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User interface is a key area that we need to work in, to make this an inclusive world: Shilpi Kapoor

In this day and age, technology rules almost every aspect of our life. It has surely made life simpler and much better! But making this technology accessible to all still remains a far cry. Shilpi Kapoor, Managing Director, BarrierBreak Technologies explains at length about User Interface and if made accessible, how it can empower persons with disabilities.

I remember talking to one of my friends who has visual impairment and asking him about problems that he faces in day-to-day life? He told me that he couldn’t operate the washing machine since he couldn’t set the temperature and the wash cycle. Often he would ask the neighbour to come and start the washing machine for him.

Have you faced a problem as a person with disability where you haven’t been able to use some appliance or software, etc? Are you one of those people who visit a technology store and look for the simplest thing to use or certain features that you need to operate the device independently? Have you ever used an electronic device like a washing machine or a copier or even a digital set top box and thought “how confusing it is to use it?”

In this electronic age, everything seems to be about gadgets or technology. We use technology in most day to day activities.

How does an end user use these products? How does the end user interact with these products? Are these products easy to use by all? Are these products easy to use by persons with disabilities? Can a visually impaired person or someone with cerebral palsy or someone with learning disability use these products?

Companies are working to ensure that the end user, that is ‘you’, can easily use their products. While companies think of the end user, are they including persons with disabilities? Most of them do not even think that persons with disabilities would use some of these devices.

Let’s take the example of a digital set top box that a large number of us are using to watch television. How do we as users interact, with the digital set top box? In simple terms, the way we interact with the digital set top box can be referred to as its user interface. We may use it through some keys on the set top box, the visual display, or then a remote control, that will let us access different options and features.

Most often, we use the remote control to use the digital set top box. To change a channel, we either press the number of the channel or use the increase/decrease channel buttons.

How do we distinguish one button from another? Generally we have labels that help us identify the use of a button. You may have noticed that the 5 key is generally marked with a ‘dot’. This small feature is of great benefit to a visually impaired person. But what about other buttons, how does a visually impaired person know which button is for what function?

Often there are some colour coded buttons that we use to access some types of menu. How would a non-sighted or a low vision or a colour blind person be able to distinguish one button from the other?

When we change a channel, a panel appears on the screen that informs us about the channel number, channel name, what programme is currently on and what programme will be next, etc. Sighted users can see all this information but what about visually impaired people? Imagine when we change channels, if it would also announce the channel number and name. Would it not benefit a large cross section of society? Also, most of these interfaces are only in English. The auditory support, if given in Hindi or any other language, would help the non-English speaking population as well.

How does a person with visual impairment know which programme is coming up next or which show or movie is on at what time?

These days, companies are looking at creating intuitive and easy to use interfaces. In simple terms, companies are looking to make the user interface usable. Considering there are 600 million persons with disabilities in the world, why aren’t we looking at accessible user interfaces?

This example I have given above applies to almost every thing we use in life. Not only electronic devices but also the user interface of an operating system, a website, a software, a mobile application, or even a self contained device like a ‘kiosk’.

So, how do we make a start?

Persons with disabilities need to be included in all the different phases of a product life cycle, from design to development to testing. User interface is a key area that we need to work in, to make this an inclusive world.

When a product is being designed, the needs of persons with disabilities should be kept in mind and catered to. We should look at how different types of people with disabilities will interact with the product. The needs of a visually impaired person would be very different from that of a hearing impaired person. Similarly, the needs of a person with cerebral palsy would be unique, or that of a person with learning disability. A product (or its variant) should be able to cater to everyone’s needs in order for it to be truly ‘universal’. Therefore, it is important that these products are also tested by persons with various disabilities before being launched into the market.

Often we find that organizations are trying to retrofit the products. Retrofitting is often difficult and also more expensive. But if accessible user interface is considered at the time of development, companies would reap the benefit in the future.

Just look around and analyze how you use different electronic devices. List how you interact with them? If you were a person who couldn’t see, what challenges would you face; or if you were a person who couldn’t hear, what challenges would you face; or if you were a person who had mobility issues, what challenges would you face?

It will take a simple exercise like that to begin understanding the needs of disabled people! Accessible user interface can open up the world to persons with disabilities.

In many countries, it is required by law to ensure that the needs of disabled people are catered to. While India is yet amending its laws, I hope that the disability sector can start to educate companies of the barriers faced by them. Companies, in turn, should proactively take necessary steps to make an inclusive world a reality!