En español | When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, few people could have fathomed that we all would own smartphones someday.
More than three decades later, not only are most people carrying these devices, but those with physical impairments — hearing loss, low vision, motor disabilities — are benefiting from the same experiences as everyone else, frequently with an assist from baked-in accessibility tools that are free on Android and iPhone handsets.
More than a billion people globally have some sort of disability, according to the World Health Organization, and anyone can take advantage of such tools as audio enhancements, motor controls and screen readers. Indeed, making something accessible — think sidewalk curb cuts — potentially benefits the entire population.
Here's a look at some common accessibility features on Android phones and iPhones. With some small differences related to the nature of the devices, they also work on each operating system's tablets. Your starting point for most of these is found in device Settings.
On an iPhone, tap Settings | Accessibility and select among many accessibility choices. On an Android phone such as the Google Pixel 6, tap Settings | Accessibility and similarly make a selection. Because many manufacturers make Android phones, you may see variations.
Keep in mind that some tools are meant to be used with external accessories: braille keyboards, hearing aids or switches. It’s also a good idea to browse through all the accessibility settings on your phone to find solutions that may be most beneficial to the specific disability challenges that you or a loved one face.
Tools for deaf or hard-of-hearing users
Live Transcribe. This app, already installed on some Android handsets or available as a free download in the Google Play Store, uses your device's microphone to capture and transcribe text, displayed as kind of a caption box for the real world. Enable it in Settings, then either tap a human-figure-shaped icon on the display or perform a gesture. On the Pixel 6, you can also enable a Live Transcribe shortcut button to turn on the feature.
In addition to spoken text, Live Transcribe can display sound effects such as barking dogs or crying babies.
iPhones do not have an equivalent built-in. An Apple App Store app titled Transcribe Live is not related and requires an in-app purchase after trying the service for 15 minutes.
Live Caption. This sister feature, of sorts, to Live Transcribe is installed on the latest Pixels and certain other Android phones such as those from OnePlus and Samsung. By applying speech recognition, the phone can overlay captions from any media on the device, including audio that comes through social media feeds, Facebook videos and podcasts from anywhere.
To enable Live Caption, tap Settings | Accessibility | Live Caption. Options let you hide profanity and show labels such as applause or laughter.
Again, no equivalent is built into iPhones though the iPhone can display standard subtitles and captions for movies and TV by activating the feature under Subtitles & Captioning. An app called Live Caption is available in the Apple App Store but requires a subscription after a short period of use.
Sound Recognition. The iPhone can listen for the sounds of a barking dog, breaking glass, crying baby, doorbell, running water, siren, tea kettle and more and send you an on-screen notification when it hears these sounds. Tap Settings | Accessibility | Sound Recognition, then flip the switch for each type of sound for which you want to receive a notification. Android phones also can detect such sounds.
LED Flash Alerts. For people who can’t hear sounds that announce calls or other incoming audible alerts, the iPhone can flash the LED next to the rear camera. The feature works only if the iPhone is locked. Go to Settings | Accessibility | Audio/Visual and tap LED Flash for Alerts. You have the option to enable the feature when the ring switch is set to silent.
Mono Audio. The phone can combine sounds from the left and right audio channels for people who suffer from hearing loss in one ear. On an iPhone, find the Mono Audio setting in Accessibility | Audio/Visual.
On Android, scroll down the Accessibility menu in Settings, tap Audio adjustment and find the like-named switch. On both iOS and Android, you can drag a slider to adjust the audio volume balance between left and right channels.
Learn more live and online
AARP’s free online classes can help you learn more about your smartphone, its capabilities and its apps.
• Senior Planet from AARP has live courses that can help you choose and use the best phone for you.
• AARP’s Virtual Community Center has a Tech Help area with interactive events that include smartphone use.
Help for low vision
Text size. You have lots of choices for making text easier to read in the Display & Text Size section of iPhone's Accessibility settings. You can make text bold, reduce its transparency and increase the color contrast between the app foreground and background colors.
