Two-way Radio Communication - A Useful Tool for People Who are Blind
Author: Joseph Stephen (VK5FBHE) : Contact: www.criticalcommunications.com.au
Published: 2016-06-07 : (Rev. 2016-11-05)
Joseph Stephen, Call sign VK5FBHE, writes on accessible two-way radio communication for the blind and visually impaired.
Two-way radio communication has always fascinated me. At the age of fourteen I bought my first 27 MHZ CB radio. Now that I am married with children, two-way radio communication has become even more critical, especially when we go hiking, or are out in a public place. These days we use UHF CB handheld radios for their much smaller size and clarity. Being totally blind, I find two-way radio communication so much easier than messing with the touch screen of a smart phone, besides, they are free to use, allow instant communication at the press of a button, and can easily be used with a group of people.
Many radios have privacy codes so you only hear others using the same code. More expensive radios also have a scramble feature for more discrete communication.
The communication range depends on topography and antenna height more than power alone. To double the range of a radio, you need four times the power, not double the power. Between 2 and 5 watts is adequate for most purposes, 5 watts being the legal maximum for the CB band. In poor conditions, 2 or 5 watts may only travel a few kilometers. With excellent conditions, 2 watts will travel 10 KM and 5 watts about 15 with the standard rubber-ducky antenna. A much greater range may be achieved with an external base station antenna. When using a repeater, a range of up to 100 km is not uncommon. I wrote an article on choosing a radio at ultimatesurvivalgear.com.au/your-guide-to-uhf-cb-radios/
Then there is the issue of choosing between a radio which takes custom lithium batteries or standard AA or AAA batteries. Standard batteries are much easier to obtain, and standard rechargeable batteries will last a long time. AA batteries last longer than AAA batteries. Custom batteries can often give superior performance to standard batteries and will sstill last a long time, but once they do deteriorate, they may be expensive or impossible to replace. Some radios allow the use of both kinds of batteries using a special battery case which replaces the Lithium battery.
The problem with any electronic tool, especially a modern one, is that manufacturers often give little thought to accessibility for blind users. For two-way radio communication between a sighted and blind user, it isn't so much of an issue because the radios can be set up and their keypads locked even before you venture out. Then, it is simply a matter of pressing the Push-to-talk button and speaking. If however you are like me, and want full control of your tools, an accessible radio is a must.
When I first decided to purchase some radios for my family to use, no models on the market in my locality were accessible. What I mean by that is that I could not know what channel I was on, nor configure the radio through its menus to set privacy codes, repeater usage, or even power level . I immediately wrote to Uniden, the manufacturer of the fleet of radios that I had accumulated. I explained my situation and after a couple of follow-up calls was put in contact with the engineer. Most business choices are driven by profitability. I contended that making their radios more accessible would not just be useful for blind operators, but for any sighted operator who needed to operate the handheld without looking at the screen, for example, when still attached to one's belt or in one's pocket. Within four months, I had a totally accessible radio in my hand. By accessible, I mean that I could always get the radio into a known state, find a channel, and configure the menu options without sighted assistance. This did require reading the manual and creating a cheat sheet listing the order of menu options and their various settings.
This accessibility was made possible by ensuring that the radio simply emitted a different beep at strategic places. For example, when changing the channels, when reaching channel 1, the radio would emit a low beep wheras for all other channels, the radio would emit a higher beep. This enabled me to always find a particular channel by counting forward from the low beep. The radio also had the ability to set and easily jump to a priority channel which I made use of for our family communication channel. Similarly, in the menus, a low beep was emitted when one cycled to the first menu, or when one cycled to the first menu option beneath that menu. For example, for menus with a simple toggle, a low beep would indicate the off state and a high beep the on state. For menus with more than two options, the low beep would indicate the first option and the other options would emit a high beep. This simple change by Uniden made the difference between a totally inaccessible radio and a totally accessible radio.
Moving on from Citizen Band (CB) radio, many radio enthusiasts, sighted and blind alike, sit for their Amateur Radio (or ham) license. Rather than being restricted to the Citizen Band only, amateur operators may transmit on multiple bands. This allows communication around the city, around the nation and around the world, depending on equipment, band used, and atmospheric conditions.
When my eldest son and I ventured into amateur radio, we discovered that several of the chinese handheld radios actually had voice prompts. Before you get too excited, just having voice prompts does not guarantee that a radio is accessible as I soon discovered. One of the most verbose radios spoke almost all top level menu names, but failed to speak several of the critical submenu choices necessary for real-world use. It did not allow menu options to be directly set via the numeric keypad, and did not emit a different beep to distinguish between the on/off state of a toggle or the first item in a multi-item menu. Thus, in spite of the verbose voice prompts, the radio was less accessible than my UHF CB which didn't talk at all. It is thus important to stress the fact that accessibility does not just mean making something talk. Accessibility is about a blind person being able to always get a device into a known state in an efficient manner, without sighted assistance.
I obtained another handheld amateur radio which spoke less than the first model, still did not have distinguishing beeps, but allowed the user to use the numeric keypad to enter menu numbers and their settings directly. This meant that one didn't have to count items from a known position, or listen for specific beeps. This meant that even though the radio didn't speak much, nor emit useful beeps, it was still very accessible if you knew the menu structure and valid options. It was however too verbose in the wrong places making it annoying to use. For example, when changing channels, the radio would say "0 0 1", "0 0 2", "0 0 3", instead of 1, 2, 3, etc and this slow voice prompt would override the first two or three seconds of the audio being received. None of the radios mentioned so far spoke the frequency in use.
Finally I obtained a Kenwood handheld amateur radio which was similar to my Uniden UHF CB, using different beeps to distinguish the radio's state. Like the Uniden UHF CB, this amateur handheld was totally accessible once you knew the menus. It was also simpler to program than the chinese handhelds which talked, and did not suffer from the annoying verbosity. Of course the ultimate accessible radio would be one which speaks all menu options, speaks the frequency and channel numbers in an efficient manner, either automatically or on demand, and can optionally use beeps instead, once the user is familiar with the radio's features. Being able to set menu options directly using the keypad is also a very useful accessibility feature. Note that all amateur radios mentioned so far allow direct channel number or frequency entry via a numeric keypad which in my opinion is also a must for a blind person. Many base-station amateur radios such as models from Kenwood and some from Icom either have built-in speech, or can have a speech board added for a small fee. Again however, certain models are less accessible than others, even though they have speech. Some models will speak the frequency, mode and meter readings, but the menus are totally inaccessible. Yet others can be configured to give feedback in cw (Morse Code) rather than speech. As you can see however, for a blind person, merely adding some voice prompts to a radio does not make it accessible.
I have set up a service to assist blind radio enthusiasts. I offer information on the accessibility of radio equipment, help with learning to use certain models, programming of certain models, and offer competitive sales of certain accessible models. Please visit us on the web at www.criticalcommunications.com.au
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