Technology-friendliness & the visually impaired
Imagine for a moment that you are partially-sighted; at worse blind.
Most believe that blindness is binary in that one either sees or one doesn’t see. In truth, it’s not like that at all…
There is, in fact, a very broad spectrum between being fully-sighted and being completely blind. Few are completely blind with some having acuity issues, while others have blind spots but otherwise clear vision. Most are somewhere in between:
…visual impairment is an entire spectrum of acuity, and indeed a range of different types of conditions - perhaps affecting focus, clarity, colour-perception, peripheral or central vision, movement perception, and more. Accordingly, there are a wide range of different ways that software and hardware can assist visually impaired users (Source)
So it’s true to say that almost everyone has their own unique way of seeing (or not seeing at all).
Imagine also for a moment that you wish to buy a new audio or video product and you are in some way ’sight-restricted’. It’s here that being able to use one of your other senses - that of touch - would come in immensely useful if you were in some way sight impaired. Luckily on the market today is a whole new array of household equipment for the blind or partially-sighted: telephones with large, high-contrast buttons; talking clocks and talking weigh-scales. There are electronic item locators; non-standard remote controls with fewer, but larger and clearer buttons in a variety of significant and memorable shapes. There’s even a mobile phone designed specifically with the blind and partially-sighted in mind, the Odin VI ; and even a headset designed by Microsoft which talks visually-impaired people around cities! So you’d be forgiven to think for the moment that designers are bearing in mind more and more the partially-sighted user.
And as far as computer software is concerned, VoiceOver for Mac doesn’t just tell you what’s happening; it helps you make things happen. It can tell you what’s on your screen, and is able to walk the user through actions like selecting a menu option or activating a button using a keyboard or trackpad. VoiceOver enables complete control of a Mac computer, with no need to see the screen. And it’s already built in!
When you first enable VoiceOver on a Mac, you’re asked if you’d like to take a brief tutorial; I did. After the first couple of minutes, I closed my eyes, and really used it. I wept.
These technologies are a lifeline for visually impaired users. Accessibility isn’t about providing simplified or alternative content, it’s about ensuring everyone has equal access to your existing content. VoiceOver (and similar technologies on other platforms) allow blind or partially-sighted users to fully experience your apps, and, by extension, to communicate and be productive and express themselves. In this day and age, visual impairment need not hinder use of a computer or the Internet (Source)
However, most technology companies are not this far-sighted (if you pardon the pun) towards the blind and partially-sighted. No one company is to blame, and no one company is to be congratulated either… but imagine using the new BeoSound Moment if you do indeed have sight problems. The new BeoSound Moment User Guide Video (below) demonstrates that if you are in any way partially-sighted, you’d really have very little chance in being able to control most of the device’s functions.
Lack of Sight isn’t the Problem. People Are.
Isn’t it really time that software developers and technology designers woke up to the fact that there is no ’standard’ person? Why design something to be used by people of ‘normal’ cpabilities and totally forget or sideline those who are anything less than physically able, just for the sake that the product looks ’swish’?
There are 360,000 people in the UK alone who do not possess the abilities that a fully-sighted person has - and about two million with some degree of sight loss. That’s around one person in 30. (Source).
It’s predicted that by 2020 the number of people with sight loss in the UK will rise to over 2,250,000. And by 2050, the numbers of people with sight loss in the UK will double to nearly four million. This is because:
- the UK population is ageing and as we get older we are increasingly likely to experience sight loss
- there is a growing incidence in key underlying causes of sight loss, such as obesity and diabetes.
Around the world it is estimated that 285 million people are visually impaired of whom 39 mln are totally blind and 246 mln have low vision (Source)
Why is the minority totally excluded at the expense of making products for the majority when technology already exists to make it useful for everyone?
It will take time for designers to become more aware that others exist less able than a ’standard customer’. But at the end of the day companies CAN design super-looking products, and HAVE designed super-looking products, that everyone can use, without excluding a sizeable population of consumers who want to be a part of the fully-sighted majority… but have been deliberately excluded through just the simple act of not trying.
BeoSound Moment - friendly or otherwise?
Looking at the above video, and imagining that you are blind or partially-sighted, just how many marks out of ten would you give this new product for user-friendliness? Not a lot, we would guess.
And with so many people around the world - many of whom are potential customers - who are either blind or partially-sighted, there’s a whole world of people deliberately excluded by technology companies on the basis of good-looks and ’sexy minimalism’ alone.
Bang & Olufsen have designed products before with the visually-impaired in-mind like the Beovision 6002 Commander remote control handset (shown below) with its ‘up-hill and down-dale’ series of tactile buttons which allowed for easy use by the visually-impaired. Why can’t the company do it again and show the tech world just how it can be done (with style)?
Read also: How technology is changing blindness: Six talks on how those who can’t see can drive cars, take photographs and more