4 Top Cell Phones for People Who are Blind or Visually Impaired



August 5, 2019

This post reviews four popular cell phones for people who are blind or visually impaired.  Two of these are basic cell phones: the Lucia and Jitterbug Flip.  The remaining two are smartphones: the Google Pixel and the iPhone.

LUCIA CELL PHONE

The philosophy behind Lucia is straightforward: it is an easy-to-use alternative to a smartphone.  It is also 100 percent accessible thanks to its very intuitive voice guide.

The phone supports talk and text only; it does not support data.  However, despite this fact, it offers quite a bit of flexibility and some very interesting features. 

Physical Description

Lucia is five-and-a-half inches long, three-and-three-quarter inches wide and three-quarter inches deep.  It fits nicely in the hand and has a sturdy feel.  The display is two inches wide and a little more than one-and-half inches high.  The display is very bright, but people who are blind can turn it off to save battery power.     

The buttons are large and well-spaced. The tactile feel is excellent thanks to the fact that the buttons on the T9 keypad are concave.  The buttons used to navigate the menu system, place a call and end a call are different shapes and colors.

At the top of the right edge of the phone is a circular button that serves three functions: when pressed while at the home screen it provides the time, date, battery strength and signal strength.  When long pressed at the home screen it turns the voice guide on or off.  When pressed elsewhere it repeats whatever is on the screen.  The button below this is a square button that amplifies the audio while on phone calls.  This feature is for people who are hard of hearing.  The final physical feature on the right edge of the phone is a slider that is used to power the phone on and off or to lock the phone.  On the left edge of the phone is the volume rocker.  

On the top edge of the phone is the hole for a 3.5 mm jack.  On the back of the phone is the SOS button, discussed in detail below. 

The back panel can be removed to access the battery compartment.  The battery is replaceable, which is a nice bonus.            

The Voice Guide

The Lucia phone has a voice guide that allows users who are blind to use every feature of the phone.  This is the phone’s real “magic.”  While it speaks everything that is on the screen and everything that is pressed, it actually does considerably more than that.  For example, if I am in the Call Log menu, the display might show that I have a missed call from “Robert.”  But the Voice Guide says, “one missed call from Robert.”  So, in some cases the Voice Guide provides more information than the display itself.    

In addition, the Voice Guide provides other useful information, such always saying “Lucia is ready” when the user is at the Home Screen, allowing the user to always know where they are in the menu system, and tell me when the charger is connected or disconnected.  Also, the Voice Guide has a “Talking Watch” which speaks the time. 

The Voice Guide can speak in a number of languages, including English, Spanish and French, and the user can select different voices.  The Voice Guide audio can be made quite loud for those who are hard of hearing and is very clear.           

Making Calls

There are three primary ways in which someone who is blind can make phone calls.  First the user can simply dial the number from the home screen.  As the digits are pressed, they are announced by the Voice Guide.  The Voice Guide can also repeat the entered digits, if needed.  If you delete a digit, for example the digit 5, the Voice Guide will say “5 deleted.”        

Second, the user can go to their Contacts, scroll through the various names as they are spoken by the Voice Guide, and press the Call button when the user hears the name of the person that they want to call. 

Third, calls can be placed directly from the Call Log, which provides an option to dial missed calls and previously dialed numbers. 

Lucia does not currently support voice dialing, but this feature will be added in the future.  Having said that, calling with the help of the Voice Guide is extremely easy.     

Accessing Missed Call Information

Blind users can access missed call information with the assistance of the Voice Guide.  Lucia will provide the name of the person who called (if the caller is in the contacts), as well as the call’s time and date.   

Users will be notified of missed calls with a chime.  If desired, Lucia can be programmed to vibrate, as well.  Also, when there is a missed call or missed text message, the LED light will flash blue, which is useful for people with low vision.   

