When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, few people could have fathomed that we all would own smartphones someday.

Three decades later, not only are folks carrying these devices but those with physical impairments — hearing loss, low vision, motor disabilities — are benefiting from the same experiences as everyone else, frequently with an assist from baked-in accessibility tools that are free on Android and iPhone handsets.

More than a billion people globally have some sort of disability according to the World Health Organization, and anyone can take advantage of such tools as audio enhancements, motor controls and screen readers. Indeed, making something accessible — think sidewalk curb cuts — potentially benefits the entire population.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the federal ADA, signed into law July 26, 1990, here’s a look at some common accessibility features on Android phones and iPhones. With some small differences related to the nature of the devices, they also work on each operating system’s tablets. Your starting point for most of these is found in device Settings.

On an iPhone, tap Settings | Accessibility and select among many accessibility choices. On an Android phone such as the Google Pixel 4 (because many manufacturers make Android phones, you may see variations) tap Settings | Accessibility and similarly make a selection.

Keep in mind that some tools are meant to be used with external accessories: braille keyboards, hearing aids or switches.


Tools for deaf or hard-of-hearing users

  • Live Transcribe.This app, already installed on some recent Android handsets or available as a free download in the Google Play Store, uses your device’s microphone to capture and transcribe text, displayed as kind of a caption box for the real world. Enable it in Settings, then either tap a human-figure-shaped icon on the display or perform a gesture. On the Pixel 4, swipe up from the bottom of the screen with two fingers. In addition to spoken text, Live Transcribe can display sound effects such as barking dogs or crying babies. iPhones do not have an equivalent built-in. An Apple App Store app titled Transcribe Live is not related and requires an in-app purchase after trying the service for 15 minutes.
  • Live Caption.This sister feature, of sorts, to Live Transcribe is installed on the latest Pixels and certain other Android phones such as those from OnePlus and Samsung. By applying speech recognition, the phone can overlay captions from any media on the device, including audio that comes through social media feeds, Facebook videos and podcasts from anywhere. To enable Live Caption, tap Settings | Sound | Live Caption. Options let you hide profanity, and show labels such as applause or laughter. Again, no equivalent is built into iPhones though the iPhone can display standard subtitles and captions for movies and TV by activating the feature under Subtitles & Captioning. An app called Live Caption is available in the Apple App Store but requires a subscription after a short period of use.
  • Mono Audio.The phone can combine sounds from the left and right audio channels for people who suffer from hearing loss in one ear. On an iPhone, find the Mono Audio setting in Accessibility | Audio/Visual. On Android, scroll down the Accessibility menu in Settings to find the like-named switch. On both iOS and Android, you can drag a slider to adjust the audio volume balance between left and right channels.


Help for low vision

  • Text size.You have lots of choices for making text easier to read in the Display & Text Size section of iPhone’s Accessibility settings. You can make text bold, reduce its transparency and increase the color contrast between the app foreground and background colors. Android phones have similar display and font size features in their respective settings.
  • You can zoom or magnify the screen by turning on the Zoom switch in iOS Settings or the Magnify switch in Android Settings. You’ll have to master gestures: On an iPhone, double tap with three fingers to zoom, and drag three fingers to move around the screen. In Android, rapidly tap the screen three times to zoom, or drag two or more fingers to scroll.
  • The Select to Speak feature inside Android Settings lets you tap specific items on the display to hear them read aloud. Or tap TalkBack instead to receive spoken feedback to operate the device without looking at the screen by using swiping gestures. iPhones have similar VoiceOver features to describe what’s on a screen, from reading emails to web pages. You must master gestures here, too. Tap once to select an item; double tap to activate the selected item. On both Android and iOS, you can change the speed of the speech.
  • Tools for color blindness.Filters on both smartphone platforms can help people who are color blind. On an iPhone, tap Display & Text Size | Color Filters in the Accessibility settings, followed by the Color Filters switch. Depending on your condition, tap among the Grayscale, Red/Green, Green/Red, Blue/Yellow or Color Tint filter options. In Android settings, tap Color Correction to choose filters.


Accommodations for motor-skill problems

  • Adaptive accessories.Choosing Switch Control on an iPhone or Switch Access in Android presents options for using adaptive switches and accessories. On the iPhone you can use one or more switches to sequentially select text, tap, drag, type or perform other actions, including using the front-facing camera to control your phone with head gestures. You also can create specialized actions or “recipes” to, say, turn pages in an eBook.
  • Changes in touch.You can alter how the screen responds to your touch. On an iPhone under Touch | Touch Accommodations, you can change how long you must touch the screen before your touch is recognized. Or flip a switch so multiple touches of the screen are treated as a single touch. Android users can tap a Touch & hold display switch that lets you change the duration (short, medium, long) of when a tap is recognized as a “long press.”
  • iPhone and Android handsets both can take dictation, letting you use your voice to create lists, compose emails and bark out other instructions. By speaking, you also can summon the assistance of Siri on an iPhone using the “Hey Siri” verbal command and the Google Assistant via “Hey Google” or “OK Google” on Android.

On an iPhone, head to Settings | General | Keyboard and make sure the Enable Dictation switch is turned on. From then on, you can tap the microphone icon to speak rather than type whenever a keyboard turns up within an app.

You even can use your voice to add punctuation. For example, “Dear Ed comma the check is in the mail exclamation mark.”

You similarly can tap a microphone icon whenever an Android keyboard appears. Tap Allow rather than Deny if you’re cool with the app in question recording your voice so you can speak instead of type.

Dictation provides a benefit not just for people with accessibility challenges but anyone who finds typing on relatively tiny keyboards a hassle.


Android users: Create your own shortcut for tasks

An Android app released last week called Action Blocks is designed for people with a cognitive disability but can automate everyday tasks for anyone.

These customizable buttons for your home screen serve as shortcuts to turn off lights, watch a movie, message a loved one or perform another task that is anything but routine for users with dementia, Down syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries or other conditions. The activities that Action Blocks can address typically require users to make choices and navigate multiple steps, including having to remember things, enter text and sometimes edit that text.

After fetching the free Actions Blocks app in the Google Play Store, a disabled person or perhaps a family member or caregiver can create these buttons. Google offers suggestions for common actions — making phone calls, sending text messages or setting alarms — but users can create their own custom Action Blocks.

If you take Google’s suggestion to create a “play music” Action Block, a sample action to “Play Beatles on YouTube Music” is already filled in. Of course, you can type in or use voice to substitute another artist and source for the music, as well as check a box so the chosen action is spoken out loud to reinforce the activity. A Test Action button makes sure all of it works before you OK it.

The final steps allow you to choose an image, name and size of button that the Action Block will display on your home screen. Action Blocks work in tandem with the Google Assistant. The app works on devices using Android 5.0 and higher.


Article written by Edward C. Baig for AARP: https://www.aarp.org/home-family/personal-technology/info-2020/smartphone-accessibility.html?intcmp=AE-HF-TECH-R1-C5

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