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Design of Smart Card Systems to Meet the Needs of Disabled and Elderly Persons

Dr John Gill
October 1995


Adaptive interfaces on public terminals to meet the needs of disabled and elderly individuals is becoming a practical proposition with the increasing use of smart cards. Such a facility could have significant benefit to people with disabilities as long as there is international agreement on the method of coding the user’s preferred interface on the card.


Self-service terminals are being used by the general public for an increasing range of applications. Sophisticated terminals offer the user a bewildering number of choices which can cause problems for users who are elderly or have a disability. To help these users it is possible to modify some terminal interfaces to meet individual needs (eg large characters on the screen of a cash dispenser or modify the frequency response of a public telephone).

With contactless card systems, a card is placed close to a read/write station (in any orientation). Having no card insertion would help people in wheelchairs who cannot reach the slot for the card reader, those with hand tremor or arthritis, and blind persons. Systems for interrogating cards at a distance of a few metres were developed for road charging, but this technology could have numerous benefits for blind and physically disabled persons (eg an audible signal for locating the appropriate terminal or trigger an audio message at the entrance to a bus giving the destination of the bus).

The interface requirements of the individual user could be stored on the smart card, as long as an international standard is agreed for the coding of this information. One possibility is to code details of the individual’s impairments; an alternative is to code the user’s preferred interface on the card. The coding of impairments does not provide precise details of the user’s requirements, and coding the preferred interface could give problems if the same card is used in a number of very different types of terminal. One possibility would be to code some combination of disabilities and user requirements.


For many systems, particularly in the financial sector, it is important to verify that the user is the authorised person. The conventional system is to use a personal identification number (PIN), but this can be a problem for people with dyslexia since they may remember the correct digits but in the wrong order. Also many intellectually impaired persons have problems in remembering or keeping secret their PIN.

Biometric methods are used in specialised application areas, but it is likely to be some years before they are generally used on an ordinary cash dispenser. However it would be desirable for a customer to be able to indicate their preferred customer verification method (or to specify which are not possible eg fingerprint for those without fingers). Possible biometric methods include:

  • Fingerprint
  • Hand geometry
  • Voice recognition
  • Dynamic signature verification
  • Retinal scan
  • Visual recognition of the user (eg face)


The customer is often required to input information to a terminal. This often involves pressing keys on a numeric keypad or pressing buttons on the side of a screen. Possible adaptations include:

  • More time to complete the transaction before being ‘timed out’ - this is particularly important for many elderly persons. On a public telephone, this could involve storing the number being dialled and then sending it at a press of a function key.
  • Keyboard only - for instance, a blind person may not be able to use a touchscreen.
  • Touchscreen only - this may be easier for people who are not used to operating keypads.
  • Voice activation and speech recognition - this may be restricted to giving basic instructions to the terminal.


Some card-operated terminals offer a bewildering range of choices to the customer. For some elderly and disabled customers this range of choice makes the terminal significantly harder to use. Therefore they may want the terminal to offer them a restricted number of choices. Possible modes include:

  • Reduced functionality - this is for limited use of the terminal such as automatically dialling a pre-stored number on a telephone card (a useful feature for some intellectually impaired persons).
  • Reduced key input - for instance, the ability to store a few telephone numbers and select them by two or three key presses.
  • Pre-set amount (for an ATM) - after entering the PIN, the cash dispenser would automatically issue an agreed amount (say £50) - this is a mode which might be surprisingly popular among many elderly users.
  • Simple instructions on touch screen - this is a feature which might be useful for customers who are technophobic.


Terminals often display information which some users find difficult to read or understand. These users might be helped by:

  • Large characters on screen - this includes size of characters as well as foreground /background colours or the choice of font.
  • Large characters on printed output (eg receipt).
  • Audio - this can vary from beeps to indicate the acceptance of an instruction, to speech feedback on key pressed (but not for the PIN or password), to speech prompts, to speech output of information normally displayed on the screen (but not for ‘sensitive’ information unless the audio output is by headphones). Speech prompts can usually be achieved by using stored speech which is inexpensive and of good audio quality; full vocabulary speech synthesis is of lower quality which may be unacceptable to the occasional older user.
  • For audio systems such as the telephone, it may be desirable to be able to select the level of amplification and also to be able to choose a preferred frequency response.
  • Maximise use of icons - this may be desired by persons who are illiterate or who do not understand any of the languages available on that terminal. Pictorial representations are often preferred by mentally impaired persons.
  • Braille display - these are expensive and it is estimated that only 19,000 people can read Braille in the UK. However there may be some special application areas where the cost is justified.


In these systems a card is placed close, usually within 10 or 20 cm, to a read/write station or placed on a pad (in any orientation). At the present time, these cards are most used in public transport applications. Benefits to elderly and disabled people could include:

  • No card insertion - this would help people in wheelchairs who cannot reach the slot for the card reader, those with hand tremor or arthritis, and blind persons.
  • Alternative to a mechanical lock on a door - this could be useful for those who have little strength in their hands.


Systems for interrogating cards at distances of a few metres were developed for road charging, but this technology could have numerous benefits for blind and physically disabled persons. Possible uses include:

  • Locating appropriate terminal (eg audible location signal) - this would help blind persons find the terminal.
  • Trigger message - for instance, the user’s card could trigger an audio message at the entrance to a bus giving the destination of that bus.
  • Increasing the crossing time at pedestrian controlled traffic lights.
  • Preferred height of keypad - a wheelchair user would find it very helpful if the keypad could automatically adjust to a suitable height.
  • Remote input device - a personal terminal with a radio or infra-red link to the fixed terminal would permit the custom designing of special interfaces.


Smart cards offer exciting possibilities for improving access to self-service terminals by disabled and elderly persons. However it will soon be essential that there is some agreed standard for recording the user’s needs on the smart card.


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