Android phones have similar display and font size features in their respective settings.
Zoom. You can zoom or magnify the screen by turning on the Zoom switch in iOS Settings or the Magnification switch in Android Settings under Accessibility.
You'll have to master gestures: On an iPhone, double tap with three fingers to zoom, and drag three fingers to move around the screen. In Android, rapidly tap the screen three times to zoom, or drag two or more fingers to scroll. You can also tap an accessibility shortcut button to zoom.
TalkBack. The Select to Speak feature inside Android Settings lets you tap specific items on the display to hear them read aloud. Or tap TalkBack to receive spoken feedback to operate the device without looking at the screen by using swiping gestures.
iPhones have similar VoiceOver features to describe what's on a screen, from reading emails to web pages to adding descriptions of objects, scenery and people within a photo. You must master gestures here, too. Tap once to select an item; double tap to activate the selected item. On both Android and iOS, you can change the speed of the speech.
Tools for color blindness. Filters on both smartphone platforms can help people who are color blind. On an iPhone, tap Display & Text Size | Color Filters in the Accessibility settings, followed by the Color Filters switch. Depending on your condition, tap among the Grayscale, Red/Green, Green/Red, Blue/Yellow or Color Tint filter options.
In Android Accessibility settings under Text and display, tap Color Correction to choose filters.
Accommodations for motor-skill problems
Adaptive accessories. Choosing Switch Control on an iPhone or Switch Access in Android presents options for using adaptive switches and accessories. On the iPhone you can use one or more switches to sequentially select text, tap, drag, type or perform other actions, including using the front-facing camera to control your phone with head gestures. You also can create specialized actions or “recipes” to, say, turn pages in an e-book.
Google recently added a Camera Switches feature that is also found under Switch Access. It lets you navigate Android with six facial gestures: Open Mouth, Smile, Raise Eyebrows, Look Left, Look Right and Look Up. You might use any of these gestures to scan items on the screen until you land on the one you want, the weather app, for example.
Performing a second gesture can select and open the app. In Settings, you can adjust how big you want the gesture to be before it is recognized. Google separately announced a new Android application called Project Activate that lets you use these same gestures for customized actions such as sending a text or speaking a preset phrase.
Changes in touch. You can alter how the screen responds to your touch. On an iPhone under Touch | Touch Accommodations, you can change how long you must touch the screen before your touch is recognized. Or flip a switch so multiple touches of the screen are treated as a single touch.
Android users can tap a Touch & hold display switch that lets you change the duration (short, medium, long) of when a tap is recognized as a “long press."
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Dictation. iPhone and Android handsets both can take dictation, letting you use your voice to create lists, compose emails and give other instructions. By speaking, you also summon the assistance of Siri on an iPhone using the “Hey, Siri” verbal command and the Google Assistant via “Hey, Google” or “OK, Google” on Android.
On an iPhone, head to Settings | General | Keyboard and make sure the Enable Dictation switch is turned on. From then on, you can tap the microphone icon to speak rather than type whenever a keyboard turns up within an app.
You even can use your voice to add punctuation. For example, “Dear Ed comma the check is in the mail exclamation mark.”
You similarly can tap a microphone icon whenever an Android keyboard appears. Tap Allow rather than Deny if you're cool with the app in question recording your voice so you can speak instead of type.
Dictation provides a benefit not just for people with accessibility challenges but anyone who finds typing on relatively tiny keyboards a hassle.
Android users: Create your own shortcut for tasks
An Android app called Action Blocks is designed for people with a cognitive disability but can automate everyday tasks for anyone.
The final steps allow you to choose an image, name and size of button that the Action Block will display on your home screen. Google recently gave users the ability to create Action Blocks that speak aloud. Action Blocks work in tandem with the Google Assistant. The app works on devices using Android 5.0 and higher.
This story, originally published May 26, 2020, has been updated to reflect new features and phones that have been introduced.
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.
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