October 2003 • Volume 97Number 10

In the Palm of Your Hand: A Vision of the Future of Technology for People with Visual Impairments

Abstract: From the perspective of a nonprofit leader in the field of adaptive technology, the wireless cell phone is the key to greater access to technology for people with disabilities. The confluence of the mobile computing needs of the general public and the visually impaired community grows ever closer and bodes well for tools that will help lower barriers to education and employment.

For a significant proportion of people who are visually impaired, the personal computer (PC) has been the breakthrough tool. In congressional testimony in 1996, the author described the PC as "the Swiss army knife for people with disabilities," a general tool that can be adapted to many uses (Fruchterman, 1996). In many respects, this analogy has been apt, except in the area of expense and complexity. PCs have fallen dramatically in price over the past decade, but they are still much more expensive and complex than is a Swiss army knife.

This situation will change in the coming decade as the processing power of today's PCs migrates to cell phones. A cell phone of the near future will have far more processing power than a PC of the previous decade. Voice recognition, voice synthesis, and optical character recognition will all run in software on these cell phones. Soon, a cell phone costing less than $100 will be able to see for the person who cannot see, read for the person who cannot read, speak for the person who cannot speak, remember for the person who cannot remember, and guide the person who is lost. In addition, it will also be able to access a tremendous range of information, including the full text of almost all books. Many capabilities that were thought of as separate products will become available as services that are accessible through these devices (Vanderheiden, 2002).

These changes will actually reach out and touch the majority of people with visual impairments over the next decade, a degree of penetration that PCs have not been able to achieve. The true turning point will occur when almost all the special needs of people with disabilities are met through mass market products and services, so that features that accommodate special needs will become simply useful features for everyone. When this turning point is reached, the cell phone will truly become the Swiss army knife for people with disabilities around the world. The key elements of this transition will be as follows:

  • Standard cell phones will have the processing power for almost all the requirements of adaptive technology.
  • These devices will be able to download software seamlessly to extend their capabilities.
  • The wireless connection will provide access to a tremendous range of information and services.
  • The network effect will allow for the better mobilization of resources.
  • The costs of these products and services will reach a level that allows true accessibility worldwide.

Standard wireless phones

The cellular telephone of today is a powerful computer combined with a wireless radio. It has relatively closed capabilities, so it is not easy to add functionality by adding new software. Tomorrow's cell phone will look much more like a PC of a few years ago; it will run an operating system; be able to accept new software; and have the processing power to perform voice synthesis, voice recognition, and character recognition. In this context, I am using the term cell phone in a general way. The device may look like a standard cell phone, or it may run the gamut from a device with one or two buttons to a standard phone to a Palm Pilot to a device with a keyboard and multiline display. Whatever the form, several key attributes will be present. The first will be wireless connectivity, which does not necessarily mean current cellular technology (it could be based on the 802.11 wireless standard, rather than on cell phone technology). In addition, multiple input/ output modalities will provide flexibility in the control of and interaction with the device. Finally, the device will have processing power to accomplish many tasks and the ability to tap the network for even more processing power. These devices will offer critical capabilities to a far greater proportion of the global community of people with disabilities than is possible today.

To date, manufacturers of these devices have not fully realized this potential for access. For example, Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (see Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines, 1998) "requires manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment to ensure that the equipment is designed, developed, and fabricated to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, if readily achievable." The lack of accessibility of today's cell phones therefore turns on what is readily achievable. The increasingly built-in capabilities of planned cell devices, including their capacity to add software after they are manufactured, will work to lower the readily achievable bar. Requirements for access that were not easy to achieve in past generations of devices will become easy to achieve. Furthermore, it will be possible for advocates to demonstrate this accessibility in software, so it will be difficult for manufacturers to argue that accessibility is not readily achievable in response to consumers' complaints.

New software

Just as the PC offered a mass platform for software developers, so will these new wireless devices. Several vendors, such as Motorola, have recently announced cell phones that use Java software and a Linux operating system (see Weiss, 2003). This kind of open-source platform will speed the creation of new applications. The trend in the industry is to move away from proprietary systems that attempt to protect features to open systems that increase the speed of developing new features. This trend will also strongly encourage the development of open-source applications that will be free or inexpensive options for end users. One example is the likely expansion of the number of natural languages that will be available in free open-source implementations of text-to-speech technology, such as the Festvox project (see "Welcome to Festvox.org," 2003). Thus, socially motivated software developers and disability groups will be able to take accessibility into their own hands, just as they did with the PC.

