Most everyone reading this issue of AccessWorld can think back to a time when the majority of phone calls were placed from a stationary location—your home, office, a hotel room, or even a pay phone. Cell phones, when they could be found in the wild, were big, bulky affairs whose cost was more than most people were willing to justify. And besides, who wanted to be tethered to a phone 24/7, anyway? It is now possible to surf the Web, track your daily exercise goals, read the newspaper, and listen to music all from one device, and many people are willing to pay for the privilege of doing so.

With the increased power that cell phones now possess comes an increase in both complexity and cost. Not everyone wants to pay for a data plan that will allow them to watch Netflix, run a business, and shop, all from their phone. Not everyone is comfortable with typing on a smooth sheet of glass, updating apps, and installing the newest version of an operating system. For anyone with a visual impairment, the need to work with low-vision settings or a screen reader that is built into the device only adds more complexity to the situation.

Is it possible for a person to still find a phone that has basic features, doesn't cost an arm and a leg, and is relatively easy to use? In this article, we will take a look at five providers—Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and GreatCall—to see what offerings they provide for someone with a visual impairment, and does not want to leap head-first into the world of smartphone technology. We will not go into detail about specific phones in this article, although plenty of links will be provided should you wish to examine the specifications of a particular phone in more detail. Rather, we will discuss guidelines that you can consider when looking for a basic feature phone that might meet your needs. Since phone offerings change regularly, a phone mentioned in this article might not be available by the time you try to purchase it, and three more excellent choices may have taken its place.

Easier-to Use Cell Phone Options for People with Visual Impairments from Verizon

In doing research for this article, I tried to take an approach that I thought the average person might take. Perhaps an older person who is beginning to lose their vision might have a son or daughter to help them locate an easy-to-use phone—one that requires only a minimal data plan, has talking menus and readouts, and possibly a large font that makes the display easier to see. Although some might choose to visit a brick-and-mortar store in order to put their hands on the phone they are considering, others would logically start by visiting the Web. Since my cell phone provider is Verizon, I started there. I went to Verizon's home page, and found an accessibility link on the site.

Upon arriving at Verizon's accessibility page, I learned that they are committed to meeting the needs of everyone who has a disability. This general statement is something I would find on all of the cell phone provider sites I visited. Regardless of whether you have a visual impairment, a hearing impairment, or have any other disabilities, Verizon claims to have you covered. But what about someone who specifically has visual impairment? Is it possible to easily find an easy-to-use phone, known as a feature phone, that addresses the needs of someone who has low vision, or no vision at all?

I found that Verizon addresses this question in a way that only one other provider did, but in a way that was unique to Verizon.

By following a link labeled "accessibility device features and apps," I was able to locate a table with 14 features down the left side, and ten phones across the columns to the right of the features. By finding the features I was looking for—which included voice-activated dialing, caller ID with speech, one-touch speed dial, voice command, phone status with speech, readable command, ringtones, adjustable large font, text message readout (incoming), text message readout (incoming / outgoing), limited menu readout, full menu readout, qwerty keyboard, and digit dial—I was able to then move across the columns in order to see which phones had the features I wanted. By using the table navigation commands in Jaws 18—the screen reader I used for my research—I heard the words "heavy checkmark" spoken as I came across a feature that was available in Verizon's list of feature phones. The list of phones included the LG Cosmos 3, LG Revere 2 / 3, LG Exalt / 2, LG Terra, LG Extravert, LG Extravert 2, Samsung Gusto 2, Samsung Gusto III, Kyocera Dura XV, and the Samsung Convoy 3 / 4.

I then placed a call to Verizon's accessibility number (888-262-1999) and received prompt and courteous service. The customer service representative with whom I spoke knew exactly what I was looking for when I asked her about a feature phone for someone who was blind, and recommended the Samsung Gusto III.

In a blog post found on the National Federation of the Blind's website, author Clara Van Gerven favorably reviews this phone, which apparently is a much-needed improvement over the Gusto 2.

I was very pleased with how easily I was able to locate the exact information I was looking for on Verizon's website, and I was even more impressed with the phone support I received. Had I wanted to do so, I could have easily purchased the phone—99 cents with a two-year contract, according to the NFB blog post sited above—and I could have had the phone in my hands in very short order.

Even if someone is not a Verizon customer, the list of features presented above are an excellent guideline for anyone who wants to find cell phone features that meet the needs of specific disabilities.

Easier-to-Use Cell Phone Options for People with Visual Impairments from AT&T

I next decided to take a look at AT&T, a household name when it comes to providers of phone and Internet services. I went to AT&T's main home page and found a link labeled "Accessibility Resources for Customers with Disabilities." There I learned about AT&T's commitment to meeting the needs of everyone with a disability. I also found another table of features, but this one was much more generalized, giving guidelines for what to look for in a phone if you have a specific disability, but with no phone suggestions provided. I found plenty of references to smartphones on the site, but no mention of feature phones. I found a phone number for AT&T's National Center for Customers with Disabilities. To reach them, dial 866-241-6568, press option 2, and option 2 again. The customer representative with whom I spoke was very friendly, but was soon struggling to assist me when I told her I was not interested in a smartphone such as an iPhone or Android phone. The only phone she was able to recommend was the AT&T Z223 prepaid goPhone for $17.99. Although she assured me that it was possible to turn on accessibility features from within the phone's menus, she was unable to tell me what those features were. Try as I might, I have been unable to verify that this phone actually has any accessibility features at all such as talking menus, the ability to hear text messages spoken aloud, etc. These features may in fact exist, but you will probably need to visit a brick and mortar store in order to examine the phone for yourself.

