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      Smartphone accessibility and security

      By: Jesal Vishnuram | 18 March 2019

      Smartphones are capable of doing extraordinary things. They have gone from basic text, email and call function to being able to complete complex tasks like a mini computer. With all of this capability, how can they be used to improve accessibility and what are the manufacturers doing to make them more inclusive? Also, are they doing enough to ensure people are safe when using these devices?

      Phone calls

      Phone calls, particularly in noise, can be difficult for most people. Having a hearing loss, even if you wear hearing aids, can make this task even more difficult. This can be for a number of reasons. Telephone lines can be inconsistent in terms of quality, people’s voices can be quiet or unfamiliar and the telephone itself can have different levels of quality. 

      Most people also experience hearing loss in high frequencies. When telephones were first developed, in order to get a decent level of speed and connection with a limited infrastructure, it was decided a narrow frequency range would be sufficient. Till this day, when making a phone call, the frequency range is kept between 300Hz and 3.4 kHz. For most people who have hearing loss above 3.4 kHz, this makes phone calls even more difficult.

      So how can this be changed to help people given all the latest technology? Some calling services that use the internet have incorporated what is known as HD or Ultra HD into their service. This extends the frequency range of calls to the higher frequencies, giving calls better clarity, especially for people with hearing loss. Some network providers like EE provide this as part of their phone line package and some apps like Skype provide this through their software.

      Personalised sound has also become a bit of a buzzword in the audio world. More and more headphone and phone manufacturers are using this to give users more control of how they hear sound. It usually involves the user doing a short hearing test, similar to the one done when you have hearing aids fitted, and the results are then used to change the sound to suit your hearing. This can make phone calls and audio for videos more clearer by giving you the extra sound you require similar to a hearing aid but in a much more basic way.

      Streaming audio directly into hearing aids has also evolved drastically. Previously, the only way to do this was through a Telecoil in the phone which transmitted sound to a hearing aid that had this programme. The sound would only transmit to one hearing aid and the quality of the Telecoil on the phone was very variable. Now with Bluetooth, hearing aids can either directly connect via Bluetooth to phones or through an intermediary device often referred to as a Bluetooth streamer. This allows the hearing aid wearer to stream all audio, not just for phone calls and to both hearing aids, not just one. This can improve the clarity of phone calls particularly in noise.
      Some phone manufacturers like Apple have now integrated their Bluetooth hearing aid connection into their wireless headphones so that you can stream the sound from the microphone of your phone to your wireless headphones and adjust the sound to suit you. This functions like a basic remote microphone but can be useful when in background noise.

      Online services

      Online services can make life a lot easier for people with hearing loss. Not having to make a phone call to complete tasks like banking, making healthcare appointments and shopping can alleviate a lot of stress. Apps for these tasks mean you can do exactly what you need to do with visual information and visual confirmations avoiding any miscommunication.

      Smart devices

      Mobile phones and internet connectivity now provides an almost unlimited amount of possibilities in how we connect with the world and to what devices. The Internet of Things (IoT) allows your phone to connect to various different devices and to connect devices to each other to perform tasks that can make accessibility much easier.

      Traditionally, you would have to buy a specific phone, doorbell and any other device where you needed an alternative to an audio alert. These would often be bulky and a one size fits all kind of design making them unappealing and with features for multiple disabilities instead of just for your needs. Now, you can buy these mainstream devices and have them send an alert to your phone or to other devices. For example, you can connect a video doorbell to a phone app so you are alerted by vibration on your phone. You could also connect the doorbell to a light bulb so that the light bulb flashes when someone is at the door.

      Security

      With all this access to the internet and stories in the news about people’s information getting hacked, it can be daunting thinking about using all these services and devices. However, companies, especially banking services, are starting to change the way they operate their online services to make it safer.

      Often all you require to set up a service is an email address. However, this is not very secure, as anyone can create a false email address within seconds and start using this as a form of identity. Service providers are now starting to implement what is referred to as a Two Factor Authentication. This means that there is a second layer of security to ensure the person using the service and making the transactions is indeed the person who the account belongs to. This is often done in the form of a mobile phone number where you will be texted a code or asked to confirm that the activity has been done by you. Some companies may ask to call you, but as someone with hearing loss, you can request a text instead.

      Below are some tools to ensure you keep yourself safe when using online services and devices:

      1. Create a password that is not easy to guess that includes letters, numbers and special characters.
      2. Change your password frequently.
      3. Do not use the same password for all your accounts.
      4. If a device comes with a default password, like your Wi-Fi router, change the password.
      5. If you are using websites, check that the website starts with 'https' where the ‘s’ signals it is a secure website. You will see a padlock symbol indicating this as well.
      6. If a Two Factor or Multi Factor Authentication is available, sign up to this as it will not always be automatically implemented.
      7. Make sure you update your device’s software whenever available. This often has updates to keep your information safe.

      For more information about the accessibility options on your smartphone, you can go to the 'accessibility' folder in your 'settings' and find the range of features available.

      Accessibility settings on Samsung smartphone

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