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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 May 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 3

Product Evaluation

Answering the Call: Top-of-the-Line Cell Phones, Part 1

Editor's Note: As of this writing, a consumer has filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission regarding the Audiovox 9155, an earlier version of the product evaluated in this article. See the Editor's Page and AccessWorld News for more information.


Funding for this product evaluation was provided by the Teubert Foundation, Huntington, West Virginia.


This is the first of two articles that will provide a snapshot of the fast-moving evolution of cellular telephones, focusing on the current situation regarding accessibility for people who are blind or visually impaired. We are concentrating on top-of-the-line telephones from major manufacturers that feature cutting-edge technology, excluding the free or inexpensive telephones offered by the various service providers. Cell phones are covered by Section 255 of the Communications Act, as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which requires that cell phone manufacturers and service providers do all that is "readily achievable" to make each product or service accessible.

This article evaluates the Audiovox CDM9500 offered by Verizon Wireless. Priced at $230, the 9500 was Audiovox's top cell phone at the time we purchased it in January 2003. We started our ongoing evaluation of cell phones with this model because it was Audiovox's top of the line. We had actually begun evaluating the Audiovox 9155, this telephone's predecessor, when the 9500 was introduced. We decided to go with the 9500 instead because we wanted the most recent model, and because we wanted to see the differences the rapidly evolving cell phone technology made between the two models. Future articles will review top-of-the-line phones from other manufacturers.

Figure
1a. Photo of Audiovox 9500, closed. Figure
1b. Photo of Audiovox 9500, open.

Caption: The Audiovox 9500 sports a large, high-contrast color display but inaccessible keys.

The 9500 does indeed offer many of the latest and greatest options found on today's cell phones, such as a color display, high-speed web browsing, voice-activated dialing, and a global positioning satellite (GPS) system. The "clamshell" style telephone is both lightweight and compact, weighing 4 ounces and measuring 4 by 2 by 1 inches when folded, so it fits nicely into a shirt pocket, purse, or briefcase. Flipping the phone open reveals a relatively large color display, measuring roughly 1 1/4 by 1 3/4 inches, with highly contrasting colors. The size of the text averages about 10 points (for comparison, typical book type is about 12 points). The keys are small and irregular in size, but a more serious issue is that they are flush with the panel, making them difficult to identify by touch.

Despite the relatively large illuminated color display, the Audiovox 9500 does not have zoom capability or letters large enough to be readable by most people with visual impairments. The keys on the keypad are not illuminated or color-coded, and they feature low-contrast black print on a gray background. Large print on the keys would also be preferred by people with low vision, but that would require larger keys. Considering the trend toward smaller telephones, however, that might not be a realistic possibility. These and other access issues were addressed in our evaluation.

Rating Accessible Features

Before beginning our evaluation, we first surveyed 20 cell phone users who are blind or visually impaired to determine which features they would most like to have made accessible. The survey used a questionnaire that asked respondents about cell phone use and their opinions of their current telephones. The questionnaire listed 40 cell phone features, which respondents were asked to rate from 1 to 5. A low number indicated that the feature had little or no importance to the respondent, and a high number meant that it would be extremely important for that feature to be accessible. The 16 highest-rated features, representing 40% of the features surveyed, all scored an average rating of 4.0 or higher.

These 16 features (listed in Box 1) became the basis of our evaluation of the Audiovox 9500. We looked at whether a blind or visually impaired person would be able to use those features and noted the barriers to accessing those features. The evaluation methods we used included

Box 1. The 16 Most Desirable Accessible Cell Phone Features (in rank order)

Caption: Box 1.

View a narrative for Box 1.

  • measuring the ability to identify and use the keypad tactilely;
  • determining the ability to navigate menus;
  • noting auditory and vibratory feedback; and
  • assessing the readability of the visual display.

People who are blind or visually impaired are used to developing techniques to work around the inaccessibility of certain features, such as memorizing several keystrokes to navigate through a menu and activate a certain function. However, using "work- arounds" is not true accessibility, and we would expect top-of-the-line telephones to be designed so that people with little technical savvy can easily operate them. Did the Audiovox 9500 meet this standard? The following analysis lists the 16 cell phone features rated as most important for accessibility and how the Audiovox 9500 measured up on each.

