By Ed Baig
NEW YORK — As an expert mountain climber who guides clients at night up Mount Rainier in Washington state, Win Whittaker knows how critical it is to be able to listen for falling rock.
Only Whittaker is hard of hearing, having gradually lost his hearing through the years because of the time he spent in a rock 'n' roll band and around fireworks.
Whittaker now climbs while wearing ReSound LiNX2 hearing aids, which he controls via apps on his iPhone 5s and Apple Watch.
"I'm not sure how I got by without having the hearing aids because it's a crucial part of my job in keeping us all safe on the mountain," he says.
A quarter of a century ago, when the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, the idea that we'd all be carrying smartphones (and some of us wearing smart watches), much less scaling mountains with them, would have seemed unfathomable. It would have been even more remarkable to think back then that people with a variety of physical impairments — poor vision, motor disabilities, hearing loss — would be getting the same rich experiences from such devices.
The United Nations' World Health Organization says more than 1 billion people, 15% of the global population, have some form of disability. And whether you identify with a particular disability or not, as you age you likely don't hear or see quite like you used to.
Apple CEO Tim Cook recently tweeted, "Accessibility rights are human rights. Celebrating 25yrs of the ADA we're humbled to improve lives with our products. #ADA25."
Apple and Google have baked strong accessibility tools into the iOS and Android ecosystem, respectively. While some tools are meant to complement third-party devices, from hearing aids to Braille keyboards, many just make the phones themselves easier to use. Some features we all enjoy — think Google Now or Siri, or auto-correction — weren't designed with accessibility in mind, though they can lend an assist just the same.
Here's an overview of accessibility features found in both platforms:
On iPhone, start by tapping Settings on the home screen, tapping General and tapping Accessibility.
On Android, go to Settings, scroll down to system settings, and tap Accessibility.
Keep in mind that though a core accessibility framework is built into Android, the open nature of the software platform means that features will vary from device to device, and you may have to work a little harder to find tools that are already part of iOS. The positive: Android accessibility is open to developers.
I've been examining accessibility features on a Google Nexus 6 phone running Android Lollipop and an iPhone 6 Plus running iOS 8.
Obviously, if you or a loved one have a specific accessibility need, go beyond the tools I'll mention here, and search Apple's App Store or the Google Play Store for apps designed specially to help with given disabilities or diseases. Pay attention to tutorials because not every accessibility feature is intuitive.
Here are some useful tools:
-- Tools for blind or visually-impaired users. On the iPhone, you can summon a VoiceOver feature that speaks aloud the items on the screen. You can drag a slider to alter the speaking speed, and even change the dialect of the screen reader voice (U.S. English, Australian English, Irish English, South African English).
The rough equivalent on the Nexus 6 Android is called TalkBack. Under TalkBack, you'll have to learn master certain gestures to navigate the device.
On Android and the iPhone, you can turn on a zoom feature to magnify the screen via various gestures, double-tapping with three fingers on the iPhone, triple-tapping the screen with the Nexus.
Other switches let you invert the colors on the display almost like a film negative — on Android this color inversion feature is labeled "experimental" since it can affect the phone's performance. Another experimental feature on Android can compensate for color blindness. On the iPhone, you choose a grayscale setting that eliminates colors altogether.
You can also take advantage of larger and/or bolder text.
-- For the hard of hearing. Apple has partnered with manufacturers on so-called Made For iPhone Hearing Aids. The ReSound LiNX2 used by Whittaker is one of them. Still, the ReSound and just about all the Bluetooth-powered hearing aids out there work on Android as well.
Even if you don't wear a hearing aid, there are tools that may lend a hand (or ear).
On the iPhone, for example, the LED can flash when an alert comes in, a feature that kicks in when the phone is locked or asleep. If you've lost your hearing in only one ear, you can flip on a mono audio setting that combines the left and right channels, so that both can be heard through headphones.
On both platforms, you can turn on close-captioning or subtitles.
-- Other tools. A Guide Access tool on the iPhone can limit use to a single app or restrict touch aspects to certain parts of the screen. This might help parents of an autistic child who has difficulty maintaining focus.
Another iOS setting, called Switch Control, allows you to use the phone by sequentially highlighting items on the screen that can be activated through an adaptive accessory, used by folks with severe paralysis or manual dexterity issues. The Android alternative is called Switch Access. Depending on the level of the disability, single switches or multiple switches might be used.
Despite all the major progress that has been made in accessibility there's more that needs to be done. Eve Anderson, Google's manager of accessibility engineering, says the exploration into "cognitive impairment is behind everything else." That covers everything from ADHD to dementia.
For now, Chicago-area firefighter Steve DeLuca, who also wears a ReSound hearing aid with an iPhone 5s--he experienced hearing loss after a brain tumor--uses his phone a lot.
"I listen to music, when I run I use it, when I watch YouTube videos on my phone, it's all going through my hearing aid," he says. "Everything you do on your phone, I do the same thing, except that I'm hearing it through my hearing aid."