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Telematic Systems in Public Places for People with Disabilities

Dr John Gill
July 1995

Developments in the use of technological systems by the general public is increasing the number and range of problems faced by many elderly and disabled people. However most commercial organisations still consider people with disabilities as a special market requiring special devices such as wheelchairs or Braille displays.

The design for all concept (or universal design as it is called in north America) has the advantage of that a minor design change can often greatly increase the potential market for the device, system or service among people with disabilities. However the speed of development within many high tech companies means that there is rarely time to test any new product with people with disabilities, let alone incorporate changes in the design which were not foreseen when the specification was written.

In public places it is very expensive to install and maintain a special infrastructure for use by people with disabilities. For instance a large number of navigation systems for blind persons have been developed and many have been successfully piloted; however very few have been implemented on a wide scale because of the costs involved.

Another approach has been to use infrastructures being put in by others, and extend these so that they are of use to people with disabilities. For instance the Tide MoBIC project is studying the use of global positioning systems (GPS) in conjunction with geographic information systems (GIS) to help blind and elderly pedestrians. This is an extension of systems being developed for car drivers. Differential GPS has an accuracy of 3-5 metres if there is line of sight to the satellites, and the cost is only a few hundred ecus. One practical problem is that cars are generally a few metres from tall buildings, but blind pedestrians are often close to a building. Therefore it is necessary to incorporate some type of dead-reckoning system to cover the gaps in the satellite signal. Another aspect is that the digital maps for car drivers are insufficiently detailed for blind pedestrians, so extra information will have to be collected and integrated into the GIS; this may have to be done by volunteers.

Self-service terminals are being used by the general public for an increasing range of applications. Bank cash dispensers and ticket selling machines for public transport now offer a bewildering number of choices to the user. To handle this increased number of choices, the terminal often incorporates a sophisticated interface which can cause problems for users who are elderly or have a disability. To help these users it may be possible to modify the terminal interface to meet the user’s needs (eg large characters on the screen).

To select a preferred interface, the user could simply press a button or select from a menu on the screen. Another method would be to store the information on the customer’s card. With a magnetic stripe card there is very limited spare capacity for storing this information, but this method has been used successfully for storing the user’s preference for displayed language (eg English or French). A smart card has fewer restrictions on storage capacity so appears to be ideal for this purpose, as long as an international standard is agreed for the coding of this information. The Tide SATURN project is studying the use of smart cards for selecting an interface to suit an individual’s needs.

The customer is often required to input information to a terminal, but many elderly customers need more time to complete the transaction before being ‘timed out’; on a public telephone, this could involve storing the number being dialled and then sending it at a press of a function key.

Some elderly and disabled customers may want the terminal to offer them a restricted number of choices, such as automatically dialling a pre-stored number on a telephone card, or the ability to store a few telephone numbers and select them by two or three key presses.

Terminals often display information which some users find difficult to read or understand. These users might be helped by large characters on the screen, or speech prompts, or the ability to select a preferred frequency response to compensate for their hearing loss.

Since there is no card insertion, contactless cards 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 distances of a few metres were developed for road charging, but this technology could have numerous benefits for blind and physically disabled persons. For instance it could trigger an audible location signal which would help blind persons find the terminal.

One should not underestimate the resistance to change from service providers as well as the general public. Some of this resistance is due to misconceptions of the technology; for instance, when interviewed for the Saturn project, many elderly people said they would not use a smart card because of the risk of it catching a computer virus.

The usual steps in such a project involve:

  • Identify present and future user needs
  • Technical aspects
  • Check helps intended users
  • Check for any adverse effects on other groups
  • Cost of implementation
  • User attitudes

At time of implementation, it is necessary to:

  • Disseminate information to users
  • Monitor implementation

A cause for concern is how little has been implemented in Europe. There are indications that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is likely to have a significant impact in this area, but that Europe will be left behind without appropriate legislation or mandatory standards.


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