The Sweet 16

Keys That Are Easily Identifiable by Touch

Scoring an average rating of 4.9, keys that are easily identifiable by touch landed in a three-way tie for first place among the most desirable cell phone features. But, as noted earlier, the keys on the Audiovox 9500 are extremely difficult to identify by touch, because they are flush with the panel. Although there is a nib on the 5 key, it is too small to be distinguishable, and is placed on the top left corner instead of the center of the key. This keypad was a major accessibility problem, making many of the other features we evaluated inaccessible.

Voice Output

Voice output, the second feature that tied for the lead, was also missing from the Audiovox 9500. No text-to-speech feature was available to access any of the information on the screen or to navigate through the telephone's menu items. Memorizing keystrokes to access certain menu functions is not an effective strategy because some menus change, depending on the last action taken. Also, the inaccessible keypad makes it impossible to come up with effective work-around solutions such as memorizing keystrokes.

Accessible Documentation

Accessible documentation, the final feature in the tie for the most desirable, was again missing from this phone. A print manual was the only documentation available, and efforts to contact the manufacturer resulted in no response. Checking the Audiovox web site for manuals, we only found a short list of the telephone's features.

Battery Level Indicator

An icon on the screen picturing a battery that slowly disappears as the battery discharges is used to indicate the battery level, but there is no auditory notification of this information. Although a unique tone is emitted to indicate a low battery warning, the battery dies completely less than 30 seconds later, so the warning is not very valuable.

Roaming Indicator

The roaming indicator lets the user know if he or she is outside the service area and thus paying more for talk time. The Audiovox 9500 displays a small triangle icon on the display to indicate roaming, but there is no auditory indication.

Message Indicator

A small envelope icon appears on the main screen when you have a text or voice message. The user can program tones to sound when a message is coming in, but after that initial warning, feedback is only visual. So, if you are not there when the message comes in and you cannot see the small icon, you will not know you have a message.

When it comes to retrieving the actual messages, the text messaging feature is inaccessible because of the lack of a text-to-speech output. Had it not been for the inaccessible keypad, the voice mail features would have been accessible. As with most other cell phones, users of the Audiovox 9500 access messages by calling their own cell phone number and navigating through a standard menu system, similar to that utilized by typical answering machine systems.

Phonebook

The 9500's phonebook feature is inaccessible to visually impaired users because it is accessed via the menu system, which has no speech output to assist in navigation. Using sighted assistance, one could, theoretically, memorize the step-by-step keystrokes to make phonebook entries. Again, however, it would be virtually impossible to actually accomplish this because of the inaccessible keypad. Features such as speed dialing and voice-activated dialing are dependent on the phonebook, so they are in turn, also rendered inaccessible without sighted assistance.

Figure 2. Photo of man with dog guide dialing the Audiovox 9500.

Caption: Dialing and using the phonebook are both difficult for visually impaired users

Phone Lock Mode

To lock the Audiovox 9500 to prevent unauthorized use, the user would press the function key, then the 1 key twice. However, there is no tone or confirmation sound. Once locked, nothing on the telephone works until it is unlocked by entering a 4-digit security code, but there is no confirmation that the telephone is unlocked.

Keypad Lock Mode

A keypad lock mode is used to prevent inadvertent dialing if a telephone is jostled while in a pocket or briefcase. The 9500 does not have this highly rated feature, but it does not need it, because the telephone is folded up when not in use, and the keys are protected by design.

Power Indicator

People who are blind or visually impaired actually have equal access to the power indicator, which consists of a tone that sounds when the telephone is turned on or off. There is no specific visual power indicator, other than seeing that the display itself is on or off. One can determine if the telephone is on or off without using vision by pressing any of the number keys, which all sound a tone when pressed. If no tone is heard, the phone is off.

Ringing or Vibrating Mode Indicator

A visual icon appears on the display to indicate which ringer mode is active, and there is also a nonvisual way to get at this information. By simply pressing and holding the Star (*) key, the telephone will toggle between ringer and vibrate modes. It will vibrate briefly to indicate it has moved to vibrate mode, but provides no nonvisual notification when it is switched to ringer mode.

GPS Feature

The GPS feature allows the global positioning satellite system to assist 911 services in locating the telephone in an emergency, as long as the local 911 service has GPS capabilities. This feature is on and works automatically out of the box. Our local 911 service does not have GPS capabilities, so we were not able to evaluate this feature. Our impression is that having GPS could be very valuable to a security-conscious blind or visually impaired individual.

