Communication is a building block of equality in the civilized world. In recent years, communication has blossomed in both cyberspace via the Internet and in real space via cell phones. If visually impaired people are to enjoy the fruits of this new bloom, then cell phone manufacturers must increase their efforts to make their technology more accessible to the blind. 

In its infancy, the cellular telephone was nothing more than a wireless cousin of the conventional landline telephone, and not a very smart cousin at that. It was extremely expensive to use and using it was not very much fun as callers often found themselves talking to the air as a result of dropped calls. In its adolescence and young adulthood, however, this not-so-bright and troublesome cousin of the landline telephone has shortened its name (cell phone) and has all but revolutionized the way we conduct our lives from day-to-day.

No longer limited to merely making one phone call at a time, today’s cell phones may include such features as a phonebook, a calendar complete with reminders, a clock complete with alarms, a task manager, a digital voice recorder, a video camera, a multimedia player, a notepad or word processor, an email manager, a text message client, a Web browser, a radio, a digital scanner, and a GPS system. In addition, many cell phones allow users to conference calls quickly and easily. This is impressive enough but when you add in the ability to synchronize all of this data with your desktop and/or notebook computer, it is easy to understand how the cell phone has become an integral part of our daily lives.

Morris Shawn is president and CEO of Roadpost Inc. Roadpost provides global voice and data communications solutions to end users and network carriers/distributors. Shawn writes in the August, 2005 issue of American Salesman, “For today’s business traveler, a mobile telephone and Internet connectivity are as essential as a suitcase.”  

Acquiring, organizing, and eventually sharing data by way of cell phones are only a few reasons why so many use them. There is still yet another reason; perhaps the most important reason of them all. Richard Ling, a senior research scientist at Telenor, Norway’s largest telecommunications company, researches issues associated with new information technology and society. In his book entitled The Mobile Connection, published in 2004, he writes, “Safety and security is a common theme in the purchase and ownership of a mobile telephone.”  He goes on to say, “Qualitative interview data as well as quantitative analysis indicates that mobile telephony provides a safety link for those who have chronic sickness as well as those who find themselves in dicey situations.” 

While Ling does not specifically mention blind people in his book, it is logical  to extend the basic meaning of his words to include them as his premise revolves around the concept of one’s inability to confront and/or control his/her situation with confidence. It goes without saying that anyone with either no vision or very low vision will, at some point, find themselves in such a position. It is for this reason, as well as many others, that blind people should have full access to all of the features of their cell phones just as their sighted counterparts do.   

The following text is a transcript from an Austin, Texas television news reporter, Adam Balkin, who interviewed a blind woman on December 14, 2004: [Begin Transcript] Imagine if your phone was in your pocket beeping at you and you couldn’t take it out to see what was going on.” That’s how Betty Bird described one of the many problems she has with cell phones. Bird works for Lighthouse International, a rehabilitation facility for the blind or visually impaired. The problem is, so much of the functionality of mobile phones relies on our ability to read what’s on that tiny screen. “I don’t know that I’ve got a strong Internet connection or that my battery is dead and that’s why I’m not getting good reception,” Bird said. “I don’t know if I got missed calls. My phone starts to beep, and it could be a missed call, it could be an advertising text message, it could be any number of things.” [End Transcript]

Jim Fruchterman is the CEO and founder of Benetech, a Silicon Valley nonprofit technology company. Gregg Vanderheiden is a professor of industrial and biomedical engineering, and directory of Trace, R&D Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In the June 17, 2007 issue of The Sacramento Bee newspaper in an article titled Everyone Deserves Access to Technology they write, “As technology races ahead at an ever-increasing pace, more and more of society’s activities are moving into an online digital world that requires unfettered access. Although many of us may feel like we’re falling behind technologically, large groups of Californians face barriers that block their access to the online world. People with disabilities, seniors, the poor and those without strong reading skills are facing ever-increasing obstacles to technology use. Since technology is becoming essential to education, business, personal finance, politics, entertainment and shopping, if we don’t do something, we may find someone we love, or even ourselves, left behind.”

