Centre for Internet & Society

The new age smartphones that operate by touch mean much more than exciting new technology to persons with visual impairment, they signify the return to the world of dependency, a situation that the group had successfully steered out of some years ago with the support provided by accessible devices and assistive technology.

The older models of feature phones with hard keyboards were of great use especially to the visually impaired community due to the simplicity of navigation afforded by tactile keys and the support offered by assistive screen reader software. Also, multiple models of these phones were available in various price ranges, thus making them affordable to a large cross section of persons with visual impairment. These aspects made it possible for visually impaired persons to start using mobile phones independently for all communication and information purposes.

However, the popularity of touchphones have made every manufacturer of mobile phones shift the focus of development to the new technology and away from production of feature phones. This shift has proved to be exceptionally challenging for persons with visual impairment as it means a forced move to using touch phones and has once again created the need to depend on sighted assistance.

It may be argued that the smart phones do come in equipped with accessibility features that should make it easy to use them. However, a range of issues from excessive time loss in exploring the features and functions by touch to difficulty in sending and receiving texts due to the immense time consumed in navigating keys on the soft keyboard to difficulties faced in swiping on the indicated lines to answer or reject calls make it difficult for persons with visual impairment to use the current generation smartphones with the same level of ease and comfort as the older feature phones.

There are also other accessibility challenges: some of the soft keys are not labelled, hence the visually impaired user is unable to use these keys independently; accessibility options do not permit text content to be read with internal navigation i.e. navigating within the text to read word by word, or even character by character, but the text is read as a whole thus hindering comprehension and requiring sighted assistance in reading the text — this not only compromises independence but also the privacy of the individual; and the feature that reduces the sound of the screen reader during a call makes it difficult to navigate and end a call independently — a major difficulty in a country with high levels of noise in public places.

In addition, the new generation smartphones also pose an affordability challenge — smartphones that are equipped with comparatively better accessibility features are at the top end of the price spectrum and consequently out of reach of the majority of visually impaired users and smartphones in the affordable price range come with many accessibility limitations that force the users to depend on external help.

One of the ways this situation can be addressed is by requiring manufacturers of smartphones to also develop smartphones with hard keyboards parallely with regular devices, another way could be to encourage the continuation of production of feature phones that were being used so successfully by persons with visual impairment. In addition to being of use to persons with visual impairment, these phones will also be of use to senior citizens who also struggle with various types of sensory and muscular impediments and face difficulty in adapting to new technology due to advancing age.

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