While many people associate assistive technology with specialized devices that are expensive or hard to find, many mainstream technology devices have started supporting accessibility features and built-in assistive technology that can make specialty tools more financially and publicly accessible for all. Smartphones are commonly associated with having a large variety of assistive technology and accessibility options for people with low vision, though they are not the only option for having an accessible phone, as many feature phones and landline phones also have support for basic accesssibility feature. Here are features to look for when buying a feature phone, flip phone, or landline phone for users with vision loss, as part of my ongoing Mainstream Technology and Low Vision post series.
What is a feature phone?
For the purposes of this post, I use the term feature phone to describe mobile phones that do not have touch screens or advanced mobile operating systems such as Android or iOS, and that perform basic tasks such as making and receiving phone calls and text messages. I’ve also included landline phones that are strictly used for making and receiving calls, since these often have overlapping accessibility features for low vision users. This post is not meant to recommend a specific phone model, rather to show different features that are available on mainstream devices.
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Shape/size of buttons
The majority of feature phones and landline phones feature press-button based inputs for dialing phone numbers, while smartphones often use touchscreen inputs for dialing. Users with low vision often prefer to have raised or rounded buttons that are easy to identify by touch, or may benefit from adding tactile stickers to the keypad to make it easier to identify numbers. Most mainstream feature phones I have encountered have tactile labels on a few keys like the power button, start call/end call, and the numbers 1 and 5 on the dial pad, though others may want to add additional tactile labels.
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Ease of use for making/receiving calls
With feature phones and landline phones, phone numbers can be dialed by pressing a button or lifting the telephone handset, and incoming calls on flip phones can be answered by opening or “flipping” the phone open without any need to press additional buttons.
Text size/display size
When choosing a phone with low vision, users will need to ensure that they can identify numbers on the dial pad and check the input on the screen to ensure they have dialed the correct number. Some phones support a backlit keypad which can make it easier to read numbers, or have numbers spoken out loud as they are pressed.
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Text-to-speech for announcing incoming calls or other on-screen information
Text-to-speech features are available on many feature phones and landline phones and can be enabled in the phone’s Accessibility settings menu- it may be listed under another name such as speak screen, readout, read out loud, screen reader, or something similar. Text-to-speech will announce incoming calls/Caller ID, read text messages out loud, and announce other on-screen information. Text-to-speech is different from dictation, which converts a user’s recorded speech into text.
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Speed dialing shortcuts
A popular strategy for making it easier to dial numbers on feature phones and landline phones with low vision is to set up speed dialing shortcuts so that users can reach contacts more easily. With a speed dial, users only need to hold down one number on the keypad to start a phone call. The speed dial for the number 1 is typically set to voicemail, and some phones may have a dedicated button for reaching emergency services as well.
Large print for Caller ID
Another accessibility option available in multiple feature phones and landlines is support for large print caller ID, which can be used in addition to text-to-speech or having the caller ID announced. Some feature phones and landline phones may also be marketed as having large print caller ID for ease of use.
Summary of features to consider when buying a landline phone/feature phone with low vision
- Shape/size of buttons
- Ease of use for making and receiving phone calls- how many buttons need to be pressed?
- Text size/display size of numbers and on screen text
- Text-to-speech for announcing incoming calls or reading on screen information- this may be listed under another name such as readout, screen reader, read aloud, speak screen, etc
- Support for speed dialing shortcuts
- Large print caller ID/support for spoken caller ID