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Android gets new accessibility features, including Google Assistant-powered Action Blocks

Android gets new accessibility features, including Google Assistant-powered Action Blocks


Live Transcribe, Sound Amplifier, and Google Maps also get new updates

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

For Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is announcing a few updates to its suite of accessibility features for Android. The biggest one is the final, public release of Action Blocks. They let you create big, customized buttons for relatively complex actions like playing music or calling somebody — tasks that might be difficult for people with a cognitive disability. Google is also adding features to Live Transcribe, Bluetooth support to Sound Amplify, and better navigation options to Voice Access.

Each of these features could be critically important to a person with a disability, though they could be useful regardless. Action Blocks, in particular, could help you set up little Google Assistant macros to automate common things you’d normally have to use your voice for, like asking it to turn off all of the lights in your house.

After you install the Action Blocks app, you set one up by choosing from a list of predefined actions or by typing in your own. It works via Google Assistant, so anything you can ask for with your voice can be typed in. After you test that it works, you can save it as a button on the home screen.

Importantly, you’ll have the option to put your own custom image on the button. Again, the purpose of the features isn’t to let productivity junkies make workflows; it’s to help people with cognitive disabilities achieve tasks on their phones. So setting a big photo of a family member to make a video call is an essential feature.

That’s not to say that Action Blocks don’t have the potential to become more powerful. I asked Google if it would support Google Assistant Connect, the API it announced in 2019 that allows third-party accessories like buttons and E Ink screens to interact with Assistant. It doesn’t yet.

Live Transcribe is next, and it remains one of the most helpful Android features Google has ever made. It does exactly what it sounds like, automatically transcribing speech into text — in more than one language if you like.

The new feature here is that you can set specific words that Google’s transcription engine might not recognize, like a specifically hard-to-transcribe name or technical term. You do so by simply typing the word into Live Transcribe’s settings; you don’t actually need to train it by speaking the word out loud.

Sound Amplifier finally works with Bluetooth if your phone doesn’t have a headphone jack (it probably doesn’t)

Live Transcribe already offered the ability to save transcriptions locally, but now, Google’s finally adding the ability to search them by keyword. Google notes that even with the search feature, data is all based locally on your phone instead of on Google’s servers. Transcriptions are sent to the cloud “ephemerally to be processed” but aren’t kept.

Finally, Live Transcribe will let you set your name as a keyword that will vibrate the phone when it’s heard. For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, it could allow others to get their attention.

Android’s Sound Amplify feature lets people use their phones to amplify and clarify audio. It’s not a replacement for a dedicated hearing aid, but it is still useful. Until now, it only worked with wired headphones, a fairly big problem in a world where few phones have a headphone jack anymore. Today, it will finally support Bluetooth headphones.

Last but not least, Google Maps across both Android and iOS will give users the option to show wheelchair access right away when they search instead of making users tap into the location’s details. Maps still shows multiple types of access, including the building itself, bathrooms, seating areas, and parking areas.