john Gill technology header image

The Impact of New Information and Communication Technologies on People with Disabilities

John Gill

1        Introduction
Technological developments have helped people with disabilities, but they have also resulted in extra problems. For instance the increasing use of terminals with visual displays, such as cash dispensers and mobile phones, mean that access to services may be restricted for those who cannot read the visual display.

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.


2        Developments in ICT

There has been much speculation about the impact of the coming together of computing, telecommunications and broadcasting, but as yet it has had little practical effect. However this will change over the next few years, and it will open up new possibilities for services to help disabled people.  It is difficult to predict what new services will be available since the limitations will be mainly commercial viability rather than technical feasibility.  Therefore some examples are given to illustrate the possibilities and problems.

2.1       Computers
In the last twenty years, the most important change for many blind people has been the advent of the personal computer. With text-based operating systems, such as DOS, a blind person could access information with similar ease to a sighted person. The output from the computer could be in synthetic speech, a transitory braille display or large characters on the monitor.  Many visually impaired people use their personal computers just for word processing. This gives them the ability to check what they have typed and to correct any errors.

However the introduction of the graphical user interface, of which Windows is the best known example, brought a range of new problems. Early versions of Windows were partly inaccessible and required the blind person to have an understanding of the structure of the operating system. More recent versions of Windows have been more accessible because Microsoft has built in more accessibility features, but even so it is still not as easy as DOS for a blind person to use. Some blind people only use DOS, but most new software is not available in a DOS version.

2.2       The Internet
Email, since it is text-based, has been very useful for many blind people since it is relatively easy to learn and to use. The world wide web offers exciting possibilities for accessing large quantities of information but there are problems. Firstly the blind user needs a suitable browser. The main problem is that many web sites use graphics such that they are not meaningful when accessed by a text-based browser (eg with speech or braille output). Guidelines have been produced for how to design accessible websites, but these guidelines are widely ignored by commercial organisations. So some web sites are accessible, but these tend to be ones belonging to government departments. The popular websites, eg for home shopping and home banking, are still largely inaccessible.

2.3       Mobile telecommunications
Mobile telephones increasingly require the user to read a small liquid crystal screen to operate many of the functions in the phone. Although the phones incorporate increasingly powerful microprocessors, manufacturers have not seen a commercial opportunity in providing models which incorporate speech output of the messages normally displayed on the screen. However there are some indications that this may change because car drivers are seen as a significant market segment.

WAP (wireless application protocol) can be used for financial transactions such as reloading an electronic purse. Extra functionality to suit disabled users could be built into the terminals, but this in itself is unlikely to provide full access to services. Therefore it will be necessary to modify the server or proxy server. The WAP User Agent Profile Specification covers aspects of the technical interface and the User Preference Profile concerns content selection (eg the user is interested in receiving sports scores); neither of these profiles covers the needs of people with disabilities.

This could be done in the form of a user profile which is stored on the smart card in the user's phone. There is a European standard, but this will need to be extended to allow for the facilities needed by mobile phone users who have disabilities. This standard already incorporates facilities for specifying preferred text size, screen colour and speech output of the contents of the visual display.

GPRS (general packet radio service) is a high speed packet data technology which will permit data transmission speeds of up to 100 kbit/s over the GSM (global system for mobile communications) network. This is well suited for frequent transmission of small amounts of data. However it could be overtaken by UMTS (universal mobile telecommunications system).

UMTS is the next generation of mobile telecommunications system which will have seamless operation between terrestrial and satellite links. It will provide high speed access to the internet with data rates of up to 2 Mbit/s for a stationary terminal, less when on the move. It will include packet data transmission with the potential to adjust bandwidth on demand for asymmetric traffic. In the UK the network licenses have been sold by the government for vast sums (the first five licenses sold for over £22.5 billion) which will have to recouped from the users.

UMTS will permit the transmission of video. For instance a blind or cognitively impaired person might send a picture to a service centre where a sighted person could give instructions on how to reach the desired destination. Another possible use for UMTS would be to download talking books during the night; a typical novel would take about 20 minutes to download using MP3.

2.4       Electronic purses
For some time pre-payment cards have been in general use for applications such as public telephones. These disposable cards are loaded with a fixed amount of value, which are then decremented during use. The next development was to make the cards reloadable which can be done at specialised terminals or automated teller machines (cash dispensers). Then it was only a small step for the cards to be used for more than a single application; these cards are called electronic purses.

However these systems vary significantly depending on the type of organisation operating the service. Historically the banking organisations have placed great importance on security, whereas public transport operators have been more concerned to minimise the time taken to complete the transaction.

