Testing Android Accessibility: I Give Up

A few months ago, a friend of mine who prefers Android accessibility to that available from Apple on its iOS devices, sold me a Google Nexus/7 tablet so I could try it out and, perhaps, write an article about its accessibility. Since early October,, I’ve tried to use the Nexus/7 to perform the same tasks that I enjoy on my iPhone 5S. I can say that, while accessibility on Android is better than I expected, it is still far from being a solution I can use full time the way I can with a device from Apple or Microsoft.

This article isn’t up to my usual writing standards. This is a compilation of a lot of notes I’ve taken during my time with the Nexus/7. This article contains a bit of repetition, some clunky sentences and could be more well organized. Unfortunately, I haven’t the time to do my usual amount of editing. As far as I know, all of the “facts” I present in this article are true, I’ve tested all of this software myself and these are the description of my results. Obviously, the opinions in this piece are my own and may not reflect the impressions held by others.

Usually, I provide links to many things in my articles. I didn’t do so in this one both to save some time and because this isn’t based on articles I’ve read but, instead, my actual experiencing testing accessibility on the Nexus/7.

Introduction

Back in October, I got a package from UPS containing a 2012 edition, Google Nexus/7 tablet. A friend had sold me the unit for $50 so I could have an Android device in hand to test its claims of accessibility.

For research on this article, I tested only with synthesized speech as my braille skills are abysmal and I cannot write with any authority on a braille interface to anything. I am also only speaking to issues encountered by myself, a person with a total vision impairment. I’d like to be able to write about low vision and other print impairments but, in this article, I’m looking only at accessibility for speech only users with profound to total vision impairment. , In preparing this article, I did the testing alone and will only report on things I actually encountered myself.

For the most part, in this article, I focus on the accessibility of the system in its out-of-the-box condition. As we’ll see, a blind person can have a better than adequate but also substandard experience on an Android device if they install a bunch of software to replace the apps and various parts of the system including the home screen. That Android is so customizable is one of its strongest points; that a blind person really cannot use the device without a lot of customizations is an outrage. To make my Nexus/7 at all usable, I had to install a third party home screen (Apex Launcher) and a whole lot of apps that, ostensibly, exports similar functionality to the inaccessible equivalents shipped by Google on the device.

Corrections and Clarifications

After I originally posted this article, I got a little criticism (far less than I had anticipated) about its content. Some readers asked what version of Android I was running and I received one factual correction regarding a gesture I had not included in the list of such in the original version. Here’s are the clarifications and single correction:

I used the Android Jellybean release for almost all of this testing but, during the final two weeks, I had the Kit Kat release installed. I accepted all of the latest updates when I received the notification telling me to update my Nexus/7. The first thing I noticed about Kit Kat is that the default keyboard does some things, like suggesting spelling corrections and guessing at the next word you might want to type that are popped onto the screen with no feedback from TalkBack when you are in a web view. When I tried to enter my account information in the Nook app, for instance, when TalkBack said, “Submit button” and I double tapped, it replaced the text I had written with another word and ignored my attempt at pressing the button. In it’s default configuration, the default Kit Kat keyboard is not usable in web views and, perhaps, elsewhere. You can turn off the annoying word suggestions or replace the keyboard entirely though if you like but, out-of-the-box, the default keyboard has these inaccessible features turned on and would be a huge problem for anyone unaware of these issues, especially if they do not know how to turn the default features off.

The Kit Kat release fixed a few things so I removed them from the long list of defects at the end of the article. Google Play, for instance, while still not perfect, has fixed some of its tab order problems. Nonetheless, I still couldn’t find a single default app without a single accessibility failure in either version.

Later in the article, I included a list of TalkBack related gestures. I had found the list on the Google web site and, as far as I could tell, it’s the latest and most comprehensive documentation Google has published. So, when I just copied it and pasted it into the article, I assumed that, indeed, as it was the most current documentation I could find on the software author’s site, it was complete.

There are two gestures that include more than one finger. These are two finger swipe up and swipe down. They allow a TalkBack user to scroll some things. As I’ve given my Nexus/7 to a sighted friend who really likes it, I can’t try such myself but I’m told that scrolling lists in Android using these gestures is yet another example of Google implementing accessibility features in a manner entirely unfamiliar to anyone who has used any other screen reader before.

Here, I’d also like to add a response to some of the apologetics used of Android accessibility by some other blind people that had been posted by a friend and accessibility expert to the accessibility@google.com mailing list. This is unedited and pasted “as is” because I can’t find anything to change about it, it’s clear, to the point and definitely true:

“I think that facts are very important. When I hear things like Android is young or Android is open source, it saddens me. that’s not an excuse to do worse, that’s an excuse to do orders of magnitude better. Let’s get out of this systemic complacency mode that Android accessibility is perpetually stuck in, shall we? But, more on that in a second.

“So, having mentioned facts, I present the following:

“1. Android was released on September 23, 2008
2. IOS was released on June 29, 2007

“I’ll save you the math, that’s 452 days. using an approximation of 365.25 days per year, that’s 1.24, rounded, years.

“So, the below argument [an argument that states that the community of people with vision impairment should be patient and wait for Android to catch up to iOS], if I may summarize it, is that because Android is 1.24 years younger than IOS, we should not compare them. this argument already implicitly accepts that the comparison is unfavorable in the first place, otherwise there’s no point in making the unfairness claim, but let’s move on past that.

“I put forth, that with all due respect, this is a silly and vacuous argument, and I request that we, as a community, please stop making it.

“Tesla motors is almost a century younger than Ford. Are you seriously claiming that they get a 100 year pass to suck until their cars can be compared against the modern market?

“There are thousands of little startups in the bay area and Research Triangle Park, just to name two U.S. hotspots, that are less than 2 years old. Are you seriously suggesting that they can’t be expected to compete against the likes of Microsoft, Google, Apple, Dropbox, etc. because they are younger? Never mind the fraction of the percent of budget they have compared to their competitors.

