Sunday, March 30, 2003

Alive and Well

User-friendly cell phones good call for everybody


Last fall, I dropped my cell phone into the toilet. Now, this would be a less than happy incident for any cell phone user, but it was a major interruption for me.

I explained my dilemma (after the laughter subsided) to one customer service rep after another. I wanted the same model phone as a replacement, and no one could find one for me.

Only four months earlier, after several months' research, I had finally tracked down a phone I could use. I didn't want to start all over again.

For many people with disabilities, cell phones pose a variety of obstacles.

The buttons may be too small for a person with limited hand function or the menus so complex that a person with cognitive disabilities can't make sense of them.

For people with visual disabilities, the issues are rooted in all of the information available to the customer who can see and read the telephone's display.

Is there voicemail? Is the battery almost gone? Who was that last call from that you couldn't answer in time?

When you haven't used a particular special function for a while, which button is it that will turn off the ringer, raise the volume or switch over to an incoming call on call waiting? And forget that convenient phone book feature to look up a forgotten number.

My phone doesn't solve all of these issues. No phone does. It does, however, have a number of audible signals to clue in a person who can't read the display.

Power on and power off, for instance, have distinct tone sequences. The numbers on the keypad beep, providing confirmation that they have been sufficiently pressed. An unmistakable screech lets me know when there is only about five minutes of talk time left on the battery.

While I can't read numbers from the digital phone book, I can program its voice recognition feature to recall the number for me when I speak the name of a person I have entered.

Many national organizations of people with disabilities are working with manufacturers to make more user-friendly phones, and engineering efforts are under way to identify features that will not only make phones accessible to people with disabilities, but will result in better products for everyone.

Dr. Gregg C. Vanderheiden, director of the University of Wisconsin's Trace Research and Development Center, has had a number of cell phone prototypes built that offer a variety of functions. Some of the proposals include:

• For people who are deaf or hearing impaired, a phone that would enable the user to read conversations typed by another user from a TTY (text telephone device) and either respond with her natural voice or type messages back using the telephone keypad.

• For people with cognitive or reading disabilities, a phone that could display simple icons representing various numbers to be called - mom or police or boss - and automatically dial when the icon is selected.

• For people with visual impairments, a phone with talking caller ID and a "talk" feature that could verbally announce the function of menu or other special buttons.

• For people with mobility impairments or limited hand function, a hands-free phone allowing the user to place and answer calls by voice commands.

There are two reasons for pursuing phones with these sorts of features. First, Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act requires that manufactures make their products and services accessible to people with disabilities.

Second, features like these would be welcomed by all customers. Wouldn't you appreciate having the option to send a message silently in the middle of a noisy environment, to use a hands-free phone while driving, or to identify the necessary button by sound when lighting is poor?

I finally located a replacement model of my favorite phone. When models with some of the above features become available, I will be ready to buy a friendlier, more accessible model.

Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430;

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