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How recycling your old smartphone could change someone's life

Your old, unused smartphone is probably gathering dust in a drawer somewhere. But that old piece of tech could be a lifeline that helps some of the most isolated people in Australia.

Donated smartphones are helping deafblind people like Michael Doherty to stay connected.

Able Australia

Michael Doherty can't live without his iPhone. He sends text messages to his friends, uses the phone to check football scores and even followed the Olympics this year. Being both deaf and blind, it's one of the few ways Doherty can interact the world.

The combination of hearing and vision disabilities makes navigating the world incredibly difficult. But with the help of speech output and a Braille display for reading and typing text, a regular smartphone becomes invaluable for deafblind people, allowing them to text friends, pay bills and and even read footy scores like anybody else.

This September, Mobile Muster is collecting unwanted smartphones that are still in working order to donate to Able Australia, a local non-profit that helps people living with multiple disabilities, like deafblindness.

"People with deafblindness are profoundly isolated and have difficulty making connections with every task they do," said Able Australia's national digital literacy co-ordinator, Claire Tellefson. "The most important feature of a smart phone is instant communication.

"For the first time, they are able to organise their own supports, appointments, shopping and their own social life. The ability to communicate regularly has made a huge difference to their lives and mental health."

A wireless braille display like this one can work with Apple VoiceOver assistive technology to turn braille messages into speech.

James Martin/CNET

Tellefson says deafblind people are also able to use apps like Facebook to reconnect with old school friends, family and the wider deaf or blind community, without having to rely on interpreters. A smartphone can also make it easy to communicate when doing something as simple as ordering a coffee.

For Michael Doherty, his donated iPhone was a game-changer.

"Before my iPhone, I visited Able Australia every week to use a computer to read news items on the internet. My only contact with friends was through Auslan signing when I ran into them at functions or at recreation outings when we have communication guides," he told us via email.

"A lot of deaf people have SMS and I am now able to communicate with my friends directly and not rely on an interpreter and wait months until I run into them. I have developed closer friendships with several deafblind people that I didn't really know that well before and now I am able to have ongoing private conversations with them, without other people around listening in."

As part of the September donation drive, Mobile Muster is hoping that some of the estimated 25 million mobile phones gathering dust in drawers across Australia can help people like Michael.

"We are asking Australians to think about what they are doing with their old mobiles," said Mobile Muster's manager of recycling, Spyro Kalos.

"If it is a smartphone that you no longer need, then donate it to Able Australia to help a deafblind person stay connected with their community. If it is broken and no longer working, then recycle it with MobileMuster along with its battery and any accessories."

To get involved:

  • Make sure your phone is working (see the list of suitable devices on the Mobile Muster website)
  • Remove any data from your phone that you want to keep, like photos or videos
  • Remove features like "Find My iPhone," screen lock passwords and network locks so it can be reused (you'll need to contact your carrier if your phone is network locked)
  • Download a free reply-paid label from mobilemuster.com.au/able for postage
  • Send the phone to Mobile Muster, along with any dead phones or accessories that you want to recycle

Every device sent to Mobile Muster is wiped using the same standards used by the Department of Defence, and they guarantee that nothing sent to Mobile Muster is resold.

And as an added bonus, you get the good feeling of helping someone who might have otherwise stayed isolated and disconnected.

As Michael Doherty says, a phone makes life easier and much more interesting.

"When I go on holidays I can keep in contact with my family and let them know where I am. I can take photos and share them with my family and friends. I can take selfies if I meet someone famous and post it on Facebook to show all my deaf friends."