How do blind people and the visually impaired use mobile phones? by Diane Shawe

Most new mobile phones are difficult for blind or the visually impaired to use without assistive technologies, or at least built-in accessibility functionalities. A more complex mobile phone requires some kind of a screen reader or a voice recognition system to function well for people who are totally blind.

When mobile phones started to emerge on the market, their accessibility was less complex. Blind people practically had to memorize the layout of the phone’s keypad, which is very similar to regular phones, practically with two extra needed keys, send and cancel. After learning these keys, it was possible to use most of the phone’s functionality, even without being able to see the display. Of course, initially caller id was not available, but in practice that was the only difference.

With the growth of the Smartphones it required more and more effort to make mobile phones accessible to blind people. Phone manufacturers started to build voice recognition into their still simple phones.

However many goods, such as mobile phones or digital television devices, are not easily usable by people with visual impairments. Some disability rights campaigners had claimed that a previous draft of the Directive would force manufacturers to change the way goods are made.
Nevertheless, the Presidency has published amendments to the draft Directive that make it clear that the planned law does not change the legal landscape for manufacturers.

“This Directive shall not apply to the design and manufacture of goods,” said an amendment to Article 4 of the proposed Directive tabled by the EU Presidency Many goods are not accessible to people with disabilities.

A position paper from the European Blind Union published last year while goods were still potentially covered by the draft Directive outlined some of the problems.
“Inaccessible products are barriers to independent living for blind and partially sighted people,” it said. “For blind and partially sighted people, digital television is inaccessible because the interface requires the user to be able to see menus and programme information on the television screen.

The major gap started to emerge between the blind and sighted users, when mobile phones started to run operating systems, and users were able to use them similarly to a regular computer. At this point, it became necessary to develop a screen reader, which could be used on the mobile phone similarly to how blind people use the computer.

The emergence of touch screens recently made the situation much more difficult. Before, all input was done through a keyboard, which is the ideal situation for blind people. When touch screens started to emerge, software developers quickly picked up the technology, but in many cases omitted proper keyboard access to their applications. This way, even if blind people had a screen reader to use, it became increasingly difficult for them to enter information, and interact with their phone. But one may argue that there are many different types of Smartphones with keyboards, but some features then mean they omit others.

Screen reader manufacturers started to provide solutions for the use of touch screens. One approach was to disable the actual touch screen, and assign new functionality to it. The screen was divided into four equal parts, and each part represented a button. These virtual buttons were assigned to additional functionality to interact with the phone. Another virtual division of the screen was when a plastic sheet was provided to blind people with holes similar to a number pad. After laying this sheet on the phone, virtual screen areas were created responding to the regular numeric phone pad, which was especially useful with phones which did not have an actual keyboard.

Another invention was modifying the on-screen keyboard functionality. When sighted people touch an area of the screen keyboard with the stylus that key is activated. It was modified for blind people in a way that when an area of the screen is touched, the current key is announced but not activated. After memorizing the on-screen keyboard, people can slide their finger on the screen until finding the desired key. Once the user releases the screen, only then the key is activated.

There are many more inventions on using phone touch screens and on-screen keyboards, but the biggest problem is not solved yet. There is only so much a blind person can do with a screen reader on a graphical user interface, when the application is not coded to provide accessibility features. Technology is rapidly going towards using graphical interaction, while not enough information is provided to developers about accessibility. Meanwhile, screen reader manufacturers are trying to catch up with the latest developments and provide the best possible solutions.

With all this in mind, many location based technology is looking at ways in which they can communicate in real time with up to date and intelligent information. So watch this space

Diane Shawe
Project Development Consultant

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