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Increasing Accessibility of Information and Communication Technology Systems Through Open Standards

John Gill
November 2007

Historically the communication technology area was dominated by a few major players, many of whom were owned or controlled by the government.  As telecommunication services were opened to other suppliers, many governments relied on the national regulators to impose requirements for the provision of services which may not be commercially profitable.  However the influx of many new players in the market and the trend towards light touch regulation has meant that this approach is increasingly not fully addressing the needs of disabled consumers.

In principle designing products for a larger market would increase profits for a commercial company.  One way to enlarge one’s market is to include more older and disabled people among the potential purchasers for a product or service.  Despite significant resources being devoted to preaching the message of inclusive design, relatively few commercial companies systematically use this approach.  Inclusive design, like quality, is something which needs to be considered at all stages of the development, and should not be considered solely when the product is about to go on the market.

Since encouraging the adoption of inclusive design has had little practical impact, governments have had to consider other methods of influencing the market.  One approach has been to require government departments to mandate accessibility during the procurement process.  However this has immediately raised the problem of defining what is “accessible” and how to measure it.  For procurement purposes, officials need a clear specification of precisely what is needed to meet this requirement.  If there is no precise specification then it is difficult to enforce.

In the USA, the system is to define the requirements as part of the legislation.  Whereas in Europe the mechanism has been to produce a series of standards and then mandate these standards in certain circumstances.  Under discussion is the matter of who checks conformance with any standard.  In some cases self-certification by manufacturers of compliance with a standard may be adequate; then in exceptional cases the manufacturers can be challenged over the certification of a particular product.  In other cases, such as safety critical applications like access to emergency services, it may be desirable to use third party certification.  However there are many practical problems with high technology systems which may only be on the market for a short time before they are superseded by a new product.

Attempts to use other forms of legislation, such as disability discrimination acts, has proved useful in areas such as employment but less successful in improving accessibility of information and communication systems.

In the days of publicly owned national fixed line operators, one company was responsible for the network as well as having control over what was connected to its network.  The content was largely voice telephony.  Now with mobile communications there are many network operators with different companies responsible for the terminals, and other organisations offering a range of content.  However disabled customers are interested in the accessibility of the system which requires collaboration between the various organisations.  This has proved problematic in areas where there are no agreed standards.

For personal terminals, a user can select one appropriate to their needs and configure it to their preferences.  However with public terminals, such as ATMs or ticket selling machines at railway stations, this is not possible.  One possibility is for a user’s preferences to be stored (eg on a smart card) and for these preferences to be used to modify the user interface for that individual.  For instance, on an ATM the user’s card could specify larger characters on the screen or speech output.  There is already a European standard for coding these user requirements, but the problem has been in persuading the service providers to implement such facilities when the providers do not perceive a direct commercial benefit.

Systems can involve:

In the foreseeable future these may be integrated and incorporate intelligent agents so that the system has ambient intelligence.  However it then becomes essential that the user has a consistent user interface tuned to the user’s needs.  This is an area requiring standardisation in the near future, since once systems have been developed the suppliers will be reluctant to change them to conform to a standard.

Standards only work when there is a reasonable consensus on the content.  This has proved difficult in the accessibility of ICT systems since there is a shortage of scientific data on what makes a system or service accessible.  All too often standards reflect old technology and the process of revising a standard is too slow compared to the speed of technological development; this has been particularly noticeable in the area of visual displays.

The usual method for specifying standards for accessibility has been to examine each component of the user interface and set requirements for people with specific types of disability (eg deaf, wheelchair user).  However this approach is not ideal since it does not look at the accessibility of the whole system or service.  Also it does not reflect the needs of the disabled consumers since disabled individuals can have very diverse needs.  Many disabled people have more than one impairment – this is particularly common among older people.

An alternative approach is to have a process standard which specifies how a product or service should be developed and tested to meet as many needs as reasonably possible.  Unfortunately this requires resources and expertise which are beyond many small companies.

In conclusion, standards are essential to improve accessibility of information and communication technology systems, but are not easy to specify and have limited benefit unless there is a practicable system for enforcement.



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