Future Reflections         Fall 2009

(back) (contents) (next)


by Wesley Majerus

Steve Booth and Wes Majerus demonstrate technology to student Nijat Worley.From the Editor: Cell phone technology evolves with dizzying speed. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Future Reflections. It has been updated to help our subscribers stay informed about new developments. Wesley Majerus is an access technology specialist with the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC).

Over the past few years, the number of children who have cellular telephones has skyrocketed. Whether 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 can be made accessible for blind or low-vision students. Some consideration is also given to accessibility issues for children with mild motor problems.

Low-end Cell Phones

If you are on a budget or do not wish to spend a great deal of money for cell phone service, a few tips will allow you to make almost any cell phone usable by a blind or low-vision student, at least for quick calls. For a child with low vision, 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 distinguish by touch. Beware of some of the new designs with keypads that are flush with the face of the phone. It might be helpful for you and your child to go to the store together. See if he/she can distinguish the buttons on the phone or 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 dial a specific programmed phone number. For example, the parents' home, work, and cell numbers or the number to a trusted family friend or neighbor all can be programmed for quick access. However, these phones have some drawbacks. Blind users cannot independently assess how much battery power remains on the phone or determine when the phone is in a poor signal area. (Of course, the blind child will learn from experience how to estimate the remaining power and can make a good guess about the cause of signal problems. He/she can always ask for visual confirmation from a sighted friend.)

Be sure that a phone without speech access emits distinct tones or other sounds to indicate power on, dialing, and shutdown. Try to find a phone with easy steps for dialing--for example: open the phone and hold down a speed dial key. Make sure the phone offers an easy way to recover from mistakes. Even low-end phones may have nonvisually accessible features such as buttons that make distinct tone sounds when pressed. Such features allow the child to distinguish between the number buttons and feature buttons such as menu, enter, arrow keys, etc. One advantage of the low-end route is that a low-cost phone is easily replaced if lost or damaged.

Children with dexterity issues can use a basic phone if it has large buttons that are easy to press. There should also be features that allow the child sufficient time to find keys and hold them down without the phone going too quickly into automatic speed dial.

Several brands of low-cost phones that meet these criteria are currently on the market. One such phone is the Jitterbug. Though designed and marketed for senior citizens, it is also 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 a good feature for young children, children with mild hearing loss, or those 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 service providers.

Verizon Wireless has a phone similar to the Jitterbug. It is called the Samsung Knack and its features include large buttons and a large display. The Knack has a limited menu readout and a voice dialing feature for calling contacts stored in the phone.

Some cell phone companies offer low-end phones with built-in accessibility features. These features include adjustable fonts, talking caller ID, and the reading of status information such as signal strength, roaming status, and battery level. Unfortunately, these phones can be difficult to find. Often their accessibility features are not well publicized, and the turnover rate for cell phones is quite rapid. The leading producer of these phones is LG Electronics. Motorola also has some phones that fall into this category.

When reading the marketing literature for cell phones, look for features such as voice-activated dialing or spoken caller ID. Some phones may also mention "Menu Readout." The Menu Reader setting reads some menu choices aloud as you scroll through them. Often, however, these menu readout options only work for the first levels of a menu. This being said, it can be beneficial to have them on a low-cost phone.

Test the phone in the store to learn if its features will meet your needs. If you are shopping for phones online, check your carrier's accessibility page for further assistance in finding usable phones. Not every carrier has an accessibility page on its Website. AT&T Wireless, Sprint-Nextel, and Verizon Wireless have accessibility pages that you can consult for more details. These pages may recommend specific phones, but you should examine any phone yourself to determine whether it will meet your child's needs.

High-end Cell Phones

If you want a more feature-rich phone for your child or teen, a number of options are available through PDA and Smartphone devices. To make these phones usable, you will need to purchase an additional software package (see below). The benefits of these higher-end phones include the ability to send text messages, surf the Internet wirelessly through a data connection, and read email on the phone. Internet, text messaging, and email service can become expensive. It is important that you understand how your specific plan works and what 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 the child uses the phone's various functions. For low-vision users, magnification software can also be installed. An advanced user 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; Braille displays can cost from two to ten thousand dollars.

