Sunday, July 28, 2013

Interview with Daniele Marano: Accessibility is quality and not just an add-on

Daniele Marano is project coordinator at the Hilfsgemeinschaft (Austrian Association in Support of the Blind and Visually Impaired). He talked to MMF about what accessibility means for the vision impaired and what they would expect from manufacturers.

What are the most important considerations for making mobile phones and tablets accessible for blind or vision-impaired users?

The group of disabled users is quite heterogeneous. For example blind and vision impaired users should be considered differently since they have specific requirements. Blind users rely on speech output while vision-impaired users need functions like: zoom to enlarge the display and the characters, adapt the style of fonts or adjust the level of contrast or the combination of colours.

It is important that devices can be personalised because often people have multiple disabilities. Especially elderly people may have low vision and experience reduced dexterity, for example. For them touch screens are a challenge as these screens need a certain skilful handling. As our society is getting older and older, most of us will experience one or more disabilities in our lifetime. This makes the customisation of devices even more important. Special mobile phones for seniors have tried to solve the problem, but we need more studies about the real requirements of elderly people in regards to mobile telecommunication devices.

What are the most typical use cases for blind and vision-impaired users of mobile phones?

As mentioned above, we need to divide visually impaired users into those who have no visual capacity and those who have limited visual capacity – that accounts for very different requirements.

Only a few years ago people with visual disabilities using the older generation of mobile phones with keypad had to buy and install an expensive special software. So they had to pay both for the mobile phone and additionally for the software. I think that time is over but this was still the case until a couple of years ago.

At that time, from the side of the manufacturers there was no consideration at all for the requirements of blind and partially sighted users. Now, we can see a trend to include accessibility features in mainstream products. But industry needs to include extensively in all products accessibility features like screen readers and speech output for the blind and zoom functions for the vision impaired. It is relatively easy to integrate these functionalities into mainstream products. There just has to be the will to do so.

Mobile access to Internet is becoming more and more popular. Is this also true for blind and visually impaired people? Or is it for them still easier to access the web via a computer supported by assistive technology?

I would say it is true that for the moment blind and vision-impaired people still prefer computers, but that is because up to today there is – without mentioning any name – only one manufacturer that allows the blind and vision-impaired to use mobile devices in a comfortable way. So the market is dominated by one manufacturer that has assistive technology integrated in his devices. The problem is that their products are a bit expensive, and also that older people experience difficulties in using these new technologies like smart phone devices. So it can be said that it is still a greater challenge for the blind and vision-impaired to access the internet from a mobile phone than from a computer. However, we do see the potential of mobile phones to allow access to Internet for people who do not have a computer at home because a computer with assistive technology is also very expensive.

Many manufacturers are now providing a number of accessibility features. But even if they offer information on these features, the information does not seem to reach the consumer. The Austrian Association in Support of the Blind and Visually Impaired is offering their members workshops to explain about the accessibility features of their mobile phones. Were do you get the information from?

First of all, allow me to challenge your statement that many manufacturers are now providing accessibility features. I do not believe that this is true as such, or it is not known at least as you say.

Now to your question: where do we get the information from? Usually, not in a shop. Because the people in the shops are not very knowledgeable about accessibility features. I cannot really quote a comprehensive source about accessibility of mobile devices. We have our insider mailing list of blind and vision-impaired users, but we do not have any real time information about new models etc.

I do think that industry should inform more about accessibility features in their products. They provide a lot of information about how many million pixels the camera has, but it is never indicated if the device is easy to use. We must also consider that products must not only be accessible by disabled persons but also usable by all in a design for all spirit. Both accessibility and usability bring advantages for everyone. One part of users needs it, for the other part of users it can be comfortable to have it as well.

In terms of where to find the information, we are working on making GARI the source of information for everything around accessibility for mobile devices :-)

I welcome the initiative of GARI as a platform of information and exchange around the world of mobile devices

What would be your recommendations to app developers in regards to making their apps accessible?

That depends very much on the operating system for which the apps are developed. Developers must program apps in conformity and respect to the accessibility guidelines. It would be worth considering the introduction of an accessibility seal of devices and software.  But not always hardware and software can be considered separately in terms of accessibility. Accessibility must be an integral part of mobile devices and not just a secondary feature.

What would you wish for from the manufacturers?

The technology and the systems are constantly developing. It is important that accessibility develops at the same pace. There is the risk that with the appearance of new technologies, accessibility solutions must be redefined. Therefore it is important that accessibility becomes an integral part of the conceptual thinking.

I do think that a new consciousness of the needs of users has emerged but sometimes we still experience a lack of consideration. From the packaging, to the charger and the plug, we need to take into account the differences of users to make the handling of the device easy. Software is another issue, there are different kinds of possibilities and settings and so on. But manufacturers should put accessibility on the forefront, not just have it as a plus. Accessibility is an added value of the product, not just a courtesy for a small group of people who need it. Accessibility is quality.

Accessibility features need to become part of the mainstream product and not be offered in separate packages, at separate costs with separate assistive technologies. Accessibility is not an add-on but an integral part of the product.

What kind of developments do you expect over the next coming months?

We see that the technological development is incredibly quick. For our target group of blind and partially sighted users, speech command can certainly be further developed. Speech command on mobile devices has great potential.

Generally speaking, the interface man-machine can be improved. The use of smartphones for instance is still somewhat complex.