Some electronic purse systems offer the facility to transfer funds between the card and the customer's bank account using a screen phone. Screen phones can be modified to be accessible by blind people, so this method of loading a card could be the preferred mode for many blind and partially sighted users.

For people with disabilities, the main problems with electronic purse systems relate to the user interface. In particular many of the devices, such as balance readers and electronic wallets, have poor contrast visual displays which also pose problems for many elderly persons. One possibility would be to have special versions of the balance readers and wallets for those who cannot read the standard versions. Such a special wallet / balance reader might include:

A significant aspect of electronic purses is that the user does not need to have a bank account or even be credit worthy. This is likely to make electronic purses the preferred method of remotely paying for shopping by many older visually impaired persons. Another attraction for this group of customers is that as soon as the transaction has taken place, they can check the remaining balance on their electronic purse; unlike credit or debit cards, there is no risk of an unexplained item appearing on a future statement.

2.5       Interactive digital television
Interactive television is attracting considerable investment as it is seen as a significant step in selling new services to customers who may not be computer users. The UK government envisages that it will be a major method of interaction between the public and the government within five years.

Traditional television can be characterized as one-to-many whereas the internet would be characterized as many-to-one. As yet interactive television is frequently just an enhanced one-to-many system with uncertainty as to how to satisfactorily also be a many-to-one system.

Some systems offer email which is proving popular among those who do not have access to a computer or have no inclination to use one. Currently there are no facilities for enlarging the text or changing colours which gives problems for many visually impaired users.

Some systems provide limited access to a 'walled garden' of web sites, but customers have not been entirely happy with this restriction. Many web sites download software to run on the user's terminal, but the current generation of set-top boxes do not have the capability to run this software.

In the UK, home shopping has taken off faster on interactive television than on the web; this is being attributed to viewers being less anxious about credit card fraud through the television set than the Internet.

In the future, the remote control for the television might be a mobile phone, connected by Bluetooth, into which is inserted the electronic purse to pay for goods and services.

2.6       Smart housing
The interconnection of devices in the home has been held back by the lack of a consensus on appropriate standards, but this may be partly resolved in the foreseeable future by such systems as Bluetooth. However the television set may become the central display for such a system, and therefore it is essential that allowance is made by the designers for people who have difficulty in reading the screen or understanding the process.

A simple smart house might give an audible warning of any windows left open when someone locks the front door from the outside. Also it could provide warnings about a cooker left on, show who is at the door and allow remote adjustment of heating, etc. In addition it is possible to connect the internal system to a telecommunications link to provide remote assistance or telemedicine.

The reason for the great interest in this area is the realisation of the economic necessity for as many people as possible to live independently for as long as possible. The cost of the technology involved in smart housing is modest when compared with the cost of residential care.

2.7       Orientation and positioning systems
A number of electronic orientation aids have been developed, but few have been widely used because of the cost of modifying the environment.  One type of system uses infra-red transmitters mounted at street corners; the infra-red signal is modulated so that a receiver, held by the blind person, gives out an audible message. These systems can also be used to indicate the status of traffic lights. Similar radio-based systems have been used in some countries, but the advent of Bluetooth is likely to dramatically reduce the cost of installing such systems.

A different concept is for the blind person to carry a tag similar to the ones used in shop security systems. Thus machines can detect the presence of a blind person within a few metres and modify their behaviour (eg give out a speech message). The tag or smart card can be pre-coded, which could indicate that the person would prefer messages in an alternative language.

2.8       Positioning systems
Satellite navigation systems, such as the American Global Positioning System (GPS), can be used to determine one's position to a few metres. However this requires line-of-sight to three or four satellites, which means being outdoors and not close to tall buildings. This position is just given as latitude and longitude, so it needs to be integrated with a detailed digital map of the area.

Just such a system was successfully developed by the MoBIC project; this prototype system gave blind pedestrians their position within 2 metres, but only for 75% of the time. The problem was loss of line of sight to sufficient satellites or loss of the differential radio signal. However, it proved the technical feasibility and helped identify the problems in designing the man-machine interface for blind users.

An alternative method of finding one's position is possible from mobile telephony by determining the relative signal strengths at different base stations. With the next generation of mobile systems, this has been further developed so that sighted users can be provided with information related to their locality (eg the location of the nearest cash dispenser or Chinese restaurant). The advantage of the mobile telephony system is that it does not require line of sight to satellites, but the accuracy may not be as good as GPS. But, as always, the price charged to blind people for the equipment and using the service will be a significant factor in determining its takeup.