Windows Mobile is an operating system for mini-computers and cell phones. It comes in two versions, Smartphone and Professional. 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; they are controlled with joysticks or arrow keys and function buttons, and accept input from number pads or small QWERTY keyboards built into the phone. Some Smartphones have both a number pad and a QWERTY, which resembles a typewriter or computer keyboard. PDA phones, along with the standard touch screen, can also contain QWERTY keyboards, number pads, or both. On phones that have only a QWERTY keyboard, the numbers are embedded in this keyboard. This means that they are on keys that do several things. A function button switches the phone from number and punctuation mode to typing 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 limited dexterity. Take advantage of your carrier's trial period for any phone that you buy. The phone can be returned if it will not work for your child.

Windows Mobile contains an accessibility configuration area. You can change display font and backlight, the length of time error messages are displayed, and the behavior of keys and buttons when they are pressed and held.

Screen Readers

Code Factory, whose Website is <www.codefactory.es>, has two pieces of software for making Windows Mobile phones accessible to 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. It also 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 need Mobile Speak Pocket. The Code Factory Website shows you supported phones by carrier and the version of software you will need based on a specific device. It allows you to download and activate a thirty-day trial of either the Smartphone or the Pocket version of Mobile Speak.

Symbian is another phone operating system. It runs primarily on phones made by Nokia Corporation. These phones are only available through a limited number of providers. Two companies provide software that can make these phones usable. Nuance Technologies provides Talks and Zooms, which are speech and screen magnification solutions respectively. This package is the preferred means for 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 palm-sized phone with easy-to-feel buttons. As well as installing screen access software onto the phone, you can take advantage of software from kNFB Reading Technologies. This software adds a powerful reading system to the phone. By installing the software and affixing plastic anti-glare film (included) over the camera lens and flash, the user can take pictures of typewritten or printed text and have it read aloud. The kNFB Reader software can also be installed on the Nokia N86 cell phone. Features of the N82 and N86 cell phones vary.  Please evaluate your needs carefully before choosing a phone. This cell phone package can be used as a reader alone or, with the addition of Talks or Mobile Speak, as a fully accessible cell phone and reading machine. 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.

On June 19, 2009, Apple Computer Corporation released the iPhone 3GS, the latest update to its iPhone platform. This phone is unique in that it is a high-end phone that contains accessibility features out of the box. These features come in the form of VoiceOver, a fully functional screen reader for the phone, as well as voice-activated dialing and screen magnification. This phone is also unique because it is operated solely through the use of the touch screen that covers most of its top face. The Home, Sleep, volume controls, and Power buttons are the only tactile controls available on the phone.

The iPhone becomes accessible when VoiceOver is activated. Touch gestures are specific to the VoiceOver program. One can drag a finger around the screen to hear what exists on any given portion. A double tap gesture selects the focused item. The user can flick left and right to move quickly between controls. Typing is achieved in text fields either by dragging a finger or flicking left and right to the desired character or control and double tapping. When navigating through text, one can use a rotating gesture to select the navigation level (word, character, heading, etc.) and then flick up or down to move by that unit. On the Web, one can use this rotor control to choose visited and unvisited links, form controls, or headings. This phone is not recommended for young children. It would best be used by an older child who is curious about technology, eager to learn, and careful with equipment. The phone retails for $299 with a plan from AT&T. If it is damaged, its replacement cost is around $700.


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


Apple iPhone Accessibility - <http://www.apple.com/accessibility/iphone>
AT&T Disability Resources - <http://www.wireless.att.com/about/disability-resources/disability-resources.jsp>
Jitterbug cell phones - <www.jitterbug.com>
kNFB Reading Technologies - <www.knfbreader.com>
Mobile Speak screen readers - <http://www.codefactory.es>
Talks screen reader - <www.nuance.com/talks>
Sprint-Nextel Accessibility - <http://www.sprint.com/landings/accessibility/?id8=vanity:accessibility>
Verizon Wireless accessibility site - <http://aboutus.vzw.com/accessibility/index.html>

(back) (contents) (next)