I've been writing cell phone evaluation articles for AccessWorld for over eight years, and since this issue of AccessWorld is focusing on cell phone accessibility, I thought I'd better step up and have something to say. In this article, instead of detailing the accessibility of a particular phone, I'm going to give an overview of what I see as the current state of accessibility affairs in the mobile device world. Although I won't give a lot of detail about each phone I discuss, I will link to AccessWorld articles evaluating each phone where appropriate. I'll begin with the high end of the market, the smartphones that are in reality very powerful mobile computers. I will then cover the lower end of the market, the less powerful mobile phones, known as feature phones or message phones. I will also briefly detail what each of the four major national service providers have to offer as far as accessible devices. I will then provide some information about Access Wireless, a website created by The Wireless Association (CTIA) and the wireless industry to help people with disabilities, seniors, and their families find a cell phone and service.
Smartphones are increasingly powerful mobile computing devices that happen to also be telephones. Mobile devices are much more powerful and feature-rich than the computers I used when I first got into the tech business 15 years ago, and their accessibility will be increasingly important as computing trends further and further away from the desktop. A great deal has changed in the smartphone market since I first began detailing their accessibility in 2003. Phones running the Symbian operating system, manufactured mainly by Nokia, were the first to allow for the installation of third party access software. Nuance's TALKS and Code Factory's Mobile Speak screen readers, along with their screen magnifier counterparts, came on the scene in 2003 and 2004 and provided expensive but highly effective access to Symbian smartphones. Though these software products are still available, the Symbian phones themselves are becoming less available in the U.S. market. That's because Nokia, the main manufacturer of Symbian phones, recently announced a move away from Symbian towards Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 platform.
This brings us to Microsoft Windows smartphones. Beginning with the Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system through version 6.5, Windows-based smartphones supported a compatible version of Mobile Speak and a screen reader from Dolphin called Smart Hal. However, as we reported in our December 2010 issue, the 2010 release of Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 operating system does not support any screen readers, and phones built on that operating system have no built-in accessibility to support people with vision loss. Although Microsoft has promised to remedy that situation, in the meantime our choices are limited by this shortcoming.
Although Nokia is moving away from Symbian and new Windows phones are not an option, you can still find some Symbian phones and older Windows phones at various online retailers. You can also buy Symbian phones with the KNFB Reader software for reading print material at www.KNFBReader.com. It's just not very likely that you will find a Symbian phone at your local mobile phone store these days.
AccessWorld readers familiar with my articles on Apple's products know I am a huge fan of the iPhone. Its built-in VoiceOver screen reader and Zoom magnification feature, as well as its compatibility with wireless braille displays, are unparalleled in the mobile device landscape. Now available from both AT&T and Verizon Wireless, I highly recommend the iPhone to our readers who want a mobile device that is both powerful and fully accessible. Mine rarely leaves my side, as I use it as a Web browser, book reader, music player, and to keep up with my e-mail. With all the third party apps available, such as money identifiers, GPS tools, and bar code scanners, there seem to be unlimited possibilities for the iPhone. We're also seeing early optical character recognition (OCR) apps, and I hear that a Bookshare app is right around the corner.
There is certainly a bit of learning to be done when you first try to use the iPhone's touch screen interface, but it's not as daunting as some may think. I definitely found it easier to learn to use than I did my PC screen reader. I will have to admit though, that the actual phone feature itself is probably the most difficult to use, especially when interacting with one of those annoying voicemail systems that require you to press 1 for customer service and 2 for tech support, etc. That said, it does work if you have some patience and use a headset, and all the other benefits of the iPhone make it worth it.
Although my May 2010 AccessWorld article evaluating Android accessibility was not entirely positive, it was cautiously optimistic about the future. That optimism may prove well-placed as several improvements were announced by Google's Eyes-Free Project in 2011. Those improvements include the addition of a talking on-screen keyboard and an accessible virtual D-pad for easier navigation through apps. This is extremely important, as Android phones with physical QWERTY keyboards, D-pads, or track balls are becoming rare.
You can also read about Code Factory's new Mobile Accessibility software for Android phones in J.J. Meddaugh's article in this issue of AccessWorld. Mobile Accessibility provides a screen reader and a suite of accessible apps that includes a Web browser, an e-mail app, and a calendar.
These developments are certainly encouraging, because Android phones are becoming more and more ubiquitous and several manufacturers are building Android phones. You can find them at every service provider, not just AT&T and Verizon (the only iPhone carriers). It still takes a bit of tech ability to figure out how to activate and use Android's accessibility features and software.
My May 2010 review of the Oratio screen reader for BlackBerry smartphones found it to be a solid product that provides access to most of the phone's features and functions. However, it was—and according to Humanware's website, still is—compatible with only one BlackBerry phone. Also, its $449 price tag keeps many in the vision loss community from embracing it. However, for people whose employment situation requires the use of a BlackBerry, Oratio is a viable option.
For people with low vision, BlackBerry phones offer display themes that feature higher contrast and larger fonts, and an upcoming issue of AccessWorld will feature an article reviewing the new BlackBerry "Clarity" display theme targeted at their customers with visual impairments.
I realize not everyone is interested in a smartphone, and I do hear from AccessWorld readers who say, "I just want an accessible basic phone, and I don't want to be bothered by all the bells and whistles of smartphones." I also often hear concerns over the extra data download costs associated with using a smartphone. There are a handful of phones with speech output in the lower-end feature phone (or message phone) category. These phones are not compatible with electronic braille displays, but they often do have at least some features that would benefit a person with low vision.
