The trouble with touchscreens

03 May 2017

Even the most common daily tasks could soon be off limits to people from the blind and low vision community unless serious accessibility improvements are made to touchscreen devices.

While advancements in technology have made touchscreens easier and cheaper to manufacture, there has been little consideration given to how people who are blind or have low vision interact with them.

Bruce Maguire, lead policy advisor at Vision Australia believes the proliferation of touch screen devices in recent years is creating one of the biggest accessibility barriers ever faced by Australia’s blind and low vision community.

“Touchscreens are appearing everywhere. In people’s home, workplaces and out in the community. The issue is that people who are blind or have low vision cannot use them. We can touch the screen but we can’t see what we are touching and therefore, cannot use the device effectively,” Mr Maguire says.

“Unless there is some urgent action taken, people from the blind and low vision community face the real possibility of being locked out from being able to carry out basic everyday tasks because touchscreens are becoming standard on more and more products,” he says.

In Mr Maguire’s opinion it was the launch of the Apple iPhone in the mid-2000s that kick-started the growth in touchscreens that has resulted in them appearing on devices from dishwashers and microwaves to coffee machines and EFTPOS terminals.

“Touchscreens have been used in different applications for decades, but it was the first iPhone in early 2007 that started to put them in a situation where people would use them every day.

“Since then we’ve seen a situation where devices that in the past had used either physical buttons, knobs or dials have switched to using a touchscreen with no real consideration given to what that means for accessibility.”

While previous generations of devices may not have been perfect in terms of accessibility, blind and low vision users could generally use basic functions and often implement their own methods to make operation easier.

The addition of tactile features could assist people in locating and identifying buttons and switches, while the relative uniform layout of numbered keypads on devices such as telephones also helped with navigation.

As those methods are of no use when it comes to touchscreens, the blind and low vision community is completely reliant on manufactures to include accessibility measures during production. According to Mr Maguire there is little evidence that manufacturers are making design choices that would include accessibility features.

“There’s very little evidence to suggest that if we leave this in the hands of the market that anything will be done to improve the situation. It’s unlikely that somebody who makes washing machines is going to include a feature like speech output or recognition if their competitors aren’t.

“In reality it’s going to take either some form of incentive or some legislated guidelines to get us to a point where accessibility features are included as standard.”

To support that claim, Mr Maguire again turns to Apple. While the tech giant was the pied piper of touchscreens, its move to incorporate accessible features hasn’t been followed by the wider market.

While Apple has indicated that is committed to accessibility, Mr Maguire believes federal legislation in the United States may have helped the company to reach that decision.

Included in the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act is a requirement that technology used by the United States government must be accessible to people who live with any disability. In Mr Maguire’s opinion that law may have helped to accelerate Apple’s move to embrace accessibility.

Standards Australia have recently adopted an Australian Standard, similar to an existing a European standard, that would require government agencies to purchase accessible ICT products and services. The Australian Government is yet to make this standard mandatory for government procurement.

“That policy could be a start, but it’s not really going to do anything in terms of improving the accessibility of standard domestic devices like washing machines that might have touchscreen.

“Making this Australian standard mandatory would be an important step forward, but we need to also require that manufacturers of other touchscreen devices, like household appliances, payment terminals and information kiosks, include accessibility features so that people who are blind or have low vision can use them.

“We’re not going to see accessibility improve unless standards are legislated and that legislation is enforced by government.”

While touchscreen accessibility isn’t required by law, Mr Maguire said there are examples that show it wouldn’t be a huge impost to require manufactures to incorporate it.

“If you look at touchscreen ATMs they have the option for people to plug in headphones and receive audio outputs. The Albert EFTPOS terminal developed by the Commonwealth Bank has accessibility features included, they just need to be activated by the merchant each time. Technology manufacturers have the ability to make touchscreen devices accessible.

“There are people that live with other disabilities who prefer to use touch screens and we’re not saying that manufactures should stop including them. What we’re saying is that they shouldn’t be something that excludes people from being able to carry out basic, everyday things.”