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Shepherd Center Expert Advises People on Navigating Smartphone Accessibility Features

Workshops and videos provide tutorials for setting up accessibility features on mobile devices.

From helping people navigate unfamiliar roads to staying in touch with friends, smartphones have opened up a new world for users. The same is true for people with disabilities, but learning how to unlock the devices’ special accessibility features can be a daunting task.

“Smartphones already come with a range of built-in accessibility features, but people are often intimidated by all of the possible settings,” said Ben Lippincott, an education and outreach project director for the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies (Wireless RERC) at Shepherd Center. “People are sometimes afraid to activate different features for fear that they may not understand what they will do to their phone once they’re turned on, or they might interfere with other customized accessibility settings.”

That’s why the Wireless RERC (a research partnership between Shepherd Center and the Georgia Institute of Technology) and AT&T have teamed up to offer a series of free workshops, known as Wireless Independence Now! Workshops. WIN! Workshops are designed to help people get familiar with the accessibility features of their smartphone.

"Not everyone has access to assistive technology professionals like those working in Shepherd Center's Assistive Technology Center. So, the workshops provide a great opportunity for people to come to a workshop to learn about the general accessibility features of a wireless device for their own disability and then get help with their device free from the pressure of being in a store where a sales associate may not know how to interact with a person with a disability, or may be unfamiliar with enabling these features,” Lippincott explained.

The accessibility settings in smartphones found in Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating systems are often organized by the type of disability a user may have, such as a visual, hearing, dexterity, cognitive or learning impairment.

To help people get started, Shepherd Center created videos that teach people how to use a few of the accessibility features. The videos (available below) show how to locate and turn on some of the accessibility features found on Apple’s iPhone and iPad, like Assistive Touch, Hey Siri, and Swype. And for Android devices, videos highlight comparable features like Assistant Menu, Ok Google, and Swype.

For iPhone or iPad, all of the features can be found by selecting the Settings icon, then by choosing General in the menu, followed by Accessibility.

For Android devices, the features can be found by selecting the Settings icon, then under the Personalization heading, select Accessibility.

Features for People with Mobility and Dexterity Impairments

Assistive Touch (iPhone/iPad) and Assistant Menu (Samsung Android) help by displaying functions on the touchscreen that are usually accessed by pressing physical or virtual buttons on the device, like the home or volume buttons.

Saying the words “Hey Siri” or “Ok Google” are new, active listening features that allow a user to check the weather, use maps, or open web pages, apps, texts, emails or phone contacts. This gives people who are unable to use their arms or fingers the ability to command their smartphone’s intelligent assistants by their voice.

Using a keyboard app called Swype (built-in on Android and available in the App Store for Apple) allows people to type by swiping a finger or stylus tool along the virtual keyboard, which can be easier than hunting and pecking.

By adding an external Bluetooth-enabled switch on their wheelchair and configuring Switch Control on Apple devices, people with limited or no arm movement can have the ability to scan rows and columns to use their iPhone or iPad.

And Apple Pay or Android Pay gives people with dexterity impairments a way to pay without having to fumble with cash or coins.

Features for People with Cognitive Impairments

Apple devices also contain a feature, known as Guided Access, which blocks out certain features of an app in order to present a simplified user interface. This offers a way for users to focus on learning one part of the app before being introduced to another feature.

List makers, such as Reminders on Apple devices, as well as Keep for Android, are good for task modeling behaviors, Lippincott said.

In addition, using photos in contact lists can help users choose whom to call, or know who is calling. Cognitively impaired people may find assistance using video or traditional voice calling when engaged in tasks such as grocery shopping.

Enabling GPS on Google or Apple Maps can help users find their way to places, while Find My iPhone and Android Device Manager can help a family member, friend or caregiver locate a cognitively impaired user.

Features for People with Hearing Impairments

Most smartphones are hearing-aid compatible and come with a compatibility rating. “You want the highest rated hearing-aid compatible phone so you have the best experience and don’t have it buzzing in your ear,” Lippincott said.

Vibration and LED flashing modes when receiving a call, text message or other alert provide visual and physical feedback for a user who is deaf or hard of hearing.

In addition, video calling features like Google Hangouts on Android and FaceTime on Apple devices can be a way for deaf users to communicate with sign language.

Features for People with Vision Impairments

Built-in screen readers, like VoiceOver on Apple or Android’s TalkBack, provide text-to-speech output for people with visual impairments.

Zoom and Magnification Gestures, on the iPhone/iPad and Android devices respectively, magnify the screen to allow for easier reading for users with low vision.

But as great as these features are, there are still unmet needs, Lippincott said. “One of the goals of the WIN! Workshops is to hear directly from the end user,” Lippincott said. “AT&T has been taking feedback from attendees and going back to the manufacturers to tell them about user experiences. Everybody’s disability is unique, so they all have different challenges. We’re learning a lot through these workshops.” The Wireless RERC, through its App Factory project, is helping fund developers to build accessible and assistive apps that can also meet some of these needs.

Upcoming WIN! Workshops

Sept. 18-19, 2015: Corpus Christi, Texas (Holiday Inn Downtown Marina)

Sept. 28-Oct. 1, 2015: Austin, Texas (Renaissance Austin)

To view workshop presentations on the accessibility features of smartphones see the WIN! Workshop page.

Written and Produced by David Terraso in collaboration with the Wireless RERC and Shepherd Center's Assistive Technology Center

The contents of this article and these videos were developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR grant number 90RE5007-01-00). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this article and these videos do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.