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Cell Phones for the Blind - An Introduction

With advances in technology, more and more products are becoming usable by the blind and visually impaired. Today, many options exist for blind users who wish to use the features of a modern cellular phone.

Before I begin, it is important to explain the difference between usability and full accessibility. Just about any cellular phone is usable by a blind or visually impaired person. That is, most phones have buttons arranged in a certain, usually predictable way, for making calls, adjusting the volume, or performing other common tasks. But if one is going to pay money for a phone and service, it would be much more convenient if they could take full advantage of a phone's features. While a user may be able to make a call, today's cell phones include a wealth of features which are often not accessible.

Luckily, advances in technology have increased the available options for blind consumers. Let's start with the phones with built-in accessibility.

Perhaps the most well-known and used of the accessible phones are models from LG Electronics. LG has produced several phone models which allow a blind user to use many of the phone's features independently. These phones are available for many carriers using the CDMA platform, notably Verizon Wireless and Alltel in the United States. Models such as the VX5200, VX5300, VX8300 and the VX8350 are often available for little or no cost with a new service contract or an extension of a previous one. Alternatively, older models like the VX4500 or the VX4650 can be found for reasonable prices on marketplaces such as EBay.

With price as a major advantage of these phones comes a major drawback. Perhaps the most common complaint by users of these phones is the lack of complete accessibility. While these phones will read some of the menus, the caller ID display, contact list, and other information aloud, they do not allow for a blind user to use the device completely independently. Some features, like adding a number to speed dial, can be accessed by memorizing patterns of keystrokes but others like reading text messages are not available to a blind or visually impaired user.

With the advancement of cell phone software comes another option for access. Three companies, Code Factory, Dolphin, and Nuance have released products that will make many popular phone models fully accessible. These programs generally work with higher-end phones including those running the Windows Mobile or Symbian operating systems. The bulk of these compatible phones are produced by Nokia, though Motorola, Samsung, and Palm, among others have now released compatible models. By using a phone with this specialized software, one can, depending on the model, listen to music, read text messages, or surf the mobile web.

While the feature advantages can be plainly seen from these devices, the disadvantage is price. The software from these companies can cost around $300 or more, making it financially unattainable for some. That being said, this price is still much lower than the cost of a screen reading program for a computer or a dedicated PDA designed for the blind.

If a user has some vision, they may prefer a product to enlarge the text on the phone's screen. Code Factory's Mobile Magnifier is one such software solution, and it is compatible with many of the same phones as the other speech products.

Another option to note is a screenless cell phone from Owasys. The Owasys 22C offers many popular phone functions in a unit designed specifically for the blind, since there is no screen. The buttons are easily distinguishable and all functions provide speech feedback. This may be an ideal option for someone who is new to technology or a person who does not require many advanced features on their phone.

The landscape for accessible cell phone technology is constantly changing. By using some of the resources provided, we hope you will be on your way to purchasing your perfect mobile phone.

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