What steps have been taken to include blind people in the wireless revolution?  In June, 2005 as a cost-cutting mechanism, Verizon Wireless introduced its Flat Menu system. This system requires that all cell phone manufacturers who wish to produce products for Verizon Wireless must conform their user interface to a standard configuration. Regardless of the model a customer purchases, the menu system will be exactly the same. Initially this was done in order to cut customer service costs. That is, since the system was implemented, Verizon no longer needs to train its customer service employees on all of the various manufacturers interface systems. Now, regardless of the make and model, the customer service agents only need learn one system.

Dorothy Hodges, Senior Vice President of the Disabilities & Computer Division of Motorola, said in a telephone interview I conducted on June 18, 2007, “We were very concerned at Verizon’s decision to remove our menu system in favor of its Flat Menu system because doing so would cause our Verbal Phonebook to stop working.”  The Verbal Phonebook, first introduced on Motorola’s model V710 in 2004, allowed users to hear the names of each contact in their phonebook. The quality of the voice was very low by today’s standards but at the time it was amazingly liberating for blind users. No longer did they have to memorize telephone numbers. They could, for the first time, rely on a piece of mobile technology to recall the information for them. The Verbal Phonebook was certainly not without its limitations, however. While a blind user could have the phone announce the names of each contact, the system did not allow for the actual telephone numbers of each contact to be read.

“You see, Mark,” she continued during our interview, “we are merely a manufacturer, nothing more. Our customers, like Verizon and Cingular, can write any specifications in their contracts; and, if we want their business, and we do, we really have no choice but to do it.” When asked what her personal feelings were on the Flat Menu system, she replied, “Well, it was a while ago so I can’t tell you specifically. I can tell you, though, that we had tons of complaints from end-users. It was during that time that I finally realized how important menu systems and audio feedback are to visually impaired people.”  I asked if she ever contacted Verizon about their specifications for the new system. Her answer, “Absolutely. I called up my contact over there and we discussed it. Basically, their argument was that with the new system, blind people could memorize the menus because they would never change. They told me that each item on the menu system would have a corresponding number so all a blind person would have to do is memorize the numbers. When I mentioned the Verbal Phonebook my contact had no real reply.” 

In order to prepare for this essay, I borrowed a Motorola produced Verizon Wireless cell phone from a friend; the Motorola RAZR V3, the first model from Motorola to employ the Flat Menu system. While it is true that the menu items are numbered, the items are listed on multiple pages that wrap around with no audio cues. That is, while the contacts item is #1, the user has to scroll left or right in order to find the phonebook. There is no Verbal Phonebook feature. While the RAZR and other popular cell phones do offer a voice command interface, if a user forgets the exact name of the contact, the cell phone will not dial it. It is important to note that users have absolutely no access to many of the phone’s most popular features such as the calculator, messaging center, or multimedia player. In addition, users cannot configure or enter data into the phone without sighted assistance. There is no way for a user to determine battery level or signal strength. A user cannot even get the current time from the phone’s built-in clock.   

Verizon’s largest competitor in North America, Cingular Wireless, chose a different method of providing access to its visually impaired customers. While Verizon focused on standardizing menu systems, which as we have seen, can have the unintended effect of disabling accessibility, Cingular chose to offer a voice interface service to all of its customers. This system-wide service is a fee-based service that is completely independent of individual cell phone models. The service is called Voice Dial. While this service is available to all customers, the monthly service charge is waved for legally blind customers.

Cingular Wireless’s Voice Dial acts as a personal secretary. A user merely presses a button on her/his cell phone and the Voice Dial feature is activated. When the feature is activated, a friendly near-human female voice asks the user what he/she wishes to do. From here the user can add, lookup, or dial contacts, check the local news, set alarms, and even get driving directions by just speaking to the system. Because the feature is not phone based, users need not purchase expensive models in order to take advantage of the system. Just as with Verizon’s solution, Cingular’s Voice Dial does not allow users to have  access to many of the phone’s most popular features such as the calculator, messaging center, or multimedia player. In addition, users cannot configure or enter data into the phone without sighted assistance. There is no way for a user to determine battery level or signal strength. A user cannot even get the current time from the phone’s built-in clock.     

