Future Reflections         Fall 2008

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Cell Phone Accessibility for Your Blind Child

by Wesley Majerus, Access Technology Specialist
International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC)

This 2001 convention photo shows Wesley Majerus wearing the purple ribbon proclaiming his status as an NFB Scholarship winner. Today, following successful employment with the state of Nebraska, he is a member of the NFB staff in Baltimore, Maryland.Over the past few years, the number of children who have cellular telephones has skyrocketed. Whether the children have the phones for contact with family and loved ones, or as a way to text, blog, and stay in contact with friends, the issue of children and cell phones is an important one for parents and families across the nation. For parents of blind children, these concerns expand into questions about nonvisual access technology, adding even more complications. This article discusses the pros and cons of low-end and high-end cell phones, and how they are made accessible for blind or low vision students. Some consideration is also given to accessibility issues for a child with mild motor problems.

If you are on a budget or do not wish to spend a great deal for cell phone service, a few tips will allow you to make almost any cell phone at least usable for a blind or low vision student for quick calls home or for calls to friends. For a child with low vision, you will want to look for a phone with a large visual display, changeable contrast, and a font that can be manipulated. The buttons should be fairly large and those with different shapes should be easy to feel and distinguish. Beware of some of the new designs that have keypads that are flush with the face of the phone; these are not a good choice. It might be helpful to have your child with you at the store to see if he/she can distinguish the buttons on the phone or can easily read the numbers and letters on the screen.

Speed dial is a worthwhile feature for these low-end phones. The parent or other sighted user can program the phone so that the child can hold down a number button and cause the phone to dial a specific, programmed phone number. For example, parents’ home, work, and cell numbers, or the number to a trusted family friend or neighbor can be programmed for quick access in this way. Drawbacks to this method are that blind users cannot independently assess how much battery power remains on the phone, or when the phone is in a poor signal area. (Of course, the blind child will learn from experience how to estimate the remaining power, make a good guess about the cause of signal problems, and he/she can always ask for visual confirmation from a sighted friend.)

Be sure that phones without speech access make some tones or other sounds that are easily distinguished for power on, dialing, and shutdown. Try to find a phone with easy-to-duplicate steps for dialing. For example: open the phone, hold down a speed dial key, and the number is dialed. Make sure mistakes are easy to recover from—such as pressing the end key repeatedly between calls to clear the screen, or being able to delete an entire set of numbers just dialed by holding down the clear key. Even low-end phones can have nonvisually accessible features such as buttons that make distinct tone sounds when pressed. This allows the child to independently monitor the difference between the number buttons and feature buttons such as menu, enter, arrow keys, etc.

One advantage of taking this route is that a low-cost phone is easily replaced if lost or damaged. Phones such as these can be used by children with dexterity issues if the phone has large, easy to press buttons and if it has features that allow the student sufficient time to find and hold keys down without the phone going too quickly into automatic speed dial.

Several brands of low-cost phones which meet these criteria are available on the market. One such phone is the Jitterbug. Though designed and marketed for senior citizens, it can be a good option for children who are blind or have low vision. Numbers can be programmed into the phone. It is larger than most modern cell phones with a very distinguishable ear piece, which might be good for young kids, kids with mild hearing loss, or kids with motor problems. It also has large, tactile buttons and a large visual display for ease of use. Because it is not tied to one carrier, it works nationwide through the company’s agreements with multiple providers. Verizon Wireless also has a phone similar to the Jitterbug. It is called the Verizon Wireless Coupe™ and its features include large buttons and a large display. The Coupe also has a voice dialing feature for calling contacts stored in the phone.

Some cell phone companies have low-end phones that have accessibility features built in. The leader for producing these phones is LG Electronics. Motorola also has some phones that fall into this category. These include the Motorola W315, MOTOKRZR K1m, and MOTORAZR2 V9m. When reading the marketing literature for cell phones, look for features such as voice activated dialing or spoken caller ID that will audibly give the name or number of the person calling. Test the phone in the store to see if the features on a particular phone will meet your needs.

If you are a Verizon Wireless customer, you have a choice of several phones that can be used nonvisually with voice output. These include the LG VX5400, VX8350, enV, enV²™, and, to a limited extent, the LG Voyager™. Because cell phone models and features change quickly, use the guidelines presented in this article to find an accessible phone in the event these specific models are not available. Sprint PCS also has the LG LX570 Muziq™, which provides limited voice output. If you are shopping for phones online, check your carrier’s accessibility page for further assistance in finding usable phones. Unfortunately, not all carriers have an accessibility section. Alltel, Verizon Wireless, and AT&T Wireless all have accessibility pages that you can consult for more details.

