Don’t let a disability stop you from using your smartphone

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.

So 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 smartwatches), 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 ecosystems, 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, Siri, and 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.

To start: On iPhone, tap Settings on the home screen, then General, thenAccessibility; 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.

To read the rest of this article, published in USA Today, please click here.