Sending and Receiving Text Messages

Lucia’s Voice Guide allows users who are blind to send and receive text messages.  While typing a message with the old T9 keypad takes some time to master, the process of sending and receiving messages is very simple.  And text can be edited with ease. 

Users will be notified of incoming messages with a chime and Lucia can be set to vibrate, as well.  As with missed calls, the LED light will flash blue when a text message is received.         

Entering Contacts

The blind user can enter contacts independently.  With the help of the Voice Guide, the process is intuitive and simple. 

Status Information

The Voice Guide provides a number of pieces of information that fall into the “status” category.  Specifically, it will speak the battery level, the signal strength, the time and date and the name of the wireless provider.  This information can be accessed by pressing the Status button on the top right edge of the phone while at the Home screen.  Moreover, the user can customize the information that is spoken.  In other words, if the user wants Lucia to speak only the amount of battery remaining and not provide the other status information, this can be done. 

Setting Alarms

Lucia has a comprehensive alarm system.  A user can set a one-time alarm or repeating alarms.  For instance, the user can set an alarm to go off every morning at 9AM.  The alarm can be accompanied by a reminder message.  For example, the message can say “remember to take your medication.”  Lucia can save hundreds of alarms at one time.       

SOS Button

Lucia has a physical SOS button at the back of the phone.  To prevent unintended activation, the button must be held for three seconds to activate.  When activated, the phone starts calling up to five emergency contacts stored in the phone.  If one of the called persons does not answer, Lucia will call the next person and so on, until someone answers the call. 

The majority of people who use Lucia will be seniors, so this feature should be quite useful for many users.  It provides an additional layer of security at no additional cost.      

Like all of Lucia’s features, the SOS feature can be set up by someone who is blind, with the assistance of the Voice Guide.

Features for Low Vision

As discussed above, the buttons are large and nicely spaced.  The buttons on the T9 keypad are concave to provide an excellent tactile feel.  The buttons used to navigate the menu system, place a call and end a call are different shapes and different colors. 

The display has good contrast and supports seven different color schemes.  Font size is not adjustable class=”table-bordered” but large, and the most recently typed character is always displayed in extra-large font size.  For example, when typing a phone number, the most recently typed digit is one inch high; the other digits are almost half an inch high.  

Wireless Service

Lucia is unlocked and operates on AT&T, T-Mobile or other wireless providers that operate on one of those networks.  Plans for unlimited talk and text are available for as low as $19 through prepaid wireless providers, such as Red Pocket. 

JITTERBUG FLIP

The Jitterbug Flip is designed primarily for seniors who are interested in emergency and health services.  It does not have a Voice Guide.  As a result, accessibility is quite limited.  However, it does offer voice dialing.       

Physical Description

As the name suggests, the Jitterbug Flip is a flip phone.  When it is shut, it measures 4.3 by 2.2 inches and is .7 inches deep. It comes in red and graphite.  On the left edge of the phone close to the top There is a standard headphone input on the left edge of the phone close near the top, and below it, a USB port.  On the right side, near the top, is a button to activate a flashlight, and below this, the volume toggle.

The keypad is described in the section below that addresses features for people with low vision.  

Making Calls

There are three ways in which someone who is blind can place a call:  first they can dial the number with the keypad.  Unfortunately, there is no voice guide.  In other words, the Jitterbug Flip does not speak the numbers pressed.  As a result, if a digit is entered incorrectly the user will not know and the call will be placed to the incorrect number. 

The second method is to call the Personal Operator.  The Operator is accessed by dialing zero and can look up phone numbers, connect to any number in the U.S. or Canada and place calls to anyone in the user’s contacts.  This service costs $.99 per call and the time spent on the phone with the Personal Operator counts towards the user’s allotment of minutes. 

The final method is the most useful for someone who is blind and that is voice dialing.  The phone can be set up so that the user can dial by voice as soon as they open the flip phone.  The user can initiate a call by speaking someone’s name if they are in the user’s contacts or by speaking the phone number. 

