Using the Telephone and Telephone Adaptations for People Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision

By Maureen A. Duffy, M.S., CVRT

Throughout your life, you've probably used the telephone without thinking about it very much. If you've experienced recent vision loss, this pleasurable activity can become problematic. Common telephone problems for adults who are blind or have low vision can include:

  • Getting disconnected because you require more than 10 seconds to dial the next digit of a telephone number
  • Dialing an incorrect number

If you have low vision, you may find it helpful to place a flexible-arm or gooseneck lamp near the telephone to help you see the numbers more clearly. You can learn more about lighting at Flexible-Arm Task Lamps on this website.

There are many simple, low-cost solutions that can help you continue to use the telephone with ease and comfort. By using the following tips, techniques, and suggestions, you'll likely be using your telephone again—with confidence and accuracy—within a very short period of time.

Learning to Dial by Touch
Directory and Operator Assistance
Helpful Telephone Technology
Adapted and Specialty Telephones
Accessibility: It's the Law
Recording Telephone Numbers and Messages
Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)

Learning to Dial by Touch

All telephones use the same arrangement of numbers whether they have keys or a touch screen. You can practice locating the numbers on the telephone keypad without actually dialing by either (a) not lifting the receiver or (b) not pushing the "phone" button on a cordless telephone.

Please note: For dialing and usage instructions for your smartphone, see Using Cell Phones and Cell Phones, Tablets, and Other Mobile Technology for Users with Visual Impairments on this website.

  • Become familiar with your keypad and begin practicing "touch dialing" by using the index, middle, and ring fingers of your free hand (the hand not holding the telephone) to explore the keypad.
  • The keypad has four rows, with three buttons across each row.
  • Begin practicing by using the "home row" orientation: Use the second row, or numbers 4, 5, and 6 for orientation, placing your middle finger on number 5.
  • Place your index finger on number 4, middle finger on number 5, and ring finger on number 6.
  • Reach your index finger up to the first row for number 1 and down to the third row for number 7.
  • Reach your index finger further down to the fourth row for the * (star) key.
  • Reach your middle finger up to the first row for number 2 and down to the third row for number 8.
  • Reach your middle finger further down to the fourth row for number 0.
  • Reach your ring finger up to the first row for number 3 and down to the third row for number 9.
  • Reach your ring finger further down to the fourth row for the # (pound) key.
  • Always return your fingers to the "home row" position before reaching for the next number.
  • Try to think ahead to the next number in the dialing sequence before you begin to move your finger to the next key.

Always ask yourself, "Where am I now on the keypad and where do I want to go?" throughout the dialing sequence. It will likely take some time and practice, but eventually you'll be able to dial a telephone number without even thinking about it!

To help orient yourself to the telephone keypad, mark number 5 with a Loc-Dot, Spot 'n Line Pen, Hi-Mark Tactile Pen, or other marking material. You can learn more about labeling and marking materials and techniques at Labeling and Marking on this website.

Please note: In an emergency, you will need to dial "0" at minimum, to summon emergency services and/or police.

Directory and Operator Assistance

If you are blind or have low vision, you are eligible for these programs. Your local telephone service can supply you with the correct forms and information.

  • Directory Assistance Exemption: If you cannot read a telephone number, you can request that the operator obtain a telephone number for you. There is no charge for this service if you have filed the correct forms and are certified as legally blind by an accepted authority (a medical doctor, eye doctor, or vision rehabilitation professional).
  • Operator Assistance: The operator will dial a telephone call for you. There is no charge for this service if you have filed the correct forms and are certified as legally blind by an accepted authority (a medical doctor, eye doctor, or vision rehabilitation professional). A separate Operator Assistance permission is required for both local and long distance service.
  • Please note: Directory Assistance Exemption is a separate service from Operator Assistance and you must apply separately for each. You must also use each service from your home telephone, or you will be charged a fee.

Helpful Telephone Technology

Speed Dialing

  • This service is available from your local telephone company for a nominal monthly fee.
  • To use speed dialing, you must pre-program frequently called numbers that you pair with short speed dialing codes, such as the "star" key and an assigned number, such as 1 or 2. No special telephone equipment is required for this service.
  • To help you remember who or what number you assigned to various speed-dialing codes, it's helpful to make a chart or list in a form that you can use, such as large print, braille, or Personal Digital Assistant (PDA).
  • You can also make a duplicate regular or large print version so that your family members or friends can access your numbers if needed.
  • Learn more about these options at Reading, Writing, and Vision Loss on this website.

