Before reading on, please read Part 1 of the How I Access Android series.
In a century where the Smartphone is taking every aspect of our lives by storm, where Android, a mobile OS, has overtaken Windows, a Desktop OS, in terms of Internet usage, where mobile apps amount to a $50 billion market worldwide, it is inevitable that everyone must eventually catch on to this rapid digital transition. Android has the lion’s share when it comes to the Smartphone user base, and the statistical facts that there exist more than 2 billion devices powered by Android and close to 3 million apps for the platform testifies that. But are visually impaired people just able to make basic phone calls, send and receive SMS, and probably use Whatsapp as well on a rudimentary Smartphone, or can they truly partake in this global shift? More specifically, can Google Talkback users utilize the various kinds of smart devices Android fuels, the millions of diverse apps on the Play Store, and the essentials to the cutting-edge of the mobile world?
Android Apps the VI Use
So, do the vision-impaired use third party apps, and if so, which ones? Well, that is a hard question. Let me think… Pretty much all, I guess? Right. But just like the sighted humans differ in opinion and preference and enjoy options, so do the blind humans, and that is the case with mobile apps also.
I might enjoy the snappy performance of the Chrome browser, but there is no imposition preventing that other Talkback user from using Firefox or Lightning web browser. Personally speaking, the simple-minded UI of Google Play Music serves my audio listening needs, but that other Talkback user is free to choose from GoneMAD Music Player, Pulsar, Music Folder Player or a range of multimedia players available out there. When it comes to my communications requirements, I check Whatsapp, Facebook, Messenger and Skype from time to time, but that other Talkback user could always be a lover of IMO, Viber and WeChat instead.
In addition, contrary to popular belief, an average tech-savvy visually impaired individual would use mobile apps even more than his sighted counterpart. Cab-hiring mobile services such as Uber become crucial in enabling his independent travel due to his inability to drive. Note-taking apps like Simplenote replace the traditional but inaccessible method of writing down on paper whenever he needs to jot down something on the go. Apps of his favourite media channels render him with his daily dose of current affairs which hard copies of the same cannot provide. As a matter of fact, the Smartphone has never been a prospective trend introducing unwillingness, deterrence or challenges, but its adaptive and innovative use has merely been a facilitator for the visually challenged community.
From a broader perspective, living with a disability is all about adjustments and adaptations, and making the most of mobile apps is no different. We have talking currency identifiers like Blind-Droid Wallet, object recognizers like TapTapSee, OCR scanners like KNFB Reader, assistive GPS trackers like Lazarillo, and trust me when I say that I’ve named just a few. Simply put, be resourceful rather than remorseful and all the pieces of life’s jigsaw puzzle will fall in place.
Nothing Is Perfect Though
An ideally accessible Android app market would imply complete accessibility incorporated at the grass root level of each and every Android app, but let’s remember that utopia is only a fantasy. So what are those harsh realities, what are those adverse implications, and what parts of the mobile world are out of reach for a visually impaired individual?
Unfortunately, trendy games like Temple Run, Candy Crush, Pokemon Go and about every mainstream video game a sighted user knows, loves and plays addictively is completely inaccessible to his vision-impaired counterpart. It isn’t impossible however to design any adrenaline pumping accessible game though, because with subtle and comprehensive audio cues signifying important visual elements, usage of stereopanning and self-voicing, and offering a high contrast mode for the low vision – all these can go a long way in contributing to an inclusive gaming experience. At the same time, I admit that I acknowledge the validity of concerns of game developers pertaining to the actual quantity of the additional audience they will be able to reach in comparison to the non-trivial implementation cost. Does that mean that no one has stepped up to create audio games aimed at non-visual gameplay? Definitely not – Rapitap!, Accessible Memory, Blind Samurai, Blind Cricket, Talking Stones, Dice World, Trivia Crack, Totally Random Hero, Audio Speed, Orange Tree and Crazy Bat are merely a miniscule amount of Talkback accessible audio games for Android. If you still aren’t quite convinced, note that A Blind Legend, another popular 3D audio based adventure game, won the Google Play 2017 award for the Best Accessibility Experience.
Having extensively lectured about gaming, Android and accessibility, the usability problems for Talkback users do not end there. Lack of awareness and uneducated indifference towards universal design are two alarmingly common traits possessed by Android app developers, which in turn leads to effortlessly avoidable accessibility glitches. More often than not, reporting to a receptive app developer meticulously is sufficient for that annoying bug to be fixed, but that one user must report, educate and enlighten that Android app developer to make a difference. Android accessibility documentation is also readily available, and this is an especially useful compilation of resources in this regard.
There are endless apps with buttons which are unlabeled due to the absence of content description tags and others with cluttered UIs hampering the Talkback experience, but all these imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that active advocacy and persistent perseverance are the only ways forward.
So What Else
The Android I have deliberated upon so far is the one powering Smartphones, Tablets, Phablets and other hybrid devices. The surprises however do not finish here. Over the past few years, Google accessibility software engineers have worked diligently to bring Talkback to both Android TV running smart televisions as well as Android Wear powered Smartwatches. Therefore, don’t freak out the next time you see a blind guy using a Touch Screen Smartphone, smart TV, Smartwatch or any other smart device that is too smart for the blind guy by the looks of it. Adding tempered glass to a Smartphone without guerilla glass by default, using a flipcover for extra protection and customizing the functions of the Home Screen launcher and capacitive buttons are extremely common practices, and this commonness applies to the Talkback user base equally. Rooting Android, flashing custom ROMs and upgrading to the latest Android version are no different either.
The limitlessness of non-visual activities that are achievable on Android certainly transcends the conventional perception. I think I have made the point I wanted to make, perhaps by rubbing it in a little excessively, but allow me to hereby conclude by leaving you with an ordinarily profound quote from Mildred D. Taylor – “So many things are possible as long as you don’t know they are impossible.”