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There are several accessibility features added with Lollipop – version 5 of the Android platform that is now available on many Android models including the Nexus 5. The new accessibility features include a high contrast option that improves contrast of text, a color inversion view, options for color correction to assist people who are color blind, and switch access.

The addition of switch access builds on the keyboard support provided with Android and is a big step forward. Historically Apple’s iOS had more accessibility features such as Assistive Touch and switch access (iOS 7+) — new additions with Android are changing that. Switch access is a feature used by people with limited mobility to allow interaction with the touch screen. People with motor impairments may not have the dexterity or the ability to use a touch screen device. A person who cannot use their hands or who may not have hands can use switch access or other technology. These technologies have long been available on desktop and laptop computers but are relatively new to the mobile space. For example, there have been desktop and laptop systems for many years that allow people to control their computer through sipping or puffing through a tube that acts like a switch. Switches are commonly mounted on power wheelchairs and in other configurations to allow people with disabilities to communicate, interact, and control devices.

Android Switch Access is located under Settings > Accessibility and works with a keyboard or keyboard like device to allow certain keys to be assigned to action such as start auto scan, click, long click, home, back, notification, next, previous, scroll, etc. There are a number of blue tooth switches that can be used and show up to an Android as a keyboard — i.e. they use a keyboard like interface and only have a limited number of keys such as one or two keys.

To get switch access up and running there are a few things that need to be done. The Bluetooth switch or keyboard must be paired under Settings > Bluetooth. You must also enable Switch Access under accessibility — you will also likely want to turn on the “auto scan” option. Auto scan automatically cycles a rectangle around interactive elements on the screen allowing the user to press a switch button once the rectangle is on the desired item. The next step to setup Switch Access is to assign keys to the functions such as Auto Scan and Click (Settings > Accessibility > Switch Access > Settings).

Once this initial setup is complete there are still additional things that must be done to make Switch Access functional. We learned that since the Android thinks the Bluetooth switch is a keyboard it won’t show the on-screen keyboard without a settings change. Since a switch doesn’t provide all the other needed keys you will need to go to Settings > Language and Input > Current Keyboard and check the “hardware show input method” toggle switch to on. Then make sure your desired on-screen keyboard is available, e.g. English US Google Keyboard. This will now allow the Bluetooth switch to work alongside the displayed on-screen keyboard.  Currently, the on-screen keyboard support is sporadic and an external keyboard may be needed.    The switch feature can also be used to cycle among items on the on-screen keyboard. During our testing we also found that the default screen dim device lock feature was too short to use with Switch Access. This should be extended so the screen doesn’t dim and the device lock while you are using switch access. These settings can be set under Settings > Display > Sleep After.

After using switch control on Android for a few minutes you will notice some interesting behavior. For example, Switch Access tends to move visible focus to each element on the screen including those that are not actionable. This is similar to how iOS handles this and this likely indicates that Switch Access is using the same logic that Talkback uses to navigate to highlight content. In the browser (we used Chrome) the address bar is the last control to be reach by Switch Access rather than the first. This seems a little frustrating as the address bar is a place that users would likely want to go first. If a switch control with several keys were available you could assign the switch previous command to a switch and then easily get back to the address bar.

In addition, controls are not grouped, thus auto scan has to go through all controls on the screen. Some switch access programs such as Switch Control on iOS can group controls in such a way that allows the user to move to the desired group and then drill down to reach the desired control. Grouping can save time for switch users. Also of note is that there is no option for point scanning which iOS has. iOS has a feature that moves a vertical and then horizontal bar across the screen allowing the switch access users to target and then interact with interactive content on the screen that doesn’t work with the auto scan feature. For example, many games don’t expose accessibility and thus the auto scan feature cannot locate an interactive elements — the point scan method can make games more accessible. iOS also has a feature to display a menu of interaction choices — no such equivalent menu option is available on Android. Finally, we found that pressing the auto scan button while auto scan was already enabled would perform a click on the item at that location. This is helpful for switch control when only one switch is present as the auto scan button can also be used to click interactive items.

I want to thank Daman Wandke of SSB for assisting with this review of Android Switch Access.