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Saturday, August 21, 2010

which Android Phones Are Accessible?

Shopping for an Android phone involves some research. While the Android OS has a great deal of native accessibility, some features are not yet ready , the touch screen being the most obvious example. Moreover, some manufacturers customize the user interface (UI), interfering with the screen reader’s ability to do its job.

The Right Kind of Phone

When shopping for a phone, users must consider the following:

1. A physical keyboard is recommended. The soft keyboard on the screen is natively inaccessible because keys cannot be touched without also being activated. Three accessible virtual keyboards are now available for people who are blind or visually impaired. While all three work well, typing with them requires some practice, goes slowly, and tends toward more errors than typing on a physical keyboard, so their use seems more appropriate to shorter writing tasks, like searches, than longer ones, like emails. Nevertheless, some users are comfortable with them. Other users pair Bluetooth keyboards with their handsets. Still others, mostly low vision users, memorize the placement of soft typing keys and use the Back key to correct mistakes. The three accessible soft keyboards are the following:
a. TouchType by Nolan Darilek is available at no cost and runs on Android 2.2 and higher.
b. The virtual keyboard that is part of Mobile Accessibility by Code Factory sells for 69 Euros, runs on Android 2.1 and higher, and is available at no cost to customers of certain cell phone providers.
c. The Talkback keyboard is part of the free Talkback screen reader and runs on Android 2.1 and higher.
2. A four-way navigational controller that users can feel is required. This may be a directional pad (d-pad), four arrow keys, a trackball, or an optical trackpad. It may be located on the typing keyboard, often to one side, or on the face of the phone, usually below the touchscreen. The navigational controller is used for moving around the screen, scrolling through menu items, and activating controls. Some devices have navigational controllers that can not be felt, and others only have left- and right-arrow keys, so users must examine potential devices carefully. The physical controller is necessary even though Talkback now includes a virtual d-pad because the Talkback d-pad can not be used in a few important environments.
3. The user interface must be chosen with care as it may interfere with accessibility. Some phone manufacturers overlay UIs to make their devices distinctive. Unfortunately, these overlays can break some of the native accessibility , especially in the Contacts and music apps. Vanilla Android (minimal customization) offers the best experience to blind and VI users. Motorola Motoblur has some accessibility issues, but users seem generally satisfied with their phones. Samsung Touchwiz has very few accessibility issues in 2.1, but a greater number of issues in 2.2. HTC Sense is very disruptive and not a good choice for blind and VI users.

Key Identifier App

As users start their Android journeys, they need first to become familiar with the keys and controls on their handsets. To help with this, the Eyes-Free Project has developed a free app called Keyboard Tutor, which speaks the names of keys as they are pressed, effectively putting the phone in key describer or key identifier mode. These include the hardware keyboard, the four soft buttons at the bottom of the touchscreen (portrait orientation), and other physical controls on other parts of the phone, like the volume and camera buttons. This is such an essential app for new users that they should ask for it to be installed when they are examining a phone at the store and when the device is being activated.

To use the app after it has been installed:

1. On the stock Home screen, arrow to and press the selector on All Applications or Sliding Drawer. You need to arrow up/down and left/right to find the item.
2. Arrow to and press the selector on Keyboard Tutor. Apps are arranged alphabetically. You need to arrow up/down and left/right to find the item.
3. Press the keys on the keyboard, the edge of the touchscreen that is farthest from the earpiece, and other controls on the phone to hear what each item is.
4. Press the Back button twice or the Home button once to exit the app.

Keyboard Tutor does not identify two controls: Home and Power. Pressing the Home button exits the app and moves focus to the Home screen. Pressing Power puts the phone to sleep.

Keyboard Features

Certain controls are especially important to be aware of.

