A New Android Speech Feature: Select to Speak

By Steve Kelley CVRT, CATIS

As a tablet and smartphone user who has low vision, I have been a huge fan of the iOS accessibility feature called Speech. With the many settings and apps available for smart devices, it is often the case that with a little work, text on a webpage, email, or reading app can be adjusted and resized for visual access.

Nevertheless, over the years I got into the habit of turning on the screen reader (Talkback in the Android, VoiceOver in the Apple iOS world of iPhones and iPads), for those times when it was quicker or easier to have something read. Because I'm not a regular screen reader user, it always felt a bit clumsy to go back and forth between the gestures used when a screen reader is on.

Very often, my adult students who were just learning to use these devices would balk at the suggestion of learning to use the new screen reader gestures, on top of the learning curve involved in using a smart device to begin with. As a result, I usually suggest the option of using the screen reader for reading on a smart device, but recognize it can be a challenge for the user who has low vision.

The addition of Speech changed that a few iOS updates past, because it allowed text-to-speech to be turned on, without turning VoiceOver on. While Voiceover is a great screen reader, when turned on, it changes all the gestures. Speech became such a great alternative, the iPad became my go-to reading device, and I often lamented the fact that my Android phone didn't have a comparable feature.

TalkBack's New Feature: Select to Speak

Android Select to Speak shortcut

Select to Speak shortcut menu, with toggle turned to "on"

That changed recently with an update to Android's TalkBack screen reader features, in version 5.2, which now includes Select to Speak.

Like the Speech setting in iOS, Select to Speak enables a user to use Talkback to read a selected portion of text, without turning Talkback on and changing the other gestures, so it is very convenient for users who are not routinely screen reader users.

Select to Speak is found within the Accessibility settings, under the Vision section, with other features like Magnification Gestures, and Talkback. A toggle turns the feature on or off (pictured at left).

Once it is turned on, Select to Speak positions a moveable, circular icon in the lower right corner of the screen. To use it, first touch the icon, then double-tap a selection containing text or drag across with a single finger.

For example, to have an open email read out loud, a user would touch the Select to Speak icon, then drag a finger from the top of the screen through the contents of the email. The portion of the email appearing on the screen will be read out load by TalkBack – no extra TalkBack gestures are needed!

iOS Speech Accessibility Feature

In the iOS world, the Speech feature allows users to close the icon, when not in use, and offers other customizations like highlighting text as it is read. Once the feature is turned on from Settings, it remains in the background, like the Zoom magnifier, until a gesture enables it – in this case, a two-finger swipe down from the top of the screen. Speech will also read from the beginning to the end of the document—not just what appears visible on the screen.

Speech is turned on from within the General/Accessibility settings, and basically permits users to have text read by using a two-finger swipe down from the top of the screen. While the text is read, a controller opens, permitting users to increase or decrease the reading speed, pause and resume reading, or discontinue the reading out loud.

User Issues with Select to Speak

Android Select to Speak menu

Select to Speak shortcut menu, with icon covering text

Like many of the accessibility features on the Android, as compared to those on the iOS devices, Select to Speak, from a usability perspective, feels like it is not quite ready for prime time, although this user will be using it regularly.

The circular icon that appears on the screen after turning the feature on, although movable, is not transparent (pictured at left).

This means that when the feature is on, the icon will cover text or another icon below it. In contrast, the iOS Speech feature remains in the background, unless text is actively being read, and even then, the icon is transparent, so what is beneath it on the screen can still be seen.

As a result, my choice is to turn Select to Speech on, only when needed to keep the icon off the screen during routine visual access. This means opening Settings, My Device, Accessibility, Vision and toggling Select to Speech on and off each time it is used. This process is worth it for access to text-to-speech, but very clumsy.

No doubt this will improve as the feature matures, but in the meantime you might consider adding an Accessibility shortcut to the Home button on an Android device to "simplify" this setting a bit.

Tucked within the Accessibility settings, locate and turn on the Direct Access. This feature enables you to create a shortcut to your most used single accessibility feature, or create a quick menu with multiple features when the Home button is pressed three times quickly.

For example, I have Accessibility and Talkback on my shortcut. Selecting Talkback quickly turns the screen reader off and on, and Accessibility takes me right to the Accessibility menu where I can then toggle Select to Speak on or off. It would be much better to pin Select to Speak right to that shortcut, but that isn't an option just yet.

Until discovering this new feature recently (quite by accident), the free Voice Reading app, available from the Google Play Store, offered some basic reading features, without the need to turn TalkBack on. Once installed, text from an email or webpage could be selected and 'shared' with Voice Reading. This remains a great alternative for anyone who does not have Select to Speak in their TalkBack features.

Select to Speak Is a Welcome Addition

Regardless of the current limitations to the Android's new TalkBack feature, Select to Speak, it is a most welcome addition. The smart device user who has low vision is often in the situation where the device is primarily used visually, but continuous reading visually is either difficult, tiring, or just slow.

Features like Select to Speak and Speech on Apple's iOS devices make it so much easier to turn on a text-to-speech feature just when it is needed, without having to relearn how to use a device with screen reading gestures!

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