What access challenges do people with disabilities face when using a telephone?

Date Updated

As mobile phones are integrated with other computing devices and networks, their role in education is evolving. Many educational entities in both K-12 and postsecondary environments continue to explore ways to integrate mobile phones into the classroom. The telephone, however, is one of the earliest examples of information technology that excluded individuals with disabilities.

People with hearing impairments were excluded from this audible medium from the outset. Text alternatives became possible in the mid-1960s with the invention of the acoustic coupler and began to appear shortly thereafter as teletypewriters (TTYs). A basic TTY consisted of a keyboard, a display screen, and a modem, which operated over standard telephone lines. If an individual who was deaf was communicating with another TTY user, both users communicated by sending and receiving text with their TTYs. If individual who was deaf was communicating with someone who didn't have a TTY, they would use the national Telecommunication Relay Service (TRS), in which relay operators provide two-way translation between spoken word and typed text. A more recent and frequently used option is the Video Relay Service (VRS), in which relay operators provide two-way translation between spoken word and American Sign Language. For more information on relay services, consult the DO-IT Knowledge Base article What are relay services, and how do I access them?

People with hearing impairments are not the only group who has historically experienced problems with telephones. People with speech impairments, mobility impairments, and visual impairments may have difficulty with mainstream landline and wireless telephone equipment today.

People with speech impairments, if unable to communicate verbally, could use TTYs. However, these same individuals face additional barriers if they have physical disabilities that prevent them from using the TTY effectively. Many of these individuals can benefit from the Speech-To-Speech Relay System, a system in which communications assistants (trained speech and language recognition specialists) are provided for people with speech disabilities and others who speak unclear English. The Speech-To-Speech Relay System was available in all fifty states as of March 2001. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maintains a list of Speech-To-Speech Access Numbers in the United States.

People with mobility impairments may be unable to use the controls on a wired or mobile telephone. Several devices have been developed to assist people who have mobility impairments in using the telephone. They include automatic memory dialers, dialing aids, large add-on push buttons, large-number overlays, raised face plates, touch tone transmitters, and other devices.

People who are blind or who have low vision may have difficulty locating appropriate controls on telephone devices. These same individuals may be excluded if devices provide information via a visual display. Several devices have been developed to assist people who are blind in using the telephone. They include Braille TTYs, telephones with Braille markings, voice-activated telephones, voice output telephones, voice output caller ID, and other devices.

The FCC has created a Consumer Fact Sheet with information about Telecommunication Relay Services, including those for people with speech impairments (described above), and a variety of other relay services available for people with disabilities affecting hearing and/or speech.

As mobile phones become more available, some of the difficulties people with disabilities have often encountered are beginning to be consistently addressed. Mobile phones frequently offer built-in accessibility options that provide excellent functionality. Some examples include: Braille displays that can connect to mobile phones, screen readers that speak what appears on screen, selections that enable those with low vision to tailor the visual appearance, a range of options that accommodate the use of hearing aids with phones (as well as to enable visual indication for audio alerts), and options that limit access to a single application and/or permit customization to assist those who have a hard time using the screen by touch. All of this flexibility increasingly makes the use of mobile phones both a viable and exciting choice for people with disabilities.

To learn more about which mobile phones and operating systems offer specific functionality, consult the Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative via the international Mobile and Wireless Forum.

For specific information about Android and Apple accessibility, see: