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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

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AFB TECH Takes on Voting Machines and Cell Phones

American Foundation for the Blind's National Technology Program (AFB TECH) based in Huntington, West Virginia, is committed to ensuring that blind and visually impaired consumers are informed about and have access to products and devices that can help improve their daily lives. In 2002, evaluations were conducted on two devices: voting machines and cell phones. Both are key tools used to communicate in today's society. Voting machines communicate our opinions during an election and cell phones help us keep in contact with the world around us on a daily basis.

Voting is a privilege of American citizenship that many of us take for granted. However, the events surrounding the 2000 election called dramatic attention to the importance of each and every vote and also caused us to reflect upon the manner in which we exercise this awesome responsibility.

In October 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), intended to modernize the country's election processes. One important provision of HAVA is that it sets aside money for states to purchase electronic voting systems with the requirement that they be accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. Since it is estimated that 500,000 of these machines, costing between $2,000 and $5,000 each, would need to be purchased across the United States, it could be a multi-billion-dollar process to bring our nation up to date.

Several manufacturers have developed electronic voting machines to eliminate the inaccuracies involved with paper and "chad-style" ballots. These machines use electronic ballots displayed on computer screens and the ballots are counted automatically.

To guarantee that people who are blind or visually impaired are not left out of the equation as this modernization occurs, AFB's product testing laboratory (AFB TECH) obtained four machines and evaluated their usability and accessibility. We judged how these machines measured up using the following criteria:

  • Speech quality and whether the speech is produced via a recording of a human voice or synthetic speech,
  • Clarity of both printed and spoken instructions,
  • Controls that are identifiable by touch or have braille,
  • Means of avoiding undervoting (not choosing a candidate for a contest) or overvoting (choosing more than one candidate for a contest),
  • Users' control of the print size and screen contrast,
  • Ability to use visual and audio voting simultaneously, and
  • Overall ease of use.

In general, we found that the four voting machines were a tremendous improvement over voting with assistance from friends or poll workers, but there is clearly room for further improvement, especially in the areas of low vision accessibility and overall ease of use.

Voting is an inalienable right but cell phone use has become part of the culture. As Americans are becoming increasingly dependent on cell phones, they are demanding that manufacturers continually provide new features and enhanced capabilities. As cell phones become more cutting-edge and technologically sophisticated they tend to become smaller and sleeker. These so-called advances and design modifications often times make the phones less accessible to blind and visually impaired consumers. Section 255 of the Communications Act requires that cell phone manufacturers and service providers do all that is "readily achievable" to make each product or service accessible.

To focus our evaluation work, AFB TECH created a questionnaire and surveyed 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 top three are:

  • Keys which are easily identifiable by touch
  • Voice output
  • Accessible instruction manual

AFB TECH tested six of the top cell phones currently on the market to look at how accessible these critical features are and noted any barriers to accessing them.

Our evaluation determined 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 physically unidentifiable keys that it was extremely difficult to perform even the basic tasks of answering and placing phone calls.

The two phones we found to be most accessible were the Owasys 22C (pronounced "oasis") and the Nokia 3650, when equipped with speech-synthesis software. The Owasys has 6 control buttons on the front panel laid out in 2 rows of 3 each. Below these are the 12 dialing keys, arranged in the standard 3 by 4 grid. Also, the side panel has Up and Down keys for adjusting the volume. Although this telephone does not feature many of the extras that are found on today's cell phones—such as a camera, web access, or a video recorder—its voice output allows blind or visually impaired users to easily access virtually all of its features. The large size of the Nokia 3650 accommodates an oversized 2-inch by 1.5-inch display, and the phone features many of today's new innovations, such as web surfing, text and multimedia messaging, a digital camera, and even a video recorder. Menus are navigated with a circular five-way scroll button, and the telephone has its dialing numbers arranged in a circle, similar to the old rotary telephones.

The two models that got the highest marks show that it is possible to provide accessibility via speech software. This conclusion provides hope for the future of cell phone accessibility. If you would like to find out more about accessible voting machines or cell phones contact AFB's Information Center at (800) 232-5463 or afbinfo@afb.net.

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