A Blind Trek Through Android – Part 1: Unwrapping the Ice cream sandwich (Getting Started)
by Jeffrey Stark
May 4th, 2012
There are a lot of conflicting opinions about the relative accessibility or inaccessibility to blind consumers of the Android platform from Google.
I have been involved in the testing, development and evaluation of accessible mobile devices for well over 10 years. I have used some of the very early proprietary devices, the phones running Microsoft's Windows Mobile, Symbian, the blackberry OS, Apple's iOS and Google's Android.
Each platform had things it brought to the table for blind consumers and each platform had pitfalls and issues. The 2 most popular mobile platforms at present are iOS and Android for general consumers. So it should be no surprise that both platforms have been dedicating resources to improve their offerings in terms of Accessibility. Apple is the veteran in this space and has created a fantastic offering. Likely, that is the last reference to Apple that I will make in this series of articles. If you want an iPhone, go get an iPhone. It is great and very usable for blind consumers. On the same point, Google has recently released a new version of their android mobile operating system and they should be commended by the strides they have made. I contentedly use an android phone on a daily basis on Mobilicity's network.
This series of articles is intended to give the reader a sense of what to expect from Android, to share some tips and to demonstrate how to get the most out of an android device.
So far, I have used 3 android devices. The first was running v2 of the Android OS and had no direction pad or direction controls; the 2nd was running v3 of the Android OS and had a direction pad. At the time, as a blind consumer, I felt both devices to have some shortcomings in terms of functionality and capability; however, the 2nd phone running v3 of the operating system was very functional and I got a lot of use out of it. The most recent phone I have had the opportunity to use is the Samsung Galaxy Nexus running v4 of the Android operating system (named: Ice Cream Sandwich or ICS for short).
ICS brings 2 important features to the Android space:
1) Talkback (one of the Android Screen Readers) and the various accessibility features are built into the operating system and can be activated right from power up by sliding your finger from top left of the touch screen and tracing the border of the screen; thereby drawing a box on the screen. You can watch a demo in the following Android Tutorial On Activating the screen reader.
and 2) Android implements a form of touch Exploration, which allows a blind person to explore the screen with touch without activating the items on the screen. Talkback's touch exploration provides feedback about screen items by making use of the mobile device's haptick feedback capabilities, by providing audio alerts and by speaking text as controls and information is touched.
Many manufacturers make "Android" devices. This means that there is a great deal of diversity in shapes, sizes and designs. All the android phones I have seen have a touch screen; a volume rocker and an unlock/power key. This is where the similarities end. There are many different screen sizes and form factors available. Some devices have touch pads for cursoring, arrow keys, a rocker or joystick or a trackpad. Some devices have a qwerty keypad on the front face of the device or a sliding keypad that slides out for extended typing. With the purchase of any device, I highly recommend seeing the device before purchase. Personally, I prefer devices with a dedicated hardware qwerty keypad, simply because I can type more than 20 words per minute on a qwerty phone. Especially newer users will have a much easier time learning the device if they have the option of a phone with a direction pad or other method of moving up, down, left and right. Less technical or adventurous blind consumers should consider buying Code Factory's Mobile Accessibility. Many carriers offer Mobile Accessibility at no cost (sometimes under the name "wireless accessibility" or "mobile accessibility lite"). Mobile Accessibility is very helpful for new users or less technical users because it creates a much simpler interface that requires even less learning. None of the above recommendations are required but they do simplify a number of tasks and allow a consumer to get up and using the phone in a matter of seconds with very little learning. The emphasis of the rest of this article will be on understanding and using a phone running ICS with the stock out of box experience provided on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. It will assume the reader has not or is not going to install Mobile Accessibility.
Once you power on the phone for the first time, in order to make it usable for a blind person, you will need to activate TalkBack by sliding your finger from top left of the touch screen and tracing the border of the screen; thereby drawing a box on the screen. You can watch a demo in the following Android Tutorial On Activating the screen reader.