Missed Calls

The blind user cannot access information regarding missed calls, and in fact does not have a way of finding out whether he or she has any missed calls.  Users will need to ask someone who is sighted for assistance in order to find out whether they have missed calls, who called and when they called.

Sending or Receiving Text Messages

The Jitterbug Flip does not support text messaging for people who are blind since the phone does not have a voice guide.  The phone will not speak incoming text messages or allow a blind user to compose text messages.

Entering Contacts

Because the Jitterbug Flip does not have a voice guide, contacts can be entered only with the help of the Personal Operator.  As mentioned above, each call to the Operator will cost $.99 and the time spent on the phone with the operator will count towards the user’s allotment of minutes. 

Phone Status

The phone will not speak the amount of battery power left, the phone’s signal strength, the time or the date.

Alarms

The Jitterbug Flip does not have alarms.

Features for Low Vision

The keypad is well designed for someone with low vision.  The keypad is backlit, and each number is raised.  There is also a raised rectangle around each key.  The numbers are white, and the remainder of each key is black, providing good contrast. 

In terms of the display, it has good contrast supported by five different color schemes.  The font size cannot be adjusted but is quite large.

Wireless Service

People who purchase the Jitterbug Flip must user GreatCall wireless service.   Greatcall uses Verizon’s network, so coverage is very good.  However, rate plans are not very competitive compared to other options.  For example, unlimited talk and text is available for $39.99.  However, other wireless providers now offer unlimited talk and text in the twenty-dollar range. 

The various health and safety features of the Jitterbug Flip cost additional; prices start at $19.99 per month.  Users receive a discount on the talk and text if they also subscribe to a health and safety service.

Emergency and Health Services 

Jitterbug Flip is really all about the health services.  It advertises itself as a “personal safety device.”  The Basic health and safety package costs $19.99 (on top of the cost of your cell phone service), and most notably includes a private emergency dispatch service, as well as a service that sends medication reminders.  There is also a Preferred package for $24.99 and an Ultimate package for $34.99.  The Preferred package includes access to a board-certified doctor or nurse without an appointment.  The Ultimate package includes a personal operator that can help the user with tasks, such as looking up addresses or phone numbers.       

GOOGLE PIXEL

Perhaps the best android device for blind users is the Google Pixel.  Pixel devices receive updates prior to other devices, and Google guarantees that they will receive such updates for three years from the date that they first appear in the Google store.  In addition, certain accessibility applications developed by Google are first available on Pixel devices

TalkBack Gestures

TalkBack is controlled by a series of gestures.  Here is a list:    

Basic gestures

Action

Gesture

Move to next item on screen

Swipe right

Move to previous item on screen

Swipe left

Cycle through navigation settings

Swipe up or down

Select focused item

Double-tap

Back-and-forth gestures

Action

Swipe

Move to first item on screen

Up then down

Move to last item on screen

Down then up

Scroll forward
(if you’re on a page longer than one screen)

Right then left

Scroll back
(if you’re on a page longer than one screen)

Left then right

Move slider up
(such as volume)

Right then left

Move slider down
(such as volume)

Left then right

Angle gestures
These gestures are two-part swipes at a right angle. For example, the default gesture for going to the Home screen is to swipe up then left at a sharp 90-degree angle.

Action

Swipe

Home button

Up then left

Back button

Down then left

Overview button

Left then up

Notifications

Right then down
(see note below)

Screen search

Left then down

Open local context menu

Up then right

Open global context menu

Down then right

Some people may find the right angle gestures a little difficult.  However, the need to use such gestures can largely be avoided by customizing the gestures.  Specifically, new actions can be assigned to the one finger gestures, replacing the right angle gestures.  For example, instead of going back to the home screen by using the up and to the left gesture, the user could simply swipe down.      

