January 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 1

Access Issues

Dial A for Access: Getting Cell Phones You Can Really Use

Imagine you had a cell phone that was totally accessible to you. What would that cell phone be able to do that today's models cannot? Speak the settings as you arrow around the menus? Announce who's calling? Play a different and distinct sound for basic system alerts like power on and power off?

Finding a cell phone with all these features seems like a dream today, but with advances in technology and the help of a law in the United States, it is a dream that should come true. Almost all the technology that's needed to realize this dream is already built into cell phones. But manufacturers won't build fully accessible phones unless those of us who want them demand them. In this article, we discuss what you can do to help make this dream come true.

What persons who are blind or visually impaired want in a cell phone was made clear to us in the response to an e-mail survey we conducted with members of AFB's Careers and Technology Information Bank. We asked them two questions: (1) How did you choose the phone you have today? and (2) What one thing would you like to have that would make using your phone easier? Of the 222 members we contacted, 47% responded. Of the respondents, 73% told us they want access to the menus and status indicators displayed on the screen. It's clear to us that consumers care about cell phones and that they want key features to be more accessible.

The law is on your side. Congress amended U.S. Telecommunications Law in 1996 in Section 255 to ensure that telephones and telephone services will be accessible for people with disabilities. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the agency that oversees communication law, including the disability provisions in Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Congress enacted Section 255 to ensure that new telephones would be designed for use by people with disabilities. For example, you should be able to make, receive, and forward calls and identify who is calling independently. And you should be able to obtain phone bills and telephone product manuals in accessible formats. Section 255 applies to all telecommunications equipment, both traditional wireline and wireless. Our focus here is on cell phones.

Answer the Call

So, what can you do to get a more accessible phone? It boils down to two steps: (1) ask for what you need and (2) complain to the FCC if you can't get it. Section 255 requires the FCC to investigate and resolve consumer complaints. But if consumers don't complain, manufacturers, service providers, Congress, and the FCC may assume that there is no problem with existing telephone products and services for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Although not every product will have all the same access features, Section 255 requires companies to do all that is "readily achievable"—that is, without much difficulty or expense—to make each product or service accessible. In short, there should be at least some cell phones available with controls labeled in large print and identifiable by touch; screens with features, such as zoom, magnification, or high-contrast characters; and audio cues that clearly identify important things like how much charge is left in your phone's battery. And while we're on the subject of necessary access features in cell phones, since it costs money every time you use a cell phone, you should know who's calling before you decide whether to pay for answering the call. Likewise, since "roaming"—calling while outside your service area—can cost a lot, depending on your service plan, you should be able to know whether you are roaming. You should also be able to get both your monthly bills and a manual in a format you can read independently. You should be able to use your cell phone to manage telephone calls just as sighted users do. If you can't get these things, then use the law to complain.

Be aware that there may be legitimate, legally acceptable reasons why a company is unable to meet your access needs. Nevertheless, have a company explain its reasons and take detailed notes.

Calling the Question

We tested our advice by contacting cell phone wireless service providers, so we could tell you what kind of response you could expect today. We called six service providers and four manufacturers, speaking both to customer service representatives and, when possible, to Section 255 officers listed on the FCC's web site at http://www.fcc.gov/cib/dro/section255.html. We asked whether any of their cell phones had a large-screen display with high contrast and big letters and numbers; which phones had a tactile dot on the 5 key to help a user stay oriented to the keypad; and whether there were audio cues to indicate battery status, power on and power off, and roaming. We also asked in what formats manuals and invoices were available.

Only 2 of the 10 representatives with whom we spoke (Motorola and Sony Ericsson) knew specifically about Section 255. Mention this law when you shop, though, since you'll be joining in the effort to educate people at all levels who need to keep product accessibility in mind.

Some of the representatives on the FCC's list suggested that consumers should do research on the manufacturers' or service providers' web sites. If you are comfortable doing so, use the Internet, since the information may be more current and comprehensive than that provided by the customer service representatives. Quite a few companies have Section 255-specific web pages; though these web pages often provide little specific product information, they frequently point to accessible manuals and accessible billing. Unfortunately, these web pages are often difficult to find among the many other pages on companies, web sites.

Only a few people we spoke with had any suggestions about large- print and high-contrast display options. Motorola has a phone with such features. On the other hand, just about all the representatives knew whether the mobile phones their companies manufacture have some kind of tactile marking on or around the 5 key. Although this tactile feature seems to be generally available, you'll want to try a phone before you buy it to make sure you can feel the marking and easily identify other buttons.

Many cell phones provide audio cues for the status of the battery indicator, whether you have left your calling area, or whether your phone is on or off. Unfortunately, they tend to have only one beep for all these various alerts, so it's hard to know what condition is causing the phone to beep without being able to read the phone's display.

Whether you're shopping or already own a cell phone, you should ask for its manual in the alternate format of your choice, rather than just make do with the inaccessible one. Generally, we found that phone manufacturers are more aware than service providers are of the formats in which manuals are available. Many cell phones have features that can make them more accessible. However, many technical support staff don't know enough about accessibility features, although they will help you turn those features on if you can specifically name them. Remember that the law entitles you to a manual you can read. Complain if you can't get one because the FCC will almost certainly help you.

You may have to make an additional call to a customer service center to arrange to get your bill in a format you can read. Often, sales representatives were unsure whether bills were available in accessible formats, but our persistence was usually rewarded with a positive response. Remember, an accessible bill is your right under the law.

Overall, we found that the representatives of equipment manufacturers and service providers were only vaguely aware of access needs of blind or visually impaired people. Regrettably, few knew of their companies' obligations under the law. Most were receptive to our needs and suggested a model or two for us to try. If more of us ask for the kinds of features and services that make a difference to us, we can expect that they'll become better informed. With the FCC's help, as legislated by Congress, we can also expect they'll have more accessible options for us to select among. The future is in our hands.

How to Complain

Prepare to be as specific as you can when filing a complaint with the FCC. Be ready to provide information, such as your name and address, your disability, the name and address of the manufacturer or service provider you're complaining about, specific details about the phone or service (including the phone model, the date you purchased or attempted to purchase the phone or service, an explanation of why your disability makes this phone or service inaccessible to you, a description of what you want the company to do for you, and the method the company should use to contact you— braille or e-mail, for example.

It may take a little work to organize this information, but the FCC is trying hard to make the complaint process easy for consumers. You can also use the accessible web form on AFB's web site to file your complaint. It's at <http://www.afb.org/255complaint.asp>.

Contact Information

Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Consumer Information Bureau, 445 12th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20554; phone: 888-225-5322; e-mail: <access@fcc.gov>.

How to Get an Accessible Telephone contains step-by-step instructions about shopping for a phone and for filing complaints with the FCC. It is available in standard print, large print, or braille from the American Foundation for the Blind, Information Center, 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY, 10001; phone: 800-232-5463; e-mail <afbinfo@afb.net>; web site: <www.afb.org/section255.asp>.

The text of and information about Section 255 is available on the FCC's website: <www.fcc.gov/cib/dro/section255.html>.

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