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Screen reader accessibility - everything you need to know

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An often-overlooked element of a smartphone is that of the Accessibility menu.

The suite which can be found across Android and Apple alike, helps to overcome potential barriers involving sight, hearing, or mobility.

One of these key tools is the screen reader. But what is a screen reader? Who can it help? How is it set up? and most importantly, how does it work?

In this handy guide we answer all these questions as we show you how to get started with this useful feature.

What is a screen reader?

Known as TalkBack for Android and Voice Over on Apple devices, the feature serves as your phone's screen reader.

It provides spoken or audible feedback while using the phone. As a person taps on an on-screen message or app, it will be read aloud. It can also be used to do things like speak out the time, read news, and surf the web.

Put simply if it’s on the screen it almost certainly can be spoken aloud, Whether on the phone’s home screen or inside an app like Netflix.

Both major software providers have a version of a phone reader, but both have their own approach.

The good news is you won’t need to download a TalkBack app as the software should already be pre-installed.

For this test we are using an iPhone 12 (iOS 14) and Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (Android 11) for this guide, but this type of option can be found on virtually all smart phones.

There is a chance that things will work slightly differently on your specific device, but fundamentally things should be close enough for the guide to lend a helping hand.

Who is a screen reader for?

This option is primarily designed for those people with low vision or who are blind.

When activated the setting changes the way the phone operates. You will require use of multiple fingers and may have to perform certain motions that are not typically required.

If you are a person that needs every facet of the screen read to you, then this feature will do the trick nicely. If, however you just need articles or text messages read aloud, then these extra steps will likely prove frustrating.

You can instead opt for a text-to-speech app which will straightforwardly do the reading without the extra baggage.

There is an iPhone reader pre-installed on Apple devices as there is on many Android handsets.

If one isn’t immediately available on board, you will have plenty to choose from in the Google play store. We would recommend T2S: Text to Voice- Read Aloud.

It is also worth noting that people with physical disabilities affecting their hands may find the Talkback or Voice-Over function to be a challenge.

As mentioned above some gestures require multiple fingers to be used simultaneously.

If you are able to view the screen and have a physical disability which impacts your finger or hand movement, we suggest focusing on read aloud, font size, and magnifier options.

Working in conjunction these options should provide the support you require without having to face the potential pitfalls of TalkBack.

How to set up Talkback on Android

  • From the home screen pull down the notifications bar. Notifications bar screenshot
  • Select the settings icon/phone’s general menu screen
  • scroll down the menu until you come to Accessibility.
  • Find Talkback near the top of the Accessibility list. It may also be called Screen Reader
  • Once inside the Talkback menu switch the toggle to on and accept the permissions request. Insert screenshot of TalkBack activated

How to set up Voice Over on iPhone

  • Press the Settings app which should be on your first home screen.
  • Scroll down the settings menu until you reach Accessibility.
  • Press it and then Voice Over is the top option.
  • Once inside the Voice Over menu you can toggle the setting on. Insert screenshot of TalkBack activated

Talkback on Android: the basics

At the time of writing Android 11 is currently in the process of rolling out. Depending on your telephone type you may not have it yet.

Things will work slightly differently on the latest operating system then they once did on the previous version.

Be sure to check if the new update is waiting for you in the software update section of your phone.

If not already selected, we recommend that you switch to a three-button navigation bar. This places a tab switcher, home, and back button at the bottom of the screen.

This will provide a straightforward way of getting in and out of the things you need without having to worry about extra gestures. It should be particularly useful for those people who cannot fully control hand or finger movements.

While running our Samsung on Android 11 we found that apps were opened by, first tapping to select the app, and then tapping again to open. If this method doesn’t work on your device, double tap your intended app instead.

Selected areas are indicated by a coloured box.

To scroll through menus or screens apply two fingers and swipe in your intended direction. If you want to pull down the notifications bar place two fingers near the top of the screen and then move the fingers down.

When in a setting such as the tab switcher, you can close items by placing two fingers on the screen and swiping up.

How you achieve continuous reading of the screen may depend on your phone and the software it runs. On our Samsung device, this was achieved by swiping up then right or down then right.

This motion brings up a TalkBack menu which offers the option to Read from Next Item. Depending on your device you may be able to start the process by simply shaking your phone.

Look for Shake to Start Continuous Reading within the TalkBack settings. According to Android Help, you can customise gestures to better suit you. This ability can be found within the TalkBack settings menu.

More information on gestures and customisation can be found here. https://support.google.com/accessibility/android/answer/6151827

Voice Over on iPhone: the basics

Pressing on an app once will have its name read aloud. When an app or area of the screen is selected it is encapsulated in a black box. Double tap to open a selected app.

If you would like something read simply tap on the area of the smartphone screen you need, a black box will appear and the segment will be read.

You also have the option for continuous reading of a screen. For example, if you’re on the home screen and want to hear what apps are available on the page simply swipe two fingers up.

The system will then read from the first app to the bottom of the page. When you come across the app that you need, tap the screen with two fingers.

To restart a list from the top swipe two fingers up and things will swiftly begin again from the start of the options.

Alternatively, if you want to start reading from where you left off swipe two fingers down.

To swipe through home menus or up-and-down on a page, apply three fingers to the screen and swipe in the direction you would like to go.

Accessing the app switcher can be achieved by placing one finger at the bottom of the screen and bringing it up. When your finger makes contact you should hear a small beep letting you know the process has started.

As the finger moves upwards you will begin to hear different tones and may also feel the screen as it provides the sensation of gently popping at your finger.

After placing the finger on the screen listen for the starting beep, then move upwards. You’ll be met with another beep or physical sensation but ignore that and keep going. Stop when you hear a short beep or feel the pop.

Once in the apps changer you can swipe through with three fingers, remove a tab by swiping up with three fingers, and exit to the home screen by placing your finger at the bottom and moving it up until you hear the beep or feel the pop.

The control centre can be accessed in a similar fashion, by placing a finger at the top of the screen.

As before listen for the starter tone and then slowly bring the finger down until you hear the next beep or feel a sensation.

Notifications are reached by bringing the finger further down until, yet another beep or physical feedback is met.

If stuck on an action and are unsure how to navigate, simply ask Siri to switch off Voice Over. This will disable the feature and return to standard controls which may initially prove easier.

Upon request Siri can turn the option back on once you’re on more familiar ground.

Alternatively, you can also customise certain gestures to suit your needs. Although there are certain commands that cannot be altered.

Changes can be made by going to the Voice Over menu and selecting Customise Gestures.

Apple also provides a useful guide which lays out all the gestures required for Voice Over. If the handset isn’t running iOS 14 then fear not as the site also has info for previous versions as far back as iOS 12. https://support.apple.com/en-gb/guide/iphone/iph3e2e2281/ios

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