Braille Monitor                                                                               June 2006


Accessible Cell Phone Technology

by the International Braille and Technology Center Staff

From the Editor: In late May of 1995 I found myself traveling between Alamogordo and Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a convoy of vans. Members of the NFB of New Mexico had attended an open meeting of the New Mexico School for the Blind board of trustees, and they were now traveling to the capital to talk with the governor and his staff about problems at the school. President Maurer was in the front seat of my van. He handed me his cell phone, saying, "Start calling press," so I did. But I remember my shock at confronting that panel of tiny buttons. President Maurer had to give me a quick lesson before I could use this remarkable little gadget.

I remember this event because it was the first time I tried to use a cell phone. During the course of that drive three other passengers pulled out phones at various times and did business, checked with babysitters at home, and maintained contact with the other cars in our caravan. I remember marveling at the idea that this one vehicle contained four telephones.

Today, a mere eleven years later, I am certain that more blind people than not carry cell phones. How proficient they are at using them or accessing the various features is another question. But the industry, with the encouragement of the blindness field, is making progress at helping us to do so. Time was when we asked only, "If I purchase this phone, will I be able to make and take calls and then hang up again with the amount of tactile information available?" Today a number of cell phones on the market are partially accessible to users who cannot see the screen, and several actually advertise themselves as fully accessible. How accurate are these claims? How savvy does a user have to be to operate them efficiently? The members of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind of the NFB Jernigan Institute have been considering these questions and are prepared to report on three solutions. This is what they say:

Using cell phones has become commonplace, and it seems that everyone has at least one. Until recently blind users have not been able to use many of the features on their cell phones because the menus were accessible only through LCD screens. So we muddled along, memorizing some functions or having sighted assistance set up the features so we could use them.

Today the situation is changing. Talking cell phones are increasingly available. In this article we review three accessible solutions currently available for purchase. We say solutions because several software programs run on a variety of cell phones. Before reviewing the specific phones and software, we discuss cell phone technology and several phones that provide some accessibility. Then we take a look at the specific phones that are accessible with speech-access software.

First a few words on cell phone technology. The phones reviewed here operate on the GSM network. In the United States, only Cingular and T-Mobile use the GSM network. Providers such as Verizon use the CDMA network, and Nextel uses the IDN network.
Some phones provided by Verizon have software with accessibility features using spoken output of their menus and functions. Several LG phones work this way. They come with talking software already installed. Not all Verizon sales locations have these phones, so some searching may be necessary to find one in your area that does. You can search on the Web for LG phones or contact other cell phone sales providers for the LG phones with speech. We know of the LG4500 and LG4650. Other models may also have the accessible software. There is no additional charge for the talking software because it is included in the phone.

Nextel offers free software that can be downloaded for the Motorola model I355 phone, which runs on the Nextel IDN network. This phone has a touch-tone-style keypad with easily accessible buttons spaced far enough apart to be reasonably easy to use. The software provided for these phones does not make the phone fully accessible. It generally works for the first level of menus only. Some memorization of set-up functions will be necessary. Once configured, caller ID and other basic functions will talk. The contact list and the labels for multiple numbers can be accessed. Even though submenus do not speak, when entering them you will be placed at the top of the list of options. You can also use the walkie-talkie function to communicate with other Nextel users nationwide who have this capability.

Many of the accessible Nokia phones listed below do not have standard touch-tone-style keypads. Instead they have buttons arranged in a circular pattern. Becoming familiar with their location and functionality may take some adjustment.

As with all technology, models, pricing, and availability change rapidly, so some of these phones may not be available in your area or may have been replaced by other models which may or may not offer accessibility. If you already have a cell phone provider and plan to purchase one of these phones and change your phone provider, check your current service contract for any early termination fees before you buy a new phone, or you may incur major costs. You may want to wait until your current contract expires or add your new phone under another contract before your current contract expires to avoid early termination fees. Now on to the phones and software specifically reviewed for this article.

Mobile Speak

Reviewer, Anne Taylor, IBTC Director of Technology

Anne Taylor displays a Nokia 6682 cell phone loaded with the Mobile Speak software.

