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Panorama Archives: 2000
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
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
"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
The first in-car digital radios have just are appeared, with home
products and personal computer adapters due to be launched later this
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
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
"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
171 388 8316.
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