YET ANOTHER UPDATE: 11/03/13

I am so pleased to see O2 lead the market in accessibility in this way. Had I not just moved to O2 shortly before this was announced, for completely unrelated reasons, this would definitely have had me changing to them post haste! Having done my own research through necessity, I have not had a need to try out the gurus, but strongly encourage readers to use this service. If you do, please comment and let us know how it goes.

ANOTHER UPDATE: 08/06/12

Good news and bad news here… despite HTC’s accessibility for me, it turns out their customer service leaves a little to be desired. My phone developed a fault a few months back, and HTC made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to fix it. I found the best way to get the matter escalated and actually get a decent response quickly was to complain on their facebook wall. They did come good in the end, but just a cautionary warning about the customer services. 

The good news. As a result of the above phone malfunction, I have ended up with a new phone. The HTC One X. There are three phones in HTC’s new One range, the X is the most powerful of them, in terms of processor speed, internal memory, and most importantly, screen size.  the One X has a 4.7 inch touchscreen that is really clear and bright and significantly bigger than my Desire HD. Most importantly though, the One range are running Android’s latest operating system v4.0, known as Ice Cream Sandwich (I love that name the previous software was Gingerbread!!). ICS finally has an option to change the system font on the phone, rather than relying on third party apps to do this. Now I was initially dubious, after having found out my idea of a large font differs considerably from most software developers! But I’m actually pretty impressed. The settings go all the way up to extra large. This doesn’t seem to have any effect on names under icons for apps (but you learn where those are pretty easily, and they are where you put them). But the font size is significantly bigger and bolder in menus, and big enough that I am actually using the built in texting app, and the built in People (phone book basically) app. I could also use the built in Mail app, but I really like K9 Mail, so I’m sticking with that. The built in web browser has further options to increase font size, and although it means a lot of scrolling, goes really big. I’m pretty happy with the new phone, it’s increased accessibility while maintaining the other features I needed, like the T9 keyboard and vibration feedback. Do remember though, that the option to increase font size is part of Android’s Operating System, so will be available on any Android Smartphone running v4.0 or higher. Obviously, how big it goes does depend on your screen size, and the One X seems to be one of the biggest on the market at present. 

The Samsung Galaxy Note has a 5.3 inch screen, and seems to be halfway between a smartphone and a tablet, but I’ve heard some people complain it’s actually too big to handle comfortably. The very recently launched Samsung Galaxy S3 has a 4.8 inch screen, so just beats the One X. I’ve included those screen sizes for balance, much as I’m a HTC convert, I’m sure other smartphones are great too, and this blog is just my personal experience, after all. 

One of the main recommendations I’d make in looking for an accessible smartphone is to go into mobile phone shops and have a look at some models, ask the staff what phone they have personally, but, once you’ve found a phone you think might suit your needs, always order it over the phone or online with your chosen company. This is because you are then covered by the Distance Selling Regulations, which mean you have 7 days to change your mind if it doesn’t suit you. 

Finally, a couple more notes on useful apps. Firstly, I’ve found that Big Fonts, although really useful, doesn’t play nicely with some apps. Sometimes it seems like it can’t scale the font up and fit it on the screen at the same time, and I’ve had a flickering loading/reloading problem with a couple of apps. Adding the affected apps to the ignore list in Big Fonts should sort this though. Secondly, another great feature of K9 Mail I’ve discovered, there is an option to view your emails in a single column. This means no scrolling right to left, just up and down. However, it does disrupt some pictures in emails from companies, and for some reason, this setting stops you being able to click on links in emails when using ICS. I’m hoping they’ll sort that out as they are aware of the bug. Lastly, another useful app, this one replaces the built in phone/address book, often called People. Contacts Plus is a handy app which works as a phone book, but allows you to change the size of the fonts and colours of fonts and background. It goes really big and bold and is definitely more accessible than People was on my old HTC. Phew, this post is barely a year old, and I’ve updated it twice. Technology sure moves fast, which I guess is good news for those of us with access needs that make finding a phone a bit more tricky. I’ll continue to update this post when I have any new info or apps, as long as people are finding it useful. 

UPDATE: 23/03/12. A couple of new apps useful for those android users with visual impairments have come to my attention. K-9 Mail is a great free advanced email client, with options to enlarge the font size. Big Font is an app that allows you to change system fonts up to 150%. It doesn’t work with every app as yet, but you can tell it which apps to ignore.    It’s @Dalekette again, guest blogging about another issue.

This time, I want to talk about mobile phones.

A recap, for readers who haven’t read previous posts: I’m registed blind, I have 10% sight in one eye only. This means I also have a restricted field of vision, and no depth perception.

