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Skype for iPhone is A Good Start for Disabled, But More Needs to be Done

March 31 2009 | by

Today Skype launched its free iPhone application, bringing its much-anticipated Internet-based phone service to Apple’s mobile platform. Generally, this is good news, as Skype has always held appeal for people with disabilities, particularly those with physical disabilities for whom using a computer is easier –and more affordable — than a telephone for making calls.

People with other types of disabilities, however, won’t fare as well with Skype on the iPhone. One issue is accessibility with screen readers on mobile devices. Skype on the desktop has been modified to work with screen readers for visually impaired persons, though there are still some hiccups, like not being able to correctly read a contact list aloud. The iPhone and other mobile devices do not yet have screen-reader capability, and in any case touch screens aren’t accessible enough to people who are blind.

“The Skype iPhone version doesn’t have any of the accessibility features that the desktop version does, says Jim Tobias, founder of Inclusive Technologies. “And Skype’s attention to accessibility has been spotty at best,” he added.

For people who are deaf, the app doesn’t seem much better. Skype currently supports one-to-one video chat. Many deaf people use Skype and other services on their desktop to make one-on-one video calls in American Sign Language to other Skype users. But this option isn’t available on mobile devices yet. “We’re considering video carefully but we have a really high bar on the quality,” says Skype Chief Operating Officer Scott Durchslag. “If we do it we will have to do it incredibly well.” Even if Skype brought video to the iPhone it wouldn’t work: the iPhone doesn’t have a forward-facing video camera, which is needed for mobile video calls.

It’s likely that Apple will add video capabilities to the iPhone to make it a handheld videophone platform, with support for mobile video-conferencing calls. Some newer devices already have these features, such as the Palm Pre smartphone due out this year.

Fortunately, people who are deaf will have another option for using Skype: mobile internet devices (MIDs), such as those powered by Intel’s Atom processor (like the Nokia N810) that was launched at the Consumer Electronics Showroom last year. While larger than smartphones and designed for consumer use, MIDs can support video, while smartphones cannot.

Tobias say he’s disappointed that the mobile version of Skype doesn’t have the same accessible features as its “talented older desktop sibling,” and hopes Skype and Apple will work together to make the neccessary modifications. That includes making the touch screens accessible to the blind and visually impaired, adding video capability for the deaf and hard of hearing, and providing easier keyboard navigation. If Skype and Apple can do this, it would certainly help more people with disabilities — and propel a mobile category that has been slow to take off.

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