By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website
Mobile tech gets disabled-friendly
Manufacturers of handheld devices seem to be more eager to accommodate customers with various disabilities - particularly those with impaired vision.
A recent exhibition sponsored by the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) - Techshare Mobile in Birmingham - saw a number of producers and service providers displaying technology that aimed to give blind and partially sighted users the same experience as non-disabled people.
Olympus is about to launch a new dictaphone - the DM5 - that has been designed in conjunction with the RNIB and the British Dyslexia Association (BDA).
It has 8Gb of internal storage which can accommodate more than 2,000 hours of recording.
Since most people would never need anything like that capacity to store audio memos and the like, the device can also be used as a personal music player.
It also supports the DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) format which the RNIB uses to encode audio books.
DAISY is also popular among people who have dyslexia, and the DM5 has been designed to meet their needs as well.
"It's intuitively designed so all of the buttons are very tactile and should be very straightforward," said Olympus product specialist, Georgina Knight.
"Once you get into the menu of the device and you scroll down to the different options, you have voice guidance, telling you what area of the device you're in."
The Olympus device includes talking menus
Some of the DM5's functions can also be controlled by voice commands: for example holding down a button and then saying "audio diary", takes you to the calendar.
Text files can also be transferred from a computer - the DM5 is PC and Mac compatible - and read aloud.
The DM5 also comes with Olympus's Sonority audio editing software that runs on both PC and Mac.
Perhaps conscious of the iPhone's built-in accessibility features - screen magnifier, screen reader and reverse contrast - Research in Motion (RIM) has introduced a screen reader for its BlackBerry Curve smartphone.
However, unlike Apple's Voiceover and Zoom, which are built into every iPhone, RIM's Oratio software has to be purchased from assistive technology specialists, Humanware.
Although not yet available in the UK, US customers currently have to pay $449 (£300) in addition to the cost of the phone.
So why not build the software into every BlackBerry and offer it at no extra cost?
According to RIM's accessibility product manager, Greg Fields, it is because the two companies are approaching the issue from different perspectives.
"If we had a desktop computer and we already owned a screen reader, there would be a different scenario," he said.
"We are smartphone vendors who don't have a desktop screen reader to port across, so we have to work with assistive technology vendors who have that expertise."
Yet another screen reader model is being trialled by Vodafone.
The Vodafone Speak service will be available early next year
Their software comes from Barcelona-based assistive technology specialists, Code Factory.
It is already being tested by blind users in Spain, and is a simplified version of Code Factory's Mobile Speak software.
It is designed to run on Nokia smartphones like the N95 that run on the Symbian operating system.
Vodafone Speak will be tried by a focus group of around 30 people and the product is due for launch in March next year.
Ben Brown - Vodafone's corporate responsibility manager - said the company will probably offer the software on a 30 day free trial, after which there will be a small monthly charge of between £2 and £3.
"They [customers] will be able to get hold of the software by texting a short code to a number and then downloading it straight to their handset," he said.
Mr Brown said that retail and call-centre staff will all be trained so that they can support the product, and that Vodafone Speak will target a different type of customer.
"I think the key benefit is for beginners or intermediate users of screen readers," he said.
"We're looking for people who just want the basic functions."
Whatever the business model on offer, what is clear is that disabled people are now being valued as potential customers by big business; a decade ago this simply was not the case.
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