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Telephone boxThirty years ago most telecommunication services were run by publicly-owned organisations who were responsible for the terminals, networks and related services. These plain old telephone systems (POTS) were predominantly for providing voice services. Text could be transmitted at slow speeds using a modem. A service for the facsimile transmission of documents was later added and proved very popular, but has now been largely superseded by other technologies.

Some companies introduced services based on interactive voice response (IVR) which required the user to give simple auditory commands to conduct a basic dialogue. Such systems proved to be problematic for many deaf people; those using a text relay service frequently found that they were timed out by the system.

Person in a wheelchair using a screen phoneAt about this time screenphones were introduced which increased the functionality in the user’s terminal; these screenphones proved difficult to use by blind people even when speech output was added. 

The introduction of Integrated Service Digital Network (ISDN) provided the user with greater bandwidth which permitted the introduction of new services which transmitted text and simple graphics at higher speeds than could be obtained with the earlier modems. The bandwidth available was just sufficient for basic video services to be added but the quality of the image on the videophones was not very good. However it was a popular service for people with an intellectual impairment.

Most of these additional services were targeted at the business community since the price was beyond what domestic consumers were prepared to pay. However, all this changed with the introduction of broadband. In some countries this was carried by the cable television network but in most countries the main delivery mechanism was by the conventional telephone line. Broadband suddenly made internet access readily available to domestic consumers at affordable prices which meant that Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOiP) telephony could be added at no additional cost.

Mobile phoneThe early mobile phones were analogue, cumbersome and expensive - so mainly for business men who wanted to impress their clients. However, the introduction of digital services using GSM suddenly changed the market. Almost overnight the mobile phone became a widely used domestic product. The introduction of short message services (SMS) was low key since little demand was anticipated for this service; this proved to be a very inaccurate assessment of the market.

In Europe Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) services were introduced with the expectation of high take-up; this did not prove to be the case since the service was slow and expensive. However, a similar service in Japan, but with a very different pricing model, proved to be popular.

There were a number of initiatives to increase the bandwidth available to consumers. General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) gave theoretical speeds of about ten times that which was available under GSM, but these speeds were not often achieved in practice.

In a number of European countries the governments auctioned off licenses to run third generation services (3G).  In the UK the companies paid £22.5 billion for these licences. As yet take-up has been modest since the bandwidth promised has rarely been available and the prices are beyond that which most domestic consumers are prepared to pay. The lack of ‘killer applications’ has also proved problematic.

To make use of this extra bandwidth the mobile phone manufacturers have offered a range of smart phones which incorporate a bewildering range of facilities many of which are not related to telephony. These smart phones run under a range of operating systems, and only some can run assistive software to give facilities for people with disabilities such as a screen reader with speech output.

Hands free using bluetoothMany mobile phone handsets were made incorporating Bluetooth which is a short-range communication link between devices. It was conceived as being used for low value financial transactions but it has proved too cumbersome for this application. So far the only widespread application for Bluetooth has been to connect a separate headset to the phone.

Location-based services are increasingly being offered (often based on an additional GPS module in the handset) but few have been tailored to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

The next generation of mobile phones (4G) will offer even greater bandwidth with guarantees of quality of service. Depending on the pricing structure this could see the widespread adoption of mobile television services. At the same time, ambient intelligent services will start to be available.

For people with the disabilities this evolution has been a difficult time. Each technological development has offered the possibility of providing new services of particular relevance to their needs, but all too often these services have not been implemented. One problem is that now different organisations are responsible for the terminals, networks and services; for people with disabilities it is the whole integrated system which needs to be accessible but the various organisations have given priority to obtaining income from their separate services.


  • EG 202 116 (2002) Human Factors (HF); Guidelines for ICT products and services: Design for all
  • ES 201 381 (December 1998) Telecommunication keypads and keyboards: Tactile identifiers
  • ETR 333 (1998) Text Telephony: Basic User Requirements and Recommendations
  • ETR 345 (Jan 1997) Characteristics of telephone keypads and keyboards; Requirements of elderly and disabled people
  • Section 508 guidelines on telecommunication products
  • TR 101 806 (June 2000) Guidelines for telecommunications relay services for text telephones

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