Change in ICT design for visually impaired urged

4 May 2006

A lobby group for visually impaired users of IT has called for a new approach to the design and manufacture of computer products to enable accessibility to all citizens.

The Visually Impaired Computer Society (VICS), which is part of the Irish Computer Society, is to launch a paper on Friday May 12 in Dublin that claims the creation of an information society that is accessible to everyone regardless of their physical ability is a realistic achievable goal.

The paper, entitled An Information society for all — the non-visual way, outlines recommendations on how to achieve a fully accessible information society and is authored by IT professional Ronan McGuirk, founding member of VICS.

McGuirke explained: “At present the vast majority of ICT products are completely unusable by those with vision problems except by means of expensive and inelegant bolt-on interfaces.”

According to VICS, accessibility means using any of three main categories of human computer interface: tactile, audio and large print. Electronic systems today use a screen to convey information to the user; this approach makes the system accessible to a sighted user but inaccessible to the vision-impaired user and actually disables this user from working with the electronic system.

VICS recommends that the principles of Design For All (DFA) — designing mainstream products and services to be accessible by as broad a range of users as possible — should be followed during the specification, design and manufacture of ICT products. Including accessibility at the design stage will benefit everyone, not just those with vision impairment, and will be a much more cost-effective approach than trying to add in accessibility later, it contends. VICS also suggests that a simple labelling scheme be introduced to identify products which are fully accessible.

“A new approach to design is required to ensure that the needs of all citizens are considered. We recognise that the problem lies with policy makers and financial decision makers who set marketing criteria for product designers. Therefore we recommend that DFA be adopted. This approach will assist decision makers to ‘disability-proof’ their decisions and thus ensure that criteria of accessibility are embedded in all product specifications,” the paper explains.

Tony Murray, VICS chairperson and a software engineer in AIB, said that currently if a blind or a vision-impaired person wants to access Windows they have to buy additional software. “VICS recognises that additional software has come a very, very long way and we work closely with manufacturers of additional software.”

He identified Apple as a company that has gone through the process of building a screen reader for its operating system, so if somebody buys a new Mac off the shelf they will have this available to them. “The accessibility software is primitive enough as it stands but they are in the process of developing that,” Murray added.

However, this type of initiative is in the minority at present. Before accessibility being built into mainstream products can become a reality for all, standards will have to be implemented. Murray said that VICS is currently drafting a paper on standards for accessibility.

By Elaine Larkin