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Accessibility of ICT Systems and Services

John Gill

 

It is the experience of many who are neither elderly or disabled, that the technology in our everyday lives is both complex and difficult to use.  However the government is committed to greater inclusion for persons with disabilities, and the Disability Discrimination Act will impose requirements on service providers.


Inclusive design

Inclusive design is “The design of mainstream products and services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible, in a wide variety of situations and to the greatest extent possible without the need for special adaptation or specialised design”.

The number of people with special needs is larger than the number of people with disabilities since it includes children (about 20% of the UK population), older people (about 15%) and people who are left-handed (about 10%). Another significant group is those people who have limited knowledge of the English language, this includes some immigrants as well as foreign visitors. In addition systems for use by the general public should take into account differences in culture, particularly among ethnic minorities, which may render some designs unacceptable.

The increasing need to adopt an inclusive design approach is because of:
• The increasing number of older people
• Changing consumer expectations, particularly with regard to retirement
• New procurement policies (particularly from government departments)
• New legislation (such as the Disability Discrimination Act).

Estimated percentage of population with problems using information and communication technology:
Wheelchair user:                                   0.4%
Cannot walk without aid:                    5%
Cannot use fingers:                              0.1%
Cannot use one arm:                             0.1%
Reduced strength:                                2.8%
Reduced coordination:                         1.4%
Speech impaired:                                  0.25%
Language impaired:                              0.6%
Dyslexic:                                              1%
Intellectually impaired:                        3%
Deaf:                                                    0.1%
Hard of hearing:                                   6%
Blind:                                                   0.1%
Low vision:                                          1.5%


Transport

Many journeys involve using more than one mode of transport. However, obtaining reliable information about the various options and relative costs is not easy, particularly if you have a visual impairment or limited mobility.  Timetables can be confusing even if you can read the numbers and visually track across columns. Many elderly people find timetables so daunting that they are put off using public transport other than on routes with which they are familiar.

Buying tickets from machines is a complex activity. The large number of variants in destination, ticket types and costs means that a user has to select options by touching a screen or pressing a range of keys or buttons. Money or payment cards also need to be inserted. It is possible to design machines that have large clear screens that are easy to read, and to design a sequence of actions that are easy to follow.


Public access terminals

An ever growing number of terminals in public places demand that we interact with screens and buttons to buy tickets, draw money, use services or get information. Locating and using them – particularly for people who are blind, have low vision or other disabilities – can be very difficult.

Some people may only use a public terminal occasionally and generally with little or no training. To make public terminals easy to use it is important that they are designed with an easily understood system of operation, clear instructions and a response system that lets the user know what is happening. What is ‘logical’ to the average user may be different from what is ‘logical’ to the designer of a terminal. It is essential to test any new user interface with a cross-section of potential users, including disabled and elderly people.

For many disabled and elderly users, the most important aspect is consistency in the user interface; this is particularly important for visually, intellectually and cognitively impaired users. An example of inconsistency is the lack of a single standard relating to the layout of numeric keypads.

Enlarged keys enable persons with poor dexterity to press the correct key; the spacing between the keys is as important as the size of the keys themselves. A concave shape to the keys will also help fingers to stay in place. Guarded or recessed keys can help a person who has difficulty in making precise finger movements.

There are many things that can be designed around a terminal to make it more accessible to disabled and elderly users. For example, a space beneath the facia of the terminal will allow for the footrest of a wheelchair. A notch adjacent to the facia would be useful for those needing to prop their walking sticks while using the terminal.


Telecommunications

The conventional fixed-line telephone has provided enormous benefits for many people with disabilities and older people. However the evolution from being solely an audio system to one which also carries data has introduced new possibilities as well as new problems.  Additional services, such as e-mail, mobile and video phones require the use of a screen to display text and often graphics. These screen phones pose obvious problems for people with a visual or cognitive impairment, but there are methods for alleviating these problems.

Mobile communications are spreading, not only in quantity but also in diversity. The decreasing size of handsets has brought advantages to many users but at the expense of small keypads, limited sidetone, and small visual displays.

The optimum spacing of keys on a mobile phone handset will depend on whether the user uses a thumb or finger to press the keys. Teenagers tend to use their thumbs, but many elderly people prefer to use a finger; this has implications for the optimum spacing between keys.

Interactive voice response (IVR) systems can give particular problems for deaf users and those with a cognitive impairment. Using a one-piece phone, where the keypad is integral with the headset, makes it difficult for the user to simultaneously listen and press keys. Therefore, adequate time needs to be given for the user to respond.


Computing

Computing is an area which has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. However there are indications that too many systems are still designed for users with a background in computing; for instance, with some computers one has to click on ‘start’ when one wants to turn off the computer.

For many people connecting peripherals can be problematic. Physically impaired users often have difficulty in using input devices or in handling storage media. People with a severe physical impairment would find it useful if a means of connecting an alternative keyboard were available or if hardware sockets, such as USB, were mounted on the front of computers.  Some work has been done to include facilities to help people with disabilities; for instance wireless systems are making it easier to connect devices.