2.9       Vision substitution
Vision substitution involves converting a video signal to a non-visual form which can be auditory, tactual or some combination of the two. Since both the auditory and tactual channels have far lower information capacity than the visual channel, it is necessary to process the signal from the cameras before it is sent to the non-visual display. Ideally this processing should include edge detection and object recognition. With increasingly powerful wearable computers, vision substitution systems look very promising if the appropriate algorithms can be developed.

2.10     Virtual reality
In the longer term, technological developments in other fields could have benefit for those working with disabled persons. For instance, virtual reality technology could provide realistic simulations of visual defects including fields, acuity, colour discrimination and effects of illumination; in addition, multiple impairments could be simulated. Such a system might be useful for evaluating proposed public buildings.

Virtual reality technology allows people with sensory disabilities to perceive what they might not otherwise be able to since it can gather information in a sensory modality in which they are impaired and deliver it to one where they are not. It also has the potential to be used as a training aid for skills such as spatial co-ordination and orientation.

As intriguing as virtual reality is, the enabling technology is still crude. Major technological hurdles exist in the area of tracking a person's motion and position in a non-intrusive way, in displaying high definition stereo colour images of the scene covering the user's peripheral vision and, in the area of image generation, speed for a smooth and realistic animation of the scene. Tactile output and the construction of physical images, to support the visual images in virtual environments, require further development to produce realistic sensations.

Over the next ten years there are exciting possibilities for improving the quality of life for people with disabilities, but there are hurdles to be overcome to ensure that the appropriate research is undertaken and the results of this research reach the potential consumers.


3        Inclusive Design

Increasingly blind 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 the divide between the blind and sighted population; these systems could include next generation mobile phones, interactive television and electronic purses.

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 '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 data exists is all too often based on inadequate sample sizes or inappropriate methodology. This is an area which is perceived to be low on academic content.  Industry wants guidelines to be pan-disability, but this will require greater collaboration between all the relevant organisations representing the different disability groups.

With new equipment and services which are only in the early stages of specification, such as third generation mobile communications, it is difficult to be precise. 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.

3.1       New technology
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.

3.2       Standardisation
Standards are crucial in the telecommunications industry where there is a rigorous, but if sometimes slow, process for developing standards. In the television industry, the process is somewhat different in that the technical standards are frequently determined by bodies made up of only industry representatives and there is no policy for involving consumers. The situation is different again in computer software where the commercially dominant players set the de facto standards with apparently no consultative process. This means that convergence is going to involve a clash of cultures as well as the more obvious problems of integrating three different groups of technology.

Standardisation is slow, time consuming, lacks academic content and sometimes has limited direct commercial benefit. Academics shun the area since it does not produce research publications. Industry is hesitant about inclusive design standards work since they can see no short-term commercial benefit.

Industry and many government departments feel it is the role of the organisations of disabled people to assist with the implementation and awareness phases. 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. Therefore legislation or mandatory regulation would appear to be the only practical way of requiring commercial organisations to adopt inclusive design principles. However the current trend is towards minimising regulatory control, and European legislation does not appear likely in the near future.

Standardisation has four phases:
1.         Deciding what needs to be standardised and finding experts to participate in the work.
2.         Writing the precise standard; this requires detailed technical knowledge as well as good understanding of the implications of various impairments.
3.         Implementing the standard (ie encouraging the key players to take it up).
4.         Publicity so that disabled people are aware (eg the significance of the tactile danger warning on packaging containing dangerous substances).

Lack of appropriate standards at the right time can be a major problem.  For instance, there is an urgent need to standardise protocols for the short-range radio connection of assistive technology devices to mainstream terminals; if there is no standard in the near future, disabled people will not benefit from developments such as Bluetooth.


4        The Future

Although there are exciting possibilities for harnessing new ICT to make life easier for people with disabilities, there is still likely to be an increasing gap between the disabled and able bodied communities.  The main cause is that commercial organisations do not perceive short-term profits from addressing the needs of disabled customers, and there is inadequate regulatory and legislative provision in Europe to protect their needs.

The European regulatory system which separates networks and terminals works against people with disabilities who need end-to-end communication.  It also leaves unresolved the problem of who pays for special terminals.  In most European countries, disabled people feel that they should not bear the cost of such provision.

Accessibility of third generation mobile systems appears to be a lost cause, but it is hoped that the European Union can put measures in place in time to rectify this situation for fourth generation systems.


John Gill Technology Limited Footer
John Gill Technology Limited Footer