The Mobile Accessibility Landscape

June 29, 2012
by sam joehl

Cell phone usage continues to grow at a staggering rate. Recently Ars Technica reported that 110 percent of American residents have cell phones (there are more cell phones than people). This statistic parallels a large growth in cell phone usage among the disabled community as well.

The most recent WebAim Screen Reader Survey 4 reported that 71.8 percent of respondents indicated that they use a screen reader on a mobile device, a 600 percent increase in mobile screen reader usage since the first survey was conducted just 17 months ago. This also suggests a large shift away from “feature phones” to “smart phones”.

Feature phones are closed devices which run software written by the manufacturer and embedded into the firmware of the phone. They generally do not allow for the development, installation or launching of third-party applications. As with all closed devices, any existing accessibility support is built into the device by the manufacturer or provided by attaching a peripheral device.

The number of feature phones on the market which include accessibility features is very small, and none of the feature phones on the market today provide access to all functions of the device for all users. In contrast, smartphones run operating systems which may or may not be developed by the phone manufacturer and allow for the development, installation and launching of third-party applications.

This approach has created numerous new opportunities for people with disabilities by allowing them to gain access to a greater number of the device’s features (all features in some instances) and also to a large number of third-party applications. The availability and demand for included and third-party assistive technologies on many smartphones today has allowed users with disabilities to make the shift to smartphone devices along with their peers.
As the trend is clearly moving in the direction of smartphones, only accessibility of the major smartphone contenders will be discussed.

iPhone Accessibility

The iPhone from Apple revolutionized the cell phone industry and continues to be a market leader today.

The iPhone was one of the first to exclusively use a touch screen interface as its sole method of input and control. As such, initial iPhone models posed accessibility challenges for many constituents with disabilities.

Apple has listened to the demand from the disability community and, with the release of the iPhone 3GS in 2007, the Voiceover screen reader which is built into the Mac desktop platform was introduced into the iPhone.

Apple devised a unique set of gestures to allow a user to nonvisually control the iPhone using Voiceover. As a user’s finger moves over or taps an element, the name of the element is spoken. Double tapping on the screen activates the element which has focus. A user can flick their finger from the left side of the screen to the right side to navigate through the elements in sequence without having to know the element’s onscreen location, and a right-to-left flick gesture sequentially navigates in reverse order.

Over the past five years Apple has introduced a number of features to better improve the accessibility of the iPhone. Some of the other available features include:

  • Alternative input and output modalities available through the support of a number of Bluetooth keyboards and refreshable Braille Displays
  • The assistive technologies Zoom, which enlarges the entire screen up to 500 percent, and AssistiveTouch, which allows for gesture creation and support for adaptive input devices
  • Siri introduced with the iPhone 4s which allows the user to control the device and retrieve information using speech recognition
  • Hearing aid and TTY compatibility, support for open and closed captioning within iTunes and customizable vibratory alerts for users who are deaf or hard of hearing

For a review of the Apple iPad tablet which runs on the same platform that powers the iPhone, see iPad Accessibility – My Perspective.

The introduction of these features and improved accessibility over time demonstrates Apple’s continued commitment to universal access for all. This commitment is further demonstrated by a Siri promotional video which includes a blind iPhone user and a video shown at Apple’s developer conference featuring several iPhone users with disabilities.

Apple’s commitment to universal design and the level of accessibility built directly into the iPhone has made it increasingly popular among users with disabilities. As an example, WebAim reported in its Screen Reader Survey 4 results that Apple accounts for 58.5 percent of primary mobile screen reader users, up from 32.6 percent in just 17 months and notably higher than usage for the standard population.

Another reason that the iPhone has gained popularity is that many iPhone apps are highly accessible using the Voiceover screen reader without extra effort on the part of the developer as demonstrated by this iPhone app directory.

Apple continues to improve the accessibility of the iPhone and further demonstrate its commitment to all users. New accessibility features in iOS 6 scheduled to be released this fall have been announced by Apple including:

  • Guided access, which allows the user to focus on the task at hand by restricting touch input to one app or area of the screen (for more on Guided Access watch this video demonstration of Guided Access
  • Voiceover support for the redesigned Maps app that will be included with the new iOS release
  • The ability to run Voiceover concurrently with Zoom and AssistiveTouch (not possible with current versions)
  • Support for upcoming third-party Bluetooth 4.0 hearing aids designed for the iPhone 4s

Android Accessibility

Android is an open-source operating system for mobile phones created by Google. Android phones currently dominate the standard cell phone market but receive significantly lower usage among some disability user groups. For example, the WebAIM Screen Reader Survey 4 results indicated that only 7.9 percent of respondents use Android as their primary mobile platform.

While Google makes phones which run the Android OS such as the Galaxy Nexus, phones which run Android are available from other manufacturers, giving the consumer choice over which Android-powered phone they wish to use. One down side to this approach is that many of the Android-powered phones cannot run the latest version of the Android OS, Android 4.0 (also called Ice Cream Sandwich).

