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Winter 2006 Table of Contents
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Staying Connected

Holly L. Cooper, Ph.D., TSBVI Outreach Assistive Technology Consultant

Author's Note: This article contains time-sensitive content written in November, 2005. Technology is a rapidly changing area, and some information contained in this article may not be accurate even several months from now.

Abstract: A discussion of current cellular telephone technology that has voice output capability for users who are blind and visually impaired. Specific phone models, software add-ons, and wireless service providers are cited.

Key Words: programming, accessibility, blind, visually impaired, deafblind, cellular phones

What could be more important to the social life of our visually impaired students or children than access to the telephone? How many teenagers do you know who have their own cellular phone? Staying connected to friends and family is highly desired by young people today. Isn't it important that our visually impaired youth be able to participate in as many of the same activities and friendship groups as their peers? For many years cell phone users had to make do with phones with which they could only dial to place calls and answer calls. Now virtually all cell phone features are accessible with special voice output software.

A cell phone may be a luxury, but it can also save time, and worry. Not only is it an instrument of popular culture for teenagers and others, it's an important safety tool for people who may be stranded alone in an unfamiliar place. Usually parents buy cell phones for their teenagers to keep track of their location, and to provide help if needed. Safety is even more of a concern for our students. People with disabilities are more likely to be victims of crime than the population at large. According to Joan Petersilia, Professor of Criminology at the University of California, Irvine "Children with any kind of disability are more than twice as likely as non-disabled children to be physically abused and almost twice as likely to be sexually abused." Isn't it important that they have access to emergency services and assistance when they need it?

As recently as a few years ago, strategies for making cellular phones accessible to blind users consisted of braille overlays for the keys and little else. Why is it that we can make computers talk, but not cellular phones? Well, now they can, and if it's been a while since you looked at cell phones for blind users, it's time to look again, because there has been a windfall of accessibility options made available at ever more reasonable prices.

You don't have to be an engineer or able to understand all there is to know about the differences in cell phone technology, and the technology of the carriers. However, it helps to have a general understanding of some basic information about cell phones and the software that runs them when making choices. There are three major types of cell phone technology in use today: GSM, CDMA and iDEN. For our purposes here, it doesn't matter what these are, but it's important to know that these systems are not compatible with each other. GSM is used by Cingular, AT&T, and SunCom. CDMA is used by Sprint and Verizon. iDEN is used by Nextel. Currently the accessibility software for blind and visually impaired users all use the Symbian Operating System, which is found only on GSM phones.

Computer users may be fans of Windows, Mac and Linux, but cell phones have their own special operating systems. The Symbian Operating System (OS) was designed especially for cell phones, and it allows third party software to be installed on them. Symbian OS phones are typically made by Nokia and are GSM, so the major carriers are Cingular, AT&T, and T-Mobile. Making the cell phone accessible for blind users requires special software. Currently, software packages most useful for users with visual impairments are Mobile Accessibility, Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier from Code factory; and TALKS from Cingular. These software packages are compatible with the Nokia 3650, 3660, 6600, 6670, 7610, and N-Gage QD.

Accessibility software makes speech output available for almost all of the cell phones features, including caller ID, battery meter, text messages, email, call list and the like. But remember, you must have the right cell phone with the right operating system, and you must also purchase the software. While paying full price for the phone and software can run as high as $300 or more, some carriers give rebates on the phones with a one or two year service agreement, and some give a rebate for signing a service agreement and providing proof of disability.

GSM Technology

TALKS is accessible speech output software available through Cingular Wireless for the Nokia 6620 model phone. The software is stored on a Multi Media Card (MMC) that is inserted into the phone similar to a SIM card. TALKS software provides speech output for screen displays, keystrokes, menu selection and other features. It also allows the user to hear incoming caller ID; monitor the signal and battery strength; write and read notes, text messages and email; add, edit and dial entries in the contacts list; use the appointment calendar and alarm clock; and edit the phone profile and settings.

Additional software solutions for phones with the Symbian Operating System are available from Code Factory and include Mobil Accessibility, Mobil Speak, and Mobil Magnifier. Mobile Accessibility is the most full featured software, allowing users to read and send text messages; access, add and remove contacts list entries; use caller ID; access calls-received lists, including calling back the numbers; access call logs such as calls missed and numbers dialed; read battery levels and signal strength; and associate ring tones with specific callers. In addition, the voice output is available in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Dutch and Norwegian. Mobile Speak includes all of the features of Mobile Accessibility and an accessible calculator, an accessible sound recorder, a game, an MP3 player, and FExplorer, a file-system browser. Mobil Magnify enlarges all items of the cell phone display, and automatically detects and magnifies the area of interest as the user navigates through the cell phone's menus and functions. The user can zoom in to different areas of the phones display to magnify desired items.

iDen Technology

For iDEN technology used by Nextel, Text-to-Speech (TTS) software is available as an upgrade to the Motorola i355 phone. TTS uses voice output to guide the user through menus, and placing and receiving calls. It allows the user to hear the numbers pressed; hear the name, numbers and contact types of each entry in the contacts list; hear the status information such as signal strength, battery level, date and time, and hear menu options as you scroll through the main menu.

