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Public Access Terminals: How Smart Card Technology Can Help Disabled and Elderly Users

John Gill

If a blind person with a guide dog attempts to go through the automatic gates on the London Underground, they will find that the gates will slam firmly shut between the dog and the blind person.  The official solution is for the blind person to find an unoccupied member of London Underground staff who will then take them round the gates; finding a member of LU staff is not always easy for those who are fully sighted.  When smart card systems come into use, it would be possible to incorporate coding on the user's card to instruct the gates to be open long enough so that both guide dog and owner can pass through safely.
Many of the newer telephone operators in the UK have networks which require the user not to pause when dialling; this has had the effect of preventing many elderly people from using their payphones.  On public telephones it would be possible for the customer's card to instruct the telephone to "compose and send" (ie the numbers can be dialled at any speed but are only transmitted when the send button is pressed - as is done on many mobile phones).
Those who wear bifocal spectacles often find that neither lens gives a focussed image when looking at the screen of a cash dispenser.  These customers might want larger characters displayed on the screen; this requirement could be coded on their smart card.

To fully participate in society, individuals will need to be able to use self-service terminals which will often incorporate a smart card reader.  Many government departments have plans for using public access terminals for providing information, collecting taxes, granting licences, administering regulations, paying grants and benefits, collecting and analysing statistics, and procuring goods and services.  Some of these services may also be available through direct contact with a human, but there may be an additional charge for using this facility.

The Americans with Disabilities Act in the USA requires terminals such as cash dispensers to accessible to people with disabilities.  Although current disability discrimination legislation in Europe imposes few requirements on designers of public access terminals, this could change in the next few years.  The high cost of retrofits and the increasingly large number of people with disabilities means that it would be wise to consider their needs from the outset.


Design Considerations

For many disabled and elderly users, the most important aspect is consistency in the user interface of public terminals; this is particularly important for visually, intellectually and cognitively impaired users.  A prime example of this is the lack of a single standard relating to the layout of numeric keypads.  With public terminals, the user may only use it occasionally and has probably been provided with minimal training in the use of the terminal.  What is “logical” to the average user may be different from what is “logical” to the designer, so it is essential to test any new user interface with a cross-section of potential users (including disabled and elderly people).

To select a preferred interface such as audio instructions or large characters on the screen, the user could simply press a button or otherwise select from a menu on the screen; this is likely to increase the time taken to undertake a transaction if there are more than a few options.  Another possibility is to store the user’s preferences on a central computer and implement them as soon as the PIN (personal identification number) has been entered.

For card-operated terminals, it is possible to store the information on the user’s card (the coding of user requirements is specified in the draft European standard prEN1332-4), and this is in many ways more desirable than storing private information about a user on a central database.  With a magnetic stripe card there is very limited spare capacity for storing this information (but this method has been used for storing the user’s preference for displayed language), but a smart card has fewer restrictions on storage capacity so appears to be ideal for this purpose.

Many disabled users would like to be able to select and store their preferred interface whenever they use their card at a public access terminal.  It is essential that information is stored on a card only with the consent of the user.


Locate Terminal

For a blind person, it can be difficult to find the terminal if they are not very familiar with the environment.  One possibility is to use a contactless smart card, carried by the blind person, to trigger an audible signal from the terminal at a distance of a few metres.



Instructions should be written in simple clear language and presented at eye height in at least 16 point bold characters, preferably in white or yellow on a dark matt background. Ideally the user should be able to choose the language; frequently this is only viable if the instructions are displayed on the screen, and it would be preferable if the user’s card stored their preferred language and that the terminal automatically switches to this as soon as the card is inserted.


Card Insertion

For a blind person, there is a problem in selecting the right card from their wallet; unfortunately there is no standard method for tactually marking cards to indicate the issuer or their use.  This problem will be exacerbated with the increasing use of cards which feel the same.  Therefore it is suggested that card providers use an embossed capital letter at least 10 mm high with an embossing of at least 0.7 mm; even then there will be problems with differentiating cards outdoors in cold weather.

For the naïve user, it is often far from obvious where to insert the card.  A flashing light around the card entry slot has been found beneficial.  For those with hand tremor, it is useful if the entrance to the card reader acts as a funnel to guide the card in correctly.

Blind persons, and many elderly persons, have problems in inserting the card in the correct orientation; this is a particular problem on cards which are not embossed.  However there is a draft European standard for an orientation notch (prEN1332-2) in the card.  The problems of accessing the card reader are greatly alleviated if contactless smart cards are used; for this type of application they typically have an operating range of 10 to 20 cm.