If you want a more feature rich phone for your child or teenager, there are a number of options available through PDA and Smartphone devices. To make these types of phones usable, an additional software package (see details in the next paragraph) will need to be purchased. Benefits to these higher-end phones include the ability to send text messages, surf the Internet wirelessly through a data connection, and reading e-mail on the phone. Use of Internet, text messaging, and e-mail service can become expensive. It is important that you understand how your specific plan works and which charges you will incur if your child utilizes these services or exceeds the number of kilobytes or messages in your plan. These phones vary in price depending on any rebates or other discounts you can obtain from your carrier. With no discounts or rebates, they can range from $200 to $600 alone.

There are three types of high-end cell phones. In each case, the phones will need to be made accessible through a screen reader. These screen readers provide speech access to the items on screen as you use the phone’s various functions. For low-vision users, magnification software can also be installed. For an advanced user, you can add Braille support to the cell phone with a Braille display, which creates Braille through small tactile pins that move mechanically. This is a very expensive proposition because Braille displays of this kind can cost between two and ten thousand dollars.

Windows Mobile® is an operating system for mini computers and cell phones. It comes in a smartphone version or a professional version. The difference between the two versions is that the professional version works on phones that include a touch screen, often referred to as PDA phones. The simpler smartphone version works on devices that look and act more like basic phones, in that they are controlled with joysticks or arrow keys, function buttons, and accept input from small QWERTY keyboards built into the phone or number pads. Some smartphones have both a number pad and a QWERTY (like a typewriter or computer) keyboard. PDA phones, along with their standard touch screen, can also contain QWERTY keyboards, number pads, or both. On phones that only have a QWERTY keyboard; the numbers are embedded in this keyboard, which means that they are on keys that do other things. A function button is included to switch the phone from number and punctuation mode to typing (with letters) mode. Note that the QWERTY keyboards on most phones have very small buttons, often meant for thumb typing. They would not be a good choice for someone with dexterity issues. Take advantage of your carrier’s trial period for any phone that you buy so that it can be returned if it will not work for your child. Windows Mobile® contains an accessibility configuration area where you can change display font and backlight, how long error messages are displayed, and the behaviors of keys and buttons when they are pressed and held.

Code Factory, whose Web site is located at <www.codefactory.es> has two pieces of software available for making Windows Mobile® phones usable by blind and low vision users. Mobile Speak Smartphone works with smartphone type devices (those with no touch screen). It makes the menus on the smartphone accessible, and gives access to call logs, the address book, phone settings, calendar, and other phone applications. As you install Mobile Speak Smartphone, you have the option of installing the Mobile Magnifier that is bundled with the product. Mobile Speak Pocket is Code Factory’s software that makes Windows Mobile Professional phones usable. As a general rule, if you are looking at a Windows Mobile®-powered phone that contains a touch screen, you will most likely need Mobile Speak Pocket. The Code Factory Web site at <www.codefactory.es> can give you supported phones by carrier, the version of software you will need based on a specific device, and will allow you to download and activate a thirty-day trial of either the smartphone or professional version of Mobile Speak.

Symbian is another phone operating system. It runs primarily on phones made by Nokia Corporation, and which are only available on a limited number of phone providers. Two companies provide software that can make these phones usable. Nuance Communications, Inc. provides TALKS and ZOOMS, which are speech and screen magnification solutions respectively. This package is the preferred means of making Symbian phones accessible. Code Factory, mentioned earlier, also provides Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier for the Symbian platform. TALKS and ZOOMS can be found at <www.nuance.com/talks> and Mobile Speak can be found at <www.codefactory.es>.

One recommended Symbian-based phone is the Nokia N82. It is a small palm-sized phone with easy to feel buttons. In addition to the ability to install screen access software onto the phone, you can also take advantage of software from knfb Reading Technologies that can make the phone a powerful reading system. By installing the software and affixing plastic anti-glare film (sold in the package) over the camera lens and flash of the knfb Reader, the user can take pictures of type-written or printed text and have it read aloud. This package can be used as a reader alone or, with the addition of TALKS or Mobile Speak, a fully accessible cell phone and reading machine can be achieved. knfb Reader software sells for $995 plus the cost of the phone at <www.knfbreader.com>. A bundle that includes a preconfigured phone is also offered.

Cell phones have revolutionized our lives and have made it easier for all of us, including children, to stay in touch. This article has outlined the types of cell phones and the means for making them usable by blind and low-vision persons. If you have any further questions, you can call our Access Technology Answer Line at (410) 659-9314, and select option 5.


Alltel Accessibility: http://www.alltel.com, then click “Accessibility”
AT&T Disability Resources: http://www.wireless.att.com/about/disability-resources/disability-resources.jsp
Mobile Speak screen readers: http://www.codefactory.es
Talks screen reader: www.nuance.com/talks
Jitterbug cell phones: www.jitterbug.com
Knfb Reading Technologies: www.knfbreader.com
Verizon Wireless accessibility site: http://aboutus.vzw.com/accessibility/index.htm

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