February 7, 2019
Accessible Cellphones Open Doors for People with Visual Impairments
This article originally appeared in the American Foundation for the Blind, AccessWorld Magazine.
The advent of the cellphone has made our world more connected and accessible than ever. Now, at the touch of a button or the sound of your voice, you can connect to your friends and family, request a ride to the grocery store, find new information, and connect to a first responder in an emergency.
Today, thanks to a close partnership between the wireless industry and the accessibility community, there are a wide variety of wireless offerings that can make it even easier for people with visual impairments to tap into the power of wireless connectivity. Accessible devices and services range from cellphones with easy-to-see-and-feel large buttons, to smartphones with built-in voice assistant features, to apps that can assist with any task you can imagine, to smart technologies that can track your heart rate or order milk when you run out.
To navigate all the options available, the wireless industry created AccessWireless, a website devoted to sharing helpful resources with the accessibility community about US wireless products and services. In addition to the information available on the site, AccessWireless also connects to a database, called GARI, that provides detailed accessibility information about different devices, including feature phones (often called classic “flip phones”), tablets, and wearable technologies available on the market, as well as a searchable list of accessibility-focused mobile apps.
GARI can serve as a great first step when deciding on which mobile device you would want to use. With the Advanced Search tool, you can search for particular phone types such as clam shell or candy bar as well as search for the specific accessibility features important to you. Once you’ve narrowed your choices, it’s important to do further research on any device you consider for purchase to be sure that its accessibility features will meet your needs. For example, even though some phones may report that voice output is available, that output may only be available for top-level menus but not function in other parts of the device. In addition, it’s important to be sure that a device is current; some older devices may not function on today’s cell networks due to changes in network architecture over the years.
AccessWireless is also a great place to learn more about accessibility features that may already be built into a wireless device or downloaded to make wireless products and services easier to use, including:
Text-to-speech. Text-to-speech (TTS), or voice output, features say aloud information about your device. Voice output enables you to use menus and sub-menus common on most mobile phones to do things like enter your contacts, set an alarm, use caller ID, and change ringtones. Voice output is generally found on select feature phones.
Screen readers. Screen readers are similar to voice output features. They use a speech synthesizer to provide a read-out of the text displayed on a digital screen. They are built into several smartphone operating systems and are available as downloadable apps. Apple VoiceOver, and Google TalkBack are examples of screen readers that are built directly into an operating system.
Virtual assistants. Many smartphones and smart technologies, including smart speakers, offer virtual assistants, allowing you to speak to and receive audible responses from your device about anything you can think of–the weather, directions, your email, etc.
Voice recognition. Voice recognition technologies use the power of your voice to perform tasks on your smartphone or with your smart device like dialing the phone, choosing a contact, entering calendar information, surfing the internet, and accessing applications. Normally these features are part of an operating system’s voice assistant, but may be simpler on feature phones. In most cases, it is possible to use voice recognition to enter text into any given text field on a smartphone or tablet.
Account and device communications. The written communication related to your device, like product and billing information, is also available in braille, large print, and electronic (plain text or HTML) formats upon your request. Note that the availability of this information in the aforementioned formats may vary wildly between carriers so it is important to ask your carrier what is available directly. Accessible manuals should be available from your device manufacturer, often through the manufacturer’s website.
Audio, visual, and vibrating features. You can assign specific audible, visual or vibrating alerts to different device functions including incoming calls or messages and calendar events.
Braille. Some smartphones support navigation and text input from a braille keyboard through built-in features or through apps that connect via Bluetooth to a braille device.
Screen contrast. Changing the screen contrast to sharpen the display or adjust the color scheme to emphasize certain colors can make text, symbols, or other information on your screen easier to see.
There are a variety of accessibility features available that can be used to improve one’s mobile experience. And while today’s wireless devices can help connect you to almost anyone, the next generation of wireless technology, commonly known as 5G, will help connect you to almost any thing. For example, home automation already makes it possible to control your home’s thermostat, turn on the radio, and even check the locks, all through your voice or your device. The next generation of wireless will be up to 100x faster than 4G LTE, taking these voice-activated home automation possibilities to the next level.
From ride hailing services, to self-driving cars, to healthcare advances like remote patient monitoring, connected technologies will make life easier and even more accessible for people with visual impairments.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.