Signal Strength Indicator

A small icon on the display indicates signal strength, but there is no audible equivalent, so this feature is inaccessible.

Ringer Volume Control

Like many of the features we have discussed, the ringer volume is controlled through the menus. Although it is relatively easy to memorize the keystrokes to change the ringer volume, we must again stress that this is not real accessibility. Voice output while navigating through menus is the only way to provide real accessibility to these types of features.

Caller Identification

Caller identification is inaccessible, because the telephone number of an incoming call is displayed visually with no speech output. However, while the user is on the phone with one party, a unique tone is heard to indicate that another party is calling. It is also easy to switch between two calls using the call button. Once again, however, it is difficult to locate the call button because of the poor tactile nature of the buttons.

Speed Dialing

Speed dialing relies on the phonebook feature, which is inaccessible. However, if a visually impaired user gets assistance to make the phonebook entries, speed dialing is accessible. You simply press and hold a number from 1 to 9 and the phone will dial the person associated with that number's phonebook entry.

Other Notable Features

Voice-activated dialing is an intriguing feature of many of today's new telephones, and it is included in the 9500. You simply press and hold the call button and the phone prompts you with the phrase "Name, please." You then speak the name of a person in your phonebook, and the telephone dials that person's number. On the surface, this seems to be accessible, but problems arise because this feature is dependent on first using the inaccessible phonebook feature to program in names and numbers. This leaves voice-activated dialing as a feature that cannot be fully accessed without sighted assistance.

Web browsing is another innovative feature that is available on the Audiovox 9500, but no components of this feature are accessible, mainly due to the lack of text-to-speech and problems with the inaccessible keypad.

Where Are the Trends Taking Us?

Overall, the Audiovox 9500 has very few accessible features. It certainly has some exciting new innovations such as GPS, web browsing, and voice activation, but with the exception of GPS, these new features are not accessible. If the Audiovox 9500 represents a trend in the evolution of cell phones, then it is a step backward with regard to accessibility. Historically, people who are blind or visually impaired have at least been able to make and receive cell phone calls. But, with this telephone's keypad, it is virtually impossible to do even that efficiently.

In fact, the 9500 is even less accessible than its predecessor, the Audiovox 9155. Although most of the features discussed here were also inaccessible on the 9155, the earlier phone did have a tactilely identifiable keypad so that at least calls could be placed and received independently. In addition, although the display was smaller on the 9155, the font was actually larger, averaging about 14 points, compared to the 10-point font on the 9500.

The outlook for accessibility may not be as bleak as it seems, however. Because this telephone's electronics include an operating system with download capability, just as a computer does, it would seem easy for Audiovox to include text-to-speech features in the next version. Also, if the keypad is redesigned so that the keys are tactilely identifiable, the Audiovox 9500 would actually be a very user-friendly telephone for everyone, disabled or not.

Many of today's other top-of-the-line cell phones include innovations such as digital cameras, video games, and music download and playback features. We hope that accessibility will be another innovation that manufacturers will see fit to develop. In our next article, we will evaluate additional top-of-the-line cell phones with cutting-edge technology and discuss promising efforts to build accessible cell phones.

Product Information

Product: Audiovox 9500 Cell Phone

Manufacturer: Audiovox Communications Corporation, 555 Wireless Boulevard, Hauppauge, NY 11788; phone: 631-233-3300; customer service: 800-229-1235; web site: <www.audiovox.com>. Telephone and service available from Verizon Wireless,800-2-JOIN IN, web site:<www.verizonwireless.com>. Price: $230: Various service plan rates available.

Correction

An incorrect web link was inadvertently published in the March 2003 issue of AccessWorld in the article "You Can Bank on It, Part 2: Advocacy, Outreach, and Legal Authority for Talking ATMs," by Lainey Feingold. The passage should have read:

Other countries that have been mentioned in recent stories have included India (where the Talking ATMs speak both Hindi and English); see the story at <www.the-week.com/22sep29/life4.htm>.

Related Articles

You Get to Choose: An Overview of Accessible Cell Phones by Darren Burton
Dial Me In: The Latest on Off-the-Shelf Cell Phone Accessibility by Darren Burton
Talk Me Through It: A Review of Two Cell Phone-based Screen Readers by Darren Burton
Making Your Smartphone Smarter, Part 1: A Review of Mobile Speak Smartphone by Darren Burton


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AccessWorld, Copyright (c) 2003 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.

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