Google: Full Speed Ahead
For years now, Google has been seen, for good reasons I’d say, as moving very slowly with accessibility. TalkBack would get updates in fits and starts, but otherwise didn’t seem to have people that could devote much time to it. Starting a few years ago with multi-finger gestures, TalkBack development began picking up steam, and to my surprise and delight and relief, it has not slowed down. They seem to spend as much time resolving issues as they spend creating new features and experiences. This was highlighted in the new TalkBack update that began rollout on January 9.
On that day, there was a TalkBack update from Google (not Samsung) which bumped the version to TalkBack 13.1. New in this version is the ability to use your HID Braille display over USB. Support for Bluetooth will come when Android has Bluetooth drivers for them. That alone is worth an update. But there’s more! New in TalkBack is the ability to spell check messages, notes, and documents. That alone was worth two major iOS updates to complete. But there’s more! Now, we can use actions the same way iOS does. That alone would have been worth several updates. Now, we have many more languages available for Braille users. We can now switch the direction of panning buttons. On the Focus braille display, the right whiz-wheel type buttons now pan, giving two ways to pan text. We can now move from one container to another, just like in iOS.
Now, I know that was a lot of info, in just a minor version bump. So let’s unpack things a bit. I’ll describe the new features, and why they impress me a lot more than Apple’s latest offerings.
HID Braille over USB
When TalkBack’s Braille support was shown off last year, there was a lot of talk about the displays that were left out. Displays from Humanware, which use the Braille HID standard, were not included on the list. That was mainly because there are no Android Bluetooth drivers for the displays, meaning TalkBack can’t do anything with them, over Bluetooth. However, with this update, people who have these displays, like the NLS EReader from Humanware, can plug their displays into their phone through a USB-C cable. This is made much easier because the displays work through USB-C anyway, and use them with TalkBack. This is made even simpler because Android phones already use USB-C, so you don’t need an adaptor to plug your display into your phone.
This demonstrates two things, to me. First, the TalkBack team is willing to do as much as they can to support these new displays and the new standard. I’m sure they’re doing all they can to work with the Bluetooth team to get a driver made into Android 14 or 15. Second, even if the wider Android team doesn’t have something ready, the accessibility team will do whatever they can to get something to work. Since Braille is important, they released USB support for these displays now, rather than waiting for Bluetooth support later. But when they get Bluetooth support, adding that support for these displays should be easier and quicker.
Now, TalkBack’s Braille support isn’t perfect, as we’ll see soon, but when you’re walking down a path, steps are what matters. And walking forward slowly is so much better than running and falling several times and getting bugs and dirt all over you.
Spellchecking is finally here!
One day, I want to be able to use my phone as my only computing device. I would like to use it for playing games, writing blog posts like this one, web browsing, email, note-taking, everything at work, coding, learning to code, and Linux stuff. While iOS’ VoiceOver has better app support from the likes of Ulysses and such, Android is building what could ultimately provide many developers a reason to support accessibility. Another brick was just put into place, the ability to spell check.
This uses two new areas of TalkBack’s “reading controls”, a new control from which to check for spelling errors, and the new Actions control to correct the misspelling. It works best if you start from the top of a file or text field. You switch the reading control to the “Spell check” option, swipe up or down to find a misspelled word, then change the control to “actions” and choose a correction. iOS users may then say “Well yeah I can do that too”. But that’s the point. We can now even more clearly make the choice of iPhone or Android, not based on “Can I get stuff done?” but on “How much do I want to do with my phone?” and “How much control do I want over the experience?” This is all about leveling the field between the two systems, and letting blind people decide what they like, more than what they need.