“This is not how the world works, I’m sorry.

“To paraphrase a brilliant statement that Isaac Newton made hundreds of years ago, if I can see farther than others, it is only because I stand on the shoulders of giants.

“So, please, let’s not seriously claim that Google is at some sort of disadvantage because of a 1.24 year difference in the age of an operating system.

“Also, I really don’t understand why this argument is ever made. If we subtract 1.24 years from now, and then compare modern day Android to 1.24 year old IOS, it still comes out unfavorably for Android.

“I didn’t count them each, but there are definitely a few dozen cited and evidence-based points made in Chris’s post. If someone wishes to rebut the post, then can we try using the same techniques, or should we stick to parroting marketing literature and claiming that everything will be better 1.24 years from now?”

#Here’s the original article with a few inline corrections:

My Definition of Accessible

Like anyone who hangs around in the world of access technology, I hear the word “accessible” applied to mean everything from, “fully complies with standards, guidelines, best practices and the OS level accessibility API” to “if one blind person can figure out how to use something, no matter how inefficiently, no matter what portion of the features are available to them, no matter how many items are unlabeled.” I accept only the former and reject the latter entirely.

It is definitely true that virtually every blind computer user, including me, must use software with substandard accessibility. This is the reality of the world today but it should not be the goal. The accessible technology community was asked for standards as mainstream developers were entirely baffled by the “how to” parts of accessibility before such existed. Now, for any web app, web site and any application on virtually all currently popular OS it’s all documented in excruciating detail. There is no reason whatsoever for any major company and most all small companies not to be accessible, using my 100% compliance definition of accessibility. Doing or accepting anything less is tantamount to endorsing discrimination.

Conclusions

Typically, I put the conclusions section at the end of my articles but, in this case, as the rest of this article is a list of specific defects and other issues with Android accessibility, I thought that putting the conclusions at the top may allow some who don’t care to read the details to get a quick idea of my experience.

  • in comparison to an iOS 7 device, with zero out-of-the-box accessibility failures and only a few accessibility bugs, a Nexus/7 comes shipped with zero built-in apps that do not contain between one and many accessibility failures. The accessibility issues on Android, therefore, are not just bugs but a systemic problem at Google.

, * Some standard apps, shipped on the Nexus/7, apps like those for playing movies and television, for reading books and browsing the web, the out-of-the-box accessibility is poor at best.

  • A blind person can use an Android tablet to accomplish a lot of tasks but will encounter lots of accessibility failures along the way. A blind user with very strong technical skills and/or a whole lot of patience can find fully accessible software from third parties to replace those shipped by Google and the people on the “Eyes Free” blind Android user mailing list can and will help individuals navigate this process.

  • The PDF manual for the Nexus/7 is “untagged” and, therefore, not actually accessible. As there are all sorts of programs out there that can test the accessibility of a PDF, Google obviously intends to make its documentation inaccessible by choice or, at best, is guilty of willful negligence.

  • The TalkBack screen reader is, while feature poor, actually pretty good. Unfortunately, the Google developers making the apps shipped with the device seem to ignore Google’s internal standards and refuse to use the accessibility API properly. Investigation of the Android accessibility API also shows that some very standard accessibility features, like being able to create a fully accessible web view, are far more difficult than on other OS, a likely source of inaccessibility on this platform as, if an app developer wants to be fully accessible and fully comply with the Android API, they still won’t be guaranteed to have an accessible app in the end. Making accessibility more difficult on one OS than on others is not going to promote accessibility on a platform.

  • If you like playing around with work arounds, figuring out an interface that fails the basics of human computer interaction (HCI) and figuring stuff out, if, indeed, you like the inconveniences encountered by early adopters, Android my be for you; if, however, you are looking for a pleasant accessibility experience, you’ll avoid Android for now.

  • Google insults the community of people with print impairments by claiming that this device is accessible. The accessibility is, at best, a functional prototype of something better to come in the future but Google seems to believe that this is an adequate solution.

  • People with profound to total vision impairment must eschew all devices that provide less than the “gold standard” of 100% out-of-the-box accessibility as, accepting less than 100% will only encourage corporations to provide us with incomplete solutions in the future. If we reward Google with our dollars today, we’re telling them that this state of affairs is acceptable, a tremendously dangerous statement to make.

My Experience With Android

After receiving my Nexus/7 from UPS, I turned it on and ran the setup routines. Then, as its battery was low, I charged it up and on the next day started actually exploring it.

This is my story:

General Issues

Human Factors

  • The first thing a human factors student learns is “leverage what the user already knows.” As all other notable screen readers and every published “best practices” guidelines for accessibility says, “everything must be available in the software’s tab order.” As this simple, obvious to test task is ignored in some parts of virtually every app that carries Google’s brand name, in this case, they are ignoring their own accessibility API in a systemic manner. This is something that could easily be added to Google’s automated test procedures but, apparently, that isn’t a priority for Android accessibility.

A developer can make UI decisions that do not comply with “best practices” if and when they have done the research to demonstrate that a different approach is actually more efficient or more enjoyable for their users. This is how UI innovations come about. Google, on Android and in many of its web apps ignores published standards, guidelines and best practices regarding accessibility, including standards that they’ve set for themselves in their own API. They do all of this without publishing an iota of data that demonstrates that, indeed, people with vision impairment would prefer a departure from the best practices followed on every other system.

  • Another major departure from best practices on the Nexus/7 also results from the tab order being ignored. This comes from the human factors concept of “discoverability.” It is essential that users be able to find features as easily as possible. On iOS 7 and Windows 8.1 (I haven’t tried using Gnome with a touch screen) one can find everything by just swiping. If you don’t know what you’re looking for and you miss it while exploring by touch, then there is a feature that you cannot easily discover – another violation of not just accessibility but general design principles for software.

Gestures

This article is about the out-of-the-box experience I had with a Nexus/7. As no hardware keyboard comes with the device, I did not testing with a physical keyboard. I’ve heard reports that Android works poorly with an external keyboard but I cannot comment as I haven’t tried it.

