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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

AFB TECH Evaluates Cell Phones


As cell phones have become an increasingly conspicuous part of everyday life, they have also become more and more powerful, equipped with computer operating systems and more features being added with every new model. Web browsers, e-mail, multimedia messaging, voice dialing, phone books, word processors, multi-color displays, and cameras are some of the features available on today's cell phones, but there are concerns among the blind and visually impaired community as to whether or not these and other cell phone features will be accessible. Section 255 of the Communications Act, as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, requires that cell phone manufacturers and service providers do all that is "readily achievable" to make each product or service accessible.

To determine the accessibility of today's cell phones for people who are blind or visually impaired, AFB TECH evaluated 11 of the top cell phones on the market. The phones evaluated were the Audiovox 9500; the Motorola T720, the Sanyo 5300; the Sony-Ericsson T68i; the Nokia 3650, 3660, and 6620; the Owasys 22C; the Toshiba VM 4050 (which is also known as the Audiovox CDM 9950); the Samsung SPH-a660; and the Nokia 9290 Communicator, which is actually a phone/personal digital assistant.

The Nokia phones were evaluated equipped with two European speech-output software products: Mobile Accessibility developed by Code Factory, and TALKS from Brand & Grober. More recently, AFB evaluated TALKS for Series 60 and Mobile Speak.

The "Sweet 16"

To focus our evaluation work, we first created a questionnaire to survey people who are blind or visually impaired to determine which cell phone features they would most like to have made accessible. This resulted in the "Sweet 16," a list of 16 features that were rated the highest by the respondents (the starred features were tied for first place):

  1. *Keys that are easily identifiable by touch
  2. *Voice output
  3. *Accessible documentation
  4. Battery-level indicator
  5. Roaming indicator
  6. Message indicator
  7. Phone book
  8. Phone lock mode
  9. Keypad lock mode
  10. Power indicator
  11. Ringing or vibrating mode indicator
  12. GPS feature
  13. Signal strength indicator
  14. Ringer volume control
  15. Caller identification
  16. Speed dialing

We looked at how available or accessible these features are and noted any barriers to accessing them. The evaluation methods we used included:

  • 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.


Results indicated that the four phones without speech-output software had very few accessible features, mainly due to the lack of access to screen information. Furthermore, three of the phones had such tactually unidentifiable keys that it was extremely difficult to do even the basic tasks of answering and placing phone calls.

Although the phones with the speech software loaded on them certainly give blind and visually impaired users access to many more features than the other phones, they still do not provide access to all the features that sighted users have. Additionally, the cost of these phone/software combinations ranges from $500 to nearly $1000, putting them out of the price range of most people. However, Cingular is now offering TALKS along with the Nokia 6620 for a total price of $299 after rebates. Manufacturers and service providers are finding that it is possible to provide accessibility via speech software, providing hope for the future of cell phone accessibility.

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