People with disability both liberated and left behind by today's tech

Call for earlier involvement in design process, at human rights and technology event

Some of the technology that has become available in the last few years, in the words of Blind Citizens Australia chief Emma Bennison “really does spell liberation”.

She recounts her experience with an app called Aira, which allows a remote assistant to view a live stream from a camera fitted on her glasses.

“This morning I was staying at a hotel and I walked into the lift and lo and behold there was no braille, not even any large print on the buttons…I called them up and said I’m in this lift, and I can’t figure out where the ground button is because there’s no tactile markings,” she says.

The Aira assistant guided her towards the correct button.

“And off I went…very exciting, totally game-changing,” Bennison says, “I have found myself reduced to tears by this technology, just because it is such a freeing experience.”

While tech designed specifically for people with disabilities – collectively termed ‘assistive technology’ – is improving their everyday lives, the ubiquity of other innovations often has the opposite effect.

It’s a growing problem. Close to 40 per cent of all complaints made to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in 2016-17 were lodged under the Disability Discrimination Act. A third of those related to goods and services, many of them new technology.

“I’m seeing a widening gap in some ways due to technological innovation,” says disability discrimination commissioner Alastair McEwin,where people with disabilities are forgotten about when we’re designing something. Then we see a great uptake of the technology and people with disability are once again left behind.”

Bennison and McEwin were speaking as part of a panel session at an AHRC conference in Sydney last month, focused on the social impact of emerging technologies.

Their message to industry was clear: involve disabled people properly and at the start of the design stage.

Touchscreen turmoil

Take touchscreens. Most of us interact with a touchscreen of some kind every day, many of us in the first few minutes after waking.

As well as our smartphones – indeed, possibly because of them – touchscreens have become the standard interface for ATMs, point of sale devices, supermarket self-serve, aeroplane entertainment and lifts; increasingly used to order at fast food outlets, operate household appliances and find your way around a shopping mall.

For blind and visually impaired people the lack of buttons or tactile indicators on touchscreen devices is a serious problem. Using them can also be a struggle for people with nervous system disorders such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s.

“Touchscreens can be fantastic. On the iPhone where there’s good implementation of touchscreen accessibility and Android too, they can be fantastic,” says Bennison.

“The challenge arises when you’ve got things like touchscreen banking products or touchscreen household appliances where there is no accessibility features in place or the feature has not been well implemented or where people are required to remember multiple different sets of gestures to achieve whatever they might want to achieve,” she adds.

While some companies are good at providing accessibility options – for example the headphone ports built in to most ATMs – for others, disabled people would appear to be an afterthought.

Commonwealth Bank’s Albert EFTPOS machine was launched in 2015, to much fanfare from the bank.

It quickly came under criticism from disability advocates, since vision impaired users were forced in some cases to give their PIN to cashiers. It has some accessibility features – which begin with a 10 minute audio tutorial and end with a new set of swipes and taps to learn, “causing anxiety”.

Months of failed negotiations between advocacy groups and the bank ended in February with a lawsuit against CBA, alleging discrimination.

CBA would not comment on the ongoing court case specifically, but did say accessibility for blind and low vision customers was an “important issue”.

“We have been listening to the feedback, and throughout the development of Albert we worked collaboratively with our technology partners, accessibility specialists and individuals with a range of vision loss to deliver the current accessibility solution,” a spokesperson for the bank told Computerworld.

“We continue to look for the best possible solutions, harnessing emerging technology and innovation, to ensure consistent experiences for all our customers using the device,” they said.

Start here

Design concepts such as ‘universal design’ and ‘inclusive design’ are closely related and describe methodologies for designing products so they can be used by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for special or adapted features.

“Some technology companies have been pioneers, making such objectives central to the design and development of services and products. Others have paid little or no attention to these aims,” the AHRC writes in its recent issues paper on human rights and technology.

The commission is currently seeking views on whether law should be changed to ensure new technology is accessible, and if the private sector should be incentivized to use universal design.

Bennison says although members of her organisation are frequently asked to test new products, it’s often too late in the process to make any “considerable, significant change”.

“The conversation really needs to happen at the very beginning of the design phase,” she says.

Consultation was often not taking place in a “contextualized environment” she adds.

“If you’ve got something that’s going to be used in a coffee shop and you test it in a quiet room then you’re going to get different result obviously,” she said.

McEwin added that businesses should remember that disabled people are as diverse a group as any other.

“Don’t assume that if you bring in one person who is blind to do your testing that you’ve ticked all the boxes – you absolutely haven’t,” he said.

“I sometimes think when I see a new product or innovation: what is so fantastic about that product that you don’t want me and my friends and colleagues with disabilities to also be able to access? We need to think from the beginning about how does this benefit everyone,” McEwin said.


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Tags legaldesigndiscriminationHuman RightslawAustralian Human Rights CommissionrightsdisabilityconsultationBlind Citizens Australiainclusive designuniversal designDisability Discrimination Act

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