Blind Customers Target Cell Phones

Blind and visually impaired customers are taking legal action against the cell phone industry to force cell phone manufacturers and service providers to better incorporate assistive technologies for the blind into their products.

This week, 11 cellphone users from Florida, Georgia, Colorado, California, and West Virginia filed complaints with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), asking the government regulator to enforce laws that require all phones to be accessible for people with disabilities. Complaints were filed against both the cell phone carriers and manufacturers.

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 to the FCC. "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 phonebook. 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 phonebook. This poses some limitations because I can only program in 10 names, yet I have many more contacts than this amount," he noted.

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

"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 earlier this month initiated a campaign to help people with vision loss understand access requirements, and if necessary, file complaints. As part of that campaign, AFB sent letters to leading cell phone service providers and manufacturers asking what they are doing to meet the needs of people with vision loss.

Some companies, like AT&T, have taken the lead on providing accessible phones, but too often the handsets and services are not designed to be user-friendly for those who are blind or visually impaired, the organization reports so far.

"AT&T has a great screen reading program, but generally, the blind or visually impaired don’t have a lot available to them," says Adrianna Montague-Gray, a spokesperson for the AFB.

"All cell phones can work with software to enable assistive technologies, but they’re not widely available and tend to be very expensive," she says further. "It’s not hard for these companies to add these technologies, and we want to make sure that they do, in compliance with the existing laws.

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