For someone who is blind or visually impaired, using a phone can present some challenges. Thankfully there are ways to dial a phone call without your sight, and even laws to ensure those with disabilities get equal access to telecommunications services.
In the US, this requirement for accessibility was ensured by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that telephone companies must make phones (including cell phones) accessible to people with disabilities, including blindness and vision loss. Section 255 of the Act applies to all telephone equipment and was created to ensure that you can manage your cordless, wireless, business, or traditional telephone calls just like sighted users can.
With some tips and guidelines, the blind or visually impaired can call and use a phone, just like any other sighted person can.
Get to know the layout
Generally, all phone keypads have four rows. Your phone contains four fours of digits, three buttons for each row. The first row has numbers 1-3, the second row has numbers 4-6, the third row has the numbers 7-9, and the last row has the star symbol (*), the number zero (0), and the pound sign (#).
Learning to Dial by Touch
All telephones use the same arrangement of numbers whether they have keys or a touch screen. You can practice locating the numbers on the telephone keypad without actually dialing by either (a) not lifting the receiver or (b) not pushing the “phone” button on a cordless telephone.
Become familiar with your keypad and begin practicing “touch dialing” by using the index, middle, and ring fingers of your free hand (the hand not holding the telephone) to explore the keypad.
The keypad has four rows, with three buttons across each row.
Begin practicing by using the “home row” orientation: Use the second row, or numbers 4, 5, and 6 for orientation, placing your middle finger on number 5.
Place your index finger on number 4, middle finger on number 5, and ring finger on number 6.
Reach your index finger up to the first row for number 1 and down to the third row for number 7.
Reach your index finger further down to the fourth row for the * (star) key.
Reach your middle finger up to the first row for number 2 and down to the third row for number 8.
Reach your middle finger further down to the fourth row for number 0.
Reach your ring finger up to the first row for number 3 and down to the third row for number 9.
Reach your ring finger further down to the fourth row for the # (pound) key.
Always return your fingers to the “home row” position before reaching for the next number.
Try to think ahead to the next number in the dialing sequence before you begin to move your finger to the next key.
It will likely take some time and practice, but eventually you’ll be able to dial a telephone number without even thinking about it!
To help orient yourself to the telephone keypad, mark number 5 with a Loc-Dot, Spot ‘n Line Pen, Hi-Mark Tactile Pen, or other marking material.
Directory and Operator Assistance
If you are blind or have low vision, you are eligible for these programs. Your local telephone service can supply you with the correct forms and information.
Directory Assistance Exemption
If you cannot read a telephone number, you can request that the operator obtain a telephone number for you. There is no charge for this service if you have filed the correct forms and are certified as legally blind by an accepted authority (a medical doctor, eye doctor, or vision rehabilitation professional).
Operator Assistance: The operator will dial a telephone call for you. There is no charge for this service if you have filed the correct forms and are certified as legally blind by an accepted authority (a medical doctor, eye doctor, or vision rehabilitation professional). A separate Operator Assistance permission is required for both local and long distance service.
This service is available from your local telephone company for a nominal monthly fee.
To use speed dialing, you must pre-program frequently called numbers that you pair with short speed dialing codes, such as the “star” key and an assigned number, such as 1 or 2. No special telephone equipment is required for this service.
To help you remember who or what number you assigned to various speed-dialing codes, it’s helpful to make a chart or list in a form that you can use, such as large print, braille, Personal Digital Assistant, or an accessible app to take notes.
You can also make a duplicate regular or large print version so that your family members or friends can access your numbers if needed.
Choosing a phone
Get a smartphone. A smartphone allows the blind and visually impaired to make calls by saying the number or name of the caller out loud to the phone, instead of having to dial the number manually.
Before making calls, you will need to set the phone up to recognize your voice and identify the callers you would like to reach.
Most modern smartphones allow for some kind of voice control and audio-based navigation.
Many smartphones offer several different types of apps to help blind and visually impaired people, call, text, and do other useful tasks.
Apple and other developers have created many apps and features to support the blind and visually impaired to help with daily life tasks. VoiceOver is a popular app for the blind and visually impaired, making it easy to access and use their phone. Every action you do is spoken out loud: From typing a text, to clicking another app, to calling a friend.
For example, on an iPhone, you can find the VoiceOver options under General > Accessibility > VoiceOver. Once this setting is turned on, you can navigate your phone by touch and hearing, instead of by sight.
TalkBack is an app that is part of Google’s Android Accessibility Service. This app helps the blind and visually impaired hear what activity they are doing with their phones such as clicking an item that they have just selected, reading texts aloud, and saying every movement. Every action made on your phone is spoken by this app. Enable TalkBack by going to Settings > Accessibility and then you will have the TalkBack service.
Try a telephone with jumbo numbers:
For those who are visually impaired, try buying a phone with large, jumbo numbers and print that stick out such as a phone that has large black numbers on a white background, or large white numbers on a black background so the digits are more visible to notice.
Get a phone with an emergency button on it:
For immediate emergencies, it can be hard to type your country’s emergency number quickly. Find a telephone that has a large button for emergencies only. The button should be in a large font so it’s visible if you have low vision.
To make the button easy to identify if you have no sight, place a tactile mark on the emergency key. Owning a telephone that includes an emergency button is extremely useful and will allow you to call the emergency services immediately.
A voice-activated telephone allows you to dial a number by speaking the name of a person (whose number has been pre-programmed) into the telephone.
When you speak the person’s name, the number is dialed for you automatically.
Voice Activated Phone Dialers:
Connect to any phone and enable voice-activated dialing. Features can include recall and dialing up to 60 names and phone numbers.
Auto-Dial or Programmable Telephones:
Auto-dial telephones allow you to program up to 50 telephone numbers by using either the regular keypad or an additional set of buttons.
When you lift the handset, the auto-dialer scrolls through your list of contacts until you hear the name you want to call. The auto-dialer will automatically dial the number for you.
Some auto-dial telephones allow you to place identifying material under the programmed dialing button, such as a photograph or a name in large print.
Adapted and Specialty Telephones:
There are several different types of telephones, accessories, and adaptations that can be helpful if you are blind or have low vision.
Amplified Large Print Telephones:
They can increase the volume by 20+ decibels. Some models increase volume up to 40+ decibels. Both models have bright visual ring flashers and an adjustable volume ringer.
Amplified Talking Telephones with Braille:
These telephones have 10 programmable buttons (also with braille) for frequently dialed numbers and three emergency buttons. Some models can increase volume up to 37+ decibels and announce each number as it is dialed.
a telephone keypad overlay:
Large Print Telephone Push Button Number Stickers: Have 3/4″ by 3/4″ bold black numbers on a white background. They are also available in white numbers on black, black numbers on yellow, and yellow numbers on black.
Talking Caller ID:
Found on phones such as Panasonic, have voice announce, call waiting, volume control, and audio review of the last 10 calls. Also has a digital readout depending on the model.
Recording Telephone Numbers and Messages:
There are a number of ways to keep telephone numbers and record messages, depending upon which reading and writing method you’re most comfortable with. Whatever method you choose, it’s a good idea to store your information next to the phone and keep emergency numbers separate (such as doctors, police, and hospitals) so that you can access them quickly.
For more information about voice-activated, auto-dial, or programmable telephones and telephone adaptations, contact your local vision services organization. Telephone technology is always evolving, so it’s always a good idea to ask about new items entering the market.