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.
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
Caption: Box 1.
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, 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, 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Caption: Dialing and using the phonebook are both difficult for visually
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.
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.
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 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
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
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: 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
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>.
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
Previous Article | Next Article |
Table of Contents
AccessWorld, Copyright (c) 2003 American Foundation
for the Blind. All rights reserved.