Mobile phones have become an increasing issue to me as the years have gone on. Originally, when mobile phones first became popular, they were big and chunky, and mainly used for calling, so presented no real problems for me.

As texting became more common, I had to choose my phones more carefully. I had to find one with an adjustable font size,Picture of the W995 handset, in open and closed positions. Black handset, with silver buttons and keypad. Orange Sony Walkman logo displayed on the screen which went big enough for my needs. Again, this didn’t seem too hard.

With the growth of mobile internet, I felt a little more excluded. For a long time, I couldn’t use the net on my phone. About 2 years ago, I upgraded to the Sony Ericcson W995. The web browser magnified to 200% (the reason I chose it), and I found I could use the mobile twitter and facebook’s sites- I was delighted with this.

It was harder to access most other websites, as they weren’t big enough, and blogs appeared to be impossible- I’d end up with one character per line which took a lot of mental effort to read. I got in the habit of favouriting anything on twitter I wanted to read later, then reading it on my desktop.

I was due an upgrade in February this year. But as this date approached, and I saw friend’s new handsets, I began to worry.

With the advent of the iphone, and the rise of touchscreen phones, would I be able find a phone to suit? I don’t text (or tweet, or facebook) by sight, I do it by touch, by the feel of the buttons. Obviously this would make a touchscreen really difficult to get along with, there are no textured features to tell your fingers where they are on the on screen keyboard.

Now, I’m pretty demanding. I’m a geek girl, I love tech. So, I wanted a smart phone, I wanted apps like everyone else. I didn’t want a very basic handset. My bad! But I needed a phone with a way I could input text easily, without too much eye strain (I tweet *a lot*).

There are a few smartphones on the market with slide out QWERTY keyboards, but they are all too small for me to see. I touch type, but after trying them out, I could tell I wouldn’t be able to use them accurately enough. So those were a no go.

I visited several T-Mobile stores, and discussed my requirements. Well, I say “discussed”, I mean I outlined my needs while the Sales Assistant looked bored and stared off into the middle distance. Their response can best be summarised as “I dunno”.

Carphone Warehouse were slightly better, they at least tried. They showed me one Nokia that had a 0-9 keyboard which they *said* was a smartphone (bit of googling later, no it’s not, not really). They were unable to identify any phone that really met my needs. I began to feel totally excluded by the new technology. I’d always been able to have a “normal” phone before, why not now? Why is no one considering the needs of disabled users?

I spoke to someone who provided some Access to Work support for me. He enthused about the accessibility features of the iphone, how you can use dictation, voice activation etc. Now, I have to use dictation software at work, and it’s fine, really, it’s a lot of help, and prevents a lot of migraines. But it’s not 100% accurate, you have to read and edit what it’s decided you said.

And more to the point, I don’t *want* to use dictation to tweet or text!! I have to use it at work and for studying etc, but I’d never had to use it for mobile communication before, and didn’t want to start now! I felt strongly that the needs of people with no functional vision had been considered, but not the needs of the partially sighted (the vast majority of people who are registered blind have some functional sight, fact fans!). I felt the technology was further disabling me, by not allowing me to use what vision I have effectively.

And…. well, I don’t want to have to read my tweets or texts out loud. It would be disruptive enough if I wanted to tweet a comment about what TV show I was watching (pause, dictate, check, edit, post, resume playing show), but what about when I want to rant about work, or what a crappy day I’m having?

I don’t really want my boss or colleagues listening in while I dictate that, thank you very much phone designers. Why should able bodied people be able to text in private, but my communications be broadcast to the whole office? (I don’t use my dictation software in the open office, I have to say “listen to me” to get it to start, and all my colleagues turn around!).

So I was stumped. My friend told me she was considering the HTC Desire, and we had a play with one in the T Mobile shop (on one of the days they’d been no help). We discovered by playing that it had a T9 as well as a QWERTY on screen keyboard…. hmmm, maybe….. we discovered it could be set to vibrate as you hit the keys on that keyboard, providing tactile feedback….getting better…. I played with it, I could text on it!! HURRAH!!!

Oh, wait, the text that I produced is tiny, I can’t read it. Nor can I read incoming texts. When we ask the staff if you can increase the font size, they look blankly again…. fail. Back to the drawing board. A quick google revealed dozens of users complaining that the Desire’s fonts can’t be adjusted, rendering the phone (and I quote) “useless to anyone over 45” (that made me feel a little better).

