android Access: Getting Started with Android

Welcome to the world of Accessible Android phones. In just a few months, the Android platform has emerged as a viable option for the blind and visually impaired. Read on to learn more about Android and what you’ll need to get started.

The Basics

Android is Google’s popular operating system, found on dozens of phones from every major carrier. In fact, according to Nielsen, Android is the most popular operating system on phones today. While some accessibility challenges still remain, the latest versions of the Android operating system are quite usable by the blind and visually impaired.

Choosing a Phone

There are a wide variety of Android phones to choose from. Unlike Apple where all phones include the same operating system version, Android phones are sold with varying versions of its operating system. So what does this mean for you? While accessibility features were first introduced in Android 1.6, a phone with version 2.1 or 2.2 will provide much more flexibility. Version 2.2 of Android also includes speech recognition capabilities. Generally, the Android version will be listed in the phone’s description.

While software like Mobile Accessibility (discussed below) will work with the touchscreen, you will gain the most access to Android by obtaining a phone with a physical keyboard and what’s known as a trackpad. The trackpad comes in several forms, and basically simulates a joystick. Phones with both a physical keyboard and trackpad are ideal.

Google’s Eyes-free team keeps a list of recommended Android phones. This list is by no means complete, however.

Screen Reader Options

There are currently no fewer than three screen reading options available for Android. Due to the way Google has programmed the interface on the phone, you can install any or all of these screen readers at the same time and switch between them at will. This allows you to switch to a particular screen reader if it works better for a particular application.

Many Android phones come with Talkback, Google’s free screen reading solution. If it is not installed on your handset, it can be easily downloaded from the Android Market. It provides basic access to many of the phone’s functions including contacts, the call log, phone settings, and many third-party apps. If it’s already on your phone, it can be activated by going to Android Settings and selecting Accessibility.

Spiel is another free screen reader available for Android. Both Spiel and Talkback provide similar functionality and work with a wide variety of applications. Spiel comes with a bit more customization, and also includes a way to write scripts for your applications to improve speech, if you are an advanced user. Several text-to-speech voices in a variety of languages are available either for free or close to free from the Android Market including Loquendo and Svox.

Mobile Accessibility

Code Factory has released Mobile Accessibility, a suite of programs which fills in many of the areas where Google’s accessibility falls short. The suite includes, among other things, a web browser, calendar, Email client, GPS location tool, contacts manager, phone dialer, and an easy way to hear phone status and system notifications. Mobile Accessibility comes with Nuance Vocalizer as its voice.

Mobile Accessibility also acts as a screen reader outside of the suite, similar to Talkback and Spiel above. The screen reader also uses the Vocalizer voices. A virtual touchscreen keyboard and speech recognition tool are also included, both of which work in Mobile Accessibility as well as in other apps. A 30-day trial is available from the Android Market while the paid version costs 69 euros or about $95.

Text-to-speech (TTS) Voices

Android supports a variety of languages and a few text-to-speech engines. Major European languages (English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish) are supported by the free human-sounding Pico TTS engine, while less commonly spoken languages are supported by the free and more robotic ESpeak engine. The Android Market also offers human sounding SVox voices in 37 languages At a very low cost and Loquendo voices (currently available only in English) for a couple of dollars more. Note: ESpeak runs on Android 2.1 and requires installation of the TTS Extended app. Other voices run on android 2.2 without need of TTS Extended. Note these voices will not work with Mobile Accessibility.

Eyes-free Shell

The Eyes-free Shell is another home screen replacement for Android. It uses a simple grid layout and the touchscreen to offer phone status, battery information, a voice search capability (Android 2.2 or later), and customizable shortcuts. It is self-voicing and independent of any screen reader you may have installed. Remember, you’re not limited by any of these options. You could run the Eyes-Free shell and Mobile Accessibility together if you wished.

Kickback and Soundback

Two additional free apps are available to provide additional feedback. Kickback provides vibratory feedback when navigating around your phone, while soundback does the same thing in an auditory fashion. You can run any or all of these apps simultaneously.

Other Accessible Apps

So what other apps are there for your Android? Well, that’s where Android Access comes in. There are accessible apps for Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, GPS, radio stations and podcasts, banking, musical instruments, and so many more. Browse our site to learn about apps that others have tried, and then share your own findings with the rest of the community.