Phones for the Hearing and Visually Impaired
By Eric Lin, Fri Sep 17 00:00:00 GMT 2004

As phones become less of a luxury and more of a necessity for modern living, carriers and manufacturers are beginning to offer solutions for special populations.

When the Danger Hiptop was released, it became quite popular with the deaf population. These people has already adopted instant messaging and email as way to communicate with the hearing world on equal footing. A mobile device which was affordable and gave them access to these same modes of communication was a boon. Because of its popularity with the hearing impaired, Danger was sure to consider their needs, and increased the strength of the vibration motor when developing the Hiptop 2 (aka SideKick II).

Danger and some of the carriers that license the Hiptop are now offering voice-relay applications that allow hearing impaired and deaf users to use the Hiptop's keyboard to communicate with an operator who can place voice calls for the user. Each US operator has chosen to support a different voice relay service, however T-Mobile announced it would support both services available for the Hiptop. In addition to the Hiptop, voice relay applications are available for the Blackberry and phones that support AOL Instant Messenger.

The visually impaired have a different set of problems when using mobile phones. Communication is not the issue, instead operation is. Although some handsets support voice tags, or even speaker independent voice dialing, nearly every other operation on a phone requires the use of a screen. Cingular is launching the Nokia 6620 smartphone with an optional software package to aid visually impaired users. The software, called TALKS, provides a voice interface and text-to-speech software which will help blind users access the call log, contact information, calendar appointments and even email and text messages.

While Danger and its carriers are offering voice-relay software for free, the TALKS software will cost an additional $199, however Cingular will offer rebates to those who sign up for one ore two year contracts. Verizon too, has said it is working on an affordable handset for the visually impaired, as well as improving access to its billing and other services. Even the cost of a Nokia 6620 and $200 in software sounds reasonable when compared to previous devices for the blind. A braille handset running WindowsCE launched earlier this year, the MPO 550, costs 4000 Euro ($4870).

It's easy to be cynical and dismiss these special-needs adaptations for phones as yet devices for carriers to entice the last few people who don't have a service contract. However these systems allow phones to be used for far more than voice communication devices (or some adaptation thereof). These handsets can act are mobile computers for people with special needs. They email, they act as PDAs and yes, they provide phone service too. What they really do is allow disabled people to participate in the developing mobile society in a variety of ways.