Out of the loop

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2011, 12:00am


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An inability to see and a predilection for value for money over fashion have ensured that I have always had the cheapest possible mobile phone. Blame the distributors and Hong Kong's overly profit-conscious shop owners. The first group has decided that the only models they will market that have buttons big enough to fumble over will be their bottom-of-the-line ones, while the latter have gone for mass appeal, which is generally the coolest-looking and most technologically sophisticated. Combined, it has meant that I have been able to make calls, but been excluded by touch screens and complex menus from texting, contact lists, apps, internet connectivity and other features.

In the big, wide world, there are of course phones and software packages to keep the blind and visually impaired in touch and employed. They tend to be expensive and, without a Hong Kong distributor, lack backup service. Apple, its eye on access for all and sundry, has built-in speech capability in its iPhones, albeit at an excessive cost if the objective is simply to make phone calls and send messages. I have gotten by with simple and cheap Nokias and Samsungs, but looked enviously at blind counterparts elsewhere who have GPS navigation, texting and the ability to take photos or play music, among much else.

So it was that, while renewing my mobile service contract, I chanced upon a phone with large buttons and voice commands. The Nokia C5-00 does not have the accessibility for blind users of the iPhone and someone is needed to help out with inputting data, but it at least opens the door to greater connectivity. At less than a quarter of the price of the iPhone, I had every reason to buy it on the spot. Tantalisingly, Nokia Europe intends to soon make a version of its popular speech programme, Talks, available for free on its website.

Hong Kong bills itself as a shopper's paradise, but there is nothing heavenly about the buying options for the disabled. While our equality laws highlight the importance of being inclusive, the idea has yet to find ground in our shops. Every customer, it would seem, has perfect vision, excellent hearing and full mobility. This is despite World Health Organisation statistics showing that 4 per cent of the world's people - 285 million - are visually impaired, about 14 per cent of whom are blind; that the deaf population is an estimated 280 million; or that many more suffer from arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, RSI and other conditions that affect hand movement.

Those are big markets for any product line, but the groups are given short shrift by our distributers and retailers. The internet has opened up possibilities, although it does not allow for quality and suitability testing. Despite being in the millions, such numbers are small enough for developers to add significant premiums on prices: amounts that can often be debilitating for the disabled, who are often unemployed. Unfortunately, for the blind, to give one example, access to equipment with speech can be a prerequisite for getting a job and holding it down.

Technology is a leveller. Apple took the lead with mobile phones and other companies are playing catch-up - and bringing prices down. But distributors and shops hold the key to accessibility. Without their help, true equality will be denied to the disabled.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post