Needless to say, a gesture interface is the core of how most people access a tablet. It is the fundamental interface blind people use on Apple’s iOS devices and it seems to be the interface of choice on the Nexus/7 Android tablet.

This is what I found regarding gestures on this tablet:

  • TalkBack uses right angle gestures, like swipe up and left or down and right. I use them without a problem but, given the amount of chatter on the Eyes Free blind Android user list from people struggling to use them efficiently, I can only conclude that Google thrust this UI decision on TalkBack users without doing any actual usability testing. on iOS 7 and Windows 8.1 blind user mailing lists, I never hear people complain that they cannot figure out how to make a gesture work after using the same device for a few weeks the way I do on the Eyes Free mailing list from a fair number of blinks trying to use Android. If more than a tiny fraction of a user population has problems with a gesture, it must be considered to be a field failure.

  • I had trouble finding a gesture to perform a “SayAll” like two finger swipe down in iOS. I did find a setting that would allow me to assign “read from top” or “read from next object” in the TalkBack settings for gestures. As SayAll is about as common a screen reader feature everywhere, why would, without publishing a reason for doing so based in some kind of evidence based model, this not be on by default as it is in every other screen reader that has ever existed? One can do a say all by shaking the device but this seems an inelegant replacement for a gesture.

  • gestures seem to be recognized slowly. I’m told this is a function of Nexus/7 hardware and not due to TalkBack but I’d like to learn how quickly things happen for sighted users as a comparison.

  • Why would, by default, swipe up and swipe left and swipe right and swipe down do the same thing? In general, it seems that there are far too few accessibility related gestures available to the user and wasting some of the simplest ones seems bizarre.

  • Accessing some other very common screen reader functions, like changing granularity, requires three gestures, a right angle followed by two circles. A bit of snark, “Draw the pentagram, dance in a circle, light some incense – was this interface designed by a coven of witches?

Default Android Gestures

While VoiceOver on iOS provides a user with a rich set of one, two and three finger gestures, Android/TalkBack provide only the following:

  • Two part vertical gestures: (swipe up and down or down and then up)- Cycle through granularities.
  • Swipe up then right: Open local context menu
  • Swipe up then left: Home button
  • Swipe down then right: Open global context menu
  • Swipe down then left: Back button
  • Swipe right then down: Open notifications
  • Swipe right then up: Unassigned
  • Swipe left then down: unassigned
  • Swipe left then up: Recent apps
  • Two finger swipe up and down: scroll a list  

Why do all but one of these gestures use only one finger? Is it physically impossible for Android to handle multiple finger touches? Why are there two unassigned gestures when one can turn on two variations of “say all” from the TalkBack settings dialogue? Why do most of the TalkBack gestures require one to make a right angle on the screen while there are so many possibilities left unassigned? Until someone at Google answers these questions publicly, I will maintain the impression that this UI was designed by a programmer’s personal notions and not science.

Editor’s note: In One of the criticisms of the original version of this article, people have said that Apple has all of their gestures wrapped up in patents and that Google could not, therefore, use them with TalkBack. As Microsoft, in Windows 8.x, has added a set of gestures in Narrator that are nearly identical to those in iOS, I doubt this is actually a problem for Google. Theres no technical nor HCI reason for such a radical departure from the gold standard.

Navigation

Here is what I found trying to navigate around the Nexus/7 system:

  • TalkBack, in its default configuration,, makes it impossible to read non-editable text by word, character, line, sentence, etc. One can turn on the vertical swipe gestures to allow for switching granularity but must find their way to TalkBack settings to perform this action.

  • In many places in apps shipped by default with the device, there are controls that one cannot get to by swiping. This makes learning what’s available to a user pretty difficult as exploration by touch is simple but, if we don’t know what we’re looking for, how do we know what’s there?

  • The HCI concept of “discoverability” seems to be ignored entirely as finding objects on the screen is often a “hunt and peck” process that feels a bit like playing an adventure game.

Basics

Here are some notes on basic operation of the Nexus/7:

  • The default synthesizer doesn’t speak fast enough. I know one can install third party synthesizers but the one that comes out-of-the-box, on its fastest setting, is too slow for my taste. Unlike iOS, though, where one cannot choose a third party synthesizer, I could buy one I like more for Android, a definite benefit to the more open system.

  • Most buttons and some other controls aren’t labeled as buttons so speech only says the text in them and I thought they must be headings. Unlabeled controls vastly outnumber those with something meaningful like “button.” I understand that, in some places TalkBack uses an earcon, a tone played instead of saying a word to convey information. Earcons are a terrific idea similar to the Speech and Sounds Manager in JAWS but, as TalkBack seems to use them in some places, text descriptions in others and does nothing at all to indicate a control type in many other places, the system is so inconsistent that none of the indicators are of much value as they only seem to occur randomly.

Documentation and Resources

  • The TalkBack documentation is either non-existent or entirely out of date when one searches for it on Google. There is an article about accessibility gestures on the Nexus/7 published by Google itself that contains some accurate and some completely wrong information.

  • It seems that the only way to learn how to use the various accessibility gestures available using TalkBack, is by going to the settings dialogue and read the settings as there is no other place this is written down.

Compared to documentation about VoiceOver, JAWS, Window-Eyes and the free, written mostly by volunteers, NVDA and Orca, this looks entirely like a project led by a kid in a dorm room somewhere and not a professional development team.

JustSpeak

JustSpeak is a new voice recognition accessibility service from Google. It allows one to say things and then TalkBack will take action. This software is incomplete and incredibly buggy. There are my notes on it:

  • With JustSpeak running, one cannot control TalkBack volume. Why doesn’t it allow the volume rocker to work while watching a video?

