I attended the e-Access ‘08 conference and the Xerox stand caught my eye with a simple solution to make their devices more accessible.
We all use copiers, printers and faxes on a regular basis as well as other domestic devices such as set top boxes, washing machines and entertainment centres. Over a few years the user interface for all these devices has moved from switches, dials and lights to touch sensitive screens. This move has benefited the manufacturers and many users but has made the devices more difficult, if not impossible, to use by people with certain disabilities.
Let us look at the benefits of touch screens before looking at how Xerox has solved the problem of accessibility. The benefits to the users include:
- Instructions are more explicit and easier to follow.
- Error messages are much easier to understand and act upon than a simple flashing red light.
- More functions can be supported.
The benefits to the manufacturers include:
- Easily updated, for example support of an additional language.
- More robust, a touch screen is less likely to break than physical switches and lights.
- Easier and cheaper to assemble as there are less physical components and connections.
But touch screens are difficult to use if the user is:
- In a wheelchair as the screen is positioned to be convenient for someone standing-up.
- Blind or partially sighted; the screens are small, the text is small and the layout changes from function to function so that it is impossible for the user to see the instructions, or error messages, or know where to touch for a specific action.
- Unable to touch the screen with sufficient accuracy to ensure the correct input.
- Unable to read written English, but able to understand the spoken word or read another language.
Xerox has solved this problem by including a USB port on a range of their new copiers and multifunction systems (both monochrome and colour devices). The port can be connected to any compatible PC (Windows 2000 or XP) running the Xerox Copier Assistant™ Software. The software provides access via the PC to all the walk-up copying functions available from the touch-screen, whilst continuing to allow access from the touch-screen. The PC provides a more flexible interface that is more accessible than the touch-screen:
- It can be positioned at a height and direction that is convenient for a user in a wheelchair.
- The screen is bigger and the text can be magnified so that a user with poor vision can read and operate it. The colours can also be modified to help people who find certain colour combinations easier to read.
- The functions are displayed using standard Windows controls such as buttons and drop down menus. The user can choose the functions either by using the mouse, using the keyboard (tabs) or, with suitable software, by voice recognition. People with limited hand-eye coordination will be able to use one of these methods to accurately input their requirements.
- The software includes a text to voice component so that the functions can be heard. A blind or severely visually impaired user can hear the options and then use the keyboard or voice recognition to input the requirements. A user, who cannot read English, for whatever reason, can listen and respond.
- Currently the Copier Assistant is only available in English language, although should demand grow for this solution, then Xerox would be happy to look into translated versions in order to provide support in multi-cultural environments.
Xerox has proved that devices with small touch screen controls can be made accessible; it is now up to the market to drive the demand:
- People with disabilities should be insisting that they are available in the work place.
- Regulators and standards bodies should be more prescriptive in their requirements.
- Buying organisations, especially government bodies, should be uncompromising and make accessibility an essential attribute in any purchasing decision.
Xerox should be congratulated on providing this feature because it allows people with disabilities to do one more thing without requiring assistance from a friend or colleague. Having said that I would like to suggest some improvements that Xerox could make:
- Advertise the feature. I went on to the Xerox website and unless I had been specifically looking for this feature I would never have found it. The description of each of the supported products should include a sentence on the system with a link to the details. This is part of my challenge to suppliers that accessibility should be accessible.
- Include the software CD with each machine. At present the software is a separately orderable feature with a part number and a price of about £100. I suspect that most of this cost must be taken up in the extra administration of the order and delivery; putting a CD with a single sheet of paper explaining what it is would cost virtually nothing. It would also be free advertising that Xerox is supporting accessibility. It would be a good addition to the Corporate Social Responsibility statement that at present does not seem to include anything on accessibility.
- Publish the interface. This would enable the software to support other devices such as set-top boxes or microwaves. It would also enable the use of alternatives to the PC; a Bluetooth connected mobile phone could be used to operate a multiplicity of devices.
Xerox has produced an excellent solution to the problem of accessibility of touch-screen controls. It should capitalise on it by advertising it and leading other manufacturers to provide compatible functionality.