CMDA Technology

Another accessibility approach is a cell phone with built-in voice recognition and voice output software. CMDA phones used by such carriers as Sprint and Verizon include these options and are available on LG VX4650 and LG VX4700 and others. They allow users to access voice dialing, caller ID, phone status and other features. Contact names and phone numbers can also be entered. These phones are usually less expensive than those with the Symbian OS with purchased third party software, but they do not allow access to email or text messages. Some models do not allow access to other cell phone features for visually impaired users. In addition, speech recognition software can be difficult to use in noisy environments.

Deaf Blind Accessible Communication

A new product from Alva, makers of braille displays for computers, is the Alva MPO. The Alva MPO is a portable personal organizer and note-taking device with a refreshable braille display that runs the Windows CE operating system. The MPO includes an accessible cellular phone that uses voice output and a braille display. It also has text messaging capability. The phone itself is a typical cellular phone, not a TTY, so the user must have adequate hearing to listen to phone calls, or must use text messaging. Unlike some other braille note takers, the Alva MPO does not feature internet access or email, although it can use Active Sync to send files to and from a computer so the user can read stored web pages, or compose email and send from a computer. The Alva MPO is available from Nanopac, and is comparable in price to other braille note takers on the market.

Another accessible communication option for users with deafblindness are braille note takers with refreshable braille displays. The BrailleNote and PAC Mate are braille note takers with optional refreshable braille displays have internet and email capability. The PAC Mate features MSN instant messenger pre-loaded, and the BrailleNote has the capability of running instant messaging software loaded by the user.

General Information

The organization American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) has taken a substantial interest in the accessibility of technology for people with visual impairments. AFB's technology division is the Technology and Employment Center in Huntington (TECH), West Virginia. AFB TECH conducted a survey of blind and visually impaired people to determine which features of cellular telephones users considered the most important. They developed the list they call the "Sweet 16," of the sixteen most desired features. As you can read in the list below, the first three features: keys that are easily identifiable, voice output, and accessible documentation are all tied for first place. As cell phones become smaller and sleeker, it's important for consumers to try the keypad and be sure that the keys are arranged in a standard order and can easily be distinguished from one another. All accessibility options included in this article (except Mobil Magnify) include voice output, but the phones and software vary in how many of the features in the list are accessible by voice output.

  1. *Keys that are easily identifiable by touch
  2. *Voice output
  3. *Accessible documentation
  4. Battery level indicator
  5. Roaming indicator
  6. Message indicator
  7. Phonebook
  8. Phone lock mode
  9. Keypad lock mode
  10. Power indicator
  11. Ringing or vibrating mode indicator
  12. GPS feature
  13. Signal strength indicator
  14. Ringer volume control
  15. Caller identification
  16. Speed dialing

See the resources list below for further information about accessible cellular telephone technology for people with visual impairments. Read the product reviews on the APH TECH website and newsletter, read the features offered by each wireless phone company, and talk to or email people who actually use the phones, if you know any. Bear in mind that products and software are constantly changing, so information on which someone based their selection on six months ago may no longer be valid. For the most current information, talk to your local dealers, and read their websites.

Resources

ABC Channel 7, Chicago.
Cell Phones Help Blind and Visually Impaired Communicate
This feature article about an attorney who is blind who discusses cell phone features was written in May 2005.
<http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=News&id=3042919>

Access World Newsletter from American Foundation for the Blind
We think they hear us now: Cell phones with speech
Discusses the Sweet 16 most desired accessible features and which phones and software are currently the best. May 2004.
<http://www.afb.org/afbpress/pub.asp?DocID=aw050306>

American Foundation for the Blind
TECH evaluates cell phones
AFB rates desired features in this article and finds accessible phones lacking. They like Cingular which offers TALKS along with the Nokia 6620 for a total price of $299 after rebates. Undated.
<http://www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=57&DocumentID=2419>

Accessible Cell Phones for the Blind and Visually Impaired, by Abraham A. Sweiss, December 2004.
This article includes a spread sheet of models and features with ratings for accessibility. A blind user posted this site, which has few visual features, but much good information
<http://itaf.home.att.net/>

Accessible Cell Phones Solutions for the Blind and Visually Impaired by Ray Gonzales, February 2005.
American Council for the Blind in Nebraska website includes this article written by Ray Gonzales, a sighted cell phone user and engineer who sold phones and wanted to help users with visual impairments find cell phones that worked for them.
<http://www.acb.org/nebraska/accessiblecellphones.htm>

Cingular Wireless
TALKS software with Nokia phone. Read about the software and phone and features, as well as a special rebate offer that is available as of November, 2005.
<http://www.cingular.com/about/talks_program>

ETO Engineering
A product vendor of accessible cell phone technology for a variety of disability needs, the Eto Engineering website provides detailed descriptions of software and hardware with prices and ordering information.
<http://www.etoengineering.com/index.htm>

Nanopac in Tulsa, Oklahoma is a vendor of assistive technology devices for people of all disability types. See their website for information about phones and software as well as a discussion of accessible cell phones.
<http://www.nanopac.com/Mobile%20Speak.htm>

Tyiska, C. G., (undated). Working with crime victims with disabilities: An OVC bulletin. Retrieved December 7, 2005 from National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA), <http://www.trynova.org/victiminfo/ovc-disabilities/>


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