I’m switching from Android as a blind user, and it is not due to a lack of accessibility

Dear Readers,

Although the majority reading these words mostly have a visual impairment, I write

this article from my desires to make it inclusive, rather than exclusive. Within the ranks

of many technology enthusiasts, there is a battle raging. With silence yet a swift course,

the notions of the "Android VS. IOS" debate is rooted within decades of side-taking and

teeth gnashing over previous technologies. OS/2 vs. Windows, PC VS. Mac, Broadband VS.

Cable… The sands of time have withstood many quakes created by those who are loyal to

their decisions and passionate about their thoughts.

In the United States alone, 66.5% of people own a smartphone, gathered from data

collected by Comm Score in Q1 2014. That is a figure of over 150 million, and it leaves

the nation in a stage where the growth of these phones will slow, creating a need for more

budget and low-end phones. Just as you could pick up $15 feature phones near the time of

their ending, so will you be able to do the same with smart, internet-connected devices.

Around the world, over 1.1 billion people use smartphones, a number which will

reach 60% (about 4 billion) by 2019. Android leads this domination, with a 51% market

share in the United States and over 80% worldwide. Even tablets, which were most recently

upheld by the iPad, are being taken over by android shipments.

These statistics are fine and dandy, however they mean nothing when it comes to

the context of my problem. While Android enjoys a huge lead worldwide and even in the US,

this is completely flipped inside the blind community. Though we have enjoyed a very heavy

smartphone penetration rate for a long time thanks to prior platforms such as Symbian and

Windows Mobile, it is the death of these devices that has led to such a one-sided world

today. Rather than waiting years for a transition to occur between the time of Nokia and

more modern smartphone operating systems, the older technology fell away quickly and

became unsupported within the matter of a few years. Apple was the first to capitalize on

this opportunity by creating VoiceOver, a fully functional screen reader which could have

access to all features of the iPhone product.

the iPhone: A Blind Person's Dream

immediately after the release of this screen reader, people began developing a complex

with Apple devices. Not only was VoiceOver usable, it was perfect and even featured

advanced functions, such as Braille Display support. It had its own glitches, however

these would be resolved with time, though this is slowing. More on that later,. iOS was

like the communist dictator of the blind mobile access solution world. It offered great

promises, a safe and easy to use environment and best of all devices which were free of

both bloatware and supported for a long time. This was unlike either Symbian or Windows

Mobile, as they faced archaic problems of updates and modified interfaces.

Apple's VoiceOver came at the right time, and I might even add that this could have been a

strategic plan on their part. They had a chance to add it when the iPhone first came in

2007, however by waiting 3 years, the death of those other platforms was insured. No

doubt, people would flock to Apple just as vultures feast upon the dead bodies of prior

phone operating systems. As these became stripped of all of the applications developers

supported, they had no other choice.

Enter Android, the Zombie of the Dead

Android also came at the right time. As the world was threatened by an operating

system that was imposing draconian regulations and a walled garden, a solution had to be

made that was not only open source, but also offered flexibility both for manufacturers

and consumers alike. This was Android, and it upheld the legacies created by its

forerunners. Skinned interfaces? There were a million of those. Dropped devices? Of

course, since companies could crank out millions of sub-models of one phone and stop

caring about their lifecycle. As long as there were many phones and options, people would

buy them. Today, Google is trying its hardest to tighten down the flexibility of device

makers, so even that world is shifting.

Fragmentation, Accessibility Style

Android did receive its first screen reader, called Talkback, in mid to late 2010.

About a year after the platform's introduction, Talkback was a disaster. Contrary to

VoiceOver, which came 3 years after the iPhone's release, it lacked web browsing, and only

provided basic access to apps and phone features. You could not even use a touch screen,

just a physical keyboard with a D-pad. Complaints about Android's imperfect accessibility

rightfully surfaced, and this gave Apple lovers and the company to climb even higher to

the top. Android did introduce touch screen support in 2011 with version 4.0, and it was

improved to include more gestures in 2012 with 4.1 Jellybean. In 2013, KitKat (v4.4) gave

a better handling of web content, using the Chrome browser's engine. D-pads are, of

course, no longer a requirement.

The first Problem: Apple's stronghold on Perception Change.

the damage has been done. By 2014, a WebAim survey proved that a strong majority of

blind users used iPhones, with Android usage raging from 9-15%. Determining this value is very difficult and can be subjective depending on the sample, as those who have some vision have a different time with Android (a magnifier vs. a screen reader). Even still, this is

quite opposite from the rest of the world. Not only did Apple capitalize on the death of

prior blindness tech the right way, they also indirectly benefited from Google's slow

turnaround of accessibility change. Once that thread started though, the Android OS became

substantially better, to the point where I had no problems adapting as my primary platform

in 2013. This was sadly not the case for the majority of those who tried doing the same.

a well-known critic of Android is Chris Hofstader, and I greatly respect his work. He

took the Android-iOS debate to an entirely new level, stirring up quite a shake within

both camps. IOS users used his articles to prove that they are right, and Apple is the

best (and perhaps only) choice for those who are blind. Android users shook sticks at him,

calling him a traitor and Apple fan for pointing out these flaws.

Even though I could go down the road of how I define Accessibility, I will not do so.

