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Developments in Telecommunications: How They Affect People with Visual Impairments

John Gill

The conventional telephone has been a boon for many blind people since it could be used in the same way as a sighted person.  There have been problems such as finding the correct telephone number, but free directory enquiries has alleviated this problem.

The domestic cordless phones are changing from analogue to digital.  For most people this change has not been significant other than an improvement in speech quality.  However hearing impaired users have found that digital wireless systems can cause noise in their hearing aids; the degree of interference depends on the design of the hearing aid and the design of the phone.

Now it is possible to increase the information capacity of the copper wire telephone lines to one's home.  The demand for this comes from internet users who want faster access and from video-on-demand services.  However these systems could be used for distributing talking books; a typical audio novel could be transferred in about 10 to 20 minutes.

It is in the area of mobile telephony that dramatic changes are taking place.  The analogue mobile phones have been largely superceded by digital ones.  For basic telephony these phones can be used by a blind person, but advanced features can only be accessed by reading a small low contrast display.

Now these phone systems are being extended to offer access to textual information including some limited graphics.  At present these WAP phones have very limited capabilities but this will change in the next year as more bandwidth comes available.

However the major change will be when the third generation mobile systems become operational.  These will have even greater capacity so that users can fully access the internet on the move.  How much demand there will be for these services is uncertain.  The UK government has sold the first five licenses for over £22 billion which means that over £500 per man, woman and child in the UK will have been invested before the systems come operational; this money, and more, will have to be recouped from the customers if the companies are to stay in business.

This technology will permit the transmission of low quality video images.  An obvious application will be remote Sign Language interpretation for deaf people.  Another possibility would be for a blind person to transmit a picture of their location to a service centre, and receive audio instructions on how to reach their destination.

The possibilities are almost endless, but the cost is likely to be beyond the reach of many disabled people.  The approach of the UK government and the European Commission is to have minimum regulation in this area.  So until there is a legislative requirement to provide appropriate services at affordable prices, the telecommunications companies are likely to concentrate on maximising their profits with only minimal acknowledgement of the needs of disabled people.

Further information
Gill J M & Shipley A D C   Telephones: What Features do Disabled People Need?   ISBN 1 86048 020 9, August 1999.  Also at
Gill J M   Mobile Telephony: Will Future Developments be Accessible to Visually Impaired Users?   Rehabilitation International Conference on Mobile Telephony, June 2000.  Also at



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