When the Smartphone Doesn’t Speak Your Language

Who coined the term "smartphone?" It must have been a 12-year-old nerdy kid or a software developer that thought it would be a great idea to put a computer in the phone and take away the keyboard! "Smart," in this instance is a very relative term!

closeup of hands touching a phone screen

In the interest of full disclosure, this writer loves his dated Samsung Galaxy Android phone, a flat screen smartphone, so this is not a personal issue with smartphones, it’s a professional issue! For the umpteenth time in what seems like a very short while, one of the clients with whom I work went into a phone store and walked out with a new smartphone they couldn’t even make a phone call with! In several instances, these were people who were capable of using their old, reliable flip phones to make calls, navigate those dreaded numerical menus, whose "options have always recently changed." You know the routine, "Press 1 for English," "Press 2 for more choices," or "Press 0 to give up and start again…" At least one could even send a text using the predictable tactile number pad for text input. And yet, through no fault of their own, with new smartphone in hand—complete with access to the web, email, messaging, movies and tv, Facebook, and you name it, the task of making a basic phone call has become so confounding on these smart pieces of glass that even those among us with decent manual dexterity, functional vision, common sense, and plenty of patience are stymied by placing a call to a family member or answering an incoming phone call!

I just had to ask the most recent client who is going through this, "Wouldn’t it be easier on a phone with buttons on the dialing pad," she asked as she jabbed repeatedly at what she thought was the home button (which isn’t even a button but an area of the screen in the center near the lower edge). "They don’t even make them anymore," she said, poking the screen, listening to TalkBack chattering, "Back, back, back."

The Flip Phone Still Lives

picture of professional demonstrating flip phone to older woman

My next stop, literally after meeting this client, was to the local cell phone store where I learned, among other things, that the flip phone is still available and is still fairly tactile. And, at least the LG B470, the model offered as the basic model for AT&T, included text to speech on the menus and for reading text messages! This phone cost $10 more than the basic Android smartphone offered with the month-to-month plan, but as the salesperson pointed out, "It’s actually a better quality phone." Right… just not as sexy these days because it has a dial pad you can feel and a couple tactile buttons!

Just a quick look at some of the features on the phone reminded me that there wasn’t a whole lot missing from this phone compared to its less tactile counterpart. The email connectivity on the flip phone and the "Mobile web" application, if memory serves me well, is probably not worth the effort. So the LG has some Internet connectivity, but that is not why you might choose one of these over a smartphone.

The LG, like other comparable flip phone models, has a camera, voice recorder, takes videos, plays music files, offers text to speech on most menu items, and responds to some voice commands for making a call, offers hearing aid connectivity, and a mode with louder volume for users with a hearing loss. And yes, there is a tactile dialing pad with a raised mark on the number "5" for orientation. As a result, with a little bit of practice, users can make a call by pushing the numbers on the dialing pad—no flicking, swiping, or double tapping required!

For Some They Really Are Smart

Please don’t reach the conclusion that smartphones by virtue of their smooth surface, advanced Internet connectivity, and many applications are not fully accessible to users with vision loss. On the contrary! The introduction of the text to speech feature called VoiceOver on the Apple iPhone 10 years ago has dramatically and positively altered assistive technology on mainstream technology. TalkBack, the text to speech feature on the Android phones, often offered as the "basic" smartphone for many cell phone companies, continues to improve in usability as well. So, for the new or inexperienced user, patience and practicing the many gestures that replaced tactile buttons and keyboard shortcuts will pay off. Having a smartphone in hand and the skill to use it, puts a powerful, portable computer at your disposal, with or without sight.

Directory Assistance Exemption

The intent of this was not to promote AT&T or any other specific cell phone carrier or model of cell phone. It was really just to suggest that there are other options, such as a flip phone with a tactile dialing pad and buttons, that may offer all the communication features you want with less complexity. While doing the research for this blog post, I had an opportunity to verify that AT&T still offers a 411 directory assistance exemption for users with a vision impairment. While some other phone services have resorted to advertising supported Free 411, a toll-free automated directory assistance 1-800-373-3411 (800-Free 411), AT&T offers a waiver to their regular 411 service, which includes the options to ask for several listings at a time and to be connected to a number once it has been found. After completing an application, there is no charge for this service, which would ordinarily cost $1.99 per usage. Easy, inexpensive access to directory assistance also eliminates some of the need for the web access on a smartphone. To find out more about enrollment, call AT&T’s National Center for Customers with Disabilities at 866.241.6568.

Remember There Are Alternatives to Smart Pieces of Glass

If you’re in the market for a new cell phone or just new to mobile phones, remember there are alternatives that may be less intimidating and actually do a better job of meeting a primary need—placing a phone call quickly and efficiently. A smartphone is truly an amazing communication tool if you have the time and patience to use it, particularly if you will be using text to speech. A flip phone, too, is an amazing communication tool to make and receive calls, record a quick memo, and maintain an address book, and perhaps all the more amazing for the elegance of greater simplicity!

Additional Information

Using the Telephone

Project Ray, a suite of accessible apps combined with its own, third-party launcher, the part of the Android interface that enables users to customize their device’s home screen, launch mobile apps, make phone calls, and perform other tasks on Android tablets and smartphones.

Smartphone Apps

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