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2000 Archives

Cellphones for the Blind
By Michael Boyd

Led by one of the United Kingdom's largest and most famous charities, a project is under way to try to create a specially adapted mobile phone and other communications devices for people with serious sight problems.

The resulting phones are likely to offer such features as large screen type, contrast control, a voice output so that blind users can hear what is written on-screen and voice-activated controls.

The digital access team of the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) is currently working with researchers and leading designers in the field to develop a demonstration prototype of a mobile phone that is really easy to use. They have been talking to venture capital companies and specialists companies in the field to get the project off the ground.

"We want to help the manufacturers design phones that talk people through the controls," says Stephen King, Director of RNIB's Technical Consumer Services Division. "Blind and partially sighted people have lots of experience with using audio controls and we want to utilise this to help make mobile phones easy to use for everyone.

Such an instrument would also be very useful to general users as well. Millions of people find their sight deteriorating as they get older and find themselves in the same position as blind people. Even younger people often find it trying and difficult to follow complicated menus on tiny little screens in bad light.

The new phones will also be compatible with the emerging Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), stripped down text version of Internet access which will allow mobile phones to carry out interactive tasks such as consulting bank accounts, buying stocks or shares or receiving traffic directions.

"Our main worry is that WAP-based systems soon to be launched, which will allow mobile phones to be able to access cash machines or anything that is WAP-enabled, will not translate into opportunities for everybody because not enough attention is given to generic access," added Mr King.

Even at this comparatively early stage there is considerable international interest in this ground-breaking initiative, with positive approaches coming from similar charities in the United States, Spain and Australia.

Already the RNIB has successfully flexed its considerable muscles in this field by six years ago persuading the originators of the new Euro bank notes to take the needs of blind and partially sighted people into consideration by creating easy-to-recognise features in the design. It has also worked closely with BT (formerly British Telecom) in creating the distinctive features of its newly introduced large button telephone. This is aimed at both the visually impaired and older users and has already proved to be one of BT's most successful products.

"The digital access team was created to ensure that the RNIB had a secure foothold to influence the new information society in which we are now finding ourselves," said Mr King. "Our experience at RNIB has shown us in designing technology for overall use, that is for both able bodied and people with disabilities, or what is known as inclusive design, we need to exert our influence from the beginning so as to affect the planning from the bottom up. If you attempt to add on things for those special needs at the end of the process, it is much more difficult and expensive."

The bottom line of the proposed project would be to design a concept phone in conjunction with one of the big manufacturers. As an incentive to any partner in this highly competitive business, the RNIB would takeout the commercial risk factor by getting their own scientists to make the modifications required to adapt an existing mobile phone. "The intention is that mainstream mobile phone outlets will carry the new phones alongside existing lines which will make them available not only to blind people but also to people with no sight problems who may prefer their ease of use", said Mr King. "We are going to prove that good accessibility makes good business sense. If it is universally designed, it is good for anyone".

Later on the RNIB also hope to consider a range of accessible digital radios and television sets. Digital radio, or digital audio broadcasting, is a new system that can also offer on-screen information.

The first in-car digital radios have just are appeared, with home products and personal computer adapters due to be launched later this year.

Mr King says this technology is currently entirely inaccessible to blind people which is ironic as many of them rely on radio as a key source of information and entertainment.

In a separate initiative the RNIB has just launched a free video, Websites That Work, explaining how corporate and government site designers should build accessibility for the disabled into their sites.

For some time now the RNIB have been working with the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). This is the group that runs the standards, which underlie the functioning of the Web. Its telecommunications scientists are also working with CEN, the European Union body responsible for setting standards.

The new video recommends, for example, that sites should use text tags alongside images so blind people, using speech or Braille converters, can know what is depicted; sites should be easy to navigate; alternatives should be provided to areas which use scripts or browse plug-ins; and radio messages should be captioned for deaf people.

"Ultimately, accessibility and universal design is a straightforward business issue," said Mr King. "If disabled people cannot access the Web, companies are missing out on several million potential users".

Royal National Institute For the Blind
224 Great Portland Street, London, United Kingdom, W1N 6AA
Telephone: +44 1733 370777
Fax: +44 171 388 8316.

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