Accessibility – Mobile Phones

Sun 27 July 2008 by Garry Bodsworth

Try to buy a mobile phone for anyone with visual impairment. It’s not easy.

What you want is a mobile phone that is simple and clear to use. Unfortunately those beasts do not exist. On the RNIB website you can go to their shop and see the few available. They are not of the quality you usually see in mass produced phones, but they are expensive in the grand scheme of things (obviously missing out on economies of scale and not being made by the large players in the mobile market).

When I was looking I looked at all the major manufacturer websites for options that are more accessible and they did have pages on their site suggesting the best models for it. Unfortunately those models were typically so old they were discontinued, and every model that was suggested was totally unsuitable. I think also when people think of the blind they think of complete visual loss which is actually more rare than being visually impaired enough to be registered blind, so large and clear items can work for the blind.

In the end out of the options the Emporia Life Plus was the least bad option. The buttons and display are fairly large and clear, definitely much more so than every mainstream phone handset. The phone is actually designed for the elderly with a bright red button on the back to hit in case of emergencies, so its applicability for someone with visual impairment is only a side-effect.

I think this is a failure of simple user interface design. Part of the reason I steered clear of mobile phones for several years is that as they added more features to their checklist, those features weren’t very nice to use. Actually I just found an iPhone page for accessibility which is a start. I suppose some people are not too sure because of the lack of tactile feedback so I suppose this is where audio feedback becomes very important and where someone able to set it up in the best way possible comes in. There is also a pdf with more iPhone details here.

Have a look at the Nokia N82 smartphone and just from the image you can see the buttons are completely unsuitable. It’s principal technology is that it scans and reads documents for the blind (and email, etc) which is all well and good but the complete package doesn’t address every need. It’s a gadget to help the completely blind in general rather than allowing the visually impaired to make good use of their mobile phone (or as it is nowadays a mobile computer).

It would be very interesting for a study on how to improve interfaces for visual impairment because if nothing happens and more goes mobile/online you end up with a surprising number of people left out of the loop. Even a study of the audio, tactile and visual elements would be an enlightening proposition to help take a step forward in understanding.