I didn't find AT&T's website as easy to navigate using my screen reader as Verizon's and I was unable to find a basic feature phone whose accessibility features I could verify.

Easier-to-Use Cell Phone Options for People with Visual Impairments from T-Mobile

I next turned to T-Mobile, a cell phone provider I have used in the past. Back in the day, I used a phone with an installed screen reader. Since iPhones, Android phones, and Blackberry and Windows phones now come with various degrees of built-in accessibility, third-party screen readers for phones are a thing of the past. If you don't want to use a full-fledged smartphone, touch screen and all, you will need to find a basic feature phone with some sort of accessibility built in.

From the company's home page, I found a link simply labeled "Accessibility." While there was plenty of information for those with hearing impairment, including a list of suggested phones, I didn't find a lot for people with visual impairment other than references to smartphones such as Apple's iPhone. I did find an accessibility customer support phone number (844-375-8107).

I have always been impressed with T-Mobile's customer support, and this call was no different. The customer representative was courteous and attentive, but struggled to find phones that met my needs—talking readouts and menus, and a large display for low vision users. She was aware that the LG 450 had some of the features I was requesting, because her grandfather had recently gotten one. It wasn't until I asked her for the price of the phone that she realized the product was no longer in stock. She told me that, in all likelihood, the phone was no longer being distributed by T-Mobile.

While I did find information regarding accessibility on T-Mobile's website, I was unable to find a basic feature phone that met the criteria I was looking for.

Easier-to-Use Cell Phone Options for People with Visual Impairments from Sprint

When I visited Sprint's website, I again found a link simply labeled "Accessibility." Here is where I found a pleasant surprise. Not only did I find a link for customers with visual impairments, but also a link with information for customers who are seniors.

By visiting these pages, I was able to find clear recommendations for phones that would fit the criteria I was looking for. One of these phones—the Kyocera Verve—was reviewed by Bill Holton in the May, 2011 issue of AccessWorld. Bill gives a thorough description of the phone, discusses its accessibility features, and even guides the reader through turning on the accessibility features without sighted assistance if that is desired. Priced at $19.95, this phone is reasonably priced, as is the case with most all other feature phones I know anything about. That is, after all, part of their appeal.

I spoke with two Sprint representatives who, unfortunately, had no idea how to help me find a basic, feature phone with accessibility options, and did not seem aware of the fact that the very phones I was looking for were listed on the company's Website.

Easier-to-Use Cell Phone Options for People with Visual Impairments from GreatCall

Perhaps not everyone has heard of GreatCall, but the name Jitterbug is most likely familiar to everyone reading this article. While this phone may not have all of the features necessary for someone who is blind, a low-vision user might find it a good option. In fact, the website mentions seniors specifically, and touts safety and security as reasons why the Jitterbug might be a good phone for the senior population. Among other things, it is possible to speak with a human if assistance is needed in dialing a number, or modifying your phone's address book. A search of the American Foundation for the Blind's website brought up a May, 2011 review of the Jitterbug J.

Today, GreatCall is selling the Jitterbug Flip for $74.99, and phone plans start at $14.99 for 200 minutes per month. To order, call 800-650-5918.

The Bottom Line

There is no question that smartphones have taken the place of basic, feature devices for most cell phone users. That said, it is still possible to purchase a low-cost, basic phone and cell plan with most, if not all of the major cell phone providers available today. For me, Verizon and Sprint tie for first place when it comes to easily finding, on their respective websites, phones that meet specific needs, and these will vary from person to person. It is for this reason that I recommend visiting a store and personally test driving a phone before you buy it, if it all possible. Even if a phone has talking menus, and reads incoming text messages out loud, the buttons may be too close together for someone with dexterity issues. Perhaps the speech output on any given phone might be easily understood by one person, but very difficult to understand by another. One user might have no problem opening a flip phone—a phone whose keypad has a covering over it—while someone else may do better with a candy bar phone—one whose keypad is exposed at all times. Even a phone that has a slide-out keyboard may present difficulties for someone who has trouble manipulating the very small keys available on that keyboard. That said, I realize that it might not be possible for everyone to easily get to a store in order to look at various phone options.

I did not have as much success in finding accessible phones by visiting the websites of AT&T, or T-Mobile. Of all the sites I visited, only Verizon gave me the telephone support I was looking for.

The Jitterbug is in a category of its own, since it is dedicated to meeting the needs of seniors, and possibly those with disabilities. I did not call and visit with anyone from GreatCall about the Jitterbug.

After doing research for this article, I am convinced that, although the options are fewer than they once were, it is still possible to find a basic, low-cost, easy-to-use phone that will meet the needs of someone who is totally blind, or has low vision. Should you decide to speak with a sales representative on the phone, be prepared to be very specific about exactly what features you are looking for in a phone. Unfortunately, there are no general terms that you can use in order to ensure that you and the representative are on the same page when it comes to your needs. Keep in mind that the person with whom you are speaking may have never before encountered a person with a disability. Although cell phone providers are certainly aware at a corporate level of the needs of those who have disabilities, more needs to be done in order to get that information to the sales representatives who actually take calls on a daily basis.

Is there anything I missed? Feel free to comment on this article with any tips you have for navigating the world of purchasing a cell phone as a person who is blind or who has low vision.

Comment on this article.

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Jamie Pauls
Article Topic
Cell Phone Accessibility