Technology now a days has gotten very modern for blind and visually impaired users. There is mostly no need for software to be specially installed on devices to work. Most devices now have accessibility features built in, and on this post, we will guide you on how to turn these on for a few devices in the mainstream market. Before we do that, though, here is a little explanation and background that may be useful.
What is Accessibility?
Accessibility, to put it simply, is the user friendliness of a device or an app on a computer or mobile device. For example, if you hear, “This is not accessible to (Disability group),” it basically means, that group cannot use the features of a device or app. This can be for blind and visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing, or people with motor disabilities. The list can go on. In this post, we’re focusing on the blindness specific features, which, in this case, is a screen reader. A screen reader is basically a piece of software that reads the screen to a user. It is probably a trick definition, but that is essentially what it is. A screen reader can be controlled using a keyboard, or special gestures if the device has a touch screen. You can also connect special devices called “braille displays,” to receive the output of the screen reader in braille. Essentially, this device is a screen, but for blind users, consisting of one line of braille cells. Most of these displays will let you operate the computer using its built-in controls, but remember that in order for the display to work, a screen reader MUST be used in conjunction with it. Screen readers talk to the user using synthetic voices, or as many people call it, “That robot man or woman.” Think of it this way. When you talk to your phone, there is not a human inside it talking back to you when you give it commands like, “What time is it?” It is a voice that has been built into the phone’s operating system. The same philosophy applies to screen readers. All this will be covered in future posts. For now, let’s focus on how to turn this screen reading feature on and off.
Personal Computers and Macs
PC’s and Mac computers both have different built-in screen readers. On the Windows side, the screen reader is called, “Narrator.” On the Macintosh side, the screen reader is called, “VoiceOver.” In fact, VoiceOver is on all Apple products such as the iPhone, iPad, etc.
Most PC’s come with Microsoft windows installed. NOTE: you can download other screen readers onto these computers, but this post will only focus on the built-in screen reader called, “Narrator.” To turn on Narrator, You can do one of the following:
- Press the “Windows,” and “Enter” keys at the same time on your keyboard. (If you have the 2018 Windows update and above, you add the “Control” key to this combination.)
- On a tablet, you can press the “Windows,” and “Volume up” buttons at the same time. Most tablets have these buttons on one of their sides. The “Volume” buttons should be below the “Windows” button.
If done correctly, you should hear, “Starting Narrator.” If you see the narrator screen pop up, but you do not hear sound, check your speaker settings to ensure everything is turned up.
Apple Macintosh Computers
On an Apple Mac computer, VoiceOver is the built-in screen reader. The Mac family of products do not have other screen readers you can download and use as an alternative like the Windows side. To turn on VoiceOver, on a Macbook 2015 and below, you can press the “Command” and “F5” keys at the same time. If you have a MacBook 2016 and up, you press the “Command” key, and press the “Touch ID Power” button three times. The reasoning on why it is called “Touch ID Power,” is because the “Power” button also serves as a fingerprint censor to unlock your mac. If you have Mac OS Sierra and above installed, you can also tell Siri to, “Turn on VoiceOver.”
Just like the personal computer side, screen readers for the blind also exist on modern smartphones, such as the Apple iPhone and Android devices. These screen readers can also be controlled using the phone’s built-in touchscreen, or you can connect a bluetooth keyboard or a braille display to control it. Please note, these steps on the following sections also apply to both companies’ tablet families, such as the iPad, or Google/Samsung tablets.
To turn on VoiceOver on the iPhone, you can do one of the following:
- You can tell Siri to turn on VoiceOver by saying, “Turn on Voiceover.”
- Go to “Settings.” From there, tap “General,” then “Accessibility.” If you have IOS 13 and above, you do not need to tap “General,” since “Accessibility” was moved to the main part of the “Settings” app. Locate “VoiceOver” under the “Vision” heading, and tap on it. Tap on the switch to turn it on.
- You can press the “Home” or “Side” buttons three times in a row when setting up a phone for the first time. Depending on the phone you have, the “Home” button is found on the iPhone 8 and below, while the “Side” button is found on the iPhone 10 and above. You can also assign this shortcut to turn on VoiceOver by going into the “Accessibility” settings as described above, but instead of going to “VoiceOver,” you locate “Accessibility Shortcut,” or, “Triple Click Home.” Again, this depends on the version of IOS your phone is running.
