What to Know About Phones for People Who Are Visually Impaired

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 03, 2022
5 min read

When flip phones and landlines were popular, most folks could dial a number without even looking at the keypad. As smooth-screened smartphones took the place of a classic dial pad, though, something had to be added to similarly people who are visually impaired. 

Millions of people in the United States are visually impaired. Vision impairments range from needing corrective lenses to being legally blind. 

Most common vision impairments. Refractive errors like near-sightedness (myopia), farsightedness (hyperopia), and distorted vision at any distance (astigmatism) are among the most common forms of visual impairment. Other common vision impairments include:

  • Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)
  • Cataracts (clouding of your eye’s lens)
  • Diabetic retinopathy (damage to your retina’s blood vessels)
  • Glaucoma
  • Amblyopia (commonly called “lazy eye”)
  • Strabismus (an imbalance of coordination of the eyes) 

The Centers for Disease Control expect the frequency of visual impairments to double over the next 30 years. At the same time, phones have been a significant part of everyday life for decades and are likely to become even more so. Accessible smartphones, then, are crucial.

There are two types of phones that may be designed to accommodate the visually impaired: feature phones and smartphones.

A feature phone is a simple phone that lets you make phone calls and send text messages. These flip phones and “candy-bar” phones have the screen and keypad on the same face. 

Smartphones, meanwhile, have everything built into a backlit, smooth glass screen. Both phones have several accessibility settings for people with visual impairments.

Separate buttons with raised bumps. On a feature phone, raised keyboards and dial pads make it simpler to navigate a phone. There may also be raised bumps on specific keys to reorient yourself on the buttons.

Simple voice commands and speed dial. Most technologies like phones, computers, and TV remotes have built-in voice commands. For someone with a visual impairment, voice commands can reduce the hassle of finding the right contact or dialing the correct number. 

Screen magnifier. For many older adults, screen text can often be too small and blurry. A screen magnifier accessibility option makes the text and buttons bigger, making it easier to navigate a phone.

Color settings. Many phones have color options, like inverting colors or changing the color palette, making it easier for some to read the screen text.

The above accessibility settings are great, but changing the screen’s color palette doesn’t help someone who’s totally blind. Luckily, screen readers for smartphones that read and describes elements on the screen include several features to make them accessible to people who are blind

Navigating a smartphone. A smartphone behaves differently when you are using a screen reader. Instead of opening an app when a person clicks on it, the phone speaks aloud the name of the app.

Once the person locates the app they want to open or the button they want to press, they need to double-tap in the same place. This gesture would be the same as a single tap if they weren’t using a screen reader. 

Typing on a smartphone. Typing on a raised keyboard with separate buttons seems intuitive to navigate without sight. In contrast, a smartphone often seems impossible to operate because of its smooth glass face.

However, most smartphones have two ways to type, which you can choose between to improve accessibility, and depending on your phone, you may have more options available.

Standard typing is the default mode, which functions like the screen reader option above. You tap the on-screen keyboard until you find the character you want, then double-tap to select it. 

Touch typing, on the other hand, lets you slide your finger across the keyboard until you land on the character you want. Lifting your finger from the on-screen keyboard types that character.

Other swipe gestures. Some smartphones recognize a collection of gestures to make them accessible to people who are blind. Swiping in a particular direction, using multiple fingers, or tapping in specific patterns may activate different phone features.

Many blogs and websites review the accessibility of phones, brands, and providers. Big brands also have accessibility hotlines to answer questions and recommend exact products.

Below are a few things to consider before buying a phone if you have a vision impairment

Do you need a smartphone or a feature phone? Major cell phone providers have a smaller selection of feature phones than they once did. Still, suppose you don’t need the apps and capabilities of a smartphone. In that case, you can find brands that make feature phones designed for people who are visually impaired.

Get your hands on a feature phone. The most important part of shopping for a feature phone is to personally handle it. Handling the phone will allow you to test features, have someone demonstrate the accessibility settings, and see if the feel of the phone is right for you.

You should:

  • Make sure the keys are spaced and raised comfortably.
  • If you have low vision, make sure the screen is the right size, and the text is readable.
  • If you have low vision, decide if you need the keypad to light up.

Listen to the phone’s “voice.” Smartphone screen readers have synthesized voices that aren’t always perfect. The voice might be hard to understand or annoying to hear, so you should always listen to the phone’s voice (or voices) before buying the phone.

Be aware of your needs before talking to someone. A provider’s accessibility hotline can be helpful, but they’ll have many questions about your needs from a phone. If you aren’t sure about what you need, they won’t be able to provide accurate suggestions.

There have been great strides in technology accessibility for people who are visually impaired. As phones advance, so do accessibility features. 

Phone providers now have great resources to help people who are visually impaired choose a phone. Some companies even make phones designed specifically to accommodate visual impairments.