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Improving Accessibility Through Usability Studies of Voice-Over IP Phones

Kh. Eghtesadi
D. Burton
AccessWorld Solutions
American Foundation for the Blind
11 Penn Plaza, Ste. 300
New York, NY 10001

K. Boucher
P. Mertz
Cisco Systems, Inc.
170 West Tasman Drive
San Jose, CA 95134


Over the past few decades, phones are becoming more complex and feature-rich due to advanced technology for users. While new features offer unique options and functionality, their complexity also creates accessibility barriers for people with disabilities. Voice over IP (VoIP) offers the latest technology that provides capabilities and flexibility to remove these barriers. VoIP represents a system that runs voice applications over a data network. It provides a unique telecommunication capability in the internet age by exceeding the standards of traditional telephony.

IP phone technology contains rich application interfaces that provide the opportunity to enhance accessibility. It provides features such as caller identification, directory information, lines status, and conference calling. The flexibility of IP phones creates numerous options to provide accessibility without affecting system cost.

To assure the usability of IP phones for disabled users, Cisco Systems has set forth specific processes which include conducting accessibility studies. As such, Cisco engaged AccessWorld Solutions (AWS), the consulting arm of the American Foundation for the Blind, to evaluate the accessibility features of Cisco VoIP hardware/software phones and provide recommendations for making these products more accessible.

This paper will describe VoIP and its benefits from an end-user perspective and show how the design features of VoIP improve accessibility and productivity in the workplace beyond traditional phone systems.

Overview of VoIP

Over half of the fortune 500 companies are deploying VoIP phones and over 10,000 organizations have deployed the technology with millions of IP phones acquired. VoIP is becoming a mainstream technology.

Traditionally, voice traffic is carried via circuit-switched networks (private brand exchange [PBX] networks) or networks made up of private lines and time division multiplexers (TDM's). Data networks have traditionally been separate from these voice networks. VoIP offers the possibility of a converged network which integrates data, voice, and video onto a single IP-based network. This technology offers significant operational and productivity benefits to organizations:

  1. Reduced operational expenses—A converged IP network reduces the number of networks to manage.

  2. Unified messaging capability—Users can send and receive faxes from their desks and reply to e-mails by phone.

  3. Mobility—Home, branch, roaming, and traveling workers can access the same features as those working at corporate offices. Roaming users can even keep the same phone number by using the IP phones.

  4. Extensible Mark-up Language (XML) applications—These allow third parties to create value-added applications (e.g., time cards) on the IP phones.

  5. A standards-based, non-proprietary solution—Unlike traditional voice solutions, VoIP is based on non-proprietary protocols and is built using industry standards. This open interface means that organizations are not dependent on their PBX vendor to develop needed special applications or features. Instead, they can deploy a third-party vendor who has the application that meets their needs today. Organizations with accessibility requirements can then mix and match the best-of-breed applications and use different vendors to suit their end-user needs.

  6. Architecture—allows the reliable transportation of TTY services through the network.

Considering these benefits, VoIP brings an opportunity to improve the productivity of everyone in the workplace—including people with disabilities.

Accessibility of Cisco IP Phones Portfolio

To improve the accessibility of IP phones, Cisco Systems has been working closely with providers of assistive technologies and with research and consulting organizations such as AWS. AWS conducted an accessibility assessment of the IP Phone 79XX Series and SoftPhone to provide recommendations to further enhance accessibility features of these products.

IP Phone 79XX Series

  • 7912G—provides features that address the communication needs of a cubicle worker who uses basic telephone applications. It offers four dynamic soft keys that guide a user through call features and functions. The graphic capability of the LCD display provides basic calling information and access to features.

  • 7960G—is a fully featured IP phone which provides six programmable lines, feature buttons, and a speakerphone. It offers four dynamic soft keys that guide a user through call features and functions. The LCD display provides features such as date and time, calling party name, and calling party number.

  • 7970G—is a fully featured IP phone which has a color LCD display and touch screen providing eight programmable lines as well as feature buttons and a speakerphone. It offers five dynamic soft keys that guide a user through call features and functions. The display provides features such as date and time, calling party name, and calling party number.

The Accessibility Evaluation by AWS consisted of a two-stage process. First an accessibility overview was conducted to identify key features such as tactual identification and arrangement of buttons, access to display information, presence and configuration of soft keys, visibility of screen, and display contrast ratio and adjustability. Secondly, a thorough accessibility evaluation was done according to a defined real-case task list. User interface, features, functionalities, and usability of the hardware/software products were evaluated based on these real-case scenarios. Recommendations were made for future accessibility improvements of the Cisco IP Phones.

Accessibility features of the phones include the following:

  • Large LCD screen that provides all display information visually. This feature improves accessibility for cognitively impaired users.

  • Color LCD screen with high contrast ratio, providing accessibility enhancement for low vision users.

  • Large buttons with logical layout arrangement, making the phone easier to use. The layout includes a dedicated button to retrieve voice-mail messages.

  • Documentation available in electronic, large print, or braille upon request.

  • The non-proprietary standards of IP, allowing third parties or customers themselves to develop accessibility features on the phone. These features may include the ability to incorporate Text to Speech (TTS) software. The presence of TTS software resolves accessibility barriers for both blind and visually impaired users.

  • A speaker phone with ability to attach external speakers for increased audio output, helping hard of hearing users

  • Compatibility with TTY devices.


The IP SoftPhone is a VoIP software communications application for a laptop or desktop PC. SoftPhone takes advantage of the usability of a PC and controls the hardware IP phone. In addition, it functions as a standalone software IP phone. SoftPhone provides a flexible user interface and context-sensitive controls. It has multiple features and functionalities that allow a blind and a low vision user to operate the phone.

The SoftPhone application was also evaluated in conjunction with the JAWS™ screen reader. A blind user evaluated the product to assess its operation with this screen reader. Upon evaluation, AWS provided recommendations for further accessibility enhancements of this product.

Key accessibility features of SoftPhone are:

  • Provides complete compatibility and operation with screen readers and screen magnifiers software.

  • Identifies line status (important with a multiple-line phone), speed dial identification, and caller ID information for missed and placed calls.

  • For all the mouse-driven functions, provides alternatives for performing these tasks from the keyboard.

  • Provides an accessible online Help system with complete information.


In any workplace, the phone is a basic tool that a majority of workers rely on for their day-to-day work functions. VoIP is creating sophisticated productivity enhancements that move the phone beyond just a communication device. As such, it is critical that even the newest technology maintain accessibility. From a disabled end-user's perspective, VoIP provides key accessibility features. These features allow all people, including those with disabilities, greater productivity in the workplace.

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