Touchscreens and blind users

Reuters reports on a CES event emphasizing the needs of blind users and the risks of the touchscreen trend. Some excerpts:

The craze for touch-screen gadgets, sparked by Apple Inc's popular
iPhone, is raising worries that a whole generation of consumer
electronics will be out of the reach of the blind.

Motown icon Stevie Wonder and other advocates came to the world's
biggest gadget fest, the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas
this week, to convince vendors to consider the needs of the blind. […]

Advocates argue that if product designers take into account blind
needs, they would make electronics that are easier to use for the
sighted as well.

The good news is that manufacturers do not need to put large sums of
money into making products accessible, nor would they have to forsake
innovation, said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National
Federation For The Blind.

"We don't want to hold up technological progress," he said. "What
we're saying is, think about the interface and set it up in such a way
that it's simple …. The simpler you make the user interface of a
product, it's going to reach more people sighted or blind." […]

With the popularity of touch screens, once simple products such as
televisions and stereos have become difficult for blind people to use
as they often require navigation of multiple menus that need to be seen
to be used effectively.

"That's an increasing problem with new digital devices. It's easy to
add feature after feature that's buried under menu after submenu," said
Mike Starling, chief technology officer of National Public Radio, which
is working on accessible options.

Manufacturers have been putting touch screens in everything from calculators and watches to computers and music players.

Sendero Group President Mike May, who is blind, joked, "Can I ski 60
miles an hour downhill? Yes. Use a flat panel microwave? No." Sendero
makes GPS navigational devices that have an audio output for the blind.

There are also screen readers that give an audio reading of a
phone's menu. But Anne Taylor, director of access technologies at the
National Federation for the Blind, says they do not yet help her to use
a touch-screen phone.

She said the ability to use a device without needing to look at it
could help sighted people who are driving or older people whose
eyesight is starting to deteriorate.

While blind users can buy screen-reading software for $300 upward,
it tends to only work on certain phones, often the most expensive
smartphones. Sendero said accessible technology is often expensive, and
about 70 percent of the U.S. blind population is unemployed.

Taylor is using CES as a forum to present vendors a set of
suggestions for product design that she sees benefiting both sighted
and blind consumers.

For example, manufacturers could include an easy-to-use start-over
button, different sounds for different menus, and controls with good
tactile feedback.

Link: Touch-screen gadgets alienate blind (Reuters)

See also the NFB's Technology Center and Sendero Group.

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