In all these cases, you should hear, “VoiceOver on,” Followed by the prompt if you are sure you want to enable this feature. It will modify your gestures slightly, so here is a small list to get started.
- Swipe left or right with one finger: Moves the screen in those directions, depending which gesture was used.
- Double Tap: (Tap twice on the screen with one finger) Select an item. This is equivalent to a single tap.
- You can also drag your finger around the screen, and anything that is under your finger such as text, button, etcetera on the screen will be spoken.
Android can have two built-in screen readers, depending on what phone you have. If you have a Google Pixel or an LG phone, for instance, this will come with a screen reader called “TalkBack.” If you have a Samsung device, it comes with a screen reader called “Voice Assistant.” Both screen readers are almost identical, except for different gestures for certain tasks, depending on which screen reader is used.
How to make Android phones “talk back” to you.
To enable TalkBack, do one of the following:
- When setting up an Android phone for the first time, tap and hold two fingers on the screen until you feel a vibration, or hear a beep. You should then hear, “Keep holding to turn on Accessibility mode.” Keep holding those two fingers on the screen until TalkBack speaks again.
- Once a phone is set up, go to the “Settings” app, then tap “Accessibility.” Some phones will have the Accessibility” option under “Device,” depending on the model of the phone. Find “TalkBack” under the “Vision” heading, and tap the switch to turn it on. In both of these situations, you will be presented with a tutorial, which will show you the basic gestures you will need to navigate the operating system. This tutorial can be skipped and done at a later time, but that is not recommended, especially if you are turning on TalkBack for the first time. The same three gestures that were listed above on the “iPhone” section apply here as well.
- If you wish to turn TalkBack on using a shortcut, you can do so by going into the “Settings” app, tapping “Accessibility,” (“Device,” then “Accessibility” on some phones) and locating a setting called, “Accessibility Shortcut,” or, “Volume Key Shortcut” on some devices. Tap this option, and enable the shortcut. Select “TalkBack” from the services list, found under the “Shortcut Service” item. It is also recommended to enable the, “Turn on within locked screen” option, so if a phone screen is locked, the user can still enable TalkBack. Once this is configured, you hold down both “volume up” and “Volume Down” buttons for three seconds, or until you hear the prompt, “TalkBack on.” You can do the same command to turn it off as well.
Voice Assistant is a Samsung device optimized screen reader. Most of their phones have this equipped and replaces TalkBack. However, if you wish to use TalkBack instead, you can download it from the Google Play Store. The same steps to turn on TalkBack apply to Voice Assistant as well. This screen reader also has a tutorial you can either complete or skip, before proceeding to set up the phone, or when launching the screen reader for the first time.
The Chromebook from Google has become quite popular, especially in school settings. But do not fear! This too, has a built-in screen reader you can turn on to use the device. To toggle the ChromeVox screen reader, Press “Control,” “Alt,” and “Z” at the same time. This is a toggle, so if you press it again, it turns off. If you have a touchscreen version of a chromebook, you will hold down both “Volume Up” and “Down” keys for five seconds until you hear ChromeVox speak. Here are some basic commands to get you started. On a touch screen version, the commands used on iOS and Android apply here as well. For the keyboard side, the “Search” key will be your best friend. Use this key in conjunction with one of the following keys to move around the Chrome OS interface. To move to the right one screen element, press “Search” with “Right Arrow.” To move left one item, Press “Search” with “Left Arrow.” To select an item, press “Search” with “Space.”
Not only do smartphones and PC’s have screen readers built in, but there are also an array of smart televisions and wearable devices that also have these. No worries, if you have a smart TV, don’t panic. It will not sing about it being ready to go on adventures, or if you want to be its friend, or even to hold it close so it can play with you when you turn on the screen reader. (TV Teddy, you are the creepiest teddy bear out there, just saying.) These screen readers include: VoiceOver for Apple TV and watch, Voice View for Amazon fire TV sticks, and TalkBack for Google and Samsung wearables.
What happens next?
Now that you have learned to enable the screen readers on many mainstream devices, you are now equipped to let a blind or visually impaired person use these! Or, you can pull a prank on your friends to see if they can disable the screen reader. (DISCLAIMER: We do NOT condone this behavior on a daily basis.) We hope this miniguide was helpful, and feel free to email us if you have any questions! Happy screen reading!