  • JustSpeak would be a useful tool if it had a command that would tell the user what can be said in a specific context. Especially in an app where controls aren’t in the swipe order, it would be useful to be able to say, “List controls,” and hear something like, “Controls on screen: Play, Fast Forward, Rewind…” or whatever is there in an application. This would be similar to the list of objects that JAWS has via JAWS+F7 or the Item Chooser with VoiceOver.

  • JustSpeak seems to do really bad things to the hardware volume control. I’ve heard TalkBack say, “Volume set to zero” without the actual volume of the device dropping at all.

  • JustSpeak seems to have crashed while I was writing this piece but restarting it in Settings got it working again without much problem.

I think Google refers to JustSpeak as a beta but, in my mind, it’s less than an alpha and, at best, can be described as a functional demo.

The Default Android Apps

Setup

After turning the device on for the first time (the friend who sold me the device had already turned the screen reader on), I found myself in the setup routine and encountered the following list of issues:

  • The on screen Keyboard is not in tab (swipe) order so, for a person new to the system who may not know that they need to first explore the screen with their finger to find it, the on screen keyboard’s location is not obvious. .
  • The email one gets for setting up the device is loaded with accessibility failures. I can only say that, if Google indeed cared about accessibility, they can make their entire system compliant with web accessibility standards and guidelines.

Home Screen

This is what I found exploring the default Android home screen, after a few days of using it, at the recommendation of some helpful people on the Eyes Free mailing list,I installed a replacement home screen called “Apex Launcher” which is far more accessible:

  • Within ten seconds, I found an unlabeled graphic announced as “Image 53, Unlabeled. If a device claims to be “accessible” it should have zero such defects. Finding and fixing such problems is trivial and could new included in the Android automated test process but, as they obviously don’t care to become fully accessible, they ignore such insults to our community.

Apps

I tried to go through every app that came shipped by default with the device. As I found none without serious accessibility defects, I stopped trying so these are the notes I’ve made on various apps that I did try:

Chrome
  • The Google Chrome app seems to be entirely usable but, as TalkBack is fairly feature free in the browser, it isn’t actually accessible to anyone who considers “efficiency” to be part of accessibility.

  • Having no ability to navigate a web page by semantically useful “chunks” like heading, form control or anything other than swiping by object makes browsing excessively cumbersome. As this is a feature that has been in JAWS for more than a decade and in VoiceOver on iOS, I ask, why is Google still pushing a Model T on us?

  • The default Chrome home screen contains unlabeled images. Again, how difficult or expensive would it be for a massively wealthy company like Google to fix?

  • Trying to read Google search results without being able to navigate by heading is very time consuming and cumbersome.

  • I like the “ear cons” audio effects played for VoiceOver users on various web objects.

After a little while, I stopped using Chrome on the Nexus/7 and installed Mozilla FireFox. While not a default app, I can highly recommend FireFox to any blind Android user. Mozilla’s team obviously spent a huge amount of effort making FireFox accessible, very accessible on this platform. It’s unfortunate that developers need to do so much to make a fully accessible browser on this platform but Mozilla’s team has demonstrated that it is possible to make a browser on Android profoundly more accessible than Google attempted with Chrome.

Currents

  • This app seems to be mostly usable but has major accessibility problems.

  • everything is in the swipe order, reading the stories can be pleasant if it doesn’t contain too many unlabeled things.

  • In a read all (started by shaking the device) in a Popular Science article, speech got stuck on “Heading Image” and read it repeatedly until I stopped it.

  • Tapping on the title of an article most often opened a different article than the one I wanted.

Play Books

  • This app seems to be marginally usable but it contains some areas that a user must find by moving a finger around the screen. Many items seem not to be in the “swipe” (tab) order. It’s easy to get lost..

  • Reading a book is difficult as navigation seems to break in many places.

  • I seem to have found “temporary” buttons that TalkBack announces but that disappear before one can act upon them. This is a violation of all published accessibility standards, guidelines and slaps best practices in the face.

Play Movies and TV

  • It was really hard getting gestures recognized while playing a movie.

  • With JustSpeak running, I couldn’t change the volume of the video using the rocker bar on the device.

  • Finding the “pause” button proved impossible for me while playing a video.

  • Lots of items seem not be in swipe order.

  • App contains at least one unlabeled image.

  • No buttons are labeled as such.

I can only describe the accessibility of this app as a total failure.

YouTube

  • The YouTube app is more usable than Play Movies and TV but describing it as “accessible” would be a stretch.

  • When a video is running, swiping from control to control is very slow.

  • Many swipes resulted in a sound playing with no voice feedback. It was unclear if I was actually moving around the interface, if there was an object on which I had landed, etc.

  • The volume rocker, likely due to JustSpeak, causes TalkBack to announce that the volume has been set to zero (when I had hit the volume down side of the rocker a bunch of times) but the actual volume of the video doesn’t change.

  • I found at least four unlabeled buttons in this app.

Calculator

  • The default Android calculator app seems to be usable but has a number of curious aspects to its UI.

  • The swipe order seems somewhat random as sometimes it loops back around a group and other times it goes to everything in the interface and I could not tell you why.

  • The calculator does not honor the setting for typing by removing one’s finger from the last spoken item.

Afterward

I was really looking forward to trying out an Android tablet. Friends like Aaron and Josh speak so highly of Android accessibility that I wanted to give it a whirl. Sadly, what I found after spending a few months with the tablet is that it isn’t actually accessible the way iOS 7, Windows 8.1 and even Gnome are. The Google accessibility team must have little or no authority within Google corporate as these problems should be simple to remedy if they wanted to make a fully accessible solution.

18 thoughts on “Testing Android Accessibility: I Give Up

  1. Yadiel

    Sadly, this is almost the same experience I had. Even though it is usable, and android has some great points in favor. Accessibility wise is to buggy and incomplete.

