July 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 7

Cell Phone Accessibility

An Evaluation of Two Cell Phone Accessibility Websites: Access Wireless and FCC Clearinghouse

AccessWorld regularly features articles about mobile phones and service providers but only a few articles that showcase websites about cell phone accessibility. A wealth is out there that devote some of their content to the topic, but only a few focus primarily in this area. I chose two of the most well-known websites, which were created by large organizations that serve a broad spectrum of people with various disabilities. Read on to see the analysis of Access Wireless and FCC Clearinghouse.

Access Wireless

Access Wireless addresses cell phone accessibility through articles and videos with the goal of assisting seniors and people with disabilities to find a phone and service plan that will meet their needs. This website was designed by CTIA: The Wireless Association, a non-profit organization whose members range from manufacturers to service providers. This article focuses on the website's homepage, its section on vision loss, and its database. Upon visiting the homepage, I immediately noticed it has been formatted with access in mind, having options to change size of text and the popular "Skip to Main Content" link. Also, appropriate HTML is used to mark headings, lists, and tables, so the quick navigation key commands can be used with screen readers.

The section about vision disabilities is short, basically giving a list of features to look for and questions consumers should ask service providers and sales staff in retail stores. Some of these are logical, such as asking for bills and manuals in alternate formats, a description of text-to-speech, an overview of voice commands, a tactile keypad, screen magnification, and a discussion of third party accessibility software. One suggestion seems bizarre, though, recommending that standard ringtones be changed to a distinctive sound that is at a frequency people with vision loss can hear more easily.

Additional items should be added to make the recommendations more comprehensive. For example, an electronic version of texts (bills, manuals, etc.) is not listed in the type of alternate formats to ask for. Only braille, large print, and audiocassette are listed. Since a large percentage of the visually impaired use electronic text, it is crucial that it be featured. Its listing will have the added benefit of alerting manufacturers and service providers to its importance, and they will, then, ensure all materials are produced in this format. Another item that needs to be refined is the description of voice output. It says to use speech to check battery level, Wi-Fi and cellular network signal levels, incoming calls, messages, and contacts, but it does not mention that some phones offer text-to-speech for every feature. Lastly, there must be an added recommendation to ask service providers about free 411 directory assistance.

The bulk of the site content is found in the accessible cell phone database called Global Access Reporting Initiative (GARI), which was created from a partnership between CTIA and the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF) and is advertised as "the most complete database of cell phones available." Let's see if it holds up to this statement.

There are two steps before the phones are displayed in which you have options to filter your results. Step one allows you to choose the type of device to search for (clamshell, candy bar, touchscreen) and the type of disability or disabilities of the user. I was pleased that they offer a multiple disability search for those who are deaf/blind or have other dual impairments, taking notice of these frequently under-recognized groups. Unfortunately, on this webpage, several statements come off patronizing, eluding to a stereotypical view of sight loss, such as the statement, "For people with limited or low vision or who are blind, a phone that flips open and answers automatically may be useful." It continues on to discuss slide-style models, "Like a flip phone, this style of phone may be useful for people with limited or low vision or who are blind, as they will answer automatically upon sliding open." I know of zero people who have had trouble answering a phone in the typical manner used by the general public.

Step two allows you to customize your search using a checklist of 28 features. Most of the selections seem reasonable, like adjustable font size, high contrast options, and a tactile mark on the "5" button. Others are probably not important to most consumers, such as the choice of having a standard key layout with the "1," "2," and "3" buttons located on the top row of the alphanumeric keypad, and automatic call answering. Another is the feature in which the number keys have a different audible sound than the function keys, so they are easier to tell apart. I understand having every key making an audible sound when pressed, but question the need for each type to sound different.

Three items relating to text-to-speech are questionable: voice output to read text messages (What about composing them?), talking caller ID for stored contacts (What about all the other incoming calls?), and voice output for menus (What kind? Just the main one or all of the submenus?). Two changes need to occur. First, keep these three items, but clear up their vagueness. Second, add another checklist item that indicates voice output for 100 percent of the phone's features, a crucial feature that most visually impaired people would select.

