While many people associate assistive technology with specialized devices that are expensive or hard to find, many mainstream technology devices have started supporting accessibility features and built-in assistive technology that can make specialty tools more financially and publicly accessible for all. Smartphones are a great example of this, as they provide access to a wealth of information and provide vital access to communication applications, as well as other assistive technology features for vision loss, hearing loss, and so much more. Here are features to look for when buying a smartphone for users with vision loss, as part of my ongoing Mainstream Technology and Low Vision post series.
Which operating system is better for low vision- iOS or Android?
iOS and Android provide comparable accessibility and assistive technology features for users with low vision, including support for large print, screen magnification, text-to-speech, screen readers, and much more, though these features may vary slightly across device models. Often times, the “best” operating system or platform for a user with low vision is determined by personal preference and experimenting with multiple different tools in an assessment setting or by working with a Teacher of the Visually Impaired, assistive technology specialist, vocational rehabilitation specialist, or other technology professional
My personal preference for smartphones is Android because I like that I can customize the display of my device with third-party applications, including custom launcher and keyboard applications, and that I can connect my phone to Chromecast for screen mirroring. My current phone is a Google Pixel model because I like the way the Pixel phones feel in my hand and that I can fit them comfortably in the pockets of my clothing.
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While some people with low vision prefer to use larger screens so that a large amount of information can be displayed on the screen at once, others may prefer to use smaller screen sizes that fit into their field of view more easily or that are more portable. Personally, I prefer a smaller screen size so that I can hold my phone with one hand, as I find smaller devices more comfortable to type on and easier to hold when I am making a call.
Using highly visual applications such as GPS apps or multiple applications can drain a device’s battery quickly, so users should take into consideration how often the device will need to be charged and how they will charge it during the day if their device’s battery does not accommodate for a full day’s worth of use. Portable battery packs or cases can be a great tool for charging cell phones when away from an outlet, but they should not be placed inside a backpack or purse when they are in use as they can pose a fire hazard or risk of overheating.
Unlike computers that can support external storage, smartphone users are generally limited to their device’s internal storage capacity. Large applications or files such as videos can fill up storage space quickly and devices that have limited storage space often have a slower speed or may have difficulty with software updates. I recommend checking the current storage capacity of a computer or other device to determine how much storage someone will likely use, and consider using a cloud backup software such as iCloud or Google Photos to back up full resolution copies of images and videos.
Another strategy for ensuring a user’s device storage does not fill up quickly is to regularly clear the cache of applications like web browsers, email, or social media applications to remove pre-loaded images or files that are no longer needed. This can help a lot with improving the storage capacity and battery life of a smartphone without deleting essential files.
I use my smartphone camera for a lot of tasks that aren’t just taking pictures- I use it as a makeshift video magnifier, as a way to get help with visual assistance applications, to read text out loud, and to scan in documents. For this reason, it’s important that users choose a high resolution camera that can take clear photos and allows the user to zoom in on additional details. The smartphone camera is one of the most important features for users with low vision and it is worth upgrading/paying extra for a high quality camera.
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Support for GPS applications
GPS applications are another essential tool for independent living and can provide several helpful features for orientation and mobility. Some GPS applications are exclusive to one platform (such as Apple Maps for iOS) while others are available across multiple platforms. I have an entire post about how I use GPS applications like Google Maps while living on my college campus linked below.
Peripheral accessories for smartphones
Accessories like cases, styluses, wireless earbuds, and switches can make smartphones easier to use for long periods of time, though these accessories are often specific to one device brand or model- for example, AirPods can only be used for Apple devices.
Admittedly, this isn’t the deciding factor in choosing a smartphone with low vision, but I wanted to ensure that I would be able to easily locate my phone on any surface and that I could easily distinguish my phone from others. My current phone is a sage green color, which is a different color than the most common surfaces that I rest my phone on, including counters in my house, my duvet cover, desks at work and school, and the inside of my backpack/purse. Since it once took me ten minutes to find a white phone that I had left on a white counter, I have tried to choose unique colors for devices whenever possible.
Low vision accessibility settings for smartphones
I have several posts on my website about how to make smartphones accessible for low vision that are linked below for more in-depth reading.
- Low Vision Accessibility Settings For Android Phones
- Make Any Android Smartphone Accessible For $20
- How To Create A Custom Android Home Screen For Low Vision
- How To Make iPad Accessible for Low Vision
- Enabling Temporary Accessibility Settings For iPad
Summary of features to consider when buying a smartphone with low vision
- The “best” operating system for a user with low vision is determined by personal preference, as iOS and Android have comparable accessibility features
- Device screen size- some users may prefer a smaller screen for increased portability, while others may prefer a larger screen for displaying information
- Battery life- highly visual applications can drain battery life quickly
- Storage capacity- what types of files will be stored on the device?
- Device camera- important for using visual assistance apps and scanning in documents
- Support for GPS applications and orientation and mobility features
- Peripheral accessory support- some devices may be restricted to a specific operating system/device model
- Device color- can assist with making the device easier to locate/identify
- Available accessibility settings on the device/operating system for low vision