Although it is not clear which operating systems will become dominant, this issue will matter to consumers less than it has before. On a portable device, the complexity of an operating system is hidden from the user. A hallmark of portable devices is the ease of installing new software. Thus, assistive technology (AT) accommodations can easily and smoothly be added to a stock device. Another exciting new area of software development is the addition of multichannel capabilities to databases, such as Oracle9i, enabling visually impaired users to access data over a cell phone in a voice format (see Oracle9i Database, 2003).

Wireless connection

By itself, a handheld device will be a useful platform for delivering AT. If affordable wireless connectivity is added, it will become far more powerful. This goes well beyond the obvious utility of cell phones to people who are blind who find it difficult to locate one of the ever-decreasing public telephone booths. Wireless connections provide easy access to software, services, and content, all of which can make a major contribution to the quality of life for people who are visually impaired. Software that is downloaded easily over a wireless connection lowers a major barrier to accessing the improved functionality of a device. Furthermore, information that is not accessible on the device is usually available on the network.

The wireless connection of cellular phones is changing. This change may be the planned 3G network technology or even something less structured. The "WiFi" technology, which is based on the IEEE 802.11 standards and unlicensed spectrum, is becoming a part of many wireless networks, and telephones that will use this standard have already been announced (see Bergstein, 2002). This approach provides a low-cost way of accessing network connectivity.

Range of content and network effects

There has already been an explosion of content on the Internet. However, this is just the beginning of what could be possible. Beyond today's news and electronic commerce, the potential that could be harnessed for people with disabilities is dramatic. For visually impaired people, the most exciting aspect of the Internet is the accessibility of available content. It takes a special effort to make web content that is inaccessible. Unfortunately, in the case of electronic books, many publishers have decided to make this effort. Some of the reasons for this unprogressive stance were discussed at length by Kerscher and Fruchterman (2002). However, it seems likely that this is a temporary problem that will be addressed through more education and technical solutions.

Legislation is being revised around the world to make access to copyrighted material a fundamental right for people with disabilities. The United States and Canada passed revised copyright laws in the 1990s to establish that it was not an infringement of copyright for governmental and nonprofit entities to make accessible versions of books. The United Kingdom just passed a similar law, and countries in the European Community have been directed to implement such laws. In the United States, stronger legislation has been proposed to require publishers of textbooks to make accessible versions of these books.

In addition, the major providers of accessible books are in the middle of planned transitions to electronic versions of their content through the adoption of the new digital Talking Book standard NISO Z39.86–2002 (also known as the DAISY standard). Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (2003) is already providing audio books on CD-ROM in this new digital format. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (2003a, 2003b) of the U.S. Library of Congress is providing electronic books today for downloading over the Internet in a digital braille format, is planning to move to the NISO standard, and is exploring more delivery options.

Beyond lowering the barrier to accessing content, by making the nearly instant downloading of books possible, the Internet also provides a mechanism for harnessing the efforts of a community. People who are visually impaired have not often had opportunities to volunteer, but over the Internet, nobody knows that they are visually impaired. Specifically, with regard to access to books, the Internet has made it possible to establish a service like Bookshare.org (see "Welcome to Bookshare.org," 2003), an online library of accessible books that is being built primarily by visually impaired people who share the books that they scan. Thanks to the energy of this volunteer community, this library is being built at the rate of 300–500 books per month. These are just a few examples of the continuing expansion of content that has been enabled by the latest network technology. A logical and hopeful expectation would be that the current partial rift between mainstream content and accessible content will be fully mended over time, making commercial content easily and immediately available to people with disabilities.

Affordability equals accessibility

Two major barriers have limited the penetration of AT into the visually impaired population: price and complexity. AT has been beyond the means of most people with disabilities, and the difficulty of using the technology has discouraged even those with means. The adoption of cell phones by the general and disabled populations has been a different story. The combination of affordability and simplicity has been irresistible, and these devices have swept the world, so that more than one billion people own cell phones (Charney, 2001). The same phenomenon must occur for AT. Affordability is a crucial factor in accessibility.

