Talking About Accessibility: An Evaluation of the Panasonic KX-TG6591T Cordless Phone
In the summer of 2011, Panasonic, the world's leading manufacturer of cordless telephones, released a product aimed at enhancing accessibility for three distinct groups within the disability community. Panasonic has distinguished itself as a company for several years now with its commitment to universal design. Customers who are blind have benefitted from this effort with such widely available features as raised dots on certain remote control buttons for Panasonic TVs, talking caller ID on several Panasonic phones, and more.
The KX-TG6591T cordless phone with answering machine has features that render it appealing to those with hearing loss, vision loss, and arthritis. That's a lot to claim for one simple product, so I was naturally curious to check it out.
The KX-TG6591T is a cordless phone with a built-in answering machine and has the capacity to expand to use three additional handsets (purchased separately from the original unit). The primary proclaimed features are:
- For those with limited hand dexterity or arthritis, the phone has a slightly wider body than the typical cordless phone, a rubberized grip, and an Any Key Answer feature.
- For those with impaired hearing, the phone offers the "Tone Equalizer," a conveniently located button designed to boost frequencies in low, medium, or high ranges thus making conversation more manageable.
- For users who are low vision or blind, the phone has built-in text-to-speech caller ID and a high contrast visual display.
Before discussing whether or not the KX-TG6591T measures up to its various claims, a general description of the product is in order.
In addition to the usual 12 keys comprising the telephone keypad, the handset features three dedicated speed dialing buttons ("A," "B," and "C"), which are located directly above the numbers "1," "2," and "3." It has a "Speaker" button, a "Flash" button, a circular "Menu" button (allowing you to also scroll up and down or right and left), and the "On" and "Off" buttons. The power buttons are near the top of the handset, and each has a raised dot to facilitate quick tactile identification, as does the "5" button on the telephone keypad.
Near the top of the phone on the left side is the "Tone Equalizer" button. Repeatedly pressing this button boosts the various frequencies. Below the "Tone Equalizer" button is a longer button used to increase or decrease volume. (Volume can also be adjusted by pressing on the top or bottom edges of the "Menu" button.) Near the bottom of the left side is a jack for connecting a telephone headset (not included), which has a permanently affixed rubberized cover. Above all of the buttons on the face of the handset is the visual display. On the back is the speaker grille and an optional belt clip.
While the base unit does not have the traditional keypad for dialing telephone numbers, it does have several easily identified buttons and provides a number of calling features. First and foremost, it has a fairly large speaker grille and "On/Off" button so that you can take any call by using the base unit exclusively. Secondly, the base unit has three speed dial buttons, so it can be used for quickly calling the same three phone numbers that have been assigned to the corresponding keys on the handset. The remaining buttons on the base unit are for playing, navigating, and erasing messages left on the answering machine.
Those Accessibility Claims
This phone is a bit wider and easily grasped. Indeed, the Arthritis Foundation awarded its Ease-of-Use Commendation to this particular cordless phone, acknowledging its usability by people with limited hand function. It should be mentioned here, however, that the Any Key Answer function, while extremely convenient, is not actually any key. When the phone rings, any of the 12 keys on the number pad will connect the call, but the feature does not extend to the speed dial or other special keys above the number pad.
The volume control and "Tone Equalizer" button definitely make the phone a more usable communications device for individuals with mild to moderate hearing impairments. When it comes to usability by users who are blind or low vision, however, the answer to the question of accessibility is a resounding "it depends."
First, as the company claims, the phone does indeed have text-to-speech capability for announcing caller ID information. The announcement is made following the first two and every subsequent ring in a somewhat clear female voice, which owners of other Panasonic cordless phones will recognize. (If you haven't heard this particular voice, I should note here that I have often wondered why it was selected. Its pronunciations are a bit atypical, and its pitch is probably not intelligible for some individuals with hearing loss.)
The answering machine incorporated into the unit is usable enough for a person with vision loss. The unit comes with two pre-recorded messages: one is simply a greeting, and the other allows callers to leave a message. These messages as well as other functions related to the answering system (whether there are new messages, confirming the erasure of messages, and so on) are spoken in a clear, synthetic male voice. This voice, incidentally, would be much more universally accessible for the talking caller ID should the company make a change in that regard.
The Any Key Answer on the handset is a convenient feature for anyone, and the speaker provided on both the handset and base unit provide particularly loud and clear sound. However, this phone is by no means fully accessible to users with vision loss.
The Menu System and Finding Work-Arounds
The phone's menus offer a number of attractive features. You can set the time and date, store up to 50 names and phone numbers, change ringtones, select the number of times the phone will ring before going to voicemail, and set three dedicated speed dial numbers. None of these features are accompanied by spoken feedback although some of them can be accessed with work-arounds.
Special features are generally accessed through the Menu options shown on the visual display. Many features, however, have shortcut key combinations, and it is through these that a person who is blind can actually take advantage of some of the phone's extra features.
With the phone turned off, for example, if you press the "Menu" button followed by "#161" to hear the ringtone selections, you can scroll down through these ringtones to hear each one and, then, press "Select" for the desired tone. Similarly, there are shortcuts for playing messages from the answering system, accessing voicemail, and entering speed dial numbers. By trial and error (and sighted assistance), you could, conceivably, enter speed dial and other phone book entries by pressing the keypad number for the desired letter (three presses of the number "5" for the letter "l," for example) and then pressing the "Menu" button's right arrow to move to the next space. However, there is absolutely no audio feedback to indicate that your input has netted the desired outcome. With regard to speed dial, of course, you can test your efforts by pressing speed dial buttons "A," "B," or "C" and waiting to see if the intended number is dialed. With regard to the phone book, however, successfully entering names and numbers, even if you do manage it, is pointless for a user with vision loss since there is no way to scroll through and read the established entries.
Panasonic's model KX-TF6591T cordless phone lives up to the promises it makes with regard to accessibility. It is easily held by those with limited hand function and has the convenience of almost any key activating a call. Its volume control and "Tone Equalizer" button render conversation more accessible to individuals with hearing impairments. Its talking caller ID and answering machine extend those particular features to people who are blind.
While work-arounds are possible for some of the phone's other attractive features, many are simply out of reach for those unable to see the visual display.
The clarity while listening through the handset or the speakers on the base is excellent, and the answering machine is easy to use as well. If you want a cordless phone for just placing and receiving calls, this one is a great choice.
Considering its track record of commitment to accessibility issues, let' hope that Panasonic will figure out how to put those text-to-speech capabilities to broader use and give us a full-featured cordless phone that everyone can use to full advantage.
Model Number: KX-TF6591T
Available from: Panasonic
Phone: (800) 405-0652
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