I consider usability and accessibility different, thus to me a Utopian world of 100%

accessibility does not exist, nor will it ever. The problem is that to most of the blind,

it does. Apple has created a bubble, where 70% of apps are accessible and usable. They

built an elaborate system of touch gestures, some of which use 3 and 4-fingers to

accomplish a task. This is quite opposite of the sighted world, where only 1 or 2 fingered

gestures exist. Features such as starting and stopping a track anywhere from within iOS

only using a 2-finger double tap are not available to them. Furthermore, the walled garden

nature of iOS has generated apps which adhere to strict guidelines when it comes to


When something comes along which is radically different, people's perceptions are

altered. Android provides basic touch gestures, which use one or two fingers and are not

complicated. These do not offer additional features that the sighted are allowed access

to, such as a screen curtain that makes the display go blank. There is no Braille support

out of the box. Apps are given more freedom, at a cost of standards which are not always

followed. This creates a problem of unlabeled items and elements on the screen. Because of

the false hope and simplicity provided by Apple, the blind are unwilling to even give

Android a balanced view, one where their experiences are not shaped by prior events. The

comfort zone is always Apple, and Apple it remains.

My Android Usage: An Excellent Experience

When I began using Android, I absolutely loved what I saw. No longer was I tied to

iTunes' horrible interface. I now had access to SD cards, and multiple text-to-speech

synthesizers. Best of all, I could flash roms and tinker with my phone, just like during

the days of Windows Mobile. I started with a Droid 2 Global on Gingerbread, eventually

making it to my current Galaxy S4. During that time I witnessed firsthand the changes

which took place within the Android world. All of my learning I did on my own. Sometimes

it took countless sighted eyes to help me restore my phone after I messed up, usually by

flashing a more accessible rom (or software) and failing. The gestures never bothered me,

as I found them quite easy to adapt to, even if they were a slight learning curve.

I even wrote up an article about the Galaxy S4, and why it is the best-choice phone

for those who want to use a screen reader. I made a case for the galaxy and called it

a great phone.

I used it daily for social networking, e-mails, some productivity through quickoffice,

and GPS navigation around my campus. I found my experience smooth and fluid, and enjoyed

the different interface elements to Android compared to my iPhone. When something was

unlabeled, I would reach out to developers or label the buttons myself, both of which lead

to apps becoming a lot more usable. XM Player, an app that plays .mod and .xm/.sm3 file

formats, became accessible after I wrote to the developer and gave him a guide on how to

implement the right coding practices.

The Reason I'm Switching: A Lack of Support

Here it is, the meat of my article. Because of the problems and history I outlined

previously, there is chaos within the world of visually impaired Android users. The

Eyesfree list, created by Google's accessibility team for Android-related discussions, is

a disaster. It is not moderated, and people flame each other about everything from the

competition to the choice of phone usage. This even goes beyond Apple and Google. I often

see posts which debate whether a skinned version of a phone (such as my Galaxy S4) is

worth it over a pure Google experience, like a Nexus 4. These go on for days, if not weeks

sometimes. Thanks to differing definitions of what is accessible and usable, people cannot

agree on one solution that fits everyone, since each see apps or devices with their own


the worse part of this stems from the perception problem. I am constantly asked by

people on Twitter and other sources whether I enjoy Android, and sometimes told that I'm

crazy for surviving with such an inadequate phone. I am belittled by others who find Apple

the great communist oz of the blind world, ready to jump into their folds because of the

perfect accessibility. While some have begun acknowledging Apple's slowly deflating helium

balloon caused by the bugs introduced in iOS 7, not many realize just how vulnerable

relying on one company makes us. If at any point we are placed on the backburner, we lose

an entire infrastructure of accessibility devices. Should a bug in iOS 8 seriously impair

the use of functions, we are screwed. Let's not even start talking about Braille support

in iOS 7 — since while Android might not support Grade 2 or some applications, Apple's

inconsistent use of buttons and weird Braille typing scheme is certainly nothing to


What We Need: More Documentation, Less Fighting

I will be switching from Android, although my work promoting and writing about the

platform is far from over. I wanted this article to serve as a poster, a warning to just

what we are creating here. Many of you will think I'm stupid or crazy because I am leaving

something based on peer pressure. This couldn't be further from the truth, because the

amount of emotional tiring I have to go through just because I'm using something different

is insane. Worse yet, I do not even have the support of other users who use the same

platform with helping squash some of these biases. While a few exist, most blind people

are sucked back into the iOS world for perhaps the same reasons I am. I urge you: The next

time you diss Android because of "it's not accessible", try it before commenting. If you

did walk away feeling unsatisfied, know that it is only you, as one person, who had that

unique experience, and it is entirely possible that the bias which is now implanted within

your mind is causing the problem. Perhaps the treasures of another operating system are

only revealed to you until you dig deeper to find them and uncover them using your own

map. </P>

<P> there are several wonderful people who have created podcasts and written about Android

accessibility. Unfortunately, the resistance of the blind community towards those who own

such devices, along with Google's own non-existent documentation practices make it

impossible for new users to properly learn Android. For those few who do and stick with

it, it creates a feeling of isolation and loneliness, knowing that whenever Android and

iOS are brought up in a discussion circle, the latter will most likely win without any

considerations and only closed-minded thinking.

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