Understanding the Cell Phone Madness if You Are Blind or Visually Impaired

By Ray Campbell, Adaptive Technology Specialist

Lately at the Adaptive Technology Help Desk, 888-825-0080, we’ve been fielding many questions about what cell phone is best for someone who is blind or who has low vision.  Here’s the latest information on cell phone access to help answer that question.

The biggest buzz in the blindness community since screen readers were developed has to be the iPhone.  Every where I turn, people who are blind or who have low vision are getting iPhones.  The reason is simple.  The iPhone is the most affordable, accessible cell phone out there.  It has Zoom for someone with low vision, and VoiceOver for someone who is totally blind built into the phone, in other words, it’s accessible out of the box.  Once the phone is set up and the appropriate accessibility option is turned on, someone who is blind or who has low vision can do all of the things a sighted person can do using the iPhone.  Whether it’s texting, sending and receiving e-mail, surfing the net, or heck, even making a phone call it’s all easily done.  There are also thousands of Apps available that can be downloaded to the iPhone, many of which are accessible using Zoom or VoiceOver.  There are Apps especially designed for people who are blind.  Some of these include the LookTel Money Reader for about $5 that can identify paper currency, the Ariadne GPS and Sendero LookAround apps which can provide information on where you are as you’re traveling, and VizWiz which you can use to take a picture of something and have it identified.  There is also ZoomReader which can help in reading documents.


The iPhone’s advantages are that it is accessible out of the box, and with the apps available, many important tasks and even fun games are affordable.  For example, Navigon, a GPS app costs about $50.  A GPS with the same features it offers costs about $900 for Windows Mobile phones.  The biggest disadvantage is that the iPhone is a touch screen interface, which may be difficult for those used to phones with keyboards to learn.  The iPhone is currently supported by AT&T and Verizon, and if you get one, I highly recommend the book, “Getting Started with the iPhone: A Guide to Blind Users” from National Braille Press, www.nbp.org.  This $18 publication was written by two iPhone users who are visually impaired and provides lots of information and tips on using the iPhone.


Android phones are becoming more and more popular.  There are a couple of ways to access them.  There is an App called TalkBack on the Android which provides accessibility to many phone features and functions.  From what I have heard talking with folks who are blind, it does not provide the comprehensive level of access the iPhone does, but you can call, text and access internet and e-mail, plus use many Apps available from the Android Market.


Mobile Accessibility from Code Factory, www.codefactory.es, provides you complete access to most Android phones running Android Version 2.1 or higher.  You can go to this site and read what phones are supported.  Mobile Accessibility is an Android app that puts a suite of applications on your Android device, allowing you to easily call, text and perform other functions.  It costs $94.42 from the Android marketplace.  It also offers a screen reader so you can access your Android device using its standard layout.


If you want to use Mobile Accessibility, you need an Android device with physical controls, like a keyboard and track ball.  The advantage Android devices have is that they are supported by more carriers, including Sprint.


Users of Symbian or Windows Mobile devices will need to purchase additional software to access them.  Code Factory, www.codefactory.es offers Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier for both kinds of devices.  These cost about $300 and are a screen reader or screen magnifier for your phone.  You have complete access to all of your device’s features and functions.


Nuance Communications, www.nuance.com offers Talks and Zooms for Symbian and Windows Mobile devices.  These also cost about $300, but will provide you complete access to all features and functions.


Neither the Code Factory or Nuance products work on the newer devices running Windows Phone from Microsoft.  This is because Windows Phone, which was a complete re-write of Windows Mobile, did not incorporate what is needed for these packages to run.  Microsoft has acknowledged this, and pledged to re-introduce what is needed in the next major Windows Phone release.  What this maens, though, is if you want to use a Windows Mobile device, you are forced to use older technology.


The biggest advantage of either the Code Factory or Nuance solution is that they have been written with the person who is blind or who has low vision in mind, providing access in ways that are most beneficial to them.  The big disadvantage is that they cost, in some cases, more than the device you are using.  AT&T subsidizes the cost of Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier on several phone models, bringing the cost down to $89.  You can call AT&T’s Special Needs center at 866-241-6568 to find out which phones this applies too.  Verizon is partially subsidizing the cost of Talks on certain phones.  Be aware that if you want to use a Symbian device, they only work on AT&T and T-Mobile; Windows Mobile devices are supported by AT&T and Verizon.


Does your employer want you to carry a Blackberry device?  There’s an accessibility option for you.  It’s called Oratio for Blackberry Smart Phones from Human Ware, www.humanware.com.  It costs $450 over and above the cost of the Blackberry device but provides you complete access to all of the functions and features of the Blackberry device.  Check out the website to learn what Blackberry devices are supported.


You’re reading this and saying, all I want is a simple cell phone that will let me call and text; I don’t care about internet, e-mail or all these Apps.  There’s an answer.  The Sanmsung Haven which only operates on Verizon’s network offers voice output of these basic features.  You need to be aware if you’re purchasing a Haven, it’s necessary to have all of the voice readouts turned on to get complete access.


As you can see, there are many choices at a wide variety of prices for cell phone users who are blind or visually impaired.  We are happy to answer any questions you may have about them at the Adaptive Technology Help Desk, so please give us a call at 888-825-0080.