Making Cell Phones User-Friendly For The Disabled

BLACKSBURG, Va., May 7, 2003 – Cell phones are still a work-in-progress with regard to meeting the needs of disabled individuals, who are missing out on wireless communication opportunities because of usability problems.

Virginia Tech's Tonya Smith-Jackson, assistant professor, and Maury Nussbaum, associate professor, both in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, are conducting research for Toshiba to improve the cell phone interface for users with disabilities. Toshiba specializes in advanced electronics, such as cell phones, and is a recognized leader in products that enhance the home, office, industry and health care environments.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 placed the demand on manufacturers of cell phones to support accessibility for individuals with physical, visual, or cognitive disabilities. "Users with disabilities have been systematically marginalized in the information age, because manufacturers and designers have either ignored their needs altogether or designed features in a haphazard manner that were intended to enhance accessibility, yet resulted in unusable products," said Smith-Jackson.

While trying to operate a cell phone, users with disabilities typically encounter problems such as small and flat buttons that are difficult to push with bent fingers, keypads with no Braille or tactile feedback to assist with orientation, or lack of voice activation capability. Sometimes special features are available for disabled customers but the features do not perform consistently, such as voice-activated phones failing to work in a noisy environment. People who have more than one type of disability have even greater difficulty operating cell phones.

The first goal of Smith-Jackson and Nussbaum's research is to identify user requirements and challenges related to user interface designs of cell phones among persons with and without disabilities. The second research goal is to conduct usability tests with existing interfaces of selected Toshiba phones designed for the Japanese domestic market that will be marketed in the United States.

As part of the study for Toshiba, the researchers and their graduate students are using product interactive focus groups and usability testing to target the needs of users with the following disabilities: legal blindness, cognitive disabilities, full blindness, and upper extremity physical disabilities. Information from these interviews is being used to extract design guidelines to enhance cell phone accessibility and to develop new features for future cell phone interfaces. To find out more about this project, email Smith-Jackson: or Nussbaum: