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Accessible phones for visually impaired people
TX: 03.01.12 2040-2100
PRESENTER: PETER WHITE
PRODUCER: CHERYL GABRIEL
Good Evening. Tonight's programme is featuring something that the world is increasingly relying on
and taking for granted; something which some people are obsessed by, while others wonder what all
the fuss is about. But, love 'em or hate 'em, mobile phones, or smartphones as the more sophisticated
ones are known, are here to stay; and it looks like 2012 could be yet another "year of the phone". It's
not a revolution in which blind and partially sighted people need to be left behind. We're going to try
to demystify them tonight, but before we do anything else, I want to ask our three guests what are the
most exciting things they're doing with their phones now; not things that can be done in the dim and
distant future, things that really are happening now. You see, for me, if I asked myself that question,
it would still be the same as it was in 1876, i.e. making a phone call but there are others who've
moved on a little further than me.
Our guests: Geoff Adams-Spink, one of our regular technology enthusiasts and contributors. So
what would it be for you Geoff, the most exciting thing you do with your phone?
Well I'm an iPhone user and the thing I love, above anything, about my iPhone is the fact that I can
press and hold a button for about just over a second and then say call and then the person's name and
it makes that phone call, I don't have to rummage through a phone book, I don't have to remember
the number, I can just say call Peter White and off it goes.
Okay. Robin Spinks, he manages digital accessibility at the RNIB, one thing you do which is new
I'm also an iPhone user, like Geoff, and for me I think the most exciting thing is that my iPhone has
replaced the mini magnifiers that I used to carry around in my various jacket pockets. So I've got a
little application on the phone and I can use it to read menus or credit card numbers in pretty much
any light conditions, so it's become my mobile magnifier.
Okay. And regular contributor and, before she threw in her lot with us, teacher of technology, Lee
Kumauat. So Lee, yours?
I use Skype to phone my mum in Australia for fashion advice on my phone. So I get my video
camera and I show her various articles of clothing and say will that go with that and she says no,
wear the red one. So that's what I love using my phone for.
So she's still bullying you about clothes 12,000 miles away.
Okay, let's stay with Lee for the demystification lesson because it is a little bit daunting. Phone is
now more computer than phone, isn't it really, so perhaps that's the first thing to understand; where
should we start if we want to understand what's happening?
The best way, Peter, I've found to wade through the whole mobile phone quagmire, is to think of it as
a pyramid: at the top you have the mobile network and phone providers such as Vodafone, O2,
Orange, T-Mobile and so on, who run the networks and sell you phones and contracts, then come the
mobile phone brands, the companies who supply and make the phones or handsets as they call them,
like HTC, Nokia for example. Next are the particular operating systems on the phones.
Okay, hold on, hold on, what's an operating system?
That's the guts of the phone; it's the platform on which sits all the programs or "apps", which is just
another word for programs that live on the phone. Apps are things like your calendar, contacts and
messaging, and they're all installed in to the phone's operating system.
So is Symbian, he said, just plucking a word he'd heard, is that an operating system?
Yes, Symbian is one people might be familiar with as it's the one that Nokia uses on its phones.
Another is Windows Mobile from Microsoft, and there is also one called Android which is from
Google, we're going to hear more about later.
So what's the next layer of your pyramid?
Well, that's the screen reader and magnification software that allows us to access our phones, a very
popular one is Talks.
Okay and up until recently it was only separate companies, wasn't it, that developed programs like
Talks that made mobile phones accessible to us?
That's right but that's changing. For example, Nokia has released its own free screen reader. I spoke
to Petteri Alinikula, Director of Product Sustainability for Nokia on Skype, and asked him why they
have released their own screen reader at this time:
We have been in a continuous dialogue with our stakeholders, i.e. the consumer groups of blind and
partially sighted and also the consumers directly and the message has been very clear that there needs
to be an also free of charge option for people for screen readers.
Is Nokia under some sort of pressure to provide more mainstream solutions for visually impaired
customers because of the advent of more accessible phones, like the iPhone and the Android phone?
I would say that consumers are having expectations and accessibility is an area where Nokia really
wants to provide mobile communication for everyone and I think we are entering a stage where there
needs to be different choices for blind and partially sighted consumers.
Which Nokia handsets is the screen reader compatible with?
At the moment Nokia screen reader is available for three different handsets: Nokia C5, 700 and
Nokia 701. And the reason for selecting this one is that we have heard very clear message from the
consumer groups that blind and partially sighted people want to have choice of different form factors
and the C5 is a form - traditional keypad - whereas the Nokia 700 and 701 are touch screen phones.
How do people get the screen reader?
Nokia screen reader is available in Nokia store for download for these three handsets. There might
be difficulties in download but we are providing help for that.
Do you see a time when a screen reader will come free and already installed on any Nokia handset?
Yeah we are currently investigating possibilities to introduce screen reader also to a broader set of
devices in our product portfolio.
So an interesting development, have there been others lately?
