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Technological Developments for Older Visually Impaired Persons

John Gill
Chief Scientist, Royal National Institute for the Blind


From watching programmes such as Tomorrow's World one might have the impression that technological developments are making life significantly less difficult for visually impaired persons.  This is true for individuals who need to use computers or surf the internet, but most older persons with a visual loss have seen little benefit from these developments.  In practice they are likely to find more barriers.

A few years ago it was predicted that smart housing would greatly alleviate the problems of controlling domestic equipment for many persons with a range of disabilities.  In such systems control units could be designed for those with poor manual dexterity or those wanting speech output.  The reality is that smart housing is still not available at affordable prices.  At the same time manufacturers of domestic equipment have designed the control panels with visual displays and touch switches - these are difficult to modify for non-visual operation.

Advances in telecommunications have had a major impact on those of working age, but far less for the older person.  However there are some new problems, for example some of the newer telephone network operators have reduced the time permitted to dial a number.  There is a simple solution to this problem, it is "compose and send" but network operators are unlikely to offer this facility on a public payphone unless it is a requirement specified by the regulator.

This all sounds depressing, so what of the future?  The introduction of digital television will mean an increase in the number of programmes which are audio described, but older people are likely to be the last to convert from analogue to digital television.  Also the sub-titling should be significantly easier to read since the typeface will be designed specifically for those with impaired vision.  Talking books will evolve from the present 8 track cassette to a CD giving much better audio quality of reproduction.

There will a significant increase in the use of self-service terminals for activities such as buying a ticket for public transport.  However the introduction of smart card technology gives the practical possibility of storing the user's preferred interface on the card, and the terminal automatically changing to this interface (eg larger characters on the screen of a cash dispenser).

The Disability Discrimination Act gives a possible basis for making new services and systems more accessible to people with disabilities.  However it will require the groups representing older disabled persons to lobby at the time the specifications for new technological systems are being prepared - it is too late to wait until the system is being manufactured.  It is also important to ensure that any new systems do not exclude users who were not excluded by the systems they replace.


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