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Challenge of Convergence for Inclusive Design

Dr John Gill
February 2000

The convergence of telecommunications, computing and broadcasting technologies presents a whole range of challenges for ensuring that the systems are accessible to as many potential users as possible.

What does accessible mean in practice in this context? Ideally all systems should be easy to use by everybody without special adaptations. Unfortunately this is not realistic so the concept of 'reasonable' has to be included. Sometimes the design can be adjusted to be usable by more people at no significant extra cost, but on other occasions there is a cost penalty for making a system or service more accessible. In those cases, the matter arises as to who should pay these extra costs for the research and development and for implementation.

In the case of public access terminals it is usually assumed that the service provider will foot the bill for the extra cost. Experience has been that it is easier to persuade government, both national and local, of the need for inclusive design than it has been to persuade commercial operators.

One of the problems has been a lack of awareness among the service providers, who may specify but do not usually design the terminals, of the features needed by people with disabilities. The problem is compounded by the scarcity of formal standards for accessibility features, and that many of the informal guidelines do not have a sound scientific basis. This problem becomes even greater when the service provider, such as a telecoms network operator, specifies the technical interface but does not supply the terminal.

There are also conflicts of interest between different groups of users. For instance organisations representing tall people object strongly to terminals being lowered to suit wheelchair users; solutions include variable height terminals (such facilities have been incorporated in prototype systems).

The proposal for there to be an infra-red link facility between a personal portable terminals and public terminals has foundered on the lack of a formal standard which would allow for secure communication. Such a standard could increase accessibility for a whole range of systems by people whose needs cannot be handled by facilities incorporated within the terminal.

The ability to automatically change the user interface in card operated systems has moved a step closer with the formal adoption of a European standard on the coding of user requirements on a card. This standard could apply to cash dispensers, public telephones, automatic gates on public transport, ticket selling machines and set-top boxes for digital television.

The role of standardisation has been very different for telecommunications, broadcasting and computing. Historically telecommunications has had a very rigorous system for developing international standards to ensure that one can communicate by voice across the globe. The main standards bodies are ITU (International telecommunications Union) and ETSI (European telecommunications Standards Institute) who have been receptive to representations from disability groups. However future telecommunication systems are unlikely to use the same process, as can be seen with UMTS (Universal Mobile telecommunications System) where only the most basic communication protocols are subject to formal standards with all other aspects being left to industry consensus. Even where these standards are subsequently incorporated in standards, it will be increasingly difficult for disability groups to influence new systems and services at the appropriate time.

In broadcasting there is a standardisation process but it is handled by groups made up from representatives from industry. In the UK, digital terrestial television standards are developed by DTG (Digital Television Group) and in Europe by DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting) and are then passed to ETSI for formal standardisation; both DTG and DVB have been amenable to the inclusive design message as long as it does not involve their members in any extra expenditure or delay in the introduction of new systems or services. One success in this area has been the adoption of ScreenFont as the resident typeface for digital terrestial television. However facilities which cost money are only being implemented when there is a legal requirement to provide such a service. So features such as a clean sound channel are not being incorporated because there is no legal requirement.

The computing industry has strongly resisted standardisation preferring to leave it to industry consensus (which often means that the dominant commercial player determines the standards). It has proved difficult for disability groups to influence these standards. However American legislation (such as 1996 telecommunications Act) and government purchasing policy has begun to influence the industry. A recent success has been the change in the development of standards for the world wide web so that the needs of disabled people have been considered.

Therefore convergence is not just bringing together three types of technologies, but also a clash of cultures. The current indications are that the needs of disabled people are a long way down the priority list for commercial organisations developing new systems and services.

Standardisation is important in many areas. There are voluntary standards, semi-mandatory standards and mandatory standards. The great majority of standards are voluntary, but they are widely ignored, and often considered an irrelevance by industry. Semi-mandatory standards are ones which say that if you do something, you must do it in a specified way; they do not say you must do it. An example is the orientation notch in an ID-1 card (EN 1332-2, ETR 136), which has not been widely implemented as yet.

Standards, from organisations such as CEN (Comité Européen de Normalisation), require member countries to pass legislation before they gain mandatory status. Although a number of mandatory standards for the benefit of disabled people have been adopted in Europe, there have been none in the area of convergent systems.

Standardisation is slow, time consuming, lacks academic content and often has little direct commercial benefit. Therefore academics shun the area since it does not produce research publications. Industry does not like inclusive design standards since they can see no short-term commercial benefit. Therefore there is a role for non-profit organisations to be active in this area.

Standardisation has three distinct phases:

1. Deciding what needs to be standardised.

2. Writing the precise standard; this requires detailed technical knowledge.

3. Implementing the standard (ie encouraging key players to take it up).

Industry and many government departments feel it is the role of the organisations representing disabled people to assist with the implementation phase. However the disability organisations have often taken the view that they should be paid to do this work. Since governments now see the primary purpose of standards as facilitating trade, the role of the consumer has become somewhat uncomfortable.

Legislation has been the most powerful tool in getting inclusive design principles adopted by commercial organisations. Europe has been slow, so there is almost no relevant legislation regarding inclusive design of convergent systems. This needs to remedied; relying on American legislation is unwise since companies are likely to only implement additional cost features in countries where it is mandatory.

It is interesting to compare the disinterest from industry on inclusive design in Europe with the considerable interest in Japan. What is needed for European companies to see the potential benefits?


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