Browsing the Web with TalkBack

Browsing the web with TalkBack is quite easy.  First, open a web page in Chrome.  Next swipe up or down to hear the various ways that TalkBack can read the page for you.  When you hear the way that you want to explore the page, stop.  You can then explore the web page using the selected method by swiping to the right to go forward or to the left to go backward. 

The various ways that you can explore a page include the following:

  • Headings – TalkBack will navigate the user from heading to heading
  • Links – Navigate from link to link
  • Controls – Navigate by other elements, such as form fields, buttons, or menus.
  • Characters – TalkBack will read a single character
  • Words – TalkBack will read a single word
  • Lines – TalkBack will read a single line
  • Default – Explore every element of the page in order    

Apps for People who are Blind

There are many excellent android applications for people who are blind.  Examples include Be My Eyes, Bard Mobile and Eye-D. 

An excellent list of android applications for people who are blind or low vision can be found on the RAZ Mobility Accessible App Installer.  This application lists and describes the top applications for individuals who are blind.

Google recently launched an excellent application called Lookout.  This app was developed specifically for people with vision loss.  It recognizes objects and tells the user where they are located in relation to the user, reads text, currency, barcodes and more.  Lookout is available on Pixel devices, as well as certain devices from Samsung and LG.  There is no iOS version of this application.    

While there are some excellent android applications for people who are blind, applications developed specifically for people with vision loss tend to be launched on iOS first. 

Sending and Reading Text Message

The easiest way to send a text message is with the Google Assistant.  The user can easily ask the Assistant to “send a text message” and the Assistant will respond “who do you want to text and guide the user through the process. 

While the Google Assistant will read new text messages, it will not read text messages that the user has already viewed.  In order to access messages that already been viewed, the user must go into the Messenger app using the TalkBack gestures.     

There may be times when you want to use your messaging app rather than the Google Assistant.  In that case, the easiest way to draft a text is voice dictation.  Unfortunately, there is no shortcut for activating voice dictation.  The user must find the voice dictation button and double tap to select. 

Editing text is quite easy in TalkBack; perhaps easier than in VoiceOver.

Obtaining Status Information

The user can access the information in the status bar (such as battery level and signal strength) with explore by touch and then swiping to the right or left to have the different elements in the status bar read out loud. 

In the alternative, the user can obtain the remaining battery strength information by asking the Google Assistant “what’s my battery level.”  The Google Assistant cannot provide the signal strength.

The Google Assistant

The Google Assistant is probably the best virtual assistant available.  It has excellent speech recognition and allows the user to perform many functions by voice.  A few examples include calling, managing your calendar, playing music, listening to audio books or podcasts, sending text messages, listening to the radio, setting alarms, performing Google searches and much more.  

iPHONE

The iPhone is the most popular smartphone with people who are blind or visually impaired, and for good reason: Apple was the first to develop an excellent built-in screen reader, called VoieOver. 

Gestures

Explore and speak items on the screen

Action

VoiceOver gesture to
perform actiom

Select and speak an item

Tap or touch the item

Select the next item

Swipe right

Select the previous item

Swipe left

Select the first item on the screen

Four-finger tap near the top of the screen

Select the last item on the screen

Four-finger tap near the bottom of the screen

Speak the entire screen from the top

Two-finger swipe up

Speak the entire screen from the selected item

Two-finger swipe down

Pause or continue speaking

Two-finger tap

Speak additional information, such as the position within a list or whether text is selected

Three-finger tap

Scroll up, down, left, and right

Action

VoiceOver gesture to perform action

Scroll up one page

Three-finger swipe down

Scroll down one page

Three-finger swipe up

Scroll left one page

Three-finger swipe right

Scroll right one page

Three-finger swipe left

Take action on an item

Action

VoiceOver gesture to perform action

Activate the selected item

Double-tap

Double-tap the selected item

Triple-tap

Drag a slider

Tap the slider to select it, then swipe up or down with one finger; or double-tap and hold the slider until you hear three rising tones, then drag the slider

Start or stop the current action (for example, play or pause music or a video, take a photo in Camera, start or stop a recording, start or stop the stopwatch)

Two-finger double-tap

Dismiss an alert or return to the previous screen

Two-finger scrub (move two fingers back and forth three times quickly, making a “z”)

Edit an item’s label to make it easier to find

Two-finger double-tap and hold

Tip: As an alternative to selecting an item and double-tapping to activate it, touch and hold an item with one finger, then tap the screen with another.

