Biennial analysis of mobile phone accessibility: Comparative analyses reveals pain points and progress

Date of Publication: 
2020 September

The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Inclusive Technologies (Wireless RERC) published its third Biennial Review of Mobile Phone Accessibility, quantifying accessibility levels of mobile phones available in the U.S. market as of February 2020. The study analyzed 141 phones from the Tier 1 wireless carriers (e.g., Verizon and Sprint), one prepaid carrier, and five Lifeline carriers. The Review assessed the presence of 35 features associated with device accessibility for people with disabilities. This report provides an analysis of mobile phone accessibility features across the sample, including disability type, and comparative analyses based on phone type (smartphone compared to non-smartphone), the data collection period (2017 compared to 2019/20), and carrier types (Tier 1 compared to Lifeline providers). Major findings include:

  • In the aggregate, there was growth in accessibility features for people with a wide range of disabilities. Upon disaggregating the data, except for some features for vision disabilities, the sampled mobile phones in 2019/20 outperformed the sampled phones in 2017 in the hearing, cognitive, mobility and dexterity disabilities categories. 
  • There was an increase in the percentage of phones with features available for people with cognitive disabilities, including significant increases in the presence of text-to-speech, full access screen readers, and biometric log-in.
  • The growth of accessibility features between 2017 and 2019 shows a shift towards the integration of novel and more advanced technology.
  • Smartphones outperformed non-smartphones in the percentage of accessibility features present, pulling higher percentages for 26 of the 35 features examined, showing that smartphones not only have a greater variety of accessibility features, but they outperform non-smartphones in many categories of accessibility.
  • Compared to the hearing aid compatibility (HAC) ratings found in 2017, the percentage of phones that were HAC compliant noticeably improved. The ratings shifted from a majority of devices falling into the M3/T3 category in 2017, to a majority of the mobile phones landing into the M4/T3 rating in 2019/20.
  • Data indicated that having more than one disability (i.e., comorbidity) makes identifying an appropriate mobile device more complex, particularly if the concurrent disability has a fewer number of associated mobile device accessibility features.
  • Tier 1 provided mobile phones outperformed Lifeline provider phone models.
  • Despite Tier 1 phone models outperforming Lifeline-provided models on the presence of accessibility features, there is a more encouraging finding that shows 2019/2020 devices obtained from Lifeline providers have improved accessibility levels compared to 2017 data.
  • The data indicates that WEA-capable devices have more accessibility options than non-WEA-capable phone models and the percentage of WEA-capable phones increased from 35% in 2017 to 74% in 2019.

In response to these findings, we offer several recommendations. Foremost, as new features are developed, mobile phone manufacturers are encouraged to continue to incorporate users with disabilities into all stages of the design process so that accessibility, and consequential usability, is intentional within digital designs instead of a fortuitous byproduct of innovative technology. Also, with mobile phones of all types dominating how we communicate, manufacturers should continue expanding options that allow customizability of devices and services for individual user needs and preferences.


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