Cell Phones for the Visually Impaired: New cell phones make it easier for a visually impaired person to stay in touch

White letters on a black background with hands holding a cell phone in the center.
New cell phones make it easier for a visually impaired person to stay in touch

Smartphones are everywhere and practically everyone uses them. In fact, according to Pew Research Center, the number of Americans owning smartphones is 81%. This is up from 35% from 2011. These phones can be a lifeline to persons of all abilities but especially to those living with visual impairments. This blog will look at built-in screen readers, two different phones designed for persons with visual impairments, and finally a brief look into the Life of a Blind Girl as she explains day to day uses of a smartphone.

Built-In Screen Readers

Apple’s Voiceover: VoiceOver is a gesture-based screen reader that lets you enjoy using iPhone even if you don’t see the screen. With VoiceOver enabled, just triple-click the Home button (or the side button on iPhone X or later) to access it wherever you are in iOS. Hear a description of everything happening on your screen, from battery level to who’s calling to which app your finger is on. You can also adjust the speaking rate and pitch to suit you.  Because VoiceOver is integrated in iOS, it works with all the built-in iPhone apps. You can create custom labels for buttons in any app — including third-party apps. And Apple works with the iOS developer community to make even more apps compatible with VoiceOver. Life After Sight Loss has a YouTube channel with a whole set of videos to help you understand VoiceOver 101.

Android’s (and Blackberry) TalkBack: To interact with your device using touch and spoken feedback, you can turn on the TalkBack screen reader. TalkBack describes your actions and tells you about alerts and notifications. You can use the TalkBack braille keyboard to enter 6-dot braille on your screen. Only Unified English Braille is currently supported. If you want spoken feedback only at certain times, you can turn on Select to Speak. Select items on your screen to hear them read or described aloud or point the camera at something in the real world. Live Accessible has a YouTube channel with a whole set of videos to help you understand TalkBack 101.

Window’s Narrator: Narrator is a screen-reading app that’s built into Windows 10, so there’s nothing you need to download or install. This guide (also available in PDF) describes how to use Narrator with Windows so that you can start using apps, browsing the web, and more. There is also an option to download the guide in braille from the main website. This should work on any Windows based phone, tablet, or computer.

BlindShell Talking Phone and Ray Accessible Smartphone

BlindShell Talking Phone: This is a mobile phone designed specifically for the visually impaired and features a full physical keypad as well as a large digital display screen which can provide visual feedback in large, bold, customizable font. All features, keys, and commands on the phone are spoken. The phone can alternatively be controlled by voice commands. Voice can also be used for dictating text messages, emails, and notes.

Standard phone functions include calling and one touch speed dials, SMS texts, email, contact management, notes, and calendar. Other specialized functions include a camera, calculator, timer, alarm, color identifier, QR code object tagging, FM radio, audio player, book reader, Bluetooth connectivity, and a specially located one touch SOS button.

This is an unlocked GSM phone and works with all carriers on the GSM network, including AT&T and T-Mobile. It does not work with Verizon and Sprint.  If you need any help learning how to use this phone or want to check out everything it can do there is a 36 part BlindShell Classic Tutorial playlist on YouTube.

Ray Accessible Smartphone: RAY® accessible smartphone is built on a Samsung/Android platform using a proprietary software application to offer a fully accessible, vision-free cellphone. Touch and slide motion on the screen provide spoken access to all functions of the phone, including calling, contacts, settings, voice dialing, calendar, messages, location services, and easy access to your music library. If you would like to see how this phone works check out this Ray Vision – Quick User Guide.

Other functionalities included with this phone are:

  • Simple access to frequently used functions
  • Provides direct connection to online library services and audio book libraries
  • Has a built-in color identifier
  • Built in currency identifier for identifying bank notes
  • Responds to vocal commands with its speech recognition abilities
  • Works with nearly all standard GSM network cell phone plans. AT&T, T-Mobile, Cricket, and other GSM providers
  • Once set up with your GSM wireless network, Ray offers an optional monthly service which consists of complete daily assistance, 24/7, for approximately $10.00 per month.

Excerpts from Life of a Blind Girl

Holly, who is registered as blind due to a condition called Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), writes a blog as a way of sharing her experiences of living with a visual impairment in a predominantly sighted world. Her life stories, tips, and advice can also help persons newly diagnosed with vision impairments or those that have been living with vision impairments for years. Here are a few excerpts from her blog, How do blind and visually impaired people use a mobile phone?

Having a visual impairment doesn’t mean that we can’t use a phone, it’s a lifeline for many blind and visually impaired people. We can use mobile phones just like sighted people, we just use accessibility features to enable us to do so…these features enable us to complete a range of tasks on our phones – keeping in contact with friends and family, reading and responding to emails, reading a good book, browsing the internet, online shopping, booking train tickets and checking bus and train times, online banking, using social media, getting to where we need to be, playing games, listening to music and so much more, the list goes on!

So, here’s a run-down of some of the accessibility features that blind and visually impaired people use.

  • Screen-reader: The screen-reader reads out loud everything that’s on the screen…The screen-readers also read out images (when they have descriptions).
  • Zoom: This is a magnifier that enables people with low vision to zoom or magnify the screen. It works with built-in apps and third-party apps, making phones fully accessible.
  • Magnifier: The camera on your phone can be used like a digital magnifying glass, to increase the size so you can see things more clearly. The flash can be used to light the object, filters can be used to differentiate between colours and photos can be taken and saved to get a close-up.
  • Speak screen: This does exactly what it says, it reads the screen out loud. This can be great for reading emails, reading a book or if you are struggling to read text. This is ideal for people who don’t need to use a screen-reader but could sometimes benefit from a speech functionality.
  • Display accommodations: Dictation is a speech-to-text functionality, it means that you don’t have to type, you can talk to your phone instead, this means that you can dictate messages, tweets, Facebook posts, emails and much more.

One thing I love is the fact that people with a visual impairment can use mobile phones straight out the box with their accessibility features. Mainstream devices are fully accessible with no extra costs added for blind and visually impaired people and that’s the way it should be…There is a wrongly perceived idea that if you are blind then you see nothing at all, but there is a spectrum of sight and 93 % of blind people have some useful vision. It may not be much, but it helps them navigate this predominantly sighted world.

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