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Designing for disabilities: a braille smartphone, other innovations

By David Delony / June 18, 2013

It’s difficult to imagine life without smartphones, but there are many who miss out on the convenience and benefits they provide. That’s why TED fellow Sumit Dagar is creating a Braille smartphone for people who have impaired vision.

Dagar’s phone gives the user a tactile representation of typed messages such as texts or emails by raising and lowering pins in the display. In addition to braille text, it can also display maps in a tangible format.

As revolutionary as a braille smartphone will be once it enters the market next year, it won’t be the first device of its kind. There are already several solutions available for those with disabilities:

Screen readers

One of the traditional ways to make smartphones more accessible for people with impaired vision is through screen-reading technology. As the name suggests, screen readers audibly relay the words and images displayed on a user’s screen. This method has been used on computers for years, but only recently has it been translated to smaller screens. They work well enough, but the main problem is a lack of privacy. People might not want sensitive information read aloud to anyone within earshot.

Digital personal assistants

Another possible alternative is the digital personal assistant. The most notable of these is Apple’s Siri, which helps users accomplish various tasks on their phones through voice commands. Google provides similar capabilities on Android devices. Even third-party programs like the Dolphin smartphone web browser have voice search capabilities.

Video calling and adaptive input

The visually impaired aren’t the only disabled individuals smartphone manufacturers should keep in mind. For many years, people with hearing impairments have communicated through TTY relay services and text messaging. More recently, video calling has emerged as a viable option for deaf people who use sign language. And for those without full use of their hands, Apple’s AssistiveTouch feature makes multi-touch gestures easier those with limited mobility. Some Android phones offers similar functionality by letting users answer calls with a press of the power button.

Should manufacturers really care?

Why should mobile companies think about accessibility, other than the general betterment of society? It’s simple, more users means more revenue streams. A lot of these features, including predictive text, weren’t explicitly designed with disabled individuals in mind, but they make using phones easier for everyone. So just imagine what can be achieved when companies specifically focus on this underserved market.