The open source philosophy behind Android has led to the adoption of a more “wild west” model of accessibility where developers are expected to create accessibility solutions rather than having them provided centrally. Still, Google did introduce some accessibility features into Android 1.6, including:

  • TalkBack – an included service which speaks the results of actions, events and notifications
  • KickBack – a service which provides haptic (vibratory) feedback for different actions
  • SoundBack – a service which plays sounds for different actions

Since phone manufacturers have complete control over how Android is provided with their phone, some of these accessibility services have been removed from their Android distribution. If this occurs, users can still download TalkBack, KickBack and SoundBack from the Android Play market.
Manufacturers have also been known to replace default Android apps such as the home screen with their own customized versions. Even within Google’s core Android distribution, Android accessibility solutions often had to be pieced together. For example, the home screen which shipped with Android was not compatible with TalkBack, requiring users to replace it with an alternate interface called the eyes-free shell.

Google has continued to improve the accessibility of Android with subsequent versions. For example, until recently TalkBack only announced components which gained focus via a keyboard or four-way directional pad, limiting its use to phones possessing these functions. Google solved this problem by introducing a “virtual keyboard” into a subsequent version which emulated keyboard entry on phones which only possessed a touch screen.
The latest incarnation of Android contains accessibility improvements such as Explore by Touch which allows a user to touch their screen and hear the name of an object under their finger, and additional accessibility options to modify the font size and sound settings of the phone. Android 4.0 now also provides a gesture to nonvisually activate TalkBack and Explore by Touch during initial phone setup which previously could only be enabled via the Accessibility Settings menu.

The open architecture design of the Android platform allows for the easy development of third-party assistive technologies and accessibility solutions. As an example, alternatives to the TalkBack screen reader are available. One such alternative is an open-source screen reader called Spiel which provides a JavaScript-compatible scripting interface to control or limit the presentation of poorly-behaving widgets. Code Factory, manufacturers of screen reading software for several mobile platforms, makes a commercial screen access package for the Android platform called Mobile Accessibility. It consists of a screen reader which offers output through speech synthesis and supported refreshable Braille displays, and input via a keyboard and trackball, touch screen gestures, and speech recognition. The full product also comes with a suite of ten apps to provide alternate access to the Android-included apps for features of the phone and the operating system, including an alternate web browser and music player. (The web browser and music player are also available as separate purchases independent of the screen reader and apps suite.) Several carriers make branded versions of Mobile Accessibility available to their customers with disabilities free of charge. In the United States, AT&T makes the suite of accessible apps available free to customers under the name Mobile Accessibility Lite. Sprint, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile USA make the apps available free to their customers under the name Wireless Accessibility.

In spite of the limitations and fragmentation of Android accessibility, the Android platform has a loyal user base with disabilities. This Android app directory as of this writing contains submissions for 253 apps which were reviewed for compatibility with Android screen access software.

Like Apple, Google continues to make accessibility improvements in Android as new versions of the platform are released. At its 2012 I/O conference, Google announced the release of Android Jellybean (4.1) which will be rolled out via over-the-air updates to the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S and Motorola Xoom in mid-July. The announcement came with a list of Android accessibility enhancements, including:

  • Speech recognition is now local to the device, no longer requiring the device to be connected to the Internet in order to use it
  • Gesture support allowing for greater nonvisual control of the device using the touch screen
  • Native support for refreshable Bluetooth Braille displays

For more on accessibility developments and implementing accessibility in Android apps, check out this Android accessibility video presentation from Google I/O 2012.

Blackberry OS

The Blackberry is a device manufactured by Research in Motion (RIM). Like the iPhone, Rim exclusively makes the hardware which is powered by the Blackberry operating system (Blackberry OS). The Blackberry was one of the first convergent devices on the market to offer a phone with access to corporate E-mail, web browsing functionality and connectivity to corporate networks. Blackberry devices receive wide popularity among the government and corporate industries because of their ability to meet organizational security requirements and interface with internal networks.

Many Blackberry devices provide features to support users with disabilities. Some available features include

  • hearing aid compatibility
  • support for captioned multimedia content
  • compatibility with TTY and TDD terminals
  • customizable vibratory alerts
  • single-handed operation
  • inverted color contrast support
  • customizable fonts
  • browser zoom

In addition, Rim recently released the Blackberry screen reader as a free, downloadable assistive technology for the Blackberry Curve 9350, 9360 and 9370 smartphones. It provides nonvisual access to core applications such as the phone, E-mail, calendar and text messaging.

Making Accessible Mobile Content and Interfaces

Many fundamental accessibility best practices will apply to mobile interfaces and content. Text and images must meet relevant requirements for sufficient color contrast, screens must be laid out in an order that permits intuitive sequential navigation, controls must respond to multiple modalities of input, and components must communicate correct information about the name, state, role and value of each component. For the technical implementation needed to achieve accessibility for each mobile platform, the recently released AMP Spring 2012 now comes included with best practices for Apple iOS and Android accessibility. Blackberry developers may refer to the Blackberry Developer Accessibility Guide. In addition, SSB BART Group will be holding a webinar entitled “Making Your Mobile Content Accessible” on Tuesday, July 24 at 2 P.M. EDT/11 A.M. PDT (1800 UTC). The presentation will cover the basics of mobile accessibility including which technologies are accessible and what guidelines should be used to ensure accessibility. The discussion will cover mobile and web-based apps as well as content accessed via a mobile device. Space is limited, so be sure to register for the Mobile Accessibility webinar today!

Stay tuned for a comparison of mobile accessibility APIs and WAI-ARIA support.

To access the many links in the article above visit the link below.

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