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Spinal Cord Injury Update

Spring 2008: Volume 17, Number 2


Choosing a Cell Phone That Works for You

For people with limited hand function due to SCI, choosing the right cell phone is an important and sometimes complicated process. Unfortunately, there is no simple formula that can tell you what phone you should get based on your level or completeness of injury. Everyone’s needs and preferences are unique and depend on a combination of physical requirements and lifestyle factors. It is important, therefore, to carefully identify your needs and especially to "test-drive" different cell phones before buying.

Getting Started

Start with “Your Guide to Choosing a Cell Phone,” a guideline from Wireless RERC (Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center). This user-friendly resource includes:

Online discussion forums at My Wireless Review

What are others with SCI using?


• Kirk, C-6

Kirk has no finger function but has enough dexterity to push some buttons with his knuckles, sticks held in his fingers, or a finger braced with the other hand. He uses a home phone by pressing the keys with the edge of his little finger.

Shopping for a new phone last year, his first consideration was getting a carrier with reliable coverage both in his Seattle home and his parents’ home over the mountains in Eastern Washington. Then he looked at phone choices based on his physical limitations, what he needed the phone to do, what he wanted the phone to do, and durability, since he knew the phone would be tossed around in his backpack and dropped occasionally.

After extensive online research, he visited stores to check out the phones in person, which sometimes presented difficulties since phones were often tethered to displays as a theft deterrent. In-person testing allowed him to quickly narrow his options. Bar phone buttons were too small. Sliders were too challenging to hold and manipulate. The display had to be large enough to read without glasses in case of emergency situations like falling in the dark and needing to telephone for help. He wanted buttons that could be pressed easily without slipping or accidentally pressing nearby keys.

Despite careful research and planning, Kirk couldn’t get everything he wanted in the end. The Samsung flip phone he finally bought fulfills many of his requirements, but he still has to improvise. The phone was difficult to open quickly until he purchased a leather case that not only increased friction and improved handling but kept the phone slightly ajar. The case has a little plastic knob, intended for a belt clip attachment, which he grasps with his teeth to help him open the phone when a call comes in.

Kirk didn’t think to test the charger cord before buying and found out too late that he has to push two tiny buttons to connect and disconnect the charger—a very frustrating and challenging task. The speakerphone is also difficult to use because it requires pressing two keys in sequence within one second. Text messaging is possible but time-consuming—it would be easier if his phone had the ability to predict and complete words from initial letters. The “push-to-talk” key is easily pressed unintentionally, but the feature cannot be disabled. He disconnected his email service because it often launched accidentally when opening the phone. Kirk’s advice: “Investigate thoroughly before buying.”

• Aditya, C-5

Aditya, who has C-5 quadriplegia, uses a flat style phone (Samsung Trace). To make calls and text message, he pushes the buttons using either his finger or a splint with pen attachment. A small semi-permanent plastic clip stuck to the back of his phone allows him to attach a lanyard. “This has come in handy during the many times my phone has dropped from my chair, enabling me to just pull it up again using the lanyard,” he says.

• Todd, C-4

With a C-4 complete injury, Todd requires a totally hands-free system. He uses a chin-driver to operate all his mobility and technology equipment. A committed technophile who keeps abreast of assistive technology developments, Todd has determined that a Samsung phone with Verizon service make the best combination for mobility-impaired users. His Bluetooth Motorola Speakerphone from SAJE Technology allows him to use a micro switch for chin use. He uses VoiceSignal speech recognition software. There are still glitches in his current system, such as not being able to dial from a missed call. Todd informs manufacturers about accessibility problems he encounters and suggests improvements. Meanwhile, he develops his own “work around” solutions as he waits for the technology to catch up.

UW staffers Gaby de Jongh and Curt Johnson contributed to this article.