Phones still aren’t quite right for people with disabilities

A blind woman listens to her texts on her smartphone. (Credit: Getty Images)

Mobile phones are increasingly more accessible for people with disabilities, but there are still some significant gaps in service, according to a new study.

Researchers compared 2017 model year phones capable of receiving Wireless Emergency Alert notifications—a category that includes most top-tier phones—to 2015 versions and found improved accessibility across 10 of 13 features.

However, phones offered through the federally subsidized Lifeline program for low-income people fell short in nearly every category when compared to phones offered through traditional wireless plans.

The study results are concerning because research shows that people with disabilities are more likely to have lower incomes and may make up a significant percentage of Lifeline users, says lead author Salimah LaForce, senior policy analyst at the Center for Advanced Communications Policy and project director for policy and outreach at the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Inclusive Technologies (Wireless RERC) at Georgia Tech.

“A person without a disability can take it for granted that they can go into a wireless store and leave with a phone that has the features they want,” LaForce says. “These data show that may not be the case for people with disabilities.”

For instance, 84 percent of phones offered under traditional, or Tier One, plans that wireless carriers offer include built-in text-to-speech readers, an important feature for many people with vision disabilities. Among Lifeline phones, 26 percent of phones include that feature, according to the Wireless RERC analysis.

Also, the study found that 17 percent of Lifeline phones examined include access to potentially lifesaving WEA alerts, compared to 84 percent of models offered through Tier One plans.

“This statistic is particularly troubling because some of the nation’s populations which are most vulnerable to the effects of disasters are not receiving critical access to WEA messages,” the researchers write.

Among other findings in the report:

  • Smartphones are more likely than non-smartphones to include a broad range of accessibility features. According to the report, smartphones were more likely to include accessibility features in 20 of 24 features examined. This is of note because non-smartphones are less expensive than their display-screen oriented counterparts and sometimes preferred by people with lower incomes, older people, or people with specific disabilities for whom durability is a key concern.
  • Nearly 6 in 10 phones (58 percent) lack video calling features that people who primarily communicate via American Sign Language need.
  • An “overwhelming percentage” of mobile phones lack good or excellent hearing aid compatibility ratings.

The study included phones from the four major US carriers, one prepaid carrier, and five randomly selected Lifeline carriers. The report did not include assessments of individual phone models or operating systems.

The Wireless RERC, whose primary mission is to harness wireless technology to help people with disabilities live independently, prepared the study for submission to the Federal Communications Commission as part of the agency’s biennial review of the Twenty First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA).

The law, sometimes called the “ADA for communications,” governs access to advanced communications technologies such as voice over internet, chat, and video calling.

The report says FCC regulators should give extra attention to CVAA compliance among Lifeline providers to increase access to the WEA system and other accessibility features.

Source: Georgia Tech