It's Your Call: Promising Practices in Wireless Access
There is fierce competition among providers of wireless phone services. In the urban area where I live, for example, there are at least 7 providers offering more than 48 service plans. Most plans offer web access and e-mail in addition to the ability to make and receive phone calls. And most cell phones support a calendar, a memo pad, and other features that have traditionally been associated with a personal data assistant (PDA). So is there any hope that service providers and phone manufacturers will care about the right of blind people to make and receive calls using wireless phones? Readers regularly ask this question, and I have spent considerable time trying to find answers. This article reports my findings and observations with notes about promising practices. Of course, I hoped to uncover accessible cell phones, but, unfortunately, we're probably a long way from that discovery.
For three months, I was an "undercover" shopper—visiting service-provider stores, third-party resellers, web sites, telephone customer service centers, and corporate offices. Service providers included Verizon, AT&T, Cingular, and Sprint. Manufacturers included Panasonic, Motorola, Qualcom, and Nokia.
Under Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, providers are required to make their services, including product information, billing, and customer support, accessible to the extent that accessibility is readily achievable. They have no legal obligation, however, to ensure that supported phones are accessible and refer all such inquiries to the phone manufacturers. The effect is that your billing may be accessible, but using your phone may not. Verizon, AT&T, and Cingular all indicated that they encourage phone manufacturers to design accessible products. But they cannot and do not require it.
Verizon Wireless is an excellent example of corporate commitment to accessibility and the only service provider with clear information about the accessibility of supported phones. There are various references on its web site to this commitment, the most useful being on its web site at <http://www.verizonwireless.com/jsp/aboutus/products_services/products_disabled.jsp>. Verizon Wireless is committed to providing materials in alternate formats when readily achievable. Its web site also has links to descriptions of the accessibility features for supported phones. This resource may be invaluable in sorting out the products the company supports.
AT&T Wireless also has a strong corporate commitment to accessibility. Visit <http://www.attws.com/our_company/disability/> to learn more. The web site clearly states that materials and billing are available in alternate formats and describes how to request them. It also describes features of phones that may be available to accommodate various disability needs, but does not suggest specific products. The web site implies that Customer Care will be able to help you find the product to meet your needs, but in my mystery shopper experience, this was not the case.
Cingular Wireless also has a strong corporate commitment to accessibility, based on my experience at both the local and corporate levels. However, its web site is not fully accessible and currently has no information about this commitment. Cingular Wireless is a relatively new company, and I have high hopes for the future.
Sprint PCS, my provider, seems to have no corporate commitment to accessibility. It has been difficult to obtain materials in alternate formats and to get answers at any level.
Panasonic has made a strong corporate commitment to product accessibility, and its effort regarding wireless phones is documented at <http://panasonic.com/pcsc/ptsc/access_vpat_1194.23.htm>. It uses a documentation tool called the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, which was developed by the industry and the federal government to assist the industry in documenting compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Panasonic is the only phone manufacturer that uses the template, although many software and hardware developers also use it. Remember that the template contains statements by the manufacturer, and you need to verify their applicability to meet your access needs. For example, Panasonic states that the Allure TX310 offers a number of unique accessibility features. I could not find this phone in local retail stores, but it is available online through AT&T. AccessWorld will review it in an upcoming issue.
According to Panasonic, the TX310 has the following capabilities: caller ID information available via a serial port connection to a personal computer, tactile identification of keys, voice activation of 40 commands, alerts that are visually and audibly discernible with assignable tones, and some status and prompt information provided by voice. For people with hearing impairments, Panasonic claims that the TX310 is compatible with TTY and with some hearing technologies. In addition, Panasonic provides accessible manuals (which include descriptions of graphics) on request. This may set a new standard for what is readily achievable.
The other manufacturer that has made a significant effort to design accessible products is Motorola. Its efforts are documented at <http://www.commerce.motorola.com/consumer/qwhtml/customer_service.html>. Documentation is available in accessible formats and can be requested by calling a toll-free number. In addition, many of the phones feature enhanced visual displays, which may be of use to some users with low vision. Motorola also offers accessories that may improve the accessibility of its phones for users of hearing aids.
The Bottom Line
It is clear that some progress is being made in making wireless products and services accessible. It's also clear that we've got a long way to go, and it's up to all of us to get there. Most people I spoke with said they had never been approached about the accessibility of their companies' products. Make your needs known and keep researching.
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