Yes, Google has released a new version of its Android operating system, which they've dubbed "Ice-
cream Sandwich". The Android operating system has been around for a couple of years now. It's
what's called an Open Source Operating System, meaning anybody can write apps and make them
available to use on Android phones. So recent versions have had a couple of screen reader options,
including one developed by Google itself called Talk Back.
So what's so significant about this Android "Ice-cream Sandwich" and I'd love to ask you why but I
don't really want to slow things down, it just seems quite bizarre but why does this all matter?
Well up till now, Android phones that only had touch screens weren't accessible. So what Google has
done, is provide an app called "Explore by Touch" which makes Android touch screen phones usable
by visually impaired people. Ice-Cream Sandwich has only been released on one phone at this point,
the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which is a touch screen phone. I went to meet Android advocate, Steve
Nut, to find out how he's getting on with it.
Messaging, mark 11.38. Voice Search. UK trains journey planner, 11.38, record it. Camera.
What's the kind of bleep?
Those really high pitched bleeps are when you touch an icon and that noise, that ooh noise, is when
you're moving between different parts of the screen. I'm now on what they call the notification tray,
which is near the bottom of the screen, so if I move out of that you get an ascending tone and down
you get a descending tone.
What does the Samsung Galaxy Nexus look like?
Well the display's 4.65 inches, so you can say roughly that it's five inches across and it's probably
about the same - in fact it's not, it's about six inches, I would say, long. There are no buttons on the
phone at all except for the power and the volume buttons which are either side of the phone.
Why are you a mad Android fan?
Well I've always been a pretty mad Symbian fan. For those that don't know Symbian is another
operating system for phones but it's a really open operating system and lets you do a lot of things that
other operating systems don't do. Android now, if we get back on topic as it were, does let you, for
example, just copy and paste files like MP3 files without additional things installed to the PC like
iTunes. You can also send each other songs via Bluetooth and things like that and fax.
So it's less proprietary?
Less proprietary, that's what I'm looking for, yeah, it's less proprietary. And because it is open we
can have more screen readers. So in the world of PCs we have JAWS, Window Eyes and Supernova
and NVDA and various options, in the world of Apple we have iPhone Voice Over and Voice Over -
nothing else - so it allows for, in my view, innovation.
The other thing worth noting, Peter, about Android is that you're not limited to one handset or
handset manufacturer, so there are Android phones from Ericsson, from HTC and so on, and if you
don't want a touch screen phone there are plenty of Android phones that have buttons.
But not yet available in this new version?
That's right, only the Samsung Galaxy is running the new version at this stage.
Okay, so that's the demystification process. It's still fairly complicated and dense. Let's discuss
some of these issues. Robin Spinks, from the RNIB, where is this push for accessibility of
mainstream phones coming from, why have they suddenly started to care about us?
Well the world has moved on, Peter, on terms of accessibility and actually blind and partially sighted
people rightly want the same level of accessibility that they're getting with paid products, they want
to be able to do that out of the box. I think the progress that the iPhone's made, for example, in terms
of demonstrating that it can be done very easily and very profitably, that's made a big push in the
industry and people have taken note of how easy it is to implement that at a system level.
I mean why profitability because aren't some of them - I mean clearly you can play the numbers
game but aren't they also bound to wonder, you know, how much purchasing power have blind
people got, particularly if you get into the developing countries and so forth?
I think our perspective has always been that we live in an increasingly global community and
actually around the world there are 285 million blind and partially sighted people, I've yet to meet a
technology company that doesn't think that's a significant market. Many of those people are in
developing countries but it's an emerging market and it's a group of people whose needs have very
often been unnoticed. So this is all about actually giving the people the same out of the box
experience ultimately as sighted people take for granted.
So Geoff - Geoff Adams-Spink - what do you think, is this for keeps or is it a flash in the pan, the
latest fashion - let's be accessible?
I definitely think it's for keeps. I think, for example, there's a convergence between the needs of
older people and disabled people and any company that doesn't think that that's a significant factor to
take into account, given the demographic changes that hare happening across Europe, let's say, and
North America over the next 20 or 30 years, really has got its sums wrong. So it's definitely here for
keeps. And I would say watch out for further developments because I think what we've seen in the
past couple of years is only the beginning.
Lee talked about screen readers, which are mostly used by people who have no useful vision at all,
using synthetic speech and so on, can I ask you both what's happening in the area of magnification
because you both have some sight? Geoff, if I could start with you.
Well I use, as I said to you before, an iPhone, the iPhone has, what's called, a native app, that means
it's built into the operating system, it doesn't have to sit on top of the operating system, you don't
have to download it separately, it's part of the infrastructure, should we say, of the phone and that has
a perfectly good magnification app and as Robin was saying you can take it a step further and then
use the camera on the phone to use the actual phone as a magnifier of other things in your life, like
food labels or telephone directories or whatever it happens to be.
