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Note: There have been updates since this post

The latest version of Android Jelly Bean version 4.2 was recently released. We had been hearing about the beta and the exciting features — over the Thanksgiving holiday I noticed the update was available for my Nexus 7 tablet and downloaded it. There are some very nice accessibility features that our community will be very excited about.

The main new features are

  • A magnification feature
  • New TalkBack gestures including the ability to turn on TalkBack from anywhere without sight

For many people with low vision the lack of a magnification feature meant Android phones were simply not an option. This new feature which also works when TalkBack is running is a huge improvement. I want to thank the Android team for listening to customer feedback and implementing these new features. I haven’t tried the TalkBack updates on older versions of the Android platform but I suspect the magnification features requires the latest version of the OS. Below are details about each feature. A demonstration on the new accessibility features is provided on YouTube.

Magnification Feature

Users can perform a triple tap with one finger to enable magnification. Then two fingers can be used to move around the screen. Using two fingers to move around the screen is much easier than the three finger option on iOS. Occasionally I found that the screen with multiple pages scrolled when using the two finger magnification movement – likely one of my fingers was not detected. A single finger swipe can still be used in magnification mode to scroll to other pages of a screen.

There is a nice temporary magnification feature which allows the user to triple tap one finger and hold to temporary enable magnification. The magnification remains active while you drag your finger around the screen. When the finger is released it disappears. This is really nice to provide a magnified peak at things when enlarged. Many users with low vision tend to switch in and out of different modes such as magnified mode or a speech mode as the situation dictates.

The magnification option is not enabled by default and must be turned on from the magnification option in the Settings > Accessibility > Magnification.

TalkBack Gesture Updates

There is a new TalkBack gesture to enable TalkBack from anywhere while the phone is on — including the lock screen. This feature is not a toggle and only turns TalkBack on. A toggle feature would be really nice for users with visual impairments or for those testing to easily choose the feature they want. The gesture to enable TalkBack is a two finger tap and hold and must be performed after pressing the Power button after the sound is indicated for the power off menu. Continue to hold the gesture until TalkBack announces that accessibility has been enabled — if you release it too soon it will indicated accessibility has been canceled. It would be great if the Android team would allow the triple tap that is used for Magnification to also be used to enable TalkBack if the user desires.

Several new gestures have been added to TalkBack — one is a reading feature to allow the user to read from the current item to the end or read from the top of the screen to the end. This feature is called the “continuous reading menu”. These gestures were not enabled on my updated tablet by default as they may conflict with some previous commands (e.g. down and right to activate recent apps). These shortcuts can be managed from the settings feature under TalkBack. To manage these settings go to Settings > TalkBack > Settings > Manage Shortcut Gestures (the Settings button in TalkBack is located at the top right corner of the screen). The other new gesture is a global menu which seems to contain items such as “repeat last utterance” and “spell last utterance”.

These new menu options work a little different from how you might expect and require multiple gestures to reach the desired items. This interaction makes them a little awkward to use. For example, on my device the gesture “down and to the right” is used to enable continuous reading. The user would perform the gesture down and then right. Then he/she is instructed to touch and hold the desired item. The user must then locate where to start and then hold that item at which time a menu is presented. Locating the desired item is difficult without vision — dragging causes the menu appear to on the item you initially touched. Once the desired item is selected and the hold gesture is performed a menu appears in a circle. The user drags his/her finger around to the desired option in manner similar to a knob. When the finger is released the action is perform (e.g. reading from the current item to the bottom of the screen).

Conclusion

These new accessibility enhancements are very welcome additions to the accessibility features on Android. There are still many things that can be done to increase the level of accessibility of the Android platform including providing color inversion and better control to turn of TalkBack. We thank the Android team for listening to the community feedback and look forward to more enhancements. For more information, refer to the Android Accessibility Features page.