Optionally, you can activate Talkback by getting a sighted person to go to the settings screen, selecting accessibility and checking the "talkback" checkbox.
First off, if you have used any other touch based device, you will need to forget everything you know about these interfaces. They do not apply. However, with a little bit of learning you will be off to the races and effectively navigating the interface.
Initially, you can get by with 4 simple actions. You can start out by "Exploring" the screen by sliding your finger slowly across the surface of the touch screen. As you slide your finger across the surface of the screen you will hear the items under your finger announced. You will also feel a light vibration from the phone paired with a "bubble like sound" to indicate you are passing over a clickable object. When on a clickable object simply raise your finger and return it to the surface of the screen to activate it. I will refer to this in future as "clicking". Next, to perform an action or activate a context based menu you will need to be able to "long click". You do this by finding the item you would like to activate and lifting your finger up off the surface of the screen than returning it to the surface of the screen and keeping it touching the screen for a second or two. Talkback will announce if an item is clickable or long clickable when using touch exploration if you leave your finger on an area of the screen. Many android screens have lists or panes that contain more items than can be displayed on the screen at once. You move through the list by scrolling. To scroll you simply swipe 2 fingers across the surface of the screen. It is important that when swiping your fingers that they hit the surface of the screen slightly apart and at the same time. It is also important that they move in a relatively straight direction either up, down, left or right. As you scroll through a group of panes or a list of items you will receive information verbally about where you are currently in the list (such as "displaying items 5 through 10) and you will hear audio feedback that goes from a high to low pitch sound as you scroll from the beginning to the end of the list or group.
The Android screen is generally divided into 3 pieces. The 1st is the notification bar, which is a thin slice of the screen at the top of the screen. The notification bar contains alerts, date/time, battery levels and other important information. The 2nd section is a row of icons on the bottom of the screen, that from left to right are back, home, recent apps & menu, which will be referred to as the "soft key icon bar" in these articles. The soft key bar is present at the bottom of the screen at all times. This allows you to go to the workspace by clicking the "home" icon. Clicking the "back" icon will return to the previous page or screen. To get a list of the recently loaded apps click "recent apps". The rest of the space on the device's screen Below the notification bar and above the soft key bar is devoted to the content of the current app or screen currently loaded. This area will be referred to as the "content area" for the rest of these articles.
When you power on your phone you will be placed on the "lock screen". There are a variety of settings that you can explore that allow you to change how you "unlock" your device. These range from a simple 1 finger slide to unlock, to camera based facial recognition all the way to being required to enter a complex password. By default, on my Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the slide to unlock setting is enabled and this requires you to touch the lower center of the screen and slide it right to the "unlock" icon.
Once your phone is unlocked you will be placed on the main ". Workspace". The workspace is the equivalent to your "desktop". It has 5 panes (or screens) that you can scroll between by "flicking" or "swiping" with 2 fingers either left or right on the surface of the screen. The panes of the workspace is a 4×4 grid of place holders that can contain icons or widgets that you can customize. Below the workspace pane is a "dock" or bar of icons that sits just above the "soft key bar". The dock is only visible when on the workspace and not in apps.. The icons on the dock from left to right are Dock Space 1 & 2, Apps and Dock space 3 and 4. You can place shortcuts to apps into Dock Space 1-4 to quickly access apps you use very regularly such as the phone or email app. In the middle of the dock is a permanent icon called "Apps". The "Apps" icon is similar to the window key on a PC in that it launches the "app menu" which contains all the apps that have been installed on the device. These will be displayed in a 4×4 grid in the content area of the screen. The number of panes in the app menu grows as you install apps on the phone. You perform a 2 finger swipe left or right to scroll through the panes.
This should get you started, but stay tuned for the next part of the article "A Blind Trek Through Android Part 2: Eating the Ice Cream Sandwich (Getting Productive)".