Visually impaired users often have problems with reading the display as well as using input devices such as a mouse. The option to use keyboard input instead of a pointing device is essential for blind users. Synthetic speech output or braille displays can output text, but graphics are problematic. Also it is difficult to interpret spatial relationships, such as layout, from just textual output.

Computer software has become much more sophisticated in the last decade. The norm is now to use a graphical user interface, such as Windows, which can be accessible but is not easy to use non-visually (e.g. with synthetic speech output). However most operating systems now incorporate accessibility features, but many older users are unaware that these exist.

Particular problems are caused by software which bypasses the standard protocols in the operating system; this can mean that assistive devices will not operate correctly. Cognitively impaired users can sometimes use specific applications with little difficulty once the application is launched and configured for their needs. However they often find error messages incomprehensible and then get confused as to how they can recover from the situation. Such problems can also put off older users who may be less experienced in using computer systems.

E-mail, since it is text-based, has been very useful for many blind people since it is relatively easy to learn and to use. The world wide web offers exciting possibilities for accessing large quantities of information but there are problems such as the use of graphics which may not be meaningful when accessed by a text-based browser (e.g. with speech or Braille output). Guidelines have been produced for how to design accessible web sites, but these guidelines are widely ignored by commercial organisations.

The tools used by professional web site designers now allow web sites to be built that can deliver ‘rich media’. It is thus possible to deliver ‘voice labels’ that provide information in sound form in such a way that a blind person can interact using a keyboard and receive audible responses.


Television

Television is today’s main medium for information and entertainment, but digital television is now replacing analogue television. It is becoming highly interactive and requires users to be able to use remote controls with an on-screen display.  New television services are likely to become more interactive, delivering important information and services, linking with e-mail and the Internet, allowing us to download, respond and carry out such tasks as e-voting and e-learning.

The current systems for interactive digital television appear to have been based on the conceptual models of keyboard-based personal computer systems. These seem to have evolved with the original TV remote controls to give a system that is becoming increasingly difficult to understand or use. Most people need to use different handsets to control the different television devices; digital receivers, video and CD recorders, and the television itself.  People with poor manual dexterity, visual or cognitive impairments can find accessing television very difficult.

Many older people are reluctant to use personal computers but would be prepared to use interactive television to obtain information (e.g. about local council services). However, if their initial experience is poor, they may be reluctant to try using interactive television in the future.

If interactive television is to continue to develop as one of our main information systems, it is very important for designers to realise that interactive television is not the same as a personal computer and therefore its design must be treated differently. If the functions and controls are poorly designed, they will be rendered inaccessible and not easily usable by many of the population who could greatly benefit from them.

Videos can be a useful medium for disseminating information about the services provided by an organisation. DVD has the advantage that there can be more than one soundtrack (e.g. for ethnic minority languages) as well as optional subtitling in various languages. For visually impaired users, audio description can be beneficial; this is where descriptions of the visual aspects are inserted in the gaps in the dialogue. People with a hearing impairment would benefit from a sound track without background noise or music; on a DVD this could be a separate sound track.


Smart housing

Currently ‘smart housing’ is seen by many as just sophisticated devices that enable people to control music systems, lighting and curtains. But for many elderly people or persons with disabilities smart housing could provide valuable support in their daily lives.  The technologies are now available to allow wireless communications in sheltered accommodation, alarm systems, closed circuit television, security and monitoring systems.

Examples of how smart housing design can help are: personal alarm system detectors can notify family, friends or emergency services. In more remote districts telecommunication links will enable some medical services to be provided direct to the home. A video telephone link to a service centre could provide many people with a reassuring link to family, friends or assistance; this can be very helpful to people with intellectual impairments. Audible feedback for blind users can help indicate whether such things as curtains are open or closed. On leaving a building, a verbal description or visual display of current status can advise about windows left open or electrical devices switched on.

e-Voting

An e-enabled election may allow the voter to choose one of the following channels:
• Internet
• Telephone (mobile, workplace or home)
• SMS text messaging
• Digital TV through the remote control
• Mail

To ensure that people with disabilities can use these electronic facilities it is essential that design problems are solved for the use of devices that identify the individual, such as smart cards with biometrics.

Ballot machines are likely to be used extensively in the future in supervised locations. It will be important to ensure that visually impaired voters can use ballot machines with ease. Voice-guidance would help the voter step through the entire ballot in private. Cognitively impaired voters could also use this feature to simplify the voting process.  Easy operation of touch-screens and the ability to position the terminal screen at a suitable angle will help individuals with accessibility problems.


Legislation

In 1995 the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was passed to introduce new measures aimed at ending the discrimination which many disabled people face. It protects disabled people in the areas of:
• employment
• access to goods, facilities and services
• the management, buying or renting of land or property
• education

Part III of the Act is based on the principle that disabled people should not be discriminated against by service providers or those involved in the disposal or management of premises.

Subject to certain exceptions, Part III of the Act applies to any person or any organisation or entity that is concerned with the provision in the United Kingdom of services (including goods and facilities) to the public or a section of the public. Similarly, the Act applies to disabled people who use, or seek to use, the services so provided, whether as customers, buyers, shoppers, consumers, clients, patrons or service users.  The Act makes it unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against a disabled person:

 

 

 



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