Are touch screens accessible?

Date Updated

A touch screen is a computer display screen that is sensitive to human touch, allowing a user to interact with the computer by touching pictures or words on the screen.

Touch screens today are frequently used for information kiosks, automated teller machines (ATMs), airline e-ticket terminals, and customer self-service stations in retail stores, libraries, and fast food restaurants. Touch screens are certainly the most common means of input into mobile phones. The learning curve can initially seem daunting, but many people overcome it to become quite proficient. It is important to note that some gestures are slightly different for blind/visually impaired individuals who use screen readers such as Android’s TalkBack or Apple’s VoiceOver screen readers, combined with touch input. 

In the field of education, touch screen stations are installed in K-12, postsecondary, and corporate learning environments to facilitate interaction between the learner and the content to be learned. In elementary schools, students who don't have keyboard and mouse skills can use touch screens to access rich computer-based content. Researchers are actively exploring ways to further integrate touch screens more fully into educational environments, such as building touch screen functionality into walls, student desks, and other objects in the learning environment.

Since touch screens were designed to provide user-friendly, intuitive computer access without requiring a keyboard and mouse, it logically follows that touch screens can be excellent tools for people who experience difficulty using keyboards and mice because of physical or cognitive disabilities. In fact, touch screens have been used as assistive technology for many years, providing an alternative to standard input devices for users who need access to standard applications. Specially designed applications have also been developed specifically for touch screen use. These applications typically include large icons and a simple intuitive design layout.

Despite advantages to some, however, touch screens can present barriers to others, such as people with physical disabilities who are unable to touch the device, as well as people with low vision and blindness, for whom the device provides no controls that can be appreciated by sense of touch. At the same time,  people who are blind or have low vision can successfully use touch screens on their Android and/or iOS platform mobile phones. They may be able to locate and activate controls if they are labeled in a large high-contrast font, if there is a least one tactile reference point to provide orientation, and/or if audible output is provided to help identify the controls. Audible output is also required for users with visual impairments to access the information that results from activating the controls.

For people who are physically unable to touch the device, an accessible product is one that allows the individual to enter commands by voice or by pressing the controls with a mouthstick, headstick, or other similar device (stylus). Some touch screens support stylus input, and others do not. Martez Mott, while a Ph.D. candidate in the Information School at the University of Washington, has worked extensively on research toward making touch screens accessible for individuals with motor impairments. For information about Mott's work, see his website Slide to Unlock.