The incredible size of the cell-phone market (over 400 million units sold per year since 2000; see "Microsoft's Next Frontier: Wireless," 2003) has driven prices down to the point where cell phones can be easily purchased for less than $100. Many of the cell phones being sold are replacement units, creating a large number of used cell phones with a low value. It is easy to imagine the powerful cell phone of four years hence being on sale a year later on eBay or the local market for $10 or $20. These used cell phones will have the processing power that was associated with PCs until recently, capable of doing such tasks as voice recognition and text-to-speech voice synthesis. Even without the associated wireless communications service, the cell phone will be an inexpensive access tool that is within the reach of the majority of people with disabilities worldwide.

One simple example of this potential is in the area of electronic books (e-books).With the correct software, a used cell phone could become a player of accessible books. It will not matter if the e-book is an audio recording of a human narrator or just the digital text with synthetic speech. The power to access literacy will be within the reach of any disabled person.

Making the vision a reality

Let us imagine a scenario 5–10 years hence for a visually impaired person in the United States. A typical visually impaired consumer walks into a standard cellular store. A $100 cell device is chosen, and a standard wireless plan is selected. The salesperson mentions an 800 number at which disability-specific software can be accessed, and the consumer and salesperson call the number while they set up the device. The option for a visually impaired person is chosen, and within a minute, all the standard features of the phone, plus some specialized capabilities, are available in accessible ways. The phone can be controlled three different ways: completely by voice command, by using the keys on the phone, or by using an external braille device. The response from the device comes from audio feedback from the phone in the form of recorded speech prompts or text-to-speech, which can be delivered enlarged on the admittedly small display or provided wirelessly to an external braille device.

Once a device is accessible to a user with visual impairments, a world of possibilities is enabled. First, all the typical organizer functions one would expect to be standard are available, including calendar/appointments, personal contact database, electronic mail, short text or multimedia messaging, note taking, and web surfing. Personal location-based services would also be a standard part of the package. These services would use the capability of the new phones to provide the user's current location, as Global Positioning System receivers now do. These services will make information about the user's current position ("you are at the corner of First and Main"), as well as directions based on either walking or public transportation, available. In addition to position and navigational services, information will be readily available for points of interest, such as restaurants and emergency services, and would be able to pinpoint the location of a mobile user.

Furthermore, a host of capabilities and services that are designed for a visually impaired person will be offered. Some of these capabilities and services will be freely available, others will be available on a fee-per-download or use basis, and still others will be available on an all-you-can-use subscription basis. Some capabilities may be available in all three modes. For example, many of these portable devices will have built-in cameras. An open-source software package, which is capable of basic text recognition, will be freely downloadable. An upgraded software package with more extensive character-recognition software that runs on the device will be offered, priced either as a onetime license fee or on a continuing subscription basis. A much more powerful server-based solution will be able to analyze pictures that the local software cannot handle. Volunteers will be online, offering to help describe the scene, as will call centers that will offer the services of trained personnel on a price-per-minute basis. These human-assisted services will be able to deliver far more information than the machine recognition that software can provide. Will all these options be available simultaneously? Probably not, but all will probably be tried out, and the viable solutions will remain. The astonishing thing is the flexibility that these devices will offer for solving a single problem: describing an image.

This flexibility will lower the barriers that characterize today's AT market. The fact is that the majority of people with disabilities are not taking advantage of AT tools because of price, lack of information about the tools, difficulty using them, and unwillingness to use specialized technology. By building adaptive capabilities into standard devices that are used by the majority of the population, manufacturers will overcome most of these barriers. The information will be available through the devices themselves, the devices will be easier to use and much more affordable, and they will not look different from what sighted people use.


The promise of technology has often been slightly out of reach for people who are visually impaired. It may be that information that should be accessible is not. It may be that the products have been too costly for the typical individual. It may also be that complexity has presented a barrier to use. One of the most exciting characteristics of technology is that each year more and more becomes possible. By tapping the relentless commercial drive for improved wireless communication devices, AT tools that could not be imagined a few years ago are becoming possible. Within the next decade, the key to access will rest in the palms of visually impaired people around the world.


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James R. Fruchterman, M.S., president and CEO, Benetech, 480 South California Avenue, Suite 201, Palo Alto, CA 94306; e-mail: <jim@benetech.org>.

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