Android 10 Hearing Loss Accessibility Guide

By John Loeppky

In 2019, Google launched Android 10 with Live Caption and Live Transcribe, two captioning-focused apps that were meant to usher in a new era of hearing loss accessibility for Android users. Both apps were developed, as is noted prominently on Android’s accessibility site, through a collaboration with students and researchers at Gallaudet University, which bills itself as the only university in the world where students live and learn using American Sign Language (ASL) and English.

Live Caption

Live Caption, available on some Samsung devices—and most Pixel devices—adds captions to any media played on the device. This includes things like videos, podcasts, phone calls, video calls, and audio messages. At launch, Google heralded the feature with the headline, “If it has audio, now it can have captions.”

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Jules Good (they/them), a late-Deaf accessibility consultant who chose a 2019 Motorola G7 Power for its audio quality, screen size, battery capacity, and hearing aid compatibility, wishes the phone supported the new Live Caption functionality.

“I wish it had built-in auto-captioning so that videos on social media could be made more accessible to me without relying on the creator to caption their content (which, by the way, everyone should do all the time).”

Jules Good

Accessibility consultant Jules Good.

Live Transcribe

Live Transcribe, also released in 2019, uses machine learning tools to provide captioning for the real world. The app provides captions for spoken words picked up by the phone’s microphone. Importantly, Live Transcribe (download here) allows users to pause, save, and search transcriptions, and even allows the user to transcribe speech to different languages.

The partnership with Gallaudet is evident throughout the promotional videos produced for the project, as is the personal investment of a number of Google employees, at least one of whom is hard-of-hearing.

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Sound Amplifier

Sound Amplifier, an app available on the Google Play store (and pre-installed on Pixel and some other Android devices, including Samsung), picks up sound using your phone’s microphone, and plays back optimized sound through your headphones. The app provides adjustable controls for loudness, fine-tuning, and noise reduction, and can also be used to optimize audio for videos and podcasts.

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One of the features that Jules Good uses is a setting that allows varying degrees of background noise reduction. Jules also appreciates being able to personalize the amplification for each ear independently. “My hearing loss is worse in my left ear than in my right, and it has a setting that gives me the option to always have left-side sound louder than right-side sound when using headphones or connecting to my hearing aids.”

Android is complicated

Google provides its Android operating system to a number of smartphone manufacturers, like Samsung, Xiaomi, Huawei, and Motorola. As a result, Google doesn’t have total control over which software features are implemented on any given phone. Google has to hope that smartphone manufacturers like Samsung opt to use new accessibility features, but this depends on each manufacturer's software implementation decisions.

Google’s own Pixel line is the one exception—Pixel is managed in-house, allowing Google to roll out new accessibility features on Pixel phones in a more streamlined manner.

Hearing aid compatibility

Android’s ASHA (Audio Streaming for Hearing Aids) protocol was released as part of Android 10 back in 2019. ASHA allows compatible hearing aids to stream audio wirelessly via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) from the user’s phone. Apple has offered this type of functionality via its Made For iPhone (MFi) program since 2014, so Google is late to the party, and fighting against a fragmented Android smartphone market to make ASHA more widely available.

Given all the software inconsistencies in Android phones, hearing aid users need extremely careful when shopping for compatible hearing aids. Most hearing aid manufacturers provide information about Android compatibility via their websites. (Example: Android compatibility with Oticon More).

It should be noted that hearing aid compatibility is not always defined the same across all hearing aid manufacturer websites. Some manufacturers define compatibility as supporting ASHA. Some define compatibility as supporting Bluetooth via an accessory device. And, others, as is the case with Phonak, define compatibility as supporting streaming via Bluetooth Classic. See our Bluetooth guide for more.

And Google provides a compatibility list for its Pixel-branded devices as well as a guide dedicated to how pairing of hearing aids works with eligible phones. It should be noted that Google’s official compatibility list does not include ASHA-compatible hearing aids like Oticon More, suggesting it may not be actively updated.

Beyond Android

Features like Live Caption and Live Transcribe are in the same vein as Google’s recent captioning revisions to Google Chrome and Google Meet. This comes at the same time as tools like Otter.ai integrate with fast-growing platforms like Zoom, pushing the industry toward a more accessible future. Google’s promotional material around the release of both tools notes YouTube’s addition of auto captions in 2009. The point is, Google’s consideration of accessibility, much like Apple’s, has a long history.

Google attracts large-scale collaborations

Like most developments when it comes to accessibility, Google publicly leans heavily into the collaborative efforts it has made with its consumers. Google has a dedicated disability support team as well as a myriad of product pages that give details on how to enable features and adapt them to your needs. This is in addition to links to community forums where users can discuss features they’d like to see, and a section dedicated to country-specific accessibility policies that are deployed by Google. This collaborative conversation is also evident in how disabled people are invited to join their pool of candidates for user experience research studies.

Google also provides a dedicated page that lists featured accessibility apps. They include Accessibility Suite, the app that powers much of Android’s accessible features, Accessibility Scanner, which supports developers looking to make their apps more accessible on the Android platform, and Voice Access, a tool that allows users to make decisions on their phone using only their voice.