English » Universal Design for Information » UD for Information Technology

UD for Information Technology

Chika Sekine
President of UDIT(Universal Design Institute of Information Technology) - http://www.udit.jp/

Universal Design (UD) for Information Technology (IT) has two definitions. A general definition is the following: all information emitted from newspapers, TV programs, and products (ex: a sign for whether the switch is on or off) can be distributed to all, irrespective of the user's disabilities. More specifically, UD for IT calls for Information Technology equipment, especially PCs, to be designed for all users.
This report describes the current status, problems, and the future of UD for IT, focusing on PC hardware, PC software, data format, and the Internet.

  1. UD for PC Hardware

    1.1 Keyboard

    The "Home" position on the Keyboard is a well-known example of UD for the PC. This refers to the small tactile marks on top of the key (i.e. J and F keys), which enable the blind to know the right position on the keyboard. There are however no PC maker standards for positions for other function keys. This inconsistency causes confusion to the disabled, creating the need for an adjustment period each time they face a new computer. In addition, numeric keys on the PC keyboard and numeric keys on the phone are not aligned in same way. This may not be strictly a matter of UD, but effort and cooperation is required between the PC and telephone industry to enhance usability.
    The physically impaired must choose the best device to assist their needs. If their hands can move in a limited area, they may choose a notebook PC or a small keyboard. If they have cerebral palsy, muscular disorder, or spastics, it is recommended to add a normal size keyboard to a note PC and use a "KeyGuard" on the key top.
    The difficulty to press two keys at once is currently solved by software. This will be described at a later point of this report.

    1.2 Mouse

    A mouse generally requires the ability to conduct two actions at a time, for example clicking and dragging. This action is a difficult task for the physically impaired. If a mouse has the click lock function, it is easier to control; there are few products with this function. For some elderly, the mouse is not controllable; sometimes the mouse rolls right off the desk. A Track Ball may be a better solution for this age group, as it is more controllable, does not roll away, and depending on the product, has the "click lock" function. Those who cannot use either a mouse or a track ball need an alternative mechanism as a pointing device. This function, which is realized by software, will be mentioned in a latter portion of this report.

    1.3 Display

    Alternative displays for the blind include functions such as text to speech functionality and a refreshable Braille pins display. The Braille pins display is still an expensive and special product for the blind. The Speech Synthesizer technology has however become quite popular amongst users and less expensive, and many PCs now have this function without an additional cost. In the near future, most PCs will be equipped with text to speech software - UD for PC will finally be achieved for the visually impaired.
    Wearable computers have just been announced. A user wears a small 'see through' display in front of the eyes, to see the same contents as on a normal PC monitor. This will be useful for the severely motor impaired who cannot use both hands or see the display.
    Wearable computers may also be useful for the bedridden senior citizen, or people with low-vision. In the future, wearable units will be useful for the hearing impaired when video on the Web will provide a captioning service. It is imperative that hardware and peripheral developers gain an understanding of UD concepts in order to create products that are useful for all.

  2. Software

    2.1 Operating System

    The Macintosh Operating System has had a function named "EasyAccess" to help the physically impaired to use the keyboard. Another function, "Closeview", is also equipped to enlarge the display text or graphics for the visually impaired.
    In Windows 3.1, an accessibility function "AccessPack" was not provided in the Japanese version; many disabled have asked Microsoft to support this function in Japan.
    MS currently provides an accessibility function in Windows 95, 98, and NT; there is a wheel chair mark on the control panel. The main functions of this feature are the following:

    1. Keyboard input support function: enables 'Stick key' for users who cannot press two keys at the same time.
    2. Mouse input support function: 'Mouse key' for users who want to use the numeric key instead of using a mouse.
    3. Speed control function for the mouse or track ball.
    4. Display enlargement function (only NT).

    These functions are provided as a standard and are useful for some disabled and senior users, but unfortunately, the back up support is poor; those who need this function most, cannot learn how to put this feature into good use. This function is a good example of UD, and we hope OS makers can add more detailed help instructions to these functions, in an easy to read and accessible format.

    2.2 Application

    Text to speech software has the ability to read aloud what icons or texts are on the desktop or application for the blind. There are over thirteen products in the US for the Windows environment, yet only two products in Japan. This technology is slowly gaining recognition, but the availability is still scarce. Display enlargement software is also difficult to find. We must continue to encourage UD concepts in this field. But there is good news - Internet browsers with text to speech are sold as normal products, as these products have gained popularity by many users.
    Voice Recognition software has also experienced an explosive public debut. Some PCs even have this function as standard installed software. This is the sign of a new era of UD. Almost ten years ago, this function was researched and first developed for the severely impaired (ex: spinal injuries). Those with spinal injuries can see and speak normally but move their hands and/or feet with difficulty; it is quite a challenge to use a keyboard or mouse. Voice Recognition started off as a product for the disabled to support inputting and pointing _ it has also become technology for those without disabilities.
    This is a typical story of UD. There was and still are high expectations for Voice Recognition from the disabled community. For example, the blind or visually impaired hope to use Voice Recognition to avoid remembering key layout. The hearing impaired hope to use it as a portable communication aid to output the speech of others on a monitor. The speech impaired hope this function will help others to recognize their incomplete speech.
    But unfortunately, it has become difficult to realize these dreams. With the young generation as the main target consumer, UD concepts are not taken into account during product planning. Even worse, the original target, spinal injury cases, is currently not well supported by products with Voice Recognition, especially in Japan.
    Products developed for the disabled can be enhanced for the consumer market for their usability. This is the hope for UD. If however the product becomes useless for the PC user with disabilities, the goal of UD is defeated. I hope that all developers realize the importance of UD.