All this was back in February time. I pretty much gave up. Google suggested there were some possible phones available in Japan and the US, but not here. I resigned myself to waiting until a handset was released, or a software update avaiable. My friend went for the HTC Desire HD. I was jealous. She and another friend tried hard to find apps that might allow text messages to be bigger, but it was hard for them to judge (neither are local).

On Alison’s suggestion, I looked at T-Mobile’s webpage on accessibility (I hadn’t realised there was one). Their “recommended phones” link just takes you to all their phones – which isn’t much help at all. But there was a Contact Us link. So I used it,

I explained my needs, and how unhelpful the store staff had been. The email I got in response apologised for the poor service I’d got in the store, and suggested I called their upgrades department for advice on which phone to get (I wasn’t convinced by this, but more on that in a second). What it did say, which was hugely useful, was that if I ordered a handset over the phone, it came under distance selling regulations and I would therefore have 7 days to try the handset and return it, cancelling the contract, if it didn’t suit. Interesting….

I put off that call for weeks, expecting a frustrating experience. When I called, I was pleasantly surprised. I was immediately told they didn’t think a handset existed to meet my needs, which was disappointing, but he tried various searches on their system. He even took out his own iphone and experimented with the accessibility settings, describing them to me. The system threw up two possibilities, the iphone and the HTC Desire. I explained how I’d got on with the Desire, that I thought *maybe* apps existed to help, but it was hard to know. He again explained about distance selling regulations. We decided I’d try the HTC Desire HD, the screen is a bit bigger, so that might help. They also gave me a very good deal, saving me money on my current plan, with the handset for free and a shorter contract than I expected. I was, as they say, gobsmacked!

So, how did I get on? The Desire HD is a lovely phone with a 4.3inch screen, it has a T9 input with vibration feedback. Unfortunately, the font size of menus and text messaging is locked, you can change this by “rooting” the phone’s software, but the technical skills are beyond me and it invalidates the warranty of the phone.

I’ll learn what apps and menus are where pretty soon, the icons will help, and, since you can customise the screens, the apps are where you put them!

The web browser zooms wonderfully using the pinch function, with the text reflowing so you don’t have to scroll left and right repeatedly. It was hard using a touchscreen at first, but after a week, I’m finding I’m becoming more accurate, and looking at it less and less while texting.

As for texting, ChompSMSwas suggested, but it didn’t seem to keep the settings when you closed the app.

What I found which works wonderfully is Handcent. It is a free app which is very customisable, and still allows me to use the T9 keyboard to input. It allows you to change the font sizes, colours, backgrounds, and styles. I’ve got the fonts set to 32, which is fab for me, but they go all the way up to over 100pt! You can also change fonts to bold or italics, and can download different font packs, which I haven’t done yet, but could be really useful for some people.

The in build Facebook app has no option to adjust the font size, and is tiny. Luckily, the internet browser’s zoom saves the day here.

The other thing that was important to me was a twitter app. The mobile site doesn’t do everything I’d like. The official twitter app had no option to change the font size, until they released an update the day after I downloaded it! The maxium font size still wasn’t big enough for me to use comfortably though, unfortunately. I went through 9 twitter apps in all. Many had an option to adjust the font size, but lets just say that their version of “extra large” (or “extra extra large) is very different from mine. Hootsuite wouln’t work at all, Peep was tiny, Plume, Tweetcaster, Seesmic, Twidroyd, and Tweetdeck just didn’t go big enough, or you couldn’t alter the size.

But….ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. The award for Accessible Twitter App of the Year goes to Twicca, a free app I’d never heard before. You can alter the font size big enough for me to use comfortably, and change the settings from dark on light to light on dark. It does everything I need it to!

I also found some other useful apps:

  • the built in Reader app allows a high level of zoom with the text reflowing to fit the width of the phone, and includes some free classics (out of copyright books).
  • Amazon’s Kindle app does likewise, and has a fair few books to download for free
  • IMagnify uses the phone’s camera and light to allow you to zoom in on what’s in front of you. Magnify uses the camera to take an image, that you can then zoom in on; okay, you could probably just do this with the phone’s camera app, but it allows you to take a negative image, and also has a focus button.
  • Magnifying Glass similarly has zoom, focus and light on options, and seems to work particularly well for text, in real time, rather than taking a picture.
  • Barcode Scanner uses the phone’s camera to scan a barcode of an object, and use it to search for product details online, I can see this being very helpful when shopping, for example, knowing if you’ve picked up the right printer ink.

So, one week on, I’m in love with the HTC Desire HD. It’s not perfect or totally accessible, but the screen size really helps. Boo to HTC for locking the font size. But much yay for Handcent and Twicca, who saved the day.

And much much kudos for T-Mobile’s upgrades department, for their handling of my query. 🙂