Use gestures to control VoiceOver

Action

VoiceOver gesture to perform action

Mute or unmute VoiceOver

Three-finger double-tap.
If both VoiceOver and Zoom are enabled, use the three-finger triple-tap gesture.

Turn the screen curtain on or off
(When the screen curtain is on, the screen contents are active even though the display is turned off.)

Three-finger triple-tap.
If both VoiceOver and Zoom are enabled, use the three-finger quadruple-tap gesture.

Use a standard gesture

Double-tap and hold your finger on the screen until you hear three rising tones, then make the gesture. When you lift your finger, VoiceOver gestures resume.
For example, to drag a volume slider with your finger instead of swiping up and down, select the slider, double-tap and hold, wait for the three tones, then slide left or right.

Open the Item Chooser

Two-finger triple-tap.
To move quickly through the list of items, type a name in the search field, swipe right or left to move through the list alphabetically, or tap the table class=”table-bordered” index to the right of the list and swipe up or down. You can also use handwritingto select an item by writing its name.
To dismiss the Item Chooser without making a selection, double-tap.

Use the VoiceOver rotor

Action

VoiceOver gesture to perform action

Choose a rotor setting

Two-finger rotation

Move to the previous item or increase
(depending on the rotor setting)

Swipe up

Move to the next item or decrease (depending on the rotor setting)

Swipe down

Browsing the Web

Browsing is quite simple.  Open Safari, select the search field and enter your search.  You can swipe right or left to move down or up the list of suggested search phrases. After you hear the desired search phrase, double-tap the screen to search the web using the selected phrase.
Just like with the Pixel, you can explore a web page by element type.  For example, you can explore by heading or link.  Use the rotor to select the desired element type, then swipe up or down to move between the headings, links, or whatever was selected.   

Apps

The iPhone has an excellent selection of apps for people with vision loss.  Apps designed for people who are blind are frequently, but not always, launched on iOS first.  This is definitely an advantage that the iPhone has over the Google Pixel.  In some cases, developers decide only to develop an iOS version of their application.  As an example, Seeing AI, a popular app developed by Microsoft for people who are blind, launched the iOS version of their app a few years ago, but has yet to launch an android version. 

Sending a Text Message

As with the Google Pixel, the easiest way to send text message is with the virtual assistant.  Simply activate Siri and say “send text message” and Siri will prompt you for the rest.  You can also ask Siri to read your received messages.  Again, activate Siri, and say something like “read my texts.”  Siri will announce how many messages you have waiting for you.  Siri then starts reading all new messages, beginning with the sender’s name — or if the name is unknown, the phone number it’s coming from. Like the Google Assistant, Siri will not read old messages. 

If you want to send a text message with the messaging app, the easiest way to draft a message is with voice dictation.  VoiceOver offers a great shortcut for activating voice dictation.  After you open the app and select the recepient, use a two-finger double tap to start dictation.  The two-finger double tap also ends dictation.  Editing text is easy using the rotary tool.    

Status Information

An easy way to obtain certain status information, such as the battery level, is to ask Siri.  You can also tap the status bar at the top of the display and swipe left or right to hear the time, battery, signal strength and more.  This is much like the Pixel. 

Siri will not speak the signal strength. 

Siri

Siri can do many of the same things that the Google Assistant can do.  For example, it can play music, make calls, text, set timers and more.  Some people feel that Siri falls short in speech recognition, which most people agree is not as good as Google’s speech recognition.