Yeah, Robin, I mean we had this picture of you going around before with your pockets laden with
magnifiers and all about your person, give us a bit more information about what there is available
So there are a number of applications available that you can run on various software platforms, so
various phones, that will allow you turn your phone into a magnifier and it works really simply by
leveraging the camera and sometimes also the LED flash, if your phone has one, and allows you to
have a reading experience that would be good for spot reading, probably not want to read a whole
book by it, but certainly for reading price labels or menus out and about, it actually will allow
someone who's got some useful vision to read independently where perhaps they would have used a
traditional hand lens or maybe sighted help.
Despite all of this there are still quite a lot of people who still just bemoan the fact that they can't get
just a phone, just a simple phone. Now Robin the RNIB put out a very simple phone, which had no
screen, very big buttons and was easy to use, what happened to that?
Yeah, we did have a specific handset. The world has moved on and what we're finding is that
consumers really want a mainstream product. So a good example...
What you mean it looked too clunky?
Well, I think, you know, some people loved the device and other people perhaps preferred other
options but ultimately what we want to do is make sure that people can benefit from a mainstream
device that's as easy to procure as any other phone. So, for example, the Nokia C5, being one option,
that's a handset that someone can buy for around about £120, download a free screen reader on to it,
have some help to do that perhaps, and you've got a talking phone for £120. There are other products
from Doro and Emporia for example where there would be a magnification or large text experience
possible. And we're actively working right across the industry to get those features built in at the
system level and that's a really crucial point, that building the accessibility in at system level creates
a completely different experience for the end user because everything is built around having
accessibility as part of the system.
Geoff Adams-Spink, I just know that we're throwing a lot of names, we're trying to keep it as
straightforward as we can but we're throwing names at people, we will have information and I'll tell
people where at the end of the programme, but part of the problem is knowing where to go and who
to trust when looking for a new phone and when you've forgotten all that information that people
give you, what do you suggest people do to get impartial advice?
Well I certainly think talking to other blind and partially sighted people, especially people who have
perhaps got the same amount or a similar amount of vision as you have, to say well what works for
you. There's nothing quite like peer review is there for telling somebody whether something's good
or not. I think other impartial sources of advice - people like RNIB and some of the North American
blind associations as well. But can I just relate? Recently I had to buy a new mobile phone for a
family member now this family member has low vision and I thought well let's just see what turns up
on one of the popular eCommerce websites, I won't name it because that would be advertising, but
anyway I put in easy use large print mobile phone and I got back at least, I think, 15 or 16 different
options and I went through them and chose one from a mainstream eCommerce website.
Right. And Robin what about you, I mean obviously you're going to say the RNIB, I wouldn't blame
you for doing that, but what would you do?
Finding out from other blind and partially sighted people is a crucial way and maybe using forums
and groups - RNIB runs Phone Watch which is a consumer group for people who are interested in
mobile technology, not for experts, if you're a beginner you're much welcome to Phone Watch. And
it's a chance to come along and find out about what mobile technology can do for you and
particularly how it can make a difference to your quality of life.
Lee, what about you, you don't work for the RNIB, you haven't started your own company, so what
do you do when you want to get advice?
I'm in a lucky position where I know lots of people and I'm afraid I'm one of these people that just
asks - I ask my friends, you know, find the techie people and just find out how they're using their
phones and talk to them about what my needs are.
What do you say - all of you - to people who say look it is just so complicated and there is so much
confusing information that I just don't even want to start? Geoff.
Well I would first of all ask are you prepared to put in perhaps an hour's work and learn something
new and find something out that you didn't know before. If the answer to that is honestly no I'm not
prepared to invest that amount of time or intellectual effort then go for a very simple cut down phone
that only does the basics, like calling and texting. But if you're prepared to put in a little bit of work
and you have a slightly - an enthusiasm for technology I would say that your effort would be
rewarded 10 fold in terms of what you're suddenly able to do that you're currently not able to do.
Yeah, I mean Robin I suppose we are now in an era where as a consumer you probably do have to be
prepared to do some work and maybe we, as blind people, have to accept that we actually - if you
want to get what you want you have to put some homework in.
I think it's all about incremental steps. So we've met some 75 year olds who've made their first move
into mobile technology, who perhaps feared using a traditional computer, as we would all know it,
but actually when they've been able to use maybe gestures or simple keystrokes on a phone actually
they've found it's a much easier learning experience than perhaps they'd expected. So by connecting
them with someone else who's been down that road, who's experienced using the device for the first
time, it's really helpful. So I think take it in small steps and actually you'll be surprised at how much
you can achieve.
Can I just say that if people want a shallow learning curve try and choose a phone that does have
buttons because I think touch screen does add extra complexity.
And we will hear from visually impaired people who say actually I'm managing quite well with a
touch screen, yeah? But you're saying why give yourself that...
Why give yourself that...
... agro to start with?
Exactly, if it's your first foray into the mobile phone sector, why would you do that to yourself?
And that's about all we've got time for this week. My thanks to my guests: Geoff Adams-Spink;
Robin Spinks and Lee Kumutat. Lots of information there, I know, you can get that information
about the phones and products we've been talking about from our Action Line on 0800 044 044, you
can e-mail us with your comments at email@example.com. That's it, from me, Peter White, producer
Cheryl Gabriel. Goodbye.