How Do Blind People Use Mobile Phones
For totally blind people in many ways, the use of cellular phones, especially the latest ones is somewhat similar to the use of computers. The biggest similarity is that most phones are difficult to be used without assistive technologies, or at least built-in accessibility functionalities. A more complex mobile phone requires some kind of a screen reader or a voice recognition system to function well for people who are totally blind.
When mobile phones started to emerge on the market, their accessibility was less complex. Blind people practically had to memorize the layout of the phone's keypad, which is very similar to regular phones, practically with two extra needed keys, send and cancel. After learning these keys, it was possible to use most of the phone's functionality, even without being able to see the display. Of course, initially caller id was not available, but in practice that was the only difference.
As mobile phones started to become more advanced, it required more and more effort to make mobile phones accessible to blind people. Phone manufacturers started to build voice recognition into their still simple phones. While access was very different for blind and sighted people, at least it was possible to use the phone book, check phone status, etc, even if the achievable functionality was limited.
After the voice recognition features, phone manufacturers started to build a more complex voice response system into the phones, so some of the menus were able to announce the current item, and the phone's response to user interaction. However, this still only provided limited functionalities.
The major gap started to emerge between the blind and sighted users, when mobile phones started to run operating systems, and users were able to use them similarly to a regular computer. At this point, it became necessary to develop a screen reader, which could be used on the mobile phone similarly to how blind people use the computer.
One of the biggest challenge of mobile screen readers is that this technology is far behind the technology used on desktop computers. While very often the same companies produce the mobile screen readers which already have experience in desktop screen readers, partly what's missing is the many years behind the development, following the development of the latest technologies and the needs of users. Also, there is much less guidance for developers who create applications for mobile phones on how to make these applications accessible.
The emergence of touch screens recently made the situation much more difficult. Before, all input was done through a keyboard, which is the ideal situation for blind people. When touch screens started to emerge, software developers quickly picked up the technology, but in many cases omitted proper keyboard access to their applications. This way, even if blind people had a screen reader to use, it became increasingly difficult for them to enter information, and interact with their phone.
Screen reader manufacturers started to provide solutions for the use of touch screens. One approach was to disable the actual touch screen, and assign new functionality to it. The screen was divided into four equal parts, and each part represented a button. These virtual buttons were assigned to additional functionality to interact with the phone. Another virtual division of the screen was when a plastic sheet was provided to blind people with holes similar to a number pad. After laying this sheet on the phone, virtual screen areas were created responding to the regular numeric phone pad, which was especially useful with phones which did not have an actual keyboard.
Another invention was modifying the on-screen keyboard functionality. When sighted people touch an area of the screen keyboard with the stylus that key is activated. It was modified for blind people in a way that when an area of the screen is touched, the current key is announced but not activated. After memorizing the on-screen keyboard, people can slide their finger on the screen until finding the desired key. Once the user releases the screen, only then the key is activated.
There are many more inventions on using phone touch screens and on-screen keyboards, but the biggest problem is not solved yet. There is only so much a blind person can do with a screen reader on a graphical user interface, when the application is not coded to provide accessibility features. Technology is rapidly going towards using graphical interaction, while not enough information is provided to developers about accessibility. Meanwhile, screen reader manufacturers are trying to catch up with the latest developments and provide the best possible solutions.
Unfortunately it is more difficult to easily demonstrate these technologies, like I did in the "how do blind people use the computer" post. Partly, you can experiment with the voice command option on your phone, and if you are more adventurous, you can download a mobile screen reader if your phone supports it, and experiment with a 30 day demo.
If you still have any unanswered questions, please leave a comment below.