Phone accessibility for individuals with motor impairments that limit upper extremity movement has historically been a tricky job task to accommodate. Being able to push the telephone keypad is something that, I would say, most people take for granted. But what happens when either the physical force of engaging the keys becomes too painful or hitting the correct keys becomes impossible? What about individuals who are paralyzed and cannot engage the keypad or hold the receiver? In a workplace setting, accommodations would certainly need to be explored, but barriers exist.
As a member of the JAN Motor Team, phone accessibility is an issue I hear about from individuals with arthritis, cumulative trauma disorders, essential tremors, quadriplegia, and Parkinson’s disease. Some of the barriers encountered include the need for an employee to dial extensions internally, dial various numbers of clients or patients, and policies prohibiting the use of a cell phone. In these instances, some of the typical accommodation ideas, such as pre-set numbers on the phone or using voice dialing on the cell phone, may not be effective options. However, there are a couple of assistive technology options that could be explored.
Computer phone software allows users to make phone calls using a combination of the hardware available from their computer and various software applications. TellAPhone, Phone Dialer Pro, and Accessaphone are just a couple of these options. The issue with these is that the phone numbers have to be entered into a contact list or address book. While these can be updated, it may be time consuming for an employee placing outbound calls to multiple different numbers daily to update the lists.
Hands-free telephones can be another option to explore. However, these products generally require the user to push at least one button to initiate calls. Many are designed to be used in home environments and may not be compatible with an office phone system. One example is the Possum Sero! Phone by Ablenet.
If an individual has some hand movement, the use of a typing aid to engage the keypad and the use of a cordless telephone headset could be considered as an accommodation. The slip on typing or keyboard aid allows the user to engage keys with a stylus that is attached to the palm of the hand.
Of course, a modification to a no-cell phone policy could be made or a cell phone could be provided as work equipment so the employee could use voice dialing features. Job restructuring might be another accommodation to explore if the task of making phone calls was marginal and could be reallocated to a coworker.
One option that we discovered here at JAN is the use of Skype with speech recognition software. Teresa Goddard, another JAN Consultant, and I tried this work-around after I had received a question from a rehabilitation professional looking for alternatives for her client who had to place numerous outbound calls daily to different numbers and the employer wouldn’t modify the cell phone policy.
We had our IT department download Skype on Teresa’s computer and she was able to engage the on-screen Skype phone keypad with the mousing functions of Dragon Naturally Speaking speech recognition software. She was also able to speak the number into the Skype contact box to dial. Both ways worked and proved to be another tool that could be added to our “hands-free” or voice phone dialing toolbox!
JAN consultants are happy to provide suggestions for accommodations related to phone use in the workplace, brainstorm options, and even experiment with new ideas and technology developed for the mainstream population! Whatever the situation may be, we are available to assist.