• The four soft keys at the bottom of the touchscreen are Back, Home, Menu/Options, and Search. These are virtual buttons that appear at the bottom of every screen, though each model puts them in a different order . Some devices also have physical buttons for some or all of these controls.
• The Alt or Function keys may be located at the beginning or end of a typing row. Pressing alt once while or before typing another character affects one character. Pressing alt twice locks the alternate keyboard. Pressing alt once while in alt-lock mode, unlocks the alternate keyboard. In handsets without dedicated number rows, the alt or function key is pressed to turn the top row of letters into a number row. Additional characters (e.g., numbers, punctuation marks, and accents) are also typed with alt or function used singly or in combination with the shift key. When using Keyboard Tutor, alt and Shift need to be pressed together with another character for the alternate key to be announced.
• The Backspace/Delete key is located at the right end of a typing row. This key deletes text in edit fields. Used alone, it deletes character by character. Used with the alt key, it deletes line by line.
• The Enter key is at the right end of a typing row. This key inserts line and paragraph breaks into editable text. It also activates certain buttons and controls, like the selector. Though enter and the selector can often be used interchangeably, there are situations where one works, but the other doesn't. If a selector key is not available, then the shift+enter serves as the selector.
• The four-way navigational controller allows focus to move up, down, left, and right. If it is a set of arrow keys, press the up-, down-, left-, and right-arrows. If it is a d-pad, press the top, bottom, left, and right edges of the large control. If it is a trackball, roll the ball up, down, left, and right. If it is a trackpad, slide a finger across it, moving up, down, left, and right. Trackballs and trackpads take a little longer to learn as focus may also move diagonally.
• The selector is the control used to activate buttons, check and uncheck boxes, and open or close dropdown lists. It may be the center of a d-pad, trackball, or trackpad; it may be an OK button; and in some handsets it's the shift+enter key. Though enter and the selector can often be used interchangeably, there are situations where one works, but the other doesn't. If a selector key is available, it should be tried first. Short-pressing the selector (1 second) activates a control. Long-pressing the selector (2-3 seconds) often opens a menu of additional options.
• The Shift keys may be located at the beginning or end of a typing row though some models place them elsewhere. Pressing shift once while or before typing another character affects one character; pressing shift twice locks the shift; pressing shift once while in shift-lock mode, unlocks the shift. These keys toggle between upper and lower case. They also combine with the alt key to type additional characters, like mathematical symbols, punctuation marks, and accents. When using Keyboard Tutor, alt and Shift need to be pressed together with another character for the alternate key to be announced.

Phones currently known to be accessible

The following phones are known to be accessible. For detailed descriptions of some of them, refer to the Good Stuff heading in this blog.

• LG Ally (vanilla android)
• Motorola Charm (Motoblur)
• Motorola Droid 1/Milestone 1 (vanilla Android)
• Motorola Droid 2/Milestone 2 (Motoblur)
• Motorola Droid Global (Motoblur)
• Samsung Galaxy 551 (Touchwiz)
• Samsung Epic 4G (Touchwiz)
• Samsung Intercept (vanilla Android)
• T-Mobile G2 (vanilla Android) – While this phone is similar to the HTC Desire Z, the two are very different as the Desire Z has the Sense UI, which extensively interferes with accessibility.

For details about Android handsets , refer to the Google Phone Gallery.

Tips for New Users

It's a good idea for new users to activate their phones, set up accessibility, and learn basic functions as soon as possible so they can return devices that prove to be inaccessible.

1. Take the phone to your service provider for set up. Not all phones have the 5 accessibility apps discussed in the next post preinstalled. Since sighted assistance is needed to start accessibility, take the phone in for store staff to activate the device, start accessibility, and install any apps not already on the phone.
2. Read the accessibility documentation on the Eyes-Free Project page and use it to get started.
3. Go through the information in this blog, using the Accessible Android Topic List to move through the posts in order.
4. Sign up for the eyes-Free users Google Group to get help with questions. For best results, be specific about what you’re trying to do and where you’re having problems.
5. Keep in mind that accessibility is in development, so some things work well; others work well enough; and still others … well … call for a little resourcefulness.

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