Reading the Screen

People who wear bifocals find it difficult to read the screen of most public access terminals, since neither lens is in focus at the distance between their eyes and the screen.  In addition many people leave their spectacles in the car or do not wear them in public.  So the number of people who have problems in reading the screen is much more than those considered “blind” or “low vision”, who constitute about 1.5% of the population.

People with low vision should not be prevented from getting their faces close to the screen.  However it is possible to increase the size of the characters on the screen for individual customers who require this facility.  This can be done by selecting this option from a menu or preferably by storing this information on the customer’s card.



The user’s PIN (personal identification number) should not be displayed, printed or broadcast by any means.  However it would be useful to have both an audible feedback and a visual one (eg an X on the screen) to show that a digit has been input.  Many people with even slight memory problems find it difficult to remember and input their PIN quickly, so it would be helpful to allow a generous amount of time before they are timed out.

Information, which is sensitive and private to the cardholder, should not be visible to any other person; screen filters improve privacy but often at the expense of visual quality.  However the user may wish to display information with large character size, but they should be made aware of the privacy problem.

Many elderly people and those with a cognitive impairment do not like to be rushed or to think that they are likely to be “timed out” by the machine, so it is necessary to allow for such people to use the terminal at their own pace; this requirement could be stored on the user’s card.



For blind users, one possibility is to arrange that holding one’s finger in a specified corner of the screen for at least two seconds initiates speech output.  Another method would be to store this requirement on the user’s card.

Touch screens can either be triggered by insertion or withdrawal of the fingertip.  With the latter system, it is technically possible for the user to pass their fingertip over the screen and get speech output describing the active area they are touching at the time.  Then the system is only triggered by withdrawing the fingertip from over an active area.


Money Retrieval

For someone with poor manual dexterity, such as with arthritis, taking a card from a terminal and then taking the money may be difficult to do in the allowed time.  Increasing the time for everybody, increases the security risk.  However it would be possible to let users decide if they want more time than the standard time permitted, and store this requirement on their card.

Security at cash dispensers is a major concern for many elderly people, and is often given as a reason for not using such terminals.  Therefore anything which improves the user’s perception of safety is to be welcomed.


Card Retrieval

Many people with arthritis have difficulty in gripping and pulling the card from the reader, particularly when the arm is extended above the horizontal.  The card should protrude at least 2 cm from the slot surround.  Therefore it is recommended that the force necessary for the user to retrieve the card from the terminal should be not any greater than that needed to stop the card from falling out of the reader.


Education and Training

Smart card technology offers numerous possibilities for improving the accessibility of public terminals, and often for little extra cost.  However such technological solutions will be of limited value if a significant portion of general public decline to use smart cards.  Many older persons are very concerned and confused by new technology.  They ask questions such as "What happens if my smart card catches a computer virus?".  Appropriate public education and training will be essential if smart card systems are to gain acceptance among the elderly population.




Brandt Å   Telephones for All.   Nordic Design Guidelines (NNH/3/95), The Nordic Committee on Disability, Stockholm, ISBN 87 89501 46 2, 1995. 
Copies free of charge, except for postage, from Danish Centre, Department of Technology, Communication and Special Education, Graham Bells Vej 1a, DK 8000 Aarhus N, Denmark (Tel +45 86 78 37 00;  fax +45 86 78 37 30;  Email
Clarke A   Human Factors Guidelines for Designers of Telecommunication Services for Non-expert Users.  Loughborough University, 1996.
Primarily written for designers of telecommunication services and terminals for non-expert users, such as the general public.
Available on CD-ROM from Anne Clarke, Husat Research Institute, The Elms, Elms Grove, Loughborough LE11 3BN, England (Tel +44 1509 611088;  Fax +44 1509 234651;  Email
Roe P R W (ed)  Telecommunications for All.  COST 219, The European Commission, CD 90 95 712 EN C, 1995.
This book gives a general overview of issues related to accessibility and usability of telecommunications equipment and services for disabled and elderly people.  The social, demographic and marketing aspects are also discussed while highlighting the significant role that can be played by standardisation and legislation.  The second part of the book looks more specifically at some of the available and forthcoming telecommunications equipment and services, identifying some of the existing accessibility problems and potential solutions.
Out of print, but accessible on
Silver J H, Gill J M & Wolffsohn J S W   Text Display Preferences on Self-Service Terminals by Visually Disabled People.  Optometry Today, Vol 35:2, 30 January 1995, pp 24-27.
This paper includes guidance on character size and colours for use on public access terminals.
Thorén C (Ed)   Nordic Guidelines for Computer Accessibility.   Nordiska Nämnden för Handikappfrågor NNH 4/93, 1993.
Copies available free of charge from Nordic Committee on Disability, Box 510, S-162 15 Vällingby, Sweden (Tel +46 8 620 18 90;  Fax +46 8 739 24 00).





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