unseemly accessibility&mobility – be careful what you wish for

We're all getting older, curiously enough at exactly the same rate. My ancient mum tries to  get on with technology, but its a constant struggle. As with about 1M other people in their 80s/90s in the UK, she has sight loss and hearing loss (sight loss is from macular degeneration, a common problem with age, although now it can be slowed with various treatment that reduce the rate the blood supply to retina dies off - hearing loss just from wear&tear).


So I have tried to setup computers and phones and TV in her house to be "accessible". Believe me, the "state of the art" in this stuff is appalling. It is truly shocking how bad support in terms of hardware and software is.Just think about default WiFi access control to start with. Most APs shipped by ISPs come with security default on. And you have to type in the SSID and Key to the computer - have you tried that with good eyesight. And you may have to do it within 30 seconds after hitting one of 3 buttons on the side of the AP. Doh.

Now try setting up accessibility options on a computer - e.g. screen magnification and voice/spoken menus etc. Firstly, on a windows box, the max magnification means menus go off the bottom of the screen (this is on a machine with a Very Big Screen indeed), and so you can't turn it off again (or reset it). Macs are not a lot better. Secondly, there's no tailoring of the speech stuff, so every screen event triggers an annoying voice (imagine that old paperclip, but with a stoopid accent - its worse, believe me).


Now on mobile phones. So find a touch screen fone which lets you setup accessibility - ought to be quite easy really. no it isn't. now look at wifi use in home (i.e. skype) so its free and you don't have to explain the way to use other phones. So now look at what happens when you move outside the home - skype will still work on 3G, but it could be ruinously expensive. Why can't one have a single voice API, which chooses a network stack (voice+gsm when out of wifi range, for example).


The only thing that was simple was the (cheapest big LCD screen) LG from Richer sounds. The UI is basically like any old TV, and the buttons on the screen are not too many or invisible.

The last straw was hearing aids. My mother has 3 (1 set of analog in the ear, 1 set of fairly good digitial behind the ear from NHS and one set of very fancy private digital ones) - these gizmos are all fairly amazing (they work very well when they work) - the digital ones do fancy filtering of background noise and attempt to compensate for differences in ears (matters for directional hearing and understanding speech in noisy settings like pubs/restaurants/shops) and are very cute until you get to

i) trrying to replace a battery

ii) trying to find a manual for them online

This whole world is astounding -all the websites one can find are ripoff merchants trying to make a buck, and nothing but vacuous generic advice - unlike any of the other tech stuff where (in my experience) you can get a professional engineers repair book for free for last weeks phone or last decades washing machine, and you can get useful tips from anything from photo guide how to, through to a youtube video - i've just fixed a fancy tent and last year fixed the jammed DVD drive on an old Macbook that way for free) - the world of accessiility is anything but accessible. So there's 3 buttons and a slideout battery draw on the (NHS provided) digital hearing aid. Can you find a website that says what the buttons do, or how long the batteries should last? nope. not at all. not even on RNID site (who do at least provide quite good generic advice). And remember a large fraction of the people using these gasdgets also have sight problems, so trying to see fiddly (stateful) buttons is really not a sane UI.

If I had any principles I'd start a company to fix all this...its quite shocking!

Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Let me know if you find any smartphone which will work for people with long sight (and arthritic hands).

    Maybe aging boomers will demonstrate enough of a market for accessibility for tech to start to address these challenges… because there’s nothing decent out there yet.

    Ah well, that’s my next job sorted.

  2. The iPhone supposedly has fairly decent accessibility features: … not that I’ve tried them.

    Recent Nokias (e.g. N900, E51) make SIP and GSM calls equivalent in the UI – although not so cleanly for Skype. I suspect Skype is held back in this regard by its closedness…

Leave a comment

No trackbacks yet.