I recently had some work done on my right arm that meant it was difficult to use for a couple of weeks. Being right handed was making things just a little awkward when using my phone and tablet; it’s not easy texting with your off hand whilst balancing a small phone on your knee! That was until it dawned on me that I could dictate my texts and emails, saving myself a lot of time and frustration.
I hadn’t initially thought about dictation because when I first started out with computers making it “accessible” meant increasing your text size, using a high contrast theme, or using a very robotic text reader. Text to Speech software was available but could be very hit and miss, especially if you didn’t speak BBC English. However, I found the dictation on my phone mostly accurate once I got the hang of it; although at one point it did try to tell my wife that I had managed to "get out of bad" and have "a wonder up the corridor", oh and could she bring me "my eye pad 4 me to pray on!"
This experience made me wonder what other developments there had been in the last few years and what features are now available to help everyone access today’s smart devices.
Help with Vision
Whilst larger text and high contrast are still a mainstay of helping people see what’s on their screen, they have been joined by colour filters, to help with dyslexia and visual stress. Colour inversion is also available to help with some forms of colour blindness and sensitivity to light. Apple has developed Smart Invert which is clever enough to invert most colours without affecting the look of images and videos.
If you need a little more help, screen readers are now built in to all devices and, instead of sounding robotic, they have a wide range of voice options to suit all tastes. They can be used to read out the whole screen or be more specific about what you are touching, highlighting or selecting, even describing an image and reading any text contained within the image. When you are editing documents, texts and emails, the readers will tell you which letter you are touching, confirm when you select the letter and read out word suggestions. Windows Narrator even allows you to interact with your device when there is no screen at all.
Bluetooth Braille keyboards are fully supported by most devices, giving you the ability to edit text and control your device. Apple’s iOS also supports direct braille input without a braille keyboard.
If you have a sensitivity to motion effects or screen movement, Apple gives you options to either reduce or stop these altogether. With Windows you can turn off animations, background images and transparency effects.
Help with Hearing
At one time, pretty much all interaction with our devices was visual and physical. However, they are now talking to us more and more, which creates a problem for people with hearing disabilities.
At a basic level, devices are combating this by providing more visual alert options such as flashing the LED on your phone when you get a call. They are also supporting closed captions and subtitles imbedded in media files.
A lot of our devices now come with a personal assistant such as Siri or Cortana. Interaction with them is usually through speech and audible responses. However you can set them to respond to typed commands and respond visually on the screen.
Most devices also offer mono sound with separate left and right volume adjustment. This allows you to hear all sounds with either one or both ears, adjusting the individual channels to match the balance of how you hear.
More advanced support options are also becoming available such as Apple’s Live Listen which works with compatible hearing aids. It has been developed to provide more directional hearing in noisy environments. The phone is pointed in the direction of a sound you wish to hear more clearly. The microphone passes what it picks up straight to your hearing aid, helping to lift those sounds above the general noise level and helping you hear them more clearly.
Help with Touch & Motor Skills
The advent of touch screens made it more difficult for some people to interact with modern devices. However, a number of features have since been developed to aid people with touch and motor skills disabilities re-connect with technology. The most obvious is speech recognition allowing you to dictate messages and edit documents without the need to type.
One of the biggest problems though is being able to control and navigate a device if you have problems interacting with small buttons and touch screens. To help with this, Apple has developed Siri to not only answer lots of questions for you, but to help manage your Apple phone or tablet as well. A number of developers have created similar voice access apps to do the same on Android devices.
In addition Apple has also developed Assistive Touch and Touch Accommodations. The former lets you alter regular actions and create your own gestures with touch, shake and rotate movements. The later allows you to adjust how the screen responds to your touch. Between them a device can be customised to make physical interaction as easy and intuitive as possible.
As well as devices being able to support Bluetooth Braille peripherals to help visual disabilities, they also support Ability Switch control devices such as joysticks, trackballs and pads etc.
Taking things one step further, Microsoft is developing Eye Control which will be integrated into Windows 10. It will work with eye tracking devices such as Tobii’s Eye Tracker 4C allowing you to control a Windows 10 device with your eyes.
Help with Learning & Literacy
In recent years learning disabilities have started to get the recognition they need, and modern devices can help develop and overcome a number of cognitive disabilities. At a very basic level spelling and grammar checkers have been helping for a number of years; I first got into IT through using early versions of Word and WordPerfect, because I’m dyslexic and a piece of paper doesn’t come with a spell checker!
The natural development of spell checkers has also been around for a long time. Predictive Text is often derided for glaring and hilarious errors, but it never the less provides a lifeline when you find it difficult to spell.
With a number of learning disabilities one of the hardest struggles is trying to maintain focus. Apple has developed Guided Access to help you stay on task and avoid distractions. It allows you to limit the device to one application or task and limit the time a person can use the app. You can also disable hardware buttons and specific areas of the screen that aren’t relevant to the task, avoiding potential distractions.
Rest and recuperation are an important part of staying healthy for anybody, but for people with certain disabilities it can be essential. The majority of devices now come with a Do Not Disturb feature. This prevents your device from notifying you of incoming calls messages etc and allows you to rest undisturbed. You can set this feature manually, triggered by an event or on a schedule, for instance during your normal sleep cycle. You can allow it to be overridden in an emergency or for calls from certain contacts, just in case.
Along with Do Not Disturb many devices now offer Night Shift or Night Mode to alter the screen colour towards the warmer end of the spectrum on a night. The blue light emitted from modern screens makes us more alert by suppressing production of the sleep inducing hormone melatonin. Shifting the screen away from the blue, towards the red end of the spectrum on an evening, helps your body produce sufficient melatonin to induce sleep.