selection” that will show a Speak button when you select text, as well as “Speak Screen,” which reads aloud the content of the screen when you swipe down with two fingers.
Add Accessibility Shortcuts
To quickly turn accessibility features on or off, you can create shortcuts.
On Android: Go to Settings > Accessibility. Select the app that you want to create a shortcut for. Then choose what will trigger that shortcut: tapping the accessibility button on the screen, holding both volume buttons, or a two-finger swipe up from the bottom. For Samsung phones, go to Settings > Accessibility > Advanced settings. From there, you can add shortcuts for an accessibility button, the side and volume up buttons, and the volume up and down buttons.
On iPhone: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut. Then select which features you want to call up. Once set up, you can access the accessibility features by triple-clicking on the side button.
Navigate the World Around You
Both Android phones and iPhones can leverage their cameras and sensors to provide information from your environment.
Lookout for Android
This free app from Google has a few modes that can interpret details about objects, text, and images around you. For example, with Text mode, you can have your phone read signs or skim through text while you’re doing things like sorting the mail. Documents mode can read full pages of text or handwriting. Currency mode can identify between US dollars, Euros, and Indian rupees. And Food labels mode (in beta) can scan barcodes or recognize food labels.
Install it from the Google Play Store, then in the app, scroll through the bottom menu to select which mode you want to use.
Magnifier for iPhone
The built-in magnifier tool in iOS can not only zoom in on physical objects, it can also detect people nearby, locate a door or entryway, and provide scene or image descriptions.
Open the Magnifier app. If you don’t see it, you can search for it or ask Siri to open it for you. Then, you can point your phone at an object you want to zoom in on, such as tiny magazine print and use the slider to adjust the magnification. For more information on other ways to use Magnifier, see Apple’s support page.
More to Come
Phone manufacturers are constantly adding new features for their users, including members of the blind and low-vision community. So it pays to keep up with the latest software updates for your phone. The Google Accessibility forum and the AppleVis forum are online communities where you can connect with others and stay up-to-date with new features and products.
When I asked Rizzo what one thing he would like companies to add, he replied improving the ad popups and CAPTCHA features- stating it’s like a treasure hunt to try and figure out where the X button is to close the ad or where the audio button is for the CAPTCHA.