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Accessibility of Consumer Electronic Equipment

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from Voice of the Nation\'s Blind, December 1, 2004:

During the past century many advances in technology, such as talking books, reading machines, faster production of braille, access to computers and the development of the internet, have afforded the blind better access to the world around them. In spite of these advances, developments in consumer electronics technology have made access to many common devices difficult or often impossible to operate without vision, leaving blind people unable to perform formerly routine tasks.

The Problem Until the past couple of decades, blind people could operate virtually all electronic devices intended for the broad consumer market, even those of a highly specialized nature. In contrast, today's home electronic devices use multi-level menus, providing only visual feedback through which all tasks are performed. Rather than making access easier, new technology complicates and sometimes prohibits access for the blind. However, it does not have to be this way.

Due to computerized control systems, devices such as today's audio/video receivers have become much more complicated than similarly priced units of twenty years ago. Besides the development of microprocessor-based control and switching systems, this increased capability has been accomplished through multifunction control buttons, menu systems and displays that can convey a variety of information. While some of today's cost-saving designs can annoy sighted people, they actually prohibit the enjoyment of home entertainment by the blind.

Well into the 1980's the average blind consumer could operate the typical stereo system without help. The use of braille labels and other tactilely discernable markings (filing a notch or painting nail polish on a dial) allowed blind consumers to easily adjust the many settings of a stereo. In addition, the status of switches could be determined by touch using their physical position, in or out, up or down, etc., with each one performing known consistent functions.

Today's stereos may contain knobs and switches, but their use is not intuitive through non-visual means. For example, a volume control knob may rotate continuously providing no indication of volume level. When one presses the "ON" button, will the sound be produced at the level of the last noisy party? Although some devices possess jog wheels with discernible clicks (which theoretically render them accessible to the blind), these clicks often do not provide reliable information to the blind about the settings. This is because the electronics do not consistently register all the clicks, making the clicks just another frustration for the blind. While sequences of button presses can sometimes be memorized, this is only possible after extensive experimentation and research with the aid of a sighted person. Additionally, some functions can only be addressed by answering inaccessible screen prompts. To make matters worse, many of today's devices simply have too many functions to memorize.

TVs and VCRs are other examples of home electronic equipment that now provide challenges for use by the blind. Many of the first VCRs allowed the recording speed to be selected by a two or three position switch. However, on today's machines, the speed is often toggled by a push-button or set from within a menu, preventing the blind user from determining which speed is selected. Determining whether the TV tuner in the VCR would receive cable TV or direct channels was often accomplished by moving another switch. Today, the set of channels received is generally programmed from within a setup menu that is not accessible. Even such basic audio controls as adjustments of tone and balance on some televisions are submerged two or three levels deep in on-screen menus. Separate dedicated knobs for these functions have largely disappeared. Entering a program into today's VCRs is seldom successful without the benefit of prompts and access to error messages. Using a modern set-top cable box to order an On-Demand movie is often impossible without being able to see the menus displayed on the television screen.

Working Toward A Solution

While we know what we need, we lack the design and manufacturing experience to know the best way to make it happen. Only if the blind create a partnership with designers and manufacturers can the goal of accessible home electronics be achieved. If this doesn't occur soon, we will eventually find it impossible to operate even the simplest devices. Besides limiting our entertainment options and our ability to perform household chores, our ability to get and keep a job could be greatly reduced, largely undoing the progress we have made during the past century. Conversely, working to solve this problem now will assure that blind people of all ages derive the benefits of today's available home electronics, and that more of our aging population continues to remain independent.

We have seen examples of technology that demonstrate that these problems can be overcome. Devices such as fully accessible talking answering machines, clocks, calculators and videocassette recorders of the past, illustrate one approach to accessibility. Using buttons with good tactile feedback in combination with the innovative use of varying audio tones to provide information to persons without vision can work well. Devices that can be linked to computers with a wireless interface offer other intriguing possibilities. Some manufacturers of amateur radio equipment have created add-on options providing necessary information to the blind operator.

With the aging of the population, the size of the consumer market that will face the problems outlined here is projected to increase substantially over the next decade. Anticipating this increase rather than being forced to react to it later will lower costs and improve the chances of creating products usable by the blind. Please join with us to work towards greater accessibility of home electronics to ensure the independence of all blind Americans.