Ending on a positive note, all of the checklist items related to low vision are accurate and cover features the majority would use. ??Upon finishing step two, you reach the results display page that is clearly laid out with concise information. Phones are listed according to level of accessibility (highest to lowest), stating the percentage of features that match those in your search criteria. Also found on this page is a useful item: the "Compare Phones" link allows you to choose up to three models to analyze their features side-by-side. Every phone in the list has a link leading to a webpage that gives a breakdown of the 28 accessible features as well as additional content, including manufacturer contact information, the date the product was added to the database, the weight of the phone, and its standby time/talk time. Even more content is found here that deals with accessibility, items not found in the search steps (such as if "Battery" is tactilely marked for easy placement into the device), key center point distance (distance from the center of one alphanumeric key to another), the size of the main display, the resolution of the main display, and manuals in alternate formats.

I was impressed at the scope of content covered by the results page and believed I had found the ultimate site, a one-stop source for accessibility information. Until I delved further into the results. ??After I selected visual impairment as my sole disability, chose every type of device, and selected all of the 28 features, my search yielded 242 results, the majority being Motorola models, with a scattering of Apple, Nokia, BlackBerry, and Samsung devices. The top result listings, tying with scores of 82 percent, are the Apple iPhone 4 GSM model, Motorola Mobility RAZR, Motorola Mobility TITANIUM, Motorola Mobility DROID RAZR, and Mobility DROID BIONIC. I was disappointed that the Jitterbug and Snapfon were not listed. Also, the accessible Samsung Haven with its advanced text-to-speech and magnification settings did not appear, yet other Samsung models that lack these features were included. I expected the iPhone score to be a higher percentage, and upon further analysis, I discovered that five features keep it from having a perfect score. The possibility for adjustable font style lists as a "No" while auto answer, key tactile feedback, and tactile key markers located on the "5," "f," and "j" buttons are "Not Applicable." Because "Not Applicable" counts the same as a "No," this drastically skews results, especially against touchscreen devices. One solution is to filter results down by the type of device in step one and/or choose only some of the features in step two to increase accuracy.

I discovered a surprising issue with the comparison of iPhone models. The 4S has a lower score (78 percent) than the 4 GSM (82 percent), even though the particular features compared should result in identical scoring. The difference is due to GARI stating that the 4S lacks one feature found in the 4 GSM: an audible indication when volume is being changed. This is absolutely a false statement. Both phones should have the same answer, but that answer can vary depending on your perspective. Both could count as a "No" since this feature is not present. Yet, when voice over is running, it will announce volume change with speech output, so it may be considered accessible to the blind but not for those people with low vision who opt for magnification instead of speech. It's all up to whether you feel actual spoken words and numbers are similar enough to audible cues to be listed as one and the same.

Other inaccuracies found may be due to human error, because adding submissions is voluntary. It's up to service providers and manufacturers, not CTIA, to enter phone information. Most CTIA employees are probably not familiar with cell phone accessibility. Even if one company does pick an expert to make submissions, its models may appear more frequently on the list, making it appear to offer more accessible devices while, in reality, it may have the same amount or even fewer than others who devoted less time to work on this task. Since GARI funds the project, it should take more responsibility to keep the database updated.

While this database has entries for new phones, it also contains entries for older models that are no longer sold in stores, so it would be useful if GARI added content on its website to explain this issue and provide ways to locate mobile phones that fall into this category. For example, the site could recommend that consumers contact the manufacturer and/or service provider to discover if older models are kept in storage at any of their locations or are possibly available through purchase from an online store. A second suggestion is to recommend that consumers buy from companies that sell used products. It would be practical for GARI to state on every product page the date when each model first appeared on the market and when consumers could buy it in stores.