Mobile Speak is a screen-access solution for GSM cell phones. The software is distributed in the United States by Optelec USA, Inc. Contact Optelec for prices and availability. When purchasing Mobile Speak, the customer can either download and install the software independently or send the cell phone to Optelec for installation. Mobile Speak is compatible with the following cell phones: Nokia 3650, Nokia 3660, Nokia 6600, Nokia 6620, Nokia 6260, Nokia 6630, Nokia 6670, Nokia 6680, Nokia 6681, Nokia 7610, Nokia 7650, Nokia Gage, Nokia N-Gage Q, Nokia N-Gage QD, Siemens SX1, Panasonic X700, and Panasonic X701. Mobile Speak provides access to applications such as contact, caller ID, battery status, missed call, messaging, and the Internet.

However, for gadget lovers Mobile Speak provides access to more than the customary applications one expects to find on a cell phone. With the use of Mobile Speak blind cell phone users can gain access to various value-added applications proprietary to Mobile Speak such as accessible calculator, voice recorder, accessible MP3 player, DAISY Player, Mobile Color Recognizer, and Mobile Keypad.

The user can synchronize the cell phone to the computer to transfer contact or text information. One can use Bluetooth or USB connectivity when connecting with computers or other external devices such as a PDA (personal data assistant). If entering information using the cell phone keypad is difficult, Mobile Keypad allows the user to input information using a QWERTY keyboard on a computer. Those who want to enjoy their cell phones fully can use Mobile Speak's various game options such as Spider, ToneMaster, Fuse Mania, and Mines. Although Mobile Speak is in our estimation the most robust screen-access application for cell phones, it is not for inexperienced computer users. Another factor that makes the Mobile Speak user interface seem complicated is that it does not contain a keypad-learn mode. Some memorization of keys and their functions may be necessary. One good feature of this software is that both sighted and blind people can play the software games provided.

Screenless Talking Phone

Reviewer, Steven Booth, Access Technology Specialist

Steve Booth displays the Owasys model 22C Screenless Talking Phone

The Screenless Talking Phone, as it is often called, is actually the Owasys model 22C Screenless Talking Phone, distributed in the United States and Canada by Capital Accessibility. At time of publication the price of the phone was $199.95 to those who sign up through Capital Accessibility as a new customer with T-Mobile. Visit Capital's Web site at <>. No additional software is necessary. As the name implies, because there is no LCD screen, all functions talk. This is a basic telephone. It has a standard Touch-Tone-style keypad with large enough keys spaced far enough apart for easy navigation. There are specific keys to select menus such as adding contacts and searching your contact list. You can send and receive text messages. All menus are spoken and are arranged in an easy-to-follow list. For example, if you select the contacts list, you can press the up and down arrows to scroll through the contact list and select the one you want. You can store up to three numbers for each contact, and you can use the number pad to find people alphabetically if you store large numbers of contacts. Other menus for configuring the phone and managing your calls work the same way.

The phone has both a speaker-phone function and volume up and down controls. You can hear numbers as you enter them, delete characters, and hear what you have entered by pressing the information key. You can lock and unlock the keypad when traveling to prevent unwanted character presses. The talking caller ID announcement works through the phone handset only and not through the speaker phone to provide privacy. Many ringer tones are available along with a vibrator alert. The speech used is from Babel and has a female synthesized voice, which is reasonably clear. Several speeds and pitch levels for the voice may be selected and saved.

We noticed some distortion in both handset speaker and speaker-phone operation when the volume is turned up. Callers on the other end of the line complained of severe echo when the speaker phone is in use. Some users would prefer that caller ID announcements be available on the speaker phone rather than only through the handset.

If you want a basic, no-frills, fully accessible talking cell phone designed specifically for the blind, the Owasys model 22C phone is for you.


Reviewer, Michael Tindell, Access Technology Specialist

Mike Tindell displays the Nokia 6620 phone loaded with the Talks software.

