Speech Technology Magazine

Blind Customers Demand a Voice in Cell Phones

Blind and visually impaired customers have started legal action against the cell phone industry to improve cell phone accessibility with features like speech output for people who cannot read the phone's display screen.
By Leonard Klie - Posted Oct 1, 2007
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Blind and visually impaired customers have started legal action against the cell phone industry to improve cell phone accessibility with features like speech output for people who cannot read the phone’s display screen.

In early August, 11 customers from Florida, Georgia, Colorado, California, and West Virginia filed complaints with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), asking for tighter enforcement of Section 225 of the Federal Communications Act, which requires phones to be accessible for people with disabilities. Complaints were filed against both cell phone carriers and manufacturers. Representatives of the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT) filed similar complaints.

One of the complaints came from Tony Claive, a blind resident of Winter Park, Fla. "In order to access the features of the MotorolaQ, I had to make an additional out-of-pocket purchase of Mobile Speaks (a screen reader) to access the cell phone features," he said in his written statement. "While this phone is more accessible than the Katana with my add-on software, it was quite expensive, and I would not have purchased it if my previous phone was accessible. Being blind forced me to stretch my budget to the limits in order to have access to my cell phone’s features."

Douglas Brooks of Winston, Ga., was another complainant. "I cannot text message, surf the Internet, or use the phone book," he noted. "Additionally, the numbers displayed on the keypad are too small for me to read, thus I have to use the voice recognition feature to call contacts in my phone book. This poses some limitations because I can only program in 10 names, yet I have many more contacts than this amount."

The most common complaints filed by blind and visually impaired cell phone users include:
• cell phones do not provide for audio output of information displayed on the screen;
• visual displays on most phones are hard to read;
• numeric and control keys are not easy to distinguish by touch;
• product manuals or phone bills are not available in braille, large print, or other formats they can read; and
• cell phones work with software to enable input for blind users, but the technology is expensive and not widely available.

"These complaints illustrate a market failure on the part of the cell phone industry to address accessibility," says Paul Schroeder, vice president of the Programs and Policy Group at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). "While some companies have taken steps, consumers with vision loss have few good options for accessibility and almost no reliable information about accessibility."

The AFB did, however, single out AT&T as one company that has made great strides in accessibility for the blind. In July, the company announced plans to partner with Code Factory to offer two new products, Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier, for the blind and visually impaired. Mobile Speak is a screen reader with speech feedback in several languages and braille support for features like speed dialing, text messaging, a calendar, calculator, Internet browser, voice recorder, Microsoft Office applications, Media Player, phone/device settings, profiles, alarms, and ringtones. Mobile Magnifier is a full-screen magnification application. Both can be used with or without speech feedback.

"I am pleased to see that AT&T is showing real leadership on the accessibility front. Now more companies need to take the initiative," Schroeder says. "Given today’s technological advancements—advertised constantly by cell phone carriers—it is particularly shameful that access features are not being made available. If AT&T can harness new technology to add features for people with vision loss, then all cell phone carriers and manufacturers can."

Jennifer Simpson, senior director of telecommunications policy at the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), a COAT affiliate, agrees. "Wireline, wireless, and VoIP companies and manufacturers are required to make services and products disability-accessible and usable," she says. "Companies scoff at federal law when they fail to design at the front end for the needs of people with all kinds of disabilities. We urge the industry to take more action now so that people with disabilities, including the growing population of seniors, can purchase wireless phones and services without becoming exasperated and frustrated by unusable phones and unresponsive customer service."

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