FCC Clearinghouse

The website created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also provides data on accessible cell phones, but it covers other communication devices, such as radios and televisions, as well. Like Access Wireless, this site has implemented accessibility features, such as text size adjustment, and you can skip to its elements by using screen reader quick navigation commands. ?The vision loss section on this website is a single paragraph that tells about the 25 million Americans who have trouble seeing even with the help of glasses or who cannot see at all. It also states that current technological advancements have created many options for accessible cell phones. Under this paragraph is the "Mobile Devices" link that leads to its database.

The FCC obtains its data from GARI, the database used by Access Wireless. Even so, there are differences, like how a search is performed, ways to filter results, and, surprisingly, even how phones are scored. The search on FCC takes a different approach than GARI because there are no steps to complete. Instead, you just activate the "Mobile Devices" link and are taken directly to the results page. Once on this page, you can narrow your search by features, the region where the phones are offered, and/or the service provider. The filtering system is not as extensive as the one offered through GARI, since you aren't able to select more than one disability. Like GARI, phones are listed based on how many accessibility features they have (highest to lowest), but instead of using a percentage, the FCC site displays how many of the 28 features each phone has. The FCC does not have the convenient feature to compare up to three phones, but it does have a useful one which displays regions of the world where each phone can be used, covering the areas of North America, Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia Pacific. So, it appears the FCC caters to consumers across the globe whereas GARI is more for people living in North America.

Even though they share a database and I used the same search criteria of "Visual Impairment" as the disability with all 28 features selected, fewer results are displayed here. The total is 235 instead of GARI's 242. The FCC lists three top results instead of five, citing only the Apple iPhone 4 GSM model, Motorola Mobility RAZR, and Motorola Mobility TITANIUM. Like GARI, no phone achieves a perfect score. The top ones contain 23 out of 28 features for blind or visually impaired people. Each phone has a link that leads to its own webpage, but the product page does not feature the myriad of data found in GARI. It only shows a table depicting whether it has or lacks the 28 features. The problem with the comparison of iPhones occurs here as well, with the 4S model having one less feature than the 4 GSM. Reasons for inaccuracy of the FCC database are basically the same as GARI: unclear descriptions that lead to problems determining if features are present and also human error.


After reviewing all of the facts, I do feel that both Access Wireless and the FCC have made improvements over the years, continuously adding items to the database and other portions of the website. A strong point can be made about Access Wireless and the FCC: both give a great general overview that highlights access for people with vision loss, so one can get a basic idea of what is out there and a general understanding that there are phones with speech output, that one can get a bill in large print or braille, and that there are ways to adjust font size and contrast.

However, work still needs to be done to ensure consumers are satisfied. One question to ponder is whether it's best to continue to offer two websites, each striving to keep up with ever changing information. What is the point of having two sites that contain very similar information? The FCC just borrows information from GARI and adds a few other details. If the decision is made to keep both, then I would like to see both borrow aspects of each other's content to make information-rich webpages. For example, GARI should list the regions of use like the FCC currently does, the FCC should have the hardware feature list that GARI does, and the FCC should allow users to compare phones. Their weaknesses of both sites are the same. Neither can be used for an objective comparison. If you want every detail about a phone and want to compare it to other models to perform a scientific analysis, this is definitely not possible with either the GARI or the FCC site. There is too much inaccurate information. Currently, you can use information obtained from these sites as a starting point, but then you must visit a search engine and/or contact service providers and manufacturers directly to ensure you choose an accessible mobile phone. These databases are not ready to stand alone as the sole provider of accessibility information.

The great news is that, at least in theory, it's possible to correct issues highlighted in this article. One logical solution is to have CTIA and the FCC use their funding to hire an expert on accessibility who can update and maintain the database, re-write the feature description, and create more accurate scoring. If the FCC and CTIA hold true to their mission of advocating for people with disabilities, they will fix these issues. The next step is for AccessWorld readers to discuss the contents of this article and your own ideas and opinions about both organizations. Spread the word. Your voices can make a difference.

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