Though touchscreen smartphones have seen significant accessibility improvements over the past half-decade, physical voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) phones continue to have a host of accessibility issues. VoIP phones are those that use the Internet instead of standard phone lines or cellular service to make and receive calls. Services that use VoIP include Magic Jack and Skype but also include networks operated by Cisco and other companies for businesses. For this article, I will be focusing on softphones, accessible alternatives that allow access to the features of largely inaccessible physical business phones. The solutions described in this article have been tested by AFB and have proved to be very accessible and usable.
Accessibility Issues with VOIP Phones
Phone features such as making and receiving calls can be achieved through touch or memorization but there are two distinct accessibility issues with physical VoIP phones. The displays on many VoIP phones are not back-lit and often have low contrast text, which can make it difficult to read for people with low vision. Font sizes on the screens are often small, compounding this issue. Though VoIP phones use physical buttons that can be discerned by touch, they also often use softkeys that change function depending on circumstances which allows for the inclusion of more features. The current function of a softkey is presented on the digital display above the key, and with a lack of alternative feedback for visual changes on the display, it can be difficult to memorize what the function of a softkey will be at any given time. AFB staff research has yet to find a stand-alone physical VoIP phone that presents display information in an accessible manner—whether through speech output or through high contrast/large font—to someone with a visual impairment. Because of this, many advanced phone options are not available to someone with a visual impairment.
Softphones as Accessible Solutions to Physical VoIP Business Phones
The most effective current solution for accessing all of the functions of a business VoIP phone is to use a softphone. A softphone is a piece of software that emulates the features of a physical VoIP phone. Users can install a softphone on their computers or smartphones in order to complete the tasks that would normally require a physical phone. Softphones are available on all of the major platforms including Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS. Some softphones have been created specifically to be accessible, while others are mainstream products that are accessible to screen readers. This article will discuss four of these softphones: two that are compatible with the Windows platform, one with iOS, and one with both Android and iOS .
Accessaphone Softphone for Windows from Tenacity
Accessaphone is a softphone by Tenacity designed to provide VoIP access to those with disabilities. Accessaphone connects to a physical VoIP phone and the phone's microphone provides input and the phone's speaker provides output. It works with multiple VoIP networks including Alworx, iCore, NEC, Shortel, and Cisco. One license costs $1,500, with a discount available for buying in bulk.
AFB tested Accessaphone with NVDA, Window Eyes, and JAWS. Accessaphone also includes an option for the Windows SAPI engine to voice program controls as well as caller ID. NVDA provided the best access to the application as it would read the function of each element when the control was focused. JAWS and NVDA were able to read all controls, but Window Eyes could not read the table that contained the call log information.
Accessaphone provides keyboard shortcuts for nearly every function imaginable, which makes navigation intuitive and efficient. Most controls are standard windows elements and the interface can be navigated with the keyboard both using the Tab key or the Arrow keys. With shortcuts for accessing items such as answering and ending calls as well as performing functions such as transferring with keystrokes, Accessaphone was the most efficient softphone tested.
VTGO508 Softphone for Windows From IP Blue
VTGO508 from IP Blue is another Windows softphone, primarily for the Cisco network, that has been designed to be accessible to those with disabilities. VTGO508 uses a SAPI engine to voice the interface as well as the caller ID. It does have hotkeys for certain functions (such as call log and address book), but not all, which can make performing some functions tedious. For example, to answer the phone you must first navigate to the Answer button instead of simply being pressing a hotkey. The interface is rather cluttered because it contains digital representations of the physical telephone keypad. In addition, many of the controls are not labeled when viewed by a screen reader and the built-in text-to-speech does not describe them in most cases. Compounding the issue is the fact that the user is not able to configure SAPI to only speak certain information such as the caller ID. In addition, several controls are represented by symbols without accompanying text due to the fact that the interface actually resembles a physical Cisco VoIP phone. This can make it difficult for low vision users to determine what controls will do when activated. Even with these issues, the software was usable and I was able to accurately perform phone tasks using VTGO508. VTGO508 is entirely digital, using the computer's speakers for output and an attached microphone for input. It retails for $750.
3CXPhone Softphone for iOS from 3CX
3CXPhone is a free, mainstream VoIP client for the iOS operating system. It uses Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) to make VoIP calls. SIP is a common VoIP protocol with free and low cost options available. Because of this, it is compatible with many VoIP providers. The app's appearance is similar to the standard iOS Phone app. Once you set up your SIP account you will be placed on the dialer activity screen. The only issue when using 3CX is that the Settings, Contacts, and History buttons are not labeled. In our tests, we found that, since the buttons are static, it was possible to use VoiceOver custom labels to label them properly.
Linphone Softphone for iOS and Android from Belledonne Communications
Linphone is an accessible SIP softphone for both iOS and Android. It also resembles the standard iOS Phone app in some ways. The static elements, such as Dialer and Contacts, are labeled correctly; however, on the iOS-compatible version of Linphone, the Contact information from incoming callers is not labeled correctly. The History tab shows the contact name and call status (Incoming/Outgoing/Missed) so it is possible to determine who has called and make calls to others successfully. The Android version of the app is essentially identical to the iOS version but does not contain the issue in which contact information isn't displayed during a call, making it an accessible SIP softphone for that platform.
The Bottom Line
The four softphones reviewed here provide the best access to advanced VoIP phone features thus far. Accessaphone is very accessible and efficient but is rather expensive. VTGO508 is not nearly as efficient but still usable costs nearly half the amount of that Accessaphone does. If you use SIP for your VoIP, 3CXPhone3 and Linphone provide some of the best access to VoIP on the iOS and Android platforms. They are both free and, though there are other accessible softphones, these were the best in regards to both accessibility and features during our testing.
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