Two phones that fit into this category are available from Verizon Wireless: the Samsung Haven and the LG Accolade. Morgan Blubaugh and Tara Annis review the Accolade in this issue of AccessWorld, and we reviewed the Haven in November 2010. The LG Lotus, available from Sprint, is a very similar phone to the LG Accolade. The Pantech Breeze II, available from AT&T, has some speech support and features that will assist a person with low vision, but the Contact List and Caller ID do not have speech output. AT&T also offers some LG phones with speech output, but they are not as robust as the LG phones I mentioned from Verizon and Sprint. Also available is the Jitterbug J phone, which is aimed at seniors and people with low vision. We reviewed the latest version of the Jitterbug last month. Another option for a basic feature phone with large keys is the Snapfon ez ONE, sold by Independent Living Aids and described in AccessWorld News in our May 2010 issue.
The "Big Four" Service Providers
I thought it would be helpful to include a round-up of what each of the four national service providers (AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile) has to offer as far as accessible devices. I also include the address for each service provider's accessibility webpage.
AT&T was the first to offer the very accessible iPhone, and it continues to do so. In addition to the latest model, the iPhone 4, AT&T also offers the iPhone 3G S at a discounted price of $49. some Symbian phones and older Windows Mobile phones, along Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier software from Code Factory at a discounted price. AT&T has several Android phones available and we hope the company will also offer Code Factory's new Mobile Accessibility screen reader for Android phones for customers with vision loss. You can call AT&T's National Center for Customers with Disabilities at (866) 241-6568 to learn more.
In terms of feature phones, as mentioned earlier AT&T offers the Breeze 2, along with LG phones that have some speech output. In general, speech support for AT&T LG phones is not as complete as that of the LG phones offered by Verizon. You can learn more about AT&T's products and services for people with disabilities on their accessibility site.
In early 2011, to the delight of many of their customers with vision loss, Verizon Wireless began offering the iPhone, with the same accessibility features as the AT&T iPhone. The only difference we've found between the phones offered by these two providers is that you can't browse the Web via the cellular network while on a call on the Verizon phone. You can, however, browse the Web while on a call if you have an active WiFi connection. Verizon also still offers the "TALKS™ for Verizon Wireless" screen reader at a discounted price for the HTC Ozone, a Windows Mobile 6.5 smartphone. Verizon also offers several Android phones, but has not yet announced any plans to subsidize Mobile Speak for Android.
Verizon Wireless has long been the lead service provider for accessible feature phones, beginning with the LG VX 4500 that we evaluated in the May 2005 issue of AccessWorld. The previously mentioned LG Accolade is the latest phone from Verizon with a similar level of speech output, and Verizon also offers the LG enV 3, with similar speech output in a QWERTY keyboard model. Verizon's Samsung Haven is a basic phone with speech output that supports every single feature on the phone.
You can learn more about Verizon's products and services for people with disabilities on the Verizon accessibility site.
Sprint offers several Android phones, but does not cover the cost for Mobile Speak. As far as feature phones, Sprint's LG Lotus has accessibility features similar to the other LG phones I've mentioned. Sprint also offers the Motorola i580 and i880, which provide speech output for several features. Visit Sprint's accessibility site to learn more.
T-Mobile has not made much effort to comply with federal mandates to accommodate people with vision loss. The company has never offered discounts on screen readers for smartphones, nor has it offered any meaningful accessibility in the feature phones it carries. I was unable to find anything on the T-Mobile website regarding accessibility. Those of you who read the financial pages may have heard of the proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile, and if the merger does go through, we can only hope that the merged company continues AT&T's accessibility practices, not those of T-Mobile.
Access Wireless was created by CTIA and the wireless industry to help people with disabilities, seniors, and their families find a cell phone and service. Although I found no problems with the accessibility of the website, it did not strike me as particularly useful to people with vision loss. The site does have some general information about phone features that accommodate people with vision loss, but there is no guidance provided to help you find a particular phone with those features. Access Wireless's phone-finding tool is called Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative (GARI.) GARI is an accessible database, though it does not include most of the phones I've mentioned in this article. Also, most of the phones GARI does come up with for people with vision loss are not phones I would recommend to my readers. Although Access Wireless and GARI are great ideas, their implementation needs refinement and more manufacturers need to take part for the site to be truly useful. Responding to input from people with disabilities and the organizations that represent them would also go a long way towards making the tools useful.
Not everyone in the disability community shares my thoughts about Access Wireless, and we are interested in our reader's thoughts about the effectiveness of this website.
The Bottom Line
I've seen significant improvement in mobile phone accessibility over the past eight years, but we still have a way to go. As it stands, I can't say that the industry has fully complied with the spirit of federal accessibility mandates. Obviously, Microsoft has to step up to the plate and develop real accessibility with the new phones it offers. If and when Microsoft does that, I hope the company will follow Apple's example and build in comprehensive accessibility to every device at no extra cost. We definitely don't want to have to carry any company's water and pay for third party software ourselves. Android is following the right model, and I hope eventually Android will provide the same level of accessibility and usability we have on the iPhone. I would also like to see the manufacturers step up and build more feature phones that are fully accessible.
Accessibility will only grow in importance as mobile devices get more powerful and mobile computing becomes an even more intricate part of our daily lives. We can only hope that industry truly embraces accessibility and fully complies with the spirit of federal accessibility mandates.