That smartphone in your hand may be even smarter than you think. In fact, there’s a good chance it has a screen magnifier built right in to enlarge the text and images on the screen and text-to-speech capabilities to read the text on the screen, like your emails or a webpage. Before going further, it’s worth pointing out that as smart as they are, these phones are not for everyone. There is a learning curve. They rely on finger gestures that may not be easy for some to learn and use. And that learning curve can take patience and perseverance.
Two Types of Smartphones
There are two popular types of smartphones, the Apple iPhone, and the Android phone, which use Google’s operating system. Both phones rely on software applications called apps to do tasks like email, going to websites, and listening to music. Many times, an app made for the iPhone is not available for the Android phone and vice versa.
Likewise, features like text-to-speech and screen magnification, are carried out differently on the two types of phones. For example, the text-to-speech screen reader called VoiceOver on Apple’s iPhone uses different gestures than TalkBack, the screen reader used on Android phones. Sure, there are some similarities, but switching from one to the other might take some time and adjustment.
Learning how to use the screen reader, screen magnifier, and some of the accessibility apps may be difficult for smartphone users. Fortunately, Kelly Short’s online guide, “Smartphone Apps and Resources for People with Vision Loss or Impairment,” at SeniorLiving.org does a great job of explaining the basics between the smartphones. The guide highlights some of the most popular apps by category and by which type of phone the app works on.
Sections of the Guide
The Smartphone Apps and Resources guide describes the basic accessibility features in the first two sections, “Built-in Apple Accessibility,” and “Built-in Android Accessibility.” These are not intended to be comprehensive explanations for either screen reader, but provide enough information to help you find them and get an overview of how they work.
Standalone Apps for People with Poor Vision
This section provides a brief review of some of the most useful apps for users with vision loss. Here, Short categorizes many of the apps, gives a brief description, and indicates which apps are available on each type of phone.
- Sighted Assistance Apps for a Variety of Tasks
- Real-Time Apps for Scene Description
- Objects, Faces, Light and Much More
- Navigation Apps
- Text Recognition
- All Around Communications Apps; and
- Book, News and Film Apps.
Even smartphone users familiar with the accessibility features on their phone will find this section handy to check out apps they may not have found or tried yet. It is arguably one of the best overviews of the wide range of accessible apps, and a great starting point for the beginning user.
Note: Several apps, not included in Short’s list of apps but are well worth mentioning, include the following:
Voice Dream Reader: (Available on iPhone and iPad). Voice Dream Reader is one of the most accessible reading apps available and works seamlessly with the Bookshare service, to import books, documents, and webpages, enlarge and manipulate the text style and color to make it more legible. It also has a built-in screen reader which makes it ideal for the low vision user who only uses text-to-speech when reading longer documents.
Voice Dream Scanner: (Available on iPhone and iPad). Voice Dream Scanner is one of the most popular scanning apps for iPhone or iPad. Users can take a picture or import image files that are then processed into text that can be read using text-to-speech, or enlarged and changed for easier readability.
Speak!: (Available on Android). Speak! is a free app for quickly reading a document, and scanning objects like barcodes, color, and money.
NFB NEWSLINE: (Available for iPhone and iPad). NEWSLINE is a service provided by the National Federation of the Blind, and available in most states for individuals unable to access printed text. It provides access to hundreds of newspapers and magazines across the U.S., making them accessible through text-to-speech, via a telephone, an iPhone/iPad app, or on the Amazon Echo.
Overview of Smart Home Devices and Apps and Voice Activated Assistants
Like the sections on smartphone accessibility, this section is not meant to be a comprehensive guide, but rather an introduction to what is available with smart devices like the Amazon Echo, Google Home Assistant, and Siri on Apple devices. The description on Smart Home Devices keeps the explanation simple and practical with several great examples.
To wrap up the guide, Short includes sections on: “Helping Seniors with Poor Vision Remain Independent;” “Additional Resources;” and “References and Footnotes.” “Helping Seniors,” provides some practical advice for friends and relatives supporting the elders in their lives. Tips include fall prevention, lighting, medication tracking, home modifications, and more, which are also covered on VisionAware as indicated in the links. For readers looking for more information, Short includes the references used for the guide, including links directly to Apple Accessibility and Google’s Android Accessibility Help, and additional helpful links.
If you’re trying to sort out some the differences between smartphones and their accessibility features for vision, Kelly Short’s “Smartphone Apps and Resources for People with Vision Loss or Impairment,” really does a great job of putting this information together in a relatively short, readable guide. Beginners, or more experienced users, will find the categorized list of apps really handy, and there’s a good chance nearly all smartphone users will find an app listed that they haven’t tried.