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Smart Cards are for Everybody - Does this include Elderly and Disabled People?

John Gill


Over the next decade it seems likely that smart cards will be widely used by most of the population in developed countries.  Applications will include telephone pre-payment cards, banking, public transport and loyalty cards.  However in this rush to introduce new services, insufficient thought appears to have been given to making the systems user friendly to all the potential users of the services.

On examining current systems, one might be forgiven for thinking that the designer had decided that he represented the typical user.  Designers tend to be young and technologically literate; if they had considered the needs of their parents or grand-parents, we might have more user friendly systems today.


The Numbers
Older persons make up over 10% of the population, and the number of people with a disability is increasing since more people are living to an older age.  The prevalence (per thousand population) of various groups is:

Blind                                                                         1
Low vision                                                              13
Wheelchair user                                                       10
Cannot walk without aid                                        56
Cannot use fingers                                                    1
Reduced strength                                                    27
Reduced co-ordination                                           14
Dyslexia (severe)                                                     10
Intellectually impaired                                            37


Disability Aspects
The change from magnetic stripe to smart card offers a number of possibilities for making self-service terminals easier to use by everyone.  For instance the customer's card could store information about the user's preferred interface.  This could be something as simple as larger characters on the screen of an ATM; this could help people who wear bifocal spectacles since neither lens will produce a focussed image at the distance of a typical screen on an ATM.

A common request from older people is for more time to be allowed for them to use a terminal before being timed out.  On an ATM, this would mean that their card would inform the terminal that they need more time between removing their card and the cash being sucked back into the machine.  On a public telephone, it could mean changing the dialing mode to 'compose and send' (as is common on many mobile phones).  On the automatic gates on London Underground, it could mean that the gates stay open for longer - a useful feature for guide dog owners who are liable to be cut off from their dog if they attempt to use the gates.

There are many other aspects of the user interface which could be inexpensively adapted to meet individual needs.  The method of coding these user requirements is currently in the form of a draft European standard (prEN1332-4).

Contactless smart cards make life significantly easier for those with impaired vision since they no longer have to worry about inserting the card in the correct orientation. Also people in wheelchairs no longer have to raise themselves so that they can reach the card reader aperture.  For elderly people, often worried about personal safety, it means that the card can stay inside their wallet.

A major, and often neglected problem, is one of training in the use of systems.  With systems such as electronic purses, nobody is prepared to accept responsibility for customer training - this matter needs to be resolved in the near future if a significant part of the potential user population is not to be excluded from new smart card services.

The introduction of smart card systems offers possibilities of making self-service systems easier to use, but current indications are that many commercial organizations have ignored these possibilities for improving their services.

Further Information
Gill J M  Access Prohibited?  Information for Designers of Public Access Terminals.  ISBN 1 86048 014 4, May 1997, revised March 1998.  Also at
Gill J M   The Use of Electronic Purses by Disabled People: What are the Needs?  ISBN 1 86048 017 9, August 1998.  Also at



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