Campaigners are calling on Vodafone to reconsider its plans to scrap a mobile phone application that makes it easier for blind and partially-sighted people to travel independently.
Wayfinder Access was the first “GPS” navigation programme designed for blind people to use on their mobile phones – together with screen-reading software – to tell them where they were at the press of a button and allow them to plan routes to unfamiliar locations.
But Vodafone – which last year bought the Swedish company that developed the software – is to close the system “in the next year or so”, and in the meantime will no longer provide updates to take account of new buildings, roads or developments.
It is also refusing to offer refunds to users who have bought lifetime licences for the system.
More than 2,000 people have signed an international petition calling on Vodafone to maintain the service or produce a “comparable alternative”, including users from the UK, USA, India, Germany, Italy and Australia.
Campaigners say blind and partially-sighted people in countries like South Africa and India have no alternative to Wayfinder.
One man from the UK who signed the petition said the system was “a vital service” to aid the navigation of visually-impaired people, another described Vodafone’s decision as “a tremendous step backward”, while a campaigner from the US said “only technology like this starts to equal the playing field to provide freedom and independence to visually-impaired persons”.
Peter Barker, technology adviser for the charity Guide Dogs, said Wayfinder Access had helped the mobility and independence of a lot of blind and partially-sighted people, but newer systems had now “superseded it”.
He said: “Those responsible for Wayfinder need to find a way of assisting their customers to transfer to something else or just keep Wayfinder going for a few more years on the understanding that they are not investing any more in its development. It’s a difficult situation.”
He said Vodafone had offered the system to other organisations, including Guide Dogs, which turned it down because “it has become obsolete”.
A Vodafone Group spokeswoman said: “Financially it is not economically viable. We are looking at alternative ways of offering the service, but just not through Wayfinder.
“At the moment we do not have a final solution as to what it is we can offer our customers. We will do our best to make sure it is as good as [Wayfinder Access].
“It will be a slightly less effective service in the short term as we look for a more cost-effective way of managing the service in the long term.”
31 March 2010