Talks is a software package that can be loaded onto a cellular phone running the Simbian operating system. These cell phone models include the Nokia 3650, Nokia 3660, Nokia 6600, Nokia 6620, Nokia 6260, Nokia 6630, Nokia 6670, Nokia 6680, Nokia 6681, Nokia 7610, Nokia 7650, Nokia Gage, Nokia N-Gage Q, Nokia N-Gage QD, Siemens SX1, Panasonic X700, and Panasonic X701. The software can be purchased directly from Cingular, Sendero group, Visioncue, or Beyond Sight. Check with a dealer in your area to see if he or she is a seller of Talks. If the product is purchased from Cingular, the cost is $199.00. If you purchase from the dealers listed above, the price is $295.00. But Cingular sells Talks Basic. The dealers sell Talks Premium. Talks Premium gives you five extra programs to use--MiniGPS, Extended Recorder, Multimedia Player, Extended Profiles Pro, and World Clock Pro.

Cingular sells an older version of Talks that will not run on the model 6682, and it no longer receives Talks updates. The only phone it sells compatible with Talks is the 6620. You can contact the National Center for Customers with Disabilities to order Talks at (866) 241-6568. A form will be sent to you for your doctor to complete for proof of blindness. If you sign a one-year contract, you can receive a $100 rebate. If you sign a two-year contract, you can receive a $199 rebate.

Talks works much like screen-access software on a computer. It reads the screen and tells the user what options are above keys one and two, soft keys just below the screen. The options controlled by each key change, depending on what the user is doing with the phone at any given time. Talks allows a blind person to use the cell phone in the same way that a sighted user would use it. When a call comes in, pressing key two announces the phone number of the incoming caller. The rate and volume of the announcement can be adjusted. When the menu key is pressed, Talks will announce what is highlighted as the user scrolls through the choices. Web browsing and text messaging are supported.

The MiniGPS program is not used for way-finding. Instead the user assigns various combinations of cell phone functions for use when the phone is in contact with different cell towers. For example, the user might want to invoke the meeting profile at the office--perhaps a vibration instead of a ring and no announcement of caller ID. This shift can be made automatically if the phone detects a different cell tower between home and the office. Then, when the user nears home and the original cell tower, the phone can revert to the standard profile with the preferred ring and voiced caller ID.

The sound recorder on the phone has a thirty-second record limit. Using Extended Recorder, the user can record as long as phone memory is available. The user can also program Extended Recorder to record active calls. Multimedia Player is an MP3 player that allows the user to create play lists.

Extended Profiles Pro gives the user much more flexibility with profiles. The user can choose to activate certain profiles at different times of the week or certain days of the week. The user can also program the phone to power on and off at specified times. World Clock Pro gives the time difference between the user's local time and that in specified cities around the world. This program also gives sunrise and sunset times for the selected city.

When Talks is loaded on the phone, it doesn't change the way that the user uses the phone. The phone is used the same way that a sighted person would use it, except that, when the phone rings, if key two is pressed, the caller ID info will be voiced. If the name of the person calling has been stored, it will be announced. If no name is in your contact list for the person calling, the phone number of the caller will be announced. The edit key becomes the Talks key. Pressing this key and specified numbers on the keypad allows modification of the settings in Talks. Pressing Talks 0 will place the user in keyboard-learn mode. Any key that is pressed will announce its name and the function that can be changed by pressing it, but no change will take effect. To exit this mode, press Talks key and 0 again.

I have found Talks very responsive and reliable.

Several models of accessible cell phones are available for examination at the International Braille and Technology Center. Call for additional information and for further information about contacting companies that can provide the appropriate phones and software. You can call our answer line Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Eastern time, at (410) 659-9314 and select option 5 at the main menu.

Companies mentioned in this article include:

Optelec Tieman Group, phone (800) 828-1056, Web site <>
Capital Accessibility, phone (877) 292-2747 or 240-715-1272, Web site <>
Sendero Group, phone (530) 757-6800, Web site <>
Beyond Sight, phone (303) 795-6455, Web site <>
VisionCue, phone (888) 318-2582 or (503) 297-1510, Web site <>