How Innovations Help People With Disabilities Use Tech

Android lets you control your phone with your face

Key Takeaways

  • A growing number of innovations are aimed at helping people with disabilities use technology. 
  • The latest Android 12 beta has a feature that lets you control your Android phone using facial expressions. 
  • Manufacturers need to do a better job of taking into account the needs of the disabled, advocates say.
A person in a wheel chair using a smartphone and laptop computer at a cafe.

Maskot Bildbyrå / Getty Images

A wave of software and hardware innovations is allowing people with disabilities to better control their smartphones. 

The latest Android 12 beta has a feature that lets you control your Android phone using different facial expressions. The technology could help people who have trouble using their hands.

"Without built-in accessibility features for people with disabilities, they cannot interact seamlessly with smartphones," Meenakshi Das, a software engineer at Microsoft and disability advocate, told Lifewire in an email interview.

"Take the example of a person who is blind. Smartphones are inherently visual. However, software such as screen-readers which convert text on the screen to audio output or braille makes it accessible for blind users to use smartphones."

Watching You

Google is getting on board with the accessibility trend. The Android Accessibility Suite included with Android 12 beta 4 contains a new 'Camera Switches' feature that allows the front camera to see if you’re looking at the screen and recognize facial gestures.

You can even use facial expressions to activate functions on your Android phone. For instance, you can open your mouth to bring up the notifications panel or raise your eyebrows to return to the home screen.

Despite the changes to Android, some disability advocates say there’s still a long way to go before everyone has equal ability to use tech. 

"With the technology that exists today, any app can be made accessible for persons with disabilities," Michael Hingson, the chief vision officer at accessibility startup accessiBe, who is visually impaired himself, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Both iOS and Android now contain technologies that verbalize their screens. Unfortunately, both systems then leave it to app developers to use, or not, the facilities available to make apps accessible."

Manufacturers need to do a better job of taking into account the needs of the disabled, Hingson said. 

"Without software that verbalizes what appears on a screen and also takes into account that a blind person must use different techniques to interact with a touch screen, without software that makes the phone experience inclusive, any phone today is simply a rectangular box with a glass front," Hingson said.

"Persons with other disabilities also can have interaction issues. For example, a person with epilepsy that encounters an app with blinking elements might go into a seizure due to the blinking cursor."

Apps That Help

There are many built-in smartphone operating system features to aid the disabled. For example, iPhones have a screen-reader called Voiceover, and Android phones have similar software named Talkback. 

Man with congenital blindness using assistive listening to hear his text messages.

Huntstock / Getty Images

"These built-in screen readers have been a game-changer for blind users," Das said. "Since decades ago, such assistive technologies used to come separate and not bundled with smartphones."

Dictation software is helpful for users who have motor disabilities such as cerebral palsy, Das pointed out. Speech recognition systems are improving rapidly and can provide an excellent speech-to-text experience, she said.

"Even voice assistants such as Siri are greatly used by people with motor disabilities," Das said. "For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, there is functionality available to pair your hearing aid with your iPhone too."

In addition to these built-in features, numerous apps assist people with various disabilities. For example, the Dragon Dictation app converts speech to text, and magnification apps help users with low vision.

Researchers are working to make phones even more accessible for the disabled to use. A recently published paper evaluates the accessibility of prototyping software that allows user interface designers to create temporary mock-ups to show clients or test with users. 

"With the technology that exists today, any app can be made accessible for persons with disabilities."

One promising area of research is tactile communications aimed at helping those who are deaf and blind and rely on a sense of touch. An engineering team recently designed a touch-sensing glove that can "feel" pressure and other tactile stimuli.

"What is really important since smartphones are so dependent on apps—the apps themselves need to be designed with accessibility in mind," Das said. "If they are not, they will not work properly with assistive software such as screen-readers."

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