Are Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) accessible?

Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are small hand-held computers, also known as palmtops, hand-held PCs, or hand-helds. PDAs are becoming increasingly popular in all different types of businesses.

In many ways, PDAs provide benefits to individuals with disabilities. For example, people with learning disabilities or cognitive disabilities can benefit from PDAs' organizational and task management functions. Also, some people with mobility impairments can benefit from PDAs' small size, light weight, and portability. These latter characteristics have led vendors of augmentative communication devices to develop PDA-based aug-com products, such as the Palmtop3 and the Saltillo ChatPC series.

Despite these benefits, however, PDAs are currently not accessible to all users. Users generally interface with a PDA using a small stylus for input and a small screen for output. These devices are not accessible to individuals who are unable to use the stylus or who are unable to see the screen. A growing number of assistive technologies are available for PDAs, but these technologies are often developed for only one of the major operating systems (Palm OS or Microsoft PocketPC), not both. Also, due to limitations of memory and processing power, most PDA applications tend to be minimally featured compared to their desktop counterparts, usually at the expense of accessibility. For example, PDA operating systems have minimal or no built-in support for users who need larger fonts or alternate color schemes (though some solutions have emerged from third-party developers). Also, none of the PDA versions of major multimedia players currently supports closed captions.

For blind users, choices are beginning to emerge that allow access to PDAs using speech and/or Braille output. For example, Dolphin Smart Hal is a full-fledged screen reader that runs on PocketPC devices. Freedom Scientific's PAC Mate product line also provides access to the PocketPC operating system, though it is a self-contained device, whereas the Dolphin product actually runs on standard over-the-counter PocketPC devices. There are currently no comparable products available for Palm OS. As cell phones and PDAs have become more integrated with Bluetooth hands-free technology, voice-enabled commands are becoming more available to PDA and cell phone users. Humanware’s Maestro uses a standard HP iPAQ PDA with a slip-on cover and Bluetooth technology to enable a user to interact with the device via Braille or a QWERTY keyboard. Nuance’s TALKS and ZOOMS software offers a limited series of voice-activated commands for use on cell phones using SYMBIAN technology.

Speech recognition and text-to-speech may ultimately be a viable solution for people who are blind, as well as other individuals who are unable to use either the stylus or an attached keyboard. Current speech input/output products for PDAs include Microsoft Voice Command and IBM Embedded Via-Voice. Both of these products, however, are command-based and do not support dictation or application-specific functionality beyond a basic core set of popular applications. Thus, their usefulness as an assistive technology is currently limited but is likely to improve, driven not by accessibility concerns but by the demands of an increasingly mobile global workforce (a good example of universal design).

Additional information is available at the accessibility pages for the leading PDA operating system vendors: