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Accessibility of Public Access Terminals

John Gill

 

Introduction

Increasingly disabled and elderly people need to be able to use equipment designed for the general public; this includes ticket selling machines at unmanned railway stations, cash dispensers, and public telephones. In the foreseeable future, inability to use such systems is likely to increase social exclusion; these new systems could include next generation mobile phones, interactive television, electronic purses and electronic voting systems.
Therefore it is essential that equipment for use by the general public is designed to be accessible by as many people as is reasonably possible. With the increasing ageing population, this must include people with presbyopia as well as people with a combination of different impairments.
The general approach has been to encourage designers to incorporate features in the standard product which will help people with disabilities. If this is insufficient, then to incorporate a standard method of connecting the user's own device which has an appropriate user interface. But if neither of these approaches provides a satisfactory solution, then special equipment will be needed.
Inclusive design is not just adding an extra feature to a product to meet the perceived needs of a disabled user. It is a process, like quality, which has to be considered at every stage in developing a new product or service. This requires companies to promote a culture of inclusion within their organisation. It also requires detailed technical guidelines on the design features required by the various groups of disabled users.

Inclusive Design

Inclusive design is the design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible on a global basis, in a wide variety of situations and to the greatest extent possible without the need for special adaptation or specialised design. 
This 'inclusive design' message has had limited practical impact upon the area of information and communication systems and services. This is despite considerable effort being expended by various groups around Europe.
In the case of cash dispensers, the companies manufacturing the equipment see their customers as the banks purchasing their equipment. Even though they may have incorporated inclusive design features in their range of terminals, it is to no avail if the bank is not interested in offering it to their customers. Within the bank it may be a technical department which is responsible for selecting equipment for the bank, but it will be the local branches who have direct contact with disabled customers and who may provide a modicum of training in the use of the cash dispenser. Unfortunately local branch staff are unlikely to be aware of the technological possibilities for improving the accessibility of the equipment.
At the policy level it may be sufficient to specify that the equipment and services must be accessible to as many people as is reasonably possible. However this leaves open many questions including what does 'accessible' mean? Also what is 'reasonable'? Also it does not cover the often crucial question as to who pays for any additional costs such as training.
The development of guidelines for inclusive design of systems and services in the area of information and communication technologies is seriously hampered by the sparcity of sound scientific data about the needs of people with disabilities. What is acceptable may be culturally dependent, yet few guidelines take this into consideration.
Another problem is incompatible standards.  For instance the layout of numeric keypads can be either in the normal telephone or calculator layout; putting a raised dot on the ‘5’ does not differentiate between the two layouts.  In devices such as a wallet for an electronic purse, designed to be used in the back of a minicab at night, some use the telephone layout and others use the calculator one (if it also incorporates calculator functionality).  This is very confusing for someone with low vision.
With new equipment and services which are only in the early stages of specification, such as third generation mobile communications, it is difficult to write precise guidelines. However if the influencing is left to the stage when it is clear what features will be incorporated, it is often too late to get anything significant changed.
Information for product designers may be detailed design guidelines (eg the maximum height and angle of a display so that it can be read by a wheelchair user). However this approach is only possible for established technology for which detailed design guidelines exist. In other cases it will be necessary to provide generic guidelines backed up by recommendations on how to test prototypes with a cross-section of potential users. For telecommunication designers the problems are shortage of time and lack of an established system for evaluating with disabled users. This is an area where user organisations could take a more active role in providing speedy evaluation of prototype systems and services.
The development time in telecommunications has been decreasing which means that the time between a project being proposed and the specification finalised is short. Also secrecy is considered essential by many commercial organisations. Therefore the possibility of having direct contact with the product specifier at the right moment is remote. So, in practice, it is essential to provide the information, or a signpost to it (eg a web address), in advance and hope that the recipient remembers it at the relevant moment. This can be assisted by the company having a design checklist which includes questions on the accessibility of the product by disabled users.
Policy documents from the European Commission are written in a special language which is difficult to understand by the uninitiated; only recently have some of the organisations representing disabled people taken on staff with the skills to interpret these documents. However these organisations frequently do not have the technical expertise to understand some of the implications. Therefore there needs to be some form of collaboration between those who understand the language and the regulatory issues, those who have a good grasp of the technology, and those with lobbying skills.


Target Audience

Some guidelines have been very general and have left it to the designer to determine what makes their system accessible.  Then the disability community can mount a formal challenge if they feel the system does not adequately meet their needs.  This approach has the disadvantage of being wasteful of limited resources.
An alternative approach is to specify how the design process should incorporate the needs of disabled and elderly users.  With the speed of getting a new product to market, commercial organisations are reluctant to incorporate time consuming evaluation procedures in their development process.
Another approach is to have a detailed set of guidelines and checklists.  This approach is favoured by designers since they can see precisely what they need to do from the outset.  However it has proved difficult to write guidelines which allow for changes in technology and services.  Also there have been problems in identifying sound scientific data on which to base these guidelines.
Standards and guidelines have been written with a range of target audiences, including:

These groups have very different needs in regards to type of information needed and the form of presentation.  For instance a procurement agency needs to be able to refer to the guidelines in a contract, and then have a simple method for checking that bids are in compliance with the guidelines; the preferred method is often a number of checklists giving minimum acceptable levels of performance.  In some cases these may be easy to check for conformity if there is a standard in existence.  However there are other areas, such as legibility of a cluttered screen, where it may be difficult to check that the accessibility guideline has been met.
Therefore the optimum approach would seem to be a combination of general, process and detailed guidelines. 


Information Gaps

Over the years a number of guidelines have evolved.  In a small part, these are based on sound scientific data derived from tests with an appropriate sample of experimental subjects.  In a larger part, they are guidelines which are not based on thorough experimental data but which appear to be reasonably accurate (ie comply with common sense).  However there are others which are based on old or inappropriate data or appear to have no scientific basis.


Conclusions

  1. It is important to consider how the user interacts with the whole system at service level, and not treat the components separately.
  2. Further research is needed to ascertain which guidelines have inadequate or no scientific basis, and then to undertake the necessary research to fill the gaps.
  3. Public procurement is likely to be an increasingly significant method of influencing accessibility of new public access terminals, and so it is important that the guidelines are formulated to ensure that both supplier and purchaser can easily verify that the user requirements are satisfied.
  4. There is a need for appropriate monitoring systems to ensure that procurement guidelines lead to the implementation of systems and services which are accessible.
  5. With the rapid developments in technology, it is essential that guidelines are continually revised to ensure that they remain appropriate.

 

Further Information

Design for All and Assistive Technologies in ICT.  CEN/ISSS DfA Workshop N02-030, September 2002.
Irish National IT Accessibility Guidelines.  National Disability Authority, Dublin, 2002. http://accessIT.nda.ie
Guidelines for the Design of Accessible Information and Communication Technology Systems.  Royal National Institute of the Blind, London, 2003.  http://www.tiresias.org/guidelines
Guide 6: Guidelines for Standards Developers to Address the Needs of Older Persons with Disabilities.  CEN/CENELEC/ETSI, 2001.
Web Accessibility Initiative Guidelines.  W3C Consortium, 2001.  http://www.w3.org/tr/wai-webcontent/
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.  USA Legislation, http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/508/508law.html
Guidelines for ICT Products and Services: Design for All.  ETSI EG 202 116, 2002.

 

 



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