Actions become instant
From what I have seen, the iPhone has always had actions. VoiceOver users could always delete an email, dismiss notifications, and reschedule reminders with the Actions rotor, where a user can swipe up or down with one finger to select an option, then double tap to activate that option. This allows blind people to perform swipe actions, like deleting a message, liking a post, boosting a toot, or going to a video’s channel. Android had them too, they were just in an Actions menu. Unless you assigned a command to it, you had to open the TalkBack menu, double tap on Actions, find the action you wanted, and then double tap. Here are the steps for a new Android user, who has not customized the commands, to dismiss a notification through the Actions menu:
- Find the notification to be dismissed
- Tap once with three fingers to open the TalkBack menu.
- Double tap with one finger to open the Actions menu.
- Swipe right with one finger to the “Dismiss” option.
- Double tap with one finger.
Now, with the new Actions reading control, here’s how the same user will dismiss a notification:
- Find the notification.
- Swipe up with one finger to the “dismiss” option.
- Double tap with one finger.
This action is one that users perform hundreds of times per day. This essential task has been taken down from five steps, to three. And, with TalkBack’s excellent focus management, once you dismiss a notification, TalkBack immediately begins speaking the next one. So to dismiss the next one, you just swipe up with one finger, then double tap again. It’s effortless, quick, and is delightfully responsive.
On Android, since actions have been rather hidden for users, developers haven’t always put them into their app. Of course, not every app needs them, but it would help apps like YouTube, YouTube Music, Facebook, GoodReads, PocketCasts, Google Messages, WhatsApp, Walmart, and Podcast Addict, to name a few. It will take some time for word of this new ability to spread around the Android developer space. For Android developers who may be reading this, please refer to this section on adding accessibility actions. That entire page is a great resource for creating accessible apps. It describes things clearly and gives examples of using those sections in code.
Interestingly, the other method of accessing actions is still around. If you have an app, like Tusky, which has many actions, and you want to access one at the end of the list, you can still open the Actions menu, find the action you want, and double tap. In Android, we have options.
New Languages and Braille features
One of the critical feedback from users of Braille support is that there were only about four languages supported. Now, besides a few like Japanese and Esperanto, we have many languages supported. One can add new Braille languages or remove them, like Braille tables in iOS, except everyone knows what a language, in this instance, means, but very few know what a Braille table is. That goes into the sometimes very technical language that blindness companies use in their products, from “radio button” to “verbosity” which I should write about in the future. For now, though, Google named its stuff right, in my opinion.
In the advanced screen of Braille settings, you can now reverse the direction of panning buttons. I never liked this, but if someone else does, it’s there. You can also have Braille shown on the screen, for sighted users or developers.
For now, though, if you choose American English Braille, instead of Unified English Braille, you can only use Grade one Braille, and not Grade two. However, computer Braille is now an option, so you can finally read NLS BARD Braille books, or code in Braille, on your phone. This brings textual reading a step closer on Android!
Faster and cleaner
Speed matters. Bug fixes matter. In TalkBack 13.1, Google gave us both. TalkBack, especially while writing in the Braille onscreen keyboard, is somehow even more snappy than before. That bug where if you paused speech, TalkBack from then on couldn’t read passed one line of a multi-line item, is gone. TalkBack now reads the time, all the time, when you wake up your phone as the first thing it says.
Meanwhile, if I have VoiceOver start reading a page down from the current position, it stops speaking for no reason. iOS feels old and sluggish, and I don’t feel like I can trust it to keep up with me. And I just want Apple to focus on fixing its bugs rather than working on new features. They spent resources on technology like that DotPad they were so excited about, but no blind people have this device, while their tried and true Braille display support suffers. Yeah, I’m still a bit mad about that.
The key takeaway from this section is that perhaps real innovation is when you can push out features without breaking as much stuff as you add. For blind people, a screen reader isn’t just a cool feature, or a way to look kind in the media, or a way to help out a small business with cool new tech. It’s a tool that had better be ready to do its job. Blind people rely on this technology. It’s not a fun side project, it’s not a brain experiment. It’s very practical work, that requires care for, often, people who are not like you.
Luckily, Google has blind people that work for them. And, if the past year has shown an example, they’re finally getting the resources, or attention, they need to really address customer feedback and provide blind Android users with what will make Android a great system to use.