Voice-Activated Telephones

  • A voice-activated telephone allows you to dial a number by speaking the name of a person (whose number has been pre-programmed) into the telephone.
  • When you speak the person's name, the number is dialed for you automatically.
  • In the beginning, you will have to "teach" your voice-activated phone to recognize your voice, which may take some time.

Auto-Dial or Programmable Telephones

  • Auto-dial telephones allow you to program up to 50 telephone numbers by using either the regular keypad or an additional set of buttons.
  • When you lift the handset, the auto-dialer scrolls through your list of contacts until you hear the name you want to call. The auto-dialer will automatically dial the number for you.
  • Some auto-dial telephones allow you to place identifying material under the programmed dialing button, such as a photograph or a name in large print, that can act as a "memory jogger."

For more information about voice-activated, auto-dial, or programmable telephones and telephone adaptations, see Sources of Products for Independent Living. Telephone technology is always evolving, so it's always a good idea to ask about new items entering the market.

Please note: For dialing and usage instructions for your smartphone, see Using Cell Phones and Cell Phones, Tablets, and Other Mobile Technology for Users with Visual Impairments on this website.

Adapted and Specialty Telephones

There are several different types of telephones, accessories, and adaptations that can be helpful if you are blind or have low vision. For more information about any of the following products, see Sources of Products for Independent Living:

a telephone with large high-contrast push buttons

A telephone with large print,
high-contrast push buttons

  • Large Print Telephones: "Big Button" telephones have large black numbers on a white background, or large white numbers on a black background.
  • Amplified Large Print Telephones: They can increase the volume by 20+ decibels. Some models increase volume up to 40+ decibels. Both models have bright visual ring flashers and an adjustable volume ringer.
  • Amplified Talking Telephones with Braille: Have 10 programmable buttons (also with braille) for frequently dialed numbers and three emergency buttons. Some models can increase volume up to 37+ decibels and announce each number as it is dialed.
a telephone keypad overlay

Large print, high-contrast
adhesive push button
number stickers

  • Large Print Telephone Push Button Number Stickers: Have 3/4" by 3/4" bold black numbers on a white background. They are also available in white numbers on black, black numbers on yellow, and yellow numbers on black.
  • Talking Caller ID: Has voice announce, call waiting, volume control, and audio review of the last 10 calls. Also has a digital readout.
  • Voice Activated Phone Dialers: Connect to any phone and enable voice-activated dialing. Features can include recall and dialing up to 60 names and phone numbers.
  • Please note: Whenever possible, try to select your own telephone instead of asking a family member or friend to select it for you. Also, telephone technology changes frequently, and a specific telephone can change or be updated at any time.

Accessibility: It's the Law

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that telephone companies must make phones (including cell phones) accessible to people with disabilities, including blindness and vision loss. Section 255 of the Act applies to all telephone equipment and was created to ensure that you can manage your cordless, wireless, business, or traditional telephone calls just like sighted users can.

Here is a partial list of access features that manufacturers must include in their telephones:

  • Keys that are identifiable by touch: a tactile mark on the 5 key, large or color-coded control keys, high-contrast keys, illuminated keys, keys grouped by function
  • Accessible displays: high-contrast, large-size with large characters, back-lit, zoom capability, illumination
  • Caller identification

For cordless phones:

  • Easily identifiable buttons for dial tone or channel selection

For cell phones:

  • Audio alert or announcement of signal strength or connection status
  • Distinct audible indication of battery status; e.g., low battery, 50% charge, or full charge
  • Spoken menus
  • A non-visual way to tell whether your phone is on or off

For multi-line phones:

  • An adaptation to help you know which line is ringing and which line(s) are on hold

Please note: Many telephones have features that can make them more accessible. That is why it is important to ask the manufacturer of your telephone for a manual in a format you can read independently. You can also ask to have your telephone bill sent to you in large print or, if it's easier, you can pay your bill online.

Recording Telephone Numbers and Messages

There are a number of ways to keep telephone numbers and record messages, depending upon which reading and writing method you're most comfortable with. See Reading, Writing, and Vision Loss to learn more about a variety of helpful methods.

Whatever method you choose, it's a good idea to store your writing materials next to the phone and keep emergency numbers separate (such as doctors, police, and hospitals) so that you can access them quickly.

Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)

Additional Resources for Telephones and Adaptations

Personal Stories

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    As a person with retinitis pigmentosa, "Mobility matters. It allows me to join the rest of society, follow my interests and passion, and reconnect with my love for traveling. I don't have to stay at home fearing the dark anymore. I can live independently."

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