    Reply
  2. serrebi

    Totally agree with your findings. You should go find the homesample apk
    http://frankkie.nl/android/
    Displays all apps on one page, with small touch points only blindy’s can deal with ahhaa. I believe in the future of android. I think sometime soon some blind people will see it as an option. I just hope they add better navigation for websites e.g. granularity control for moving around on webpages before then… Firefox is a temp solution for me. I hate having to do three finger gestures before the web UI is displayed to me. Also sharing an android device with a sited person is kind of a joke right now. Just try it and see. Sometimes you won’t be able to switch because talkback will toggle for no reason, even though you’ve turned it on in the other profile.

    Reply
  3. Mike Reiser

    I must agree with you on a lot of these findings. A couple notes. The play newsstand app is much better when it comes to access them currents. Everything is clearly labeled, and the Web views do seem to work better. I do feel like the system of choosing granularity’s very stupid. The web views work better and 4.4, however they are still buggy when swiping to them. Finally the most galling omission to me is the lack of a stop speech gesture. This is even in the most basic of screenreaders, so why this was never included is very odd. I also want to say that I think the ice free team could really use a course in communicating better. It doesn’t seem like they ever answer questions, and when they do it’s only to specific ones.

    Reply
  4. Scott Davert

    I agree with all of your points Chris. I hope you don’t mind, but I tested braille quite extensively and have posted my impressions below. These have not been posted on any other blog.

    The first draw-back to braille support on Android is that you have to actually go get and install another app called BrailleBack. After downloading BrailleBack, you must go in to settings and bluetooth to pair your braille device. Then, go to settings and accessibility and turn Braille Back on. This is also where you set your braille preferences such as which table to use, braille input and output, etc. In order to use keyboard input with a supported display, you’ll need to go to Language and input settings and enable the Braille keyboard. hardly intuitive, but at least it’s only a one time set up I suppose. Though when compared with other systems, this process is significantly more complex,. Also, contracted braille input is still not supported, like it is on iOS, the Mac, and most Windows screen readers.
    Ok, so let’s take a look at how it works, or in many cases, how braille doesn’t quite work. Most screen readers that interact with braille displays, whether it’s VoiceOver with Apple, JAWS, NVDA, or any screen reader on Windows, there are a fairly consistent series of keyboard commands no matter which braille device you use. For example, to go to the top of a screen, press space with L, to go to the bottom, pres space with 4-5-6. With BraileBack, space with L launches the keyboard help file, and space with 4-5-6 does nothing. You can scroll to the top of a window with some displays but not others. For example, the Refreshabraille can do this with the command joystick up and dot 7. According to the help file when connected with the braille Edge, there is no such command for this device. Experimenting also yielded no results. Another example is that space with dot 1 on the Edge will move to the previous item, but this does not work with the Refreshabraille 18. Instead, you must use joystick left. So in terms of navigation, you’ll need to be very aware of whichever braille device you’re using, as there appear to be some consistencies, but many differences. Some familiar commands to some include Space with H seems to always go to the home screen and space with B does also seem to activate the back button fairly reliably. This can be both good and bad, as the open source nature of BrailleBack allows braille display manufacturers to customize commands for each device. This is good because it can further allow each braille display to utilize all of its unique features. However, it can also be a disadvantage as the commands are so customizable that the experience of one display and it’s functionality on BrailleBack can vary greatly from braille device to braille device. Like you had posted, it really comes with a nonintuitive set of commands that lack consistency and, as such, create quite a steap learning curve for those new to Android.
    Some users may enjoy that BrailleBack does not display just one item on a line. For example, if on a screen such as in the Mail app, several options may appear at once. Pressing a cursor routing button will activate any of these items. This is good in terms of being able to activate items quickly, but could be an issue in certains apps where things are not labeled as buttons, headings , links, etc, which, sadly, seems to be one thing that is fairly consistent.

    With web browsing using Firefox, activating links, moving by headings, typing text into a search field, etc, all work fine only using braille, thus offering a pleasant web browsing experience. Most content is readable with web pages

    Book access
    The news for those wishing to read books in braille using BrailleBack is not good. Whether it’s Google Playbooks, Kindle, or the Nook app, while menus are manageable to some degree in that they are mostly labeled, once you open a book, while TalkBack will read Google Play books and Nook books, neither will display the contents of these books. Email is also an issue similar to what you find in trying to read books in braille. You can access the menus for the gmail app, but you cannot actually read the contents of messages. Editing of text when replying to messages works fine, and I was able to send messages successfully. Forwarding messages also works, but it scrolling down to read the message content still is not possible with BrailleBack.

    Reply
  5. Florian

    Hello,

    In my opinion, Android has its faults and its good sides, just like iOS does.
    What I generally use my phone for is whatsApp, facebook messenger, keeping up with various social networks which all have dedicated apps, and I must say this is very doable on Android in my opinion. Web browsing using Firefox is also quite doable, but this is an activity I prefer to use my laptop for. Touch screen devices are well and good, but I just cannot be very productive on them at all. I need a clacking keyboard under my fingers if I want to do actual work.
    As for reading books, I’ve gotten so used to Eloquence reading my books to me that I generally prefer my laptop for this as well. In a pinch, the iPhone would suffice in reading books aloud in an app like iBooks or Kindle. I’ve never really tried on Android yet, so I will not comment on that.
    Another thing I often use my phone for is listen to music, and specifically Spotify. Both the iOS and Android versions have a few odd quirks when it comes to this application, but they are both quite usable. The learning curve Talkback introduces seems bigger than it is. The tutorial is thereto familiarize yourself with the most common gestures. The less obvious ones are documented ar less extensively and this is where you need to look around for info a bit. I generally think you need to do that more with Android to begin with, because the documentation is one of its weak points.
    Do keep in mind I am referring to phones here, not tablets. Right now I wouldn’t see myself use a tablet of any kind, be it Android, Windows or iOS. It’s the phone or the laptop for me. And I use both for their intended purpose in my life quite smoothly.

