My first “real” job out of high school was with an awesome company called Humanware. At the time they were located in Loomis, where I lived, and I did technical support for their screen readers, which allowed blind individuals to hear what was on the screen. This was still in the days before Windows, and the technology worked pretty well because every screen had only text. Windows started to make things more difficult, because the interface was more complex, and dependent upon the mouse and visuals. But with tablets and smartphones, with their simpler interface, it might be possible to have better solutions, but thus far the Android accessibility “solutions” seeem to suck. Here is my quick review of 3 I tried recently.
First, I should be clear that I’m not physically blind, and that the reason for my testing these screen readers was to see if I could get a Text to Speech (TTS) solution to work for the Kindle and Scribd apps on my smartphone, since as I posted recently, I’ve been trying to listen to more books in the car. I was using a Samsung Grand Prime (SM-G530T1) phone, with Android 5.1.1 (Lollipop). I was also using the Caitlin TTS voice from CereProc.
I tested the of the following:
- The built-in Samsung Voice Assistant (which some say is just TalkBack renamed)
- Google TalkBack
My poor experience was nearly identical with all 3, and while maybe the problems were partly due to my hardware, they still are problems that need to be addressed.
Two and Three Finger Swipes often Didn’t Work
The first problem I encountered on my phone, was that in order to use any of these accessibility modes, there is a need to use two-finger swiping in order to scroll or change between screens, as single-finger swiping is used to move between icons or other elements on a screen. But, I would often run into situations where my two-finger swipe didn’t work, which would stop me from navigating, and at some points made it so I almost wasn’t able to get back into the Accessibility options to turn off the screen reader! This thus made the device LESS accessible, not more!
To be fair, this could be a hardware issue, as I know some phones have an easier time detecting two fingers than others. It also might be something that if I practiced long enough, I might just naturally get the hang of having my fingers on the screen in the right way to not have the problem.
The Android Phone would Sometimes Completely Freeze
Using both the Samsung Voice Assistant and TalkBack, there were times that Android stopped allowing me to interact with my phone’s screen. I’m not sure it was truly frozen, as pressing the power button would bring up the screen to give me options about what to do, but I couldn’t press any of them, so ultimately I had to just hold down the side power button for 30 seconds to force it to shut down. Again, this issue made the phone LESS accessible. The ShinePLUS didn’t freeze on me during my testing; but I used it for a very short period of time, so I won’t claim that it wouldn’t have the same problem.
Kindle App Didn’t Screen Read like Amazon Claims it Will
Despite Amazon saying that it can read aloud with TalkBack, on my phone I was not able to get this to work. It would read me the prompts and menus, but not the books.
Scribd App Didn’t Screen Read, and thus I suspect many others won’t also
Scribd has a huge library of older books, or maybe ones that don’t sell as well; all of which you can get access to for a fairly low monthly fee. Unlike Amazon’s Kindle app, Scribd doesn’t claim that TalkBack works, which is good, because for me, it didn’t. The fact that it didn’t, makes me wonder how many different Android apps would not read what’s on the screen, thus again I wonder how accessible Android really is.
While maybe there is a solution to my problem, or maybe it is just my particular phone and setup, I can only conclude that accessibility for the blind via screen reading on Android currently sucks.