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Smartphone accessibility and features

An RNIB guide to the features and benefits of smartphones, to help blind and partially sighted people with voiceover phone functionality

A photo showing 6 different types of smartphone that are available, among many others, these are laid face down and side by side on a table

A smartphone is a phone that is connected to the internet.

This means in addition to usual phone calls and text messages, it can also do a lot of the same things as a computer such as:

  • Use mobile data or Wi-Fi
  • Use Bluetooth
  • Send and receive emails
  • Search the internet (using Google for example)
  • Get directions
  • Download music, videos and other files
  • Download other programmes, for example apps

There are two main types of smartphones, Apple and Android.

Apple’s smartphones are called iPhones. Android phones are made by a lot of different manufactures, the most popular ones are Samsung, Sony, LG, Huawei and HTC. Both Apple and Android phones can be purchased from any high street phone shop as a handset only option or as part of a contract with minutes, texts and data included.

Grants

Smartphones are available to apply for through the RNIB Technology Grant Scheme. Other items include video magnifiers, RNIB PenFriend 3, kitchen equipment, clocks and watches, accessibility software and DAISY players. Click here for more information about grants.

Features and benefits

Both Apple and Android smartphones have built-in accessibility for larger, bolder text, magnification or speech. How you use the accessibility settings is different between Apple and Android and each have limitations. The accessibility settings are not usually turned on by default, so you may need help in adjusting the settings first.

Smartphones use a touch screen. This means there are only a few physical buttons on the phone such as power, volume up and down and sometimes a home button that takes you back to the first screen. Therefore, to get the phone to do something, such as making a phone call, sending a text, or something more advanced such as looking up bus timetables from the internet, then you tap or flick across the touch screen. The screen will display information such as your phone book and you flick upwards to scroll through the phone book or you could tap on a person’s name to display their number.

Smartphones are available in various sizes described as a screen size, usually measured in inches diagonally corner to corner. Typically smartphones range from 4-7 inches in screen size.

An app is a programme on a smartphone that allows you to do a certain task. Smartphones come with certain apps already installed on them, such as a calendar to add appointments, reminders, notes and an email app. You can also easily download apps for other tasks, such as playing music, reading news or books, watching TV, or booking taxis.

Another key element of a smartphone is how you type on them. Since most smartphones have a large touch screen with few physical buttons, they display a keyboard on the screen when you type a text message.

Most smartphones also come with a voiceover phone function or virtual assistant. This is a feature where you can talk to and ask questions or command your phone to do something such as send an email or text message. On Apple phones, this is called “Siri” and on Android phones, this is called “Google Assistant”.

Smartphones designed specifically for blind and partially sighted people

There are some smartphones specifically designed for use by blind or partially sighted people. At the time of writing (January 2023) the five most popular versions are:

  • Synapptic phone
  • Blindshell
  • RealSAM Pocket
  • SmartVision 3
  • MiniVision2

The first three phones use a touch screen. The Synapptic is designed to be used by people who prefer larger text or who need speech or a combination of both. The Blindshell phone is designed for those who need speech only. RealSAM Pocket is designed to make reading the latest newspapers, magazines and books easier. SmartVision 3 is designed for users who prefer a numeric keypad to operate their smartphones instead of a touch screen. MiniVision2 is designed to be easy-to-use talking phone and take care of all the basic telecommunications needs

Whilst these phones are designed to be a little easier and simpler to use than standard smartphones, it is done so at a compromise of features. For example, all of these phones make it very easy to make phone calls and send and receive standard text messages. RealSAM Pocket even has more features as it comes with a range of assistance features including video access to Be My Eyes volunteers, a magnifier, reminders, navigation assistance and an emergency support function. However none of these phones can be used for more complex tasks such as booking flights or browsing social media.

You will need to decide if the simplicity of making calls and texts is what you want, or if the other features as described in these guides such as video calls and music etc is more important. If this is the case, then maybe a standard smartphone is for you.