    Reply
  6. BlindJay

    Great post. For me, it’s definitely nice if things are 100 percent accessible but they don’t have to be if I can get done what I want to get done. My wife wanted an android phone so we tried it out and yikes. Talk back randomly crashing, jestures working around 30 percent of the time and no matter what launcher I used nova or apex, each one had it’s issues and just didn’t work for me. Will you consider checking out and duing an article on windows 8 on a tablet? From researching, the newest del as well as I think the MS surface pro models run full windows 8 so you’d be able to install jaws as well as use narrator. I am assuming the machines running windows RT can’t install desktop apps but can still use narrator. If I had the money, I would love to test all of that but am sticking with IOS for phones/tablets for now.

    Reply
  7. Quentin

    Hi everyone,

    Just a couple of points I wanted to comment on in your article:

    Firstly I have low vision myself, but teach clients who are blind to use technology so feel I can comment on both aspects. re low vision useability I definitely feel Android is the better system, primarily because the magnification is much the same but Android has a range of much larger handsets, and more customisation in making apps large print.
    While I completely agree that it’s disappointing that you need to install apps to make the system more accessible – can I ask, do you use Windows with Narrator only? (if you do, all the best to you, but everyone I know uses either NVDA, Jaws or Window Eyes etc – any of which have to be obtained and installed – and in all cases, it’s not as easy as installing an app from Google Play on an Android phone).
    I think it’s important to approach the whole debate understanding the differences between Android and iOS – and one of those (for all users) is customisability – if you want a system which does not need any configuration and is identical to everyone elses – buy an iPhone, on the other hand, if you like to tweak things a bit more, then Android has more flexibility – yes it’s dissapointing as I said that this applies to accessibility as well but at least for many things there are alternatives – if you don’t like the default keyboard for instance, I have come across at least half a dozen which work with Talkback.
    “Google has implemented accessibiltiy in a manner entirely unfamiliar to anyone who has used any screen reader before” – that’s not inherently a bad thing – Apple implemented the original iPhone in a way completely unfamiliar to anyone who had used a mobile phone before, yet people seem to like it… Actually with lists (and this may have been implemented after you wrote the article, I can’t recall) you can simply keep swiping to move down the list to subsequent pages now, which I admit was an annoying omission earlier – but you can still two finger scroll through, which actually works quite well to get further down long lists you are familiar with.
    Re your definition of accessibility – again I agree with the spirit of your point, but in actual fact, once you get past the point where something is useable, if it’s useability is then not optimal, in fact that’s not entirely dissimilar to a sighted user trying to use an app which works, but is “clunky”. Also how you might prefer to do something and how I might prefer to do it could be completely different, even if we are coming from the same amount of vision, and also what features of an app or OS you want to use can have a big impact as well – if someone wants a device to only use as a traditional phone, but with speech, and they have someone with ten minutes to set it up for them – in fact the recommendation might be completely different (I have numerous clients in this camp and there are several android launchers available which may make performing purely those basic tasks easier than on an iPhone – again depending on how you want to do that).
    While I agree with your point about not supporting inaccessibility, I suspect we’re not going to get any of the companies (and I include Apple in this until you can setup an iPhone with a keyboard with 18pt size letters, and all their other inbuilt apps with 18pt text without needing the magnifier) completely on board with all forms of accessibility without mandatory government regulations.

    Regards

    Quentin.

    Reply
  8. Dan Mathis

    Hi Chris, you know of me from the eyes-free web sight, when a aarticle like this is published on android I have to ask why? First off you came on the web sight at eyes-free, started spouting off “section 508 rules”, where can I FIND THESE RULES? IOS7 has a few miner bugs, paraphrased from you, why is my student where I work who is using an Iphone5 having to buy a bt keyboard because the tipical perffect keyboard keeps on switching to accented caricters? Serie has a hard time understanding one of my co-workers when he asked her a question. He is not from a different country, this gentalmen is from the us. IOS7 has a few rather glaring issues with braille at this time when you do not set your keyboard to US English. Another co-worker informed me of this issue. So lets backtrack, you had to replace the home screen on a nexus7 device because it did not let you add or removed Icons. Fare, how ever it still can be done with a swipe up to your notifications bar. Some of us just use nova launcher so Icons can be easily removed. Last, your article helps no one, its clear you attempted to make your device act like an IOS device, yes it felled, “I wonder why?” So for those who want to try android, the only thing I changed on my nexus7 which I gave to my works computer lab was a few apps like twitter, Facebook and the Home screen. ON my nexus5 device my homescreen, the keyboard “not because I had to but I wanted a different keyboard:, and that is it. So Chris I hope you give android another try but seriously, publishing articles like yours helps android accessibility in no way shape or form. In fact it tends to make developers run away from android.

    Reply
  9. Ginny

    wow “spouting off aobut 508 law” not quoting directly but… wow, it seems soem of us are acting like disability law/accessibility means nothing. I haven’t used Android in a while, so I don’t know if there have been any accesssibility improvements since th elast itme I used it, except I know a friend who has a Gogole Nexus Tablet I think it is and seems to use it OK. However, I did not have as good a luck. I have an iPhone thta has worked really well for me and worked out of the box. This doesn’t mean that I’d not use Android inthe future, bu tit seems that soem of us are getting quite emotional about the issue when Chris made it very clear this was just his experience/opinion. Am still musing on that “spouting off about 508″ as if accessibility is just something you “spout off” about. If I was trying to use a device whose makers claimed it was accessible when it really wans’t I think I’d be “spouting off” too. Anyway, I’m cosnidering getting a tablet as a firend of mine’s using an Android tablet with what seems to be some amount of success. But I’ve not decided completely yet. Also I’ve personally never had any problems iwth Siri in fact my step daughter and I have quite a bit of fun with it and actually I’m just now starting to reapply play with it and use it effectively. Anyway. I don’t think there’s any need to get upset or emotional over the whole thing I’d take the above post and perhaps if I was Android I’d do more to amke my product more accessible. Because as it stands now if I was going o recommend to a blind person an accessible device right outta the box and they didn’t have a huge amount of tech experience or the tiem or patience to “make” a device accessible, then I’d recommend the iPhone. And being that I have a two year old, I dont’ have time to “make” a device accessible once I get it.