So, what do blind cell phone users want in a cell phone?  In March, 2005 Darren Burton and Mark Uslan, editors of Access World, a bi-monthly journal published by the American Foundation for the Blind conducted a survey in which blind people were asked which features they would most like to have made accessible. The following sixteen features were rated highest by the respondents: Keys that are easily identified by touch, voice output, accessible documentation, battery-level indicator, roaming indicator, message indicator, phonebook, phone lock mode, keypad lock mode, power indicator, ringing/vibrating mode indicator, GPS feature, signal strength indicator, ringer/volume control, caller identification, and speed dialing.

As has always been the case in developing technology for a niche market, third-party developers have had to bridge the gap between the demands of the customers and the mass market profits of mainstream manufacturers. Introducing Mobile Speak from CodeFactory. The following press release was taken from their website, < http://www.codefactory.es/> on June 18, 2007: [Begin Press Release] Code Factory proudly announces the release of Version 1.10 of Mobile Speak for Pocket PCs and Version 1.3 of Mobile Speak for Windows Mobile Smartphones. Through speech, Braille and magnification, be the first to enjoy full access to all built-in applications of Windows Mobile 6 with the newly integrated support for PowerPoint and Windows Live Messenger, as well as enhanced functionality with new features like bookmarking commands for Windows Media Player. Also take advantage of unparalleled access to many 3rd-party applications such as the SlovoEd Multilingual Dictionaries and the Code Factory Windows Mobile GamesPack. Code Factory partners with Microsoft to make Windows Mobile 6 Pocket PCs and Smartphones accessible through world-class screen readers that support more than a hundred mainstream mobile devices, more than twenty different languages with text-to-speech technology from leading providers, and more than fifteen Braille input and output devices. With the most comprehensive support for the Windows Mobile operating system, Code Factory remains the unchallenged leader in mobile accessibility. [End Press Release]
In preparation for this essay, I acquired a copy of Mobile Speak Smart Phone and installed it on a Cingular Wireless Smart Phone running Microsoft Windows Mobile 5. I am pleased to report that the product does, indeed, live up to its claims of providing full accessibility to blind users. Once the product is installed and the cell phone restarted, Mobile Speak begins talking, informing the user that the phone is ready for use. With the press of a button, a user can instantly find out what time it is, the phone’s current battery level, and the phone’s current signal strength. Mobile Speak will also announce caller ID information should it exist on an incoming call. With the software installed, each and every feature of the phone is both completely accessible and configurable to a blind user without any sighted assistance. I am delighted to report that Nuance, <
http://www.nuance.com/talks/> a competitor of CodeFactory, has a comparable product called Talks that is designed to run on cell phones running the Symbian operating system. While companies such as CodeFactory and Nuance are developing products to make cell phones accessible to the blind, such solutions are not without drawbacks. First, cell phone screen reading software is extremely expensive; in some cases doubling or even tripling the end cost of the cell phone. Second, both Mobile Speak and Talks are licensed to the actual phone hardware, not the user. Consequently, when a user wishes to either upgrade or change cell phones, he/she must purchase a new copy of the screen reading software.According to Dorothy Hodges, the only way to reduce the cost of screen reading software is to integrate the technology directly into the phone’s operating system before it goes to market. This can only be done by (1) a congressional amendment requiring manufacturers to do so or (2) manufacturers electing to do so on a voluntary basis.

Finally, when we consider all of the data discussed above, we can safely conclude that cell phones do much more than help us organize our daily lives. They provide a conduit to the society in which we live while at the same time fostering a sense of community and security. If blind people are to be a part of the cell phone revolution at an affordable cost, it is imperative that both mainstream manufacturers and wireless providers recognize and implement the technology being developed by companies such as CodeFactory and Nuance. Just because those without vision cannot see is no reason to leave them in the dark.

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