Mobile Phones and Vision Loss
The main problem for blind and low vision mobile phone users is access to the screen: menus, address books, text messages, incoming call information, etc. Just like computers, the solutions are to enlarge the text or turn it into speech. Some phones have these features right out of the box; others require add-on software that may cost as much as $400.
This article will cover some of the options available, and point you to more information resources in this fast-moving market.
Although the law requires accessible telecommunications products and services, manufacturers have not included many features on many models of their phones yet. An exception is the Apple iPhone, which comes equipped with the VoiceOver screen reader as well as Zoom, its screen enlarging software. Some Samsung and LG phones offer a smaller subset of talking features. The Samsung Haven is a basic phone (no email or web) with a complete talking interface for phone calls and text messages.
Most model phones have some level of magnification built in, as well as color and contrast settings that make the display easier to read.
Models and versions change frequently, but here are some of the current software options:
- Talks from Nuance Communications is a screen reader that runs on the Symbian platform found on many Nokia phones as well as a few others.
- Mobile Speak from Code Factory runs on Symbian and Windows Mobile phones.
- Mobile Accessibility from Code Factory runs on Android phones.
- Oratio is a screen reader for BlackBerry® developed by Code Factory and Humanware.
In the Market
When you are in the market, the key thing to keep in mind is what you want your phone to be able to do. Roughly, phones break down into 2 categories:
- Basic or "feature" phones for voice calls and possibly text messaging; most come with address books for speed dialing, CallerID, and simple extras like a calculator. These phones are usually free or inexpensive as part of your package.
- Smart phones that offer the basics, plus web browsing, email, and the ability to install 'apps' for music, social networking, and almost anything you can do with a computer. These phones are more expensive, and usually require a data plan.
Most people buy their phone as part of a package plan with a wireless service provider such as AT&T or Verizon. This may limit your choices, but some companies offer information about accessible phones that will help you decide; they may also offer discounts on add-on software. If you go to a wireless retail or big-box electronics store, ask about models and discounts, and try all the phones you can to make sure they work for you. Stores may not be able to install add-on software, so learn about those programs in advance from the companies' websites; many have online videos that show and explain the features in action.
A good source of up-to-date information on cell phones and their access by blind persons can be found on the Blind Phones mailing list. To subscribe to this list send a blank email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The American Foundation for the Blind publishes reviews of accessible phones and keeps track of the issue from a consumer perspective.
The Mobile Manufacturers Forum is maintaining an online searchable resource on phones with accessibility features. Since this information comes from manufacturers it will be both accurate and current, but not all phones are on it.
Note that some users with cognitive disabilities also may benefit from text-to-speech on their phones.