    Reply
  10. Josh

    Android accessibility is excellent excellent excellent! I couldn’t be more pleased with my nxus7 2013 tablet. the right angle l gestures are so easy. do I wish there were keyboard equivalents for selecting text yes and maybe it’ll come soon in an update. the natureSpace app works great. and so does quicoffice for basic editing. but where my tablet really shines is as an affordable gps with nearby explorer for the united states and canada. I love it for its gps abilities! haven’t gotten google goggles to work yet still trying to learn how to aim the camera. I am very happy with my android tablet. and will by an ipod touch for some games and some stuff android does not yet do.

    Reply
  11. Rick R.

    Bravo on the article Chris…

    So many Android fanboys, like Dan above, are so willing to accept whatever crap Google throws at us and calls “accessible” and it just irritates the hell out of me. He blatantly misses the point that your article isn’t a how-to for making Android actually usable, but a listing of the glaring accessibility shortcomings of the platform.

    One thing I didn’t see you mention, but is a huge problem that I have with Android is the OS’s horrible fragmentation. This isn’t directly an accessibility issue, but it does affect it in that it directly affects the functionality and usability of Talkback. Having literally hundreds of Android devices running a myriad of Android OS versions makes one feel like the proverbial diabetic in a candy store. You have no idea what you’re going to get, but you’re pretty sure it’s not going to turn out well for you in the long run…

    And before anyone complains that I’m just bagging on the platform without actually using it, I’ll quash that crap right here. I own and “attempt” to use a Verizon Ellipsis7 running Android 4.2.2 and have gone through a lot of the same annoyances and glaring failures that Chris mentions above.

    I could go on and on here, but I think my point is made both by my comments and Chris’s well presented article. I do have hope for the future of Android, but it’s a long, long way from where it needs to be to even compete with iOS, let alone have a glimmering hope of ever becoming the defacto choice in mobile device accessibility.

    If you would like to whine, moan or complain, I’m @BlindSarcasm on Twitter, but be warned, I don’t pull punches there!

    Good job Chris! :D

    Reply
  12. Chris

    Hi. I really appreciate this thought-provoking article. I teach blind and visually-impaired people how to use iDevices primarily, but have recently begun to learn the android operating system on a Nexus. Some of our clients who have recently lost their vision wish to stay with android since it is familiar to them. So, in an effort to learn this platform so I could teach it, I have spent some very worthwhile time with the Nexus.

    Perhaps I do not get bogged down in accessibility issues as much as some. An app does not have to be completely labeled with every element usable to be considered accessible to me. I have not installed another home screen configuration. I have yet to explore all the native apps. However, the fact that I could change some TalkBack settings, set up my email, send a message, and download an app in my first hour of use speaks not necessarily to my tech savvy, but to how accessible the device was wtih TalkBack.

    I think the very thing that is one of android’s strengths (it’s customization and variation) also may prove slower going for the finer points of accessibility. When Apple makes changes to its accessibility features, you see them in its one, closed version of the operating system. I think this is far more difficult to achieve with so many flavors of android. That’s why I really appreciate the folks at That Android Show using the Nexus 7 as the template.

    So, for those who would like to give android a try, go for it. My conclusion is that there isn’t a reason why I wouldn’t have one for my own personal use, but there’s also no compelling reason for me to switch. Still keeping an open mind, I am thrilled that I have two mainstream platforms from which to choose

    Reply
    1. Russ

      Wow, after reading all of these posts, I’m glad I ended up buying a refurbished
      ipad mini. It has more volume and better sound than my ipod touch, victor
      reader stream booksense and plextalk pocket. With being able to lock the
      screen while playing audio content, I get much more play time than with my
      specialized players.

      With the bard mobile app, I can read nls books on it. Books can be directly
      downloaded to the ipad mini. This can’t be done on my specialized players.
      It’s going to be a while before bard mobile comes to android!

      With the audible app, I can read books from audible. Books can be directly
      downloaded to the ipad mini. I can’t do this with my specialized players.

      With the Kindle app, I can read Kindle books from Amazon. I can’t do this
      with my specialized playrs.

      With voice dream reader, I can read books from bookshare, unprotected epub
      and other file types. I use it to read multi-part mp3 audio books.
      What’s nice about voice dream reader, you can download books from both bookshare
      and Project Gutenberg directly to the ipad mini. I bought the optional
      neospeech voice to make it sound just like a booksense when reading any text
      based file. Voice dream reader is supplied with Acapela. I
      can switch between Acapela and neospeech. I can’t see buying a second
      generation victor reader stream inorder to download books from bookshare to
      it. With the specialized players I have, I can’t download books from bookshare
      to them. Is there an app like voice dream reader for android?

      With the downcast app, I can download podcasts directly to the ipad mini. I
      can subscribe and unsubscribe to podcasts on it. With my plextalk pocket, I
      can’t subscribe and unsubscribe to podcasts on it. With the other two
      specialized players i have, I can’t download podcasts to them. Is there an
      app like downcast for android?

      My ipad mini is now my favorite device for reading books, downloading and
      listening to podcasts and old time radio shows.

      Reply
  13. Margarita

    Chris, Thank you for the article. Especially I like the following piece – ” People with profound to total vision impairment must eschew all devices that provide less than the “gold standard” of 100% out-of-the-box accessibility as, accepting less than 100% will only encourage corporations to provide us with incomplete solutions in the future. If we reward Google with our dollars today, we’re telling them that this state of affairs is acceptable, a tremendously dangerous statement to make.”. I’m completelly blind, have been using Nexus 4 since June 2013. Well, it was the device I wanted bad and now I’m trying to convince myself that I don’t regred buying it, but… it’s difficult! From time to time I ask myself quietly ” why didn’t I buy Iphone?” Expensive, yes, but…

    Reply
  14. brandon armstrong

    hi, it’s quite amazing to me how you spout off useless crap and scare others away from android. things are different in android and talkback, but for someone who hates the NFB you dam sure write articles like one of them. your article sucks, and I have a good mind to send it to the eyes free list and ask serious android users like my self to comment and give it a flap zero. people like me love android, and we don’t want it to behave like iOS, because the purpose of getting on android is to get away from pathetic, useless, horrid, failing, iOS. voiceover sucks, and if you don’t like the speech, guess what? to bad, your out of luck. don’t like the email client, too bad, you won’t get a new one. I like the freedom of choice, on what i can and chose to pout on my phone verses apple and company telling me what i must have, and what i will have on my home screen, and things i can’t take off. before writing crappy ass articles like this, do some dam research and try talkback and other programs for a few months, not five dam seconds.

