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Article: Accessible Cell Phones for the Blind and Visually Impaired March 2005

Link to the update August 2008

Link to the update January 2010

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A Brief History of Accessible Cell Phones for People who are Visually Impaired

Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires that cell phone manufacturers such as Nokia, Samsung, etc. and the service providers such as Sprint, Cingular, etc. make their products and services accessible to people with disabilities including the visually impaired if readily achievable.  Of course “readily achievable” has a different meaning to the disabled consumer than it does to the manufacturer and service provider.  Part of the purpose of this act was to lay out the frame work for a consumer to file a complaint with the FCC regarding inaccessible products and services.  In December 2003, Audiovox settled a formal complaint brought against it by Dr. Bonnie O’Day, a blind cell phone consumer who was frustrated by the wireless industry’s inaccessible cell phone products and services and the inability of the FCC to enforce its regulations.  In that same month following the settlement, Audiovox released phones with the Voice Guidance system which provided voice dialing, audible caller ID, and audible phone status.  The Voice Guidance system was the first step by any cell phone manufacturer to make an accessible cell phone available to the blind consumer in the US.  (Note: Audiovox sold its wireless subsidiary to UTStarcom in June 2004.  Just prior to this deal being announced, Audiovox bought out the holdings of its minority shareholder, Toshiba.  With this buyout, the accessible Voice Guidance technology seems to be disappearing as quickly as it came into being.) Verizon was also named in the original complaint brought by Dr. O’Day.  Verizon settled its complaint almost a year later in August of 2004.  In November of 2004, Verizon released a software upgrade for the LG VX4500 cell phone which makes many more of the phone’s features accessible to the blind cell phone user.  If there is any question as to the importance of the legal action by Dr. O’Day on the current state of accessible cell phones for the blind and visually impaired, one only needs to look at how little the industry has responded to the needs of other disability groups.


While all of this was going on in the US, the Europeans who had earlier embraced GSM technology were coming out with their own accessible cell phone solutions.  TALKS, a mobile phone screen reader, was released by the German software company Brand and Gobel in 2003 for Symbian OS series 60 cell phones which operate on the GSM network.  A Spanish company Owasys in 2003 introduced the Owasys22c, a GSM mobile phone specifically designed for the visually impaired.  Most notably the phone does not include a screen.  In 2004, Code Factory, a Spanish software company, released their own screen reader for the Symbian OS series 60 cell phones, Mobile Speak.  TALKS and Mobile Speak have slowly migrated to the US.  TALKS was purchased by Scansoft in September 2004 and soon after Cingular announced that it would be offering TALKS with its Nokia 6620 phone.    


Current Accessible Cell Phone Solutions for the Blind and Visually Impaired


There are currently two basic accessible cell phone solutions in the US for the blind or visually impaired. The first option is to use a cell phone with a Symbian operating system and install third party accessible software.  The cell phones are typically made by Nokia and are GSM so the major carriers are AT&T Wireless, Cingular, and T-Mobile.  The accessible software designed for the blind and visually impaired includes Code Factory's Mobile Magnifier, Mobile Accessibility, and Mobile Speak and Scansoft’s TALKS.  The main advantage of these solutions is that they offer the greatest access to the phone's features.  Although there are currently no accessible mobile web browser solutions, these solutions even allow text messaging and e-mail.  The drawback is the cost considering you have to pay additional for the accessible software and the phones are more expensive higher end smartphones. 

A less expensive alternative is for the consumer to buy a cell phone with built-in voice recognition and voice output features.  This is the approach taken by the CDMA carriers like Sprint and Verizon.  Not only does the phone talk to you, many times you are expected to talk to it as well.  Verizon markets a software upgrade for one of its exclusive LG phones specifically for people with visual impairments.  With this latest software update, visually impaired users can more easily make calls, hear Caller ID, check phone status, and access several other phone features.  Similarly, Sprint markets phones with VoiceSignal technology for the blind consumer.  VoiceSignal technology allows for voice dialing, voice commands, and audible phone status but is most notably missing audible caller ID.  VoiceSignal technology is intended for the sighted user who wants to operate his cell phone while walking or driving in a car but has a crossover appeal to the visually impaired user.  There aren't any special features specifically for the blind or visually impaired user, just voice technology that the on-the-go mainstream consumer would want. 

The main advantage to these CDMA solutions is the cost since you don't have to pay for additional software and the phones are not the higher end models like the GSM solution requires.  The disadvantage is that accessible text messaging or e-mail is not possible with the CDMA solutions.  Depending on the cell phone model you choose, only a limited number of the cell phone features are going to be accessible to a blind or visually impaired user.


The Future


The cell phone industry is always in a state of flux or change.  Not only are mergers among the carriers continuing to occur, new products are constantly being brought to market.  Perhaps this does not bode well for the consumer with disabilities but perhaps it can be a source for innovation.  Cell phones are not designed to be held on to and used beyond a couple of years.  The industry cycles its products in the US on average every 18 months, 12 months in Europe.  The US is moving toward the shorter product cycle of Europe with the expansion of video and data services by the carriers.  We still have not seen an American company create accessible software for the cell phone.  I can’t say if this will change as this is a business decision and how things are going to shake out is still up in the air.  It takes a lot of money and resources to create and support software.  Companies may be too hesitant to enter this market if they are not confident that their products can stay around long enough to generate a profit.   

Microsoft is making great strides to get into the smartphone market with the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system.  Currently all of the third-party accessible software solutions are written for the rival and market leading Symbian OS.  Code Factory recently announced at the CSUN conference in late March that it will be releasing a Mobile Speak version to work with the Windows Mobile operating system.  This not only will allow customers of the CDMA carriers Sprint and Verizon to have access to screen reader enabled cell phones but will allow more professional type devices with push email technology to be available to blind mobile professionals.   

Some really innovative products were introduced at the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show.  The one that I think has the most potential for the visually impaired is VoiceSignal Technologies’ revolutionary speech-to-text product called VoiceMode(TM), which allows consumers to speak into the phone and have the phone convert those words directly into text. Using advanced speech recognition technology, consumers also can send short messages with the sound of their voice.  This product will be debuted on Samsung's p207.  QuickPhrase(TM), debuting on Samsung's a890, makes it easy for consumers to address a message and activate one of the frequently used short messages pre-programmed on the phone. Once in the messaging application, users can activate phrases such as "Call me" or "Will call you later" by simply speaking those words, and the text is included in the message.

There are always rumors of the Owasys22C coming to the US.  Owasys has been trying for some time to get FCC approval for their phone.  Assuming that approval by the FCC occurs, Owasys also needs to find a US GSM carrier to sell their phone.  Since AT&T merged with Cingular and they have committed to the TALKS software, it is doubtful that the new merged company would take on this product as well.  T-Mobile is the only other major GSM carrier and so it seems likely that if this product will come to the US, T-Mobile would be the carrier.  It is unclear how large an impact this product will have in the US at this point.  There are certainly admirers of a phone designed specifically for the blind consumer.  While the Owasys22C was delayed in coming to the US, other options with similar features have become available.  I’m afraid this has minimized some of the impact this product might have made had it been released to the US market in 2003 when options for the blind user were far fewer in number.  We’ll have to wait and see what develops. 

Link to the update August 2008

Link to the update January 2010

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