    2.3 Data format

    Data in all applications should be formatted in more than one way and deliverable in a format desired by the user. For example, instead of paper materials, text files on a floppy disk should be available at seminars or conferences, and distributed to the blind user upon request; this is almost common sense in the U.S. now. This flexibility allows blind users to access the same information using software, previously mentioned in (2.2). In addition, explanation of graphics in text is required. For those who do not understand the alphabet or read Japanese characters, it is necessary to convert the text into simple graphics, like symbols. If possible, all applications should be designed to support several kinds of data format, input, output, and conversion. We hope developers keep in mind that there are users who wish to access and use their applications in conjunction with assistive technology.

  3. Internet

    There are many PC users with disabilities, and senior citizens accessing the Internet now. These users are often interested in accessing information libraries, communicating with a brand new society, and exchanging information. But it is not an easy task for this user group to fully access the Internet, as there are many barriers in browsers, data, html code, and even in the design of homepages. These barriers are explained in this section.

    3.1 Browser

    Currently, most browsers have the function for changing the background color or font size, which was originally created for the elderly and users with low vision. This is very close to UD, but unfortunately this function is not widely known. For the blind net-worker, there are some text to speech browsers, such as the Homepage Reader (IBM), or 'Gannosuke' (Fujitsu). The former was developed with UD concepts in mind; it is a product for both the blind user and elderly as well as ordinary users. You can 'hear' the contents of homepages using an attached voice synthesizer and normal numeric keys; this software is sold in general PC shops at a low price. This was originally designed for the blind user by a blind developer, but users can enjoy the same homepages with a sighted fellow or family member. I believe that this is a true UD product.
    A trial version of the Homepage reader is downloadable at the IBM-J web site (http://www-6.ibm.com/jp/accessibility/ ). Web creators can use this software to hear their own web page. For the physically impaired, browsers must be designed to be used with only the keyboard, as they tend to use browsers with keyboard access to the OS in order to combine assistive technology. For the hearing impaired there is research for developing captioning tools in the US; video with audio will soon provide closed captions on the web. There are many new developments needed for a world of digital products.

    3.2 Homepage design

    Homepages must be designed with UD concepts in mind. If homepages are designed considering all users, including the disabled, senior citizens, children, and users who have little knowledge of information technology, equal access to public information can be ensured. Several Internet societies are working hard to follow accessibility guidelines on the Web. One group is the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). This is a special task team within the WWW consortium that discusses UD Internet requirements; this formal committee includes members of the government, users with disabilities as well as supporters.

    3.2.1 Provide alternative representations for images

    For the blind and senior citizen user who listen to web pages using speech synthesizers, homepages without alternative text for images are meaningless; if the image map link has no alt, these users reach an impasse. Most current web browsers allow users to view a page without images for faster searching. Thus many hyper-net workers know the meaning and importance of 'Alt'. In Japan however, there are few web creators who have this same understanding. With alt text on your page, a description of the image or image links will appear, making it convenient for all. A homepage builder can be an important UD enabler for checking and adding the alt text automatically.

    3.2.2 Provide Text Title and Description to Audio clips

    If there are no page titles, an auditory user must listen longer to differentiate the end of one content from the beginning of another. Audiovisual material can provide text titles for audio content and description of video content. This is just one suggestion.

    3.2.3 Importance of Contrast in Background and Character Color

    It is crucial that colors of high-contrast are used for the background and text especially on web pages. If similar colors are used, senior citizen users and users with impaired vision cannot see the text. Currently, the colors of most web browsers can be adjusted to suit the user's preference, although some graphics such as buttons or mastheads cannot be changed. Web creators must check the appearance of a site from a distance to make sure of a clear distinction between background and text.

    3.2.4 Provide Relation and Structure for All Parts

    When first visiting an Internet site, it easy to get lost amongst the abundance of information. It is difficult to figure out how sites and parts of sites are related. This often occurs when users, especially the elderly, are not familiar with virtual space recognition. To avoid this problem, web pages must provide a sign that helps a user return to the top of the page at anytime. Frames are useful to grasp whole contents, but some reading tools for the blind still do not support frames. There should always be a "no frame" option.

    3.2.5 Support Multiple Types of Media and Assistive Technology Devices Websites

    Web sites should be designed to cooperate with a variety of input and/or output devices and provide multiple types of data format. Public sites should especially avoid a web design that limits access by all.

  4. UD for IT, its future

    Worldwide, the effort to ensure universal acceptance of the concept of PC accessibility, (the 'Barrier Free Information Technology'), has reached a high point, left now with a mission to establish an infrastructure that can handle this task. We believe that UD concepts will be gradually adopted in this constantly evolving world of IT; at institutions such as IBM Japan, the Design and Human Factors group has been extremely interested in UD. In Japan however, the 'Barrier free' concept has just begun to gain recognition and it is hard to say with certainty whether UD has truly taken root. But the aging society and the highly information intense society in which we currently live, will inevitably emerge together. Researching and realizing UD is vital homework for the Japanese this century.
    Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines http://www.w3.org/wai/gl/
    Universal Design http://tracecenter.org/
    KokoroWeb http://www.kokoroweb.org/
    Door to barrier free world http://www-6.ibm.com/jp/accessibility/

"Results of accessibility analysis of html and the implication for future information technologies" Wendy Chisholm, Gregg C. Vanderheiden (Trace R&D center University of Wisconsin-Madison) 1998