    Reply
    1. chris.admin

      Brandon,

      I thought you were better than a comment filled with ad hominem that also contains zero disputations of a single fact in my article.

      You say I used Android for “five minutes” which seems to miss the statement that I had spent three months with the device, three months in which I was active on the Eyes Free list trying to learn as much about Android as possible.

      Please, look at the facts of the situation. My article was specifically about testing Android for accessibility, that’s the title of the article in fact. If the title was, say, “Things Brandon Likes About Android,” then issues like its openness, customizability and other things about Android would be apropos, in an article that states its criteria at the top, where I say this is about the experience a blind person using speech only (Scott wrote the braille only article that followed) and its accessibility out-of-the-box, perhaps, you would understand why your comments, comments that do not dispute a single data point in the piece, are entirely fallacious.

      Not only do you go to the logical fallacy called “ad hominem” in which you attack the author and not the facts of the article but you also use the logical fallacy called “moving the goal posts” in which you provide a pile of reasons you like Android that are entirely unrelated to the thesis of this article. The things you write make absolute sense if addressed to an article on, perhaps, the openness of iOS versus Android or their customizability but have no relevance to Android’s out-of-the-box accessibility to people with vision impairment.

      So, in the future, try to avoid the personal attacks when you’re making a comment. Please, if you can find a fact in the article that’s incorrect, send me a correction and I’ll fix it as I did with the two real facts that I did get wrong when others pointed them out.

      I’ve published a pro-Android article here written by Aaron and I’d do another if you write one and I’ll put it here too.

      Reply
  15. Ray Bronk

    Hi all, Well, I am in the middle of researching which phone to go to. I ran in to the very same issue when playing with a Droid Altra. I’d be on attempting to go to an app on the phone and something else would pop up. But then, it’s getting used to how a touch screen works. Verizon has a good deal right now. If you’re upgrading from a basic phone, the $30 dollar upgrade is waived until March 31. The Droid Altra is free. Go to Walmart, and get the Moto X for under $10. The Iphone 5C is $45, while in the VStore it’s $100. So that’s where things seem to be. It a tradeoff no matter what you do here. Just got to decide which bed I’m going to lay in, or what shoes to wear, and run with it. It’s sorta like JAWS being polished, and WindowEyes is a bit rough around the edges.

    Reply
  16. Cody

    One thing I found as an iPhone user since it became accessible in 2009 was that any attempts to ask questions on the eyes free list regarding bugs resulted in quite a backlash. About 3 weeks ago, I purchased a new galaxy note 4 from sprint as I was trying to find a way to get unlimited 4g and then use that to tether and get rid of 3 different bills I had by using one device. When I first set up the device, I found that using Google tts or eloquence broke the keyboard if you set the speech rate to above 50%. This did not happen with samsung tts which admittedly doesn’t go that fast but it worked nonetheless. I got responses like, oh that’s a hardware failure, I should send the phone back. However, after about 2 weeks of being on the eyes free list, another new user came on voicing the same exact issue. And absolutely no one touched the thread. When I posted a follow up email detailing a forum with known samsung accessibility problems with the swipe keyboard, and asking if this had anything at all to do with the bugginess of accessibility I got chewed out big time by Nimer!

    The problem with the blindy android community is that it is comprised of mostly people who love to hate apple for one silly reason or another. To say voiceover is buggy and doesn’t do anything is like saying Marijuana is a date rape drug. Anyone with a quarter of a brain knows it’s a bunch of crap. So rather than getting another android device, I have gone with an iPhone 6 plus. I don’t have time to drop 700 bucks on a phone which can’t be guaranteed to work and since documentation is virtually not existent, I have to count on the fanboys and fangirls pushing android to give help trying to see the cloud of their fueled by simply not being Apple, and then when I point out a clear bug, I am told to just have patients and android is different so get used to it; which is totally avoiding the fact there are bugs and dare you mention bugs because that indicates hate for android rather than trying to actually fix problems. And for this reason is why android will always be a second class accessibility solution. Yet all day long you see emails on their saying this app is inaccessible or I can’t use the calendar or I can’t use this, or I can’t find an alternative for that, bla bla bla. They keep on reachin and keep on fightin. By the attitude of people on that list I am not surprised that there are more iPhone users than android users. The main argument is that apple is closed source and android is open source. And I’m not sure what that means to anyone in terms of how the company themselves effects the end user so long as the product is accessible, Is open source a nice cover term for what you see is what you get? In other words, we can’t be bothered to make it accessible and even if it’s the slightest bit accessible you can’t say it’s not. Simply look at Apple’s base and follow their lead and quit coming up with 50,000 excuses why android is better only to justify your unhappiness with your being blind because most blind people use iPhones and you’ll be damned if you use something that’s proven to work! Such a decision to do so is unfounded, albeit is your personal decision, but please do not push false claims on people to get them to spend hundreds of dollars on a new device claimed to be ground breaking only to find it’s still a hobbyist’s toy at best. When you ask why it’s not like they claimed it was, the answer is, oh, you have to customize it and be patient. Sorry I don’t have time to encounter counless accessibility bugs and get yelled at when a few other people very loudly declared they had no such an issue. The very nature of android makes it nearly impossible to pinpoint a bug for replication.

    Reply

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