Understanding How People With Disabilities Use Mobile Devices 

December 28, 2021

For content creators, mobile accessibility is a crucial consideration. About 26% of U.S. adults live with some form of disability, and in one 2016 survey of people with disabilities (PDF), 91% of respondents said that they used a tablet or smartphone every day. 

Needless to say, if your app or website has barriers that affect your users, you’re restricting your audience. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide useful guidance for creating accessible content, but to build for accessibility, it’s helpful to understand how people with disabilities use mobile devices — and how your design choices might affect their experiences.

Android and iOS have incorporated features to improve accessibility

Both of the major mobile operating systems offer extensive accessibility features, though Android’s Accessibility Suite isn’t installed by default on most Android devices — users need to download and install the apps. Apple’s iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch devices offer native options to improve accessibility.

Some of the core accessibility features of iOS and Android include:

Screen Readers

Screen readers are software applications that convert onscreen text to audio or braille. Android’s Accessibility Suite includes the TalkBack screen reader, while Apple’s iOS offers VoiceOver. Both screen readers include gesture-based controls and braille keyboard support.

While TalkBack and VoiceOver are useful tools, they depend on accurate text alternatives for non-text content. To make sure your content is readable with screen readers, test your content for screen reader accessibility. 

Read: Why Screen Readers Are Essential for Website Accessibility

Display Options

Android and iOS devices have built-in tools to change color contrast settings, which can accommodate people who have vision disabilities or color-deficient vision (also called color blindness). Both operating systems offer temporary screen magnifiers, which can enable people with low vision to view small text and images. 

To accommodate users who use different display options, make sure your content can be magnified to 200% without losing information or functionality. Pay attention to color contrast ratios and use simple, common fonts.

Read: The Basics and Importance of Color Contrast for Web Accessibility

Voice Controls

Android’s Voice Access enables people to control their devices with spoken commands. iOS’s Voice Control works similarly. Both features allow users to open apps, lock their devices, or activate gesture-based commands (for example, a user could say “swipe down" instead of physically performing the action). 

When using voice controls, users need visible focus indicators to browse comfortably. Avoid hiding or disabling focus indicators and make sure your focus indicators are visible against your content’s background. 

Read: What You Need to Know About Visual Focus and Accessibility

Both iOS and Android offer additional accessibility options for people with disabilities and users of all abilities who might want more customization. Users can turn on mono (single-channel) audio, activate live captions, or build customizable routines for common actions. 

Assistive technologies enable more control for mobile users with disabilities

Software can improve accessibility significantly, but assistive technologies can further improve users' experiences by adding hardware controls that accommodate specific types of disabilities.

For example: 

  • Refreshable braille displays enable users with vision disabilities to interact with mobile content without audio. 
  • Eye-tracking systems enable users to open apps, navigate the web, and type by looking at different parts of the screen. 
  • Sip-and-puff (SNP) devices enable people to “sip" or “blow" air into a wand to activate commands on their computers or mobile devices.
  • Many people with motor-control and mobility disabilities use a mouse and keyboard with their mobile devices.

In short, people with disabilities don’t use a single set of practices when using their phones and tablets — they use a wide variety of hardware and software tools depending on their preferences and their abilities. Mobile developers have a responsibility to provide the best possible experience for every user, regardless of how people choose to use their mobile devices. 

Read: What Are the Fundamentals of Mobile Accessibility?

Accessible design can make mobile apps and websites more useful for everyone

Given the variety of methods that people with disabilities use when browsing on mobile, how can developers and designers accommodate everyone? 

That’s not necessarily the goal. Digital content can’t be 100% accessible for every single user in every situation, but content that follows the four principles of the WCAG framework can accommodate the vast majority of mobile users. WCAG requires content to be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. The guidelines are organized by those four concepts — and when accessibility is a priority from the first stages of development, all users benefit.

To learn more, visit our Compliance Roadmap, which contains free accessibility resources for website owners and mobile developers, or download our free Definitive Checklist for Mobile Accessibility.

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