July 2009 Issue  Volume 10  Number 4

Survey Results

Combating the Small Visual Display Invasion: AFB Works to Set a Display Quality Standard

As a reader of AccessWorld, you likely know that for the past five years, AFB's Technology and Employment Center in Huntington, West Virginia--AFB TECH--has been addressing two of the most crucial issues facing the millions of Americans who are blind or have low vision: access to technology and products (such as cell phones, computers, copy machines, and fax machines) and the pursuit and attainment of rewarding employment.

Related to both technology and employment, AFB TECH has recently been concentrating on an area of increasing concern to AccessWorld readers--the prevalence and inaccessibility of small visual displays. The fact is, products of all types now seem to have an embedded small visual display interface that creates a significant accessibility barrier to people who are blind or have low vision. When you stop to think about it, a person would be hard-pressed to go through an entire day without encountering products with small visual displays. These displays are everywhere--on cell phones; digital watches and clocks; calculators; household appliances; home medical devices, such as blood pressure monitors; point-of-sale devices at store checkouts; bank ATMs; digital cameras; and exercise equipment, to name a few.

Many of these products with small visual displays use liquid crystal display (LCD) technology, a thin, flat screen that is inexpensive to produce and able to add tremendous functionality to a product. However, there are drawbacks, including the fact these screens often have small fonts, poor contrast, glare, flashing or moving text, and colors that can be difficult to see, thus creating accessibility barriers to people who have low vision.

The fact these small visual displays pose a barrier to accessibility is not simply an inconvenience. It is a situation that has serious and far-reaching implications that will continue to broaden in scope as people live longer and thus increase their risk of developing age-related vision loss.

Displays in the Workplace

As you well know, it has been widely reported that visually impaired people in the United States face an unemployment rate that is 15 times higher than that of the general population. In fact, only 30% of working-age individuals who are blind or have low vision are employed nationwide. The inaccessibility of much of today's office equipment, such as fax machines, copy machines, and telephones, contributes to this problem. As workplace technology has advanced, manufacturers of office equipment have embedded touch-sensitive small visual display interfaces into many products. While these interfaces have enabled the addition of more features, they have made these products more difficult or impossible for people with low vision to use. Product features that are accessible only through the use of a small visual display are generally not usable by employees who are visually impaired, putting these people at a distinct disadvantage compared to their sighted coworkers.

The use of office equipment with small visual displays can also hamper the productivity and even the ability to work for people who are living and working longer and who may experience age-related vision loss. It can also prevent the hiring or cause the termination of employees who cannot fully use equipment with screens independently.

Displays in the Home

If you think you are immune to the invasion of small visual display screens in your home, think again. Microwave ovens, clothes washers and dryers, home thermostats, stoves and wall ovens, dehumidifiers, window air conditioners, air purifiers, refrigerators, coffee makers, and many other appliances that are used in and around the home, have embedded small display interfaces that can be difficult to see.

Often, the displays on many appliances are not sufficiently bright or high contrast to be read in the areas they are used. For example, clothes washers and dryers and dehumidifiers are often used in basements that do not have good lighting. Maybe your wall oven is across from a window, and the bright sunlight causes glare on the display, making it more difficult to read. Perhaps you have aging eyes and have left your reading glasses in another room. Who would have ever thought you would need to use a magnifier or to wear reading glasses to wash a load of clothes. Well, the day may now be here. The days of turning a big round dial and pressing a button to operate household appliances are going, and they are not coming back. Make way for the flat-touch panels and small visual displays.

Manufacturers of household appliances, just like those of office equipment, need to understand that the displays in their products need to be designed for people who have less-than-perfect vision. For more people to be able to be independent in their own homes, regardless of whether they are young or old, the products they use in it need to be accessible.

Displays in Daily Living

Cell phones, land-line phones, digital audio players, point-of-sale devices at cash registers, and PDAs (personal digital assistants) are all driven by small visual displays. In today's world, you are expected to have a cell phone. The fact is, many people with low vision find cell phone screens difficult, if not impossible, to read. Many times, the fonts are too small and there is too much glare on the screens, especially in bright light or sunlight. Each of the major cell phone providers seems to have one or two phones it publicizes as a "senior-styled" phone with various levels of accessibility; most include adjustable font sizes and levels of brightness on the screens, although few go far enough to provide the quality of displays that most people with visual impairments need. Thus, you may be shut out from many of the phones' features.

Digital audio players, including the iPod, have changed the way people listen to music and radio shows and receive syndicated shows. The convenience and portability of the digital media are excellent. However, most of these devices use small visual displays, and if you cannot see the display, you cannot fully use the products independently.

Point-of-sale devices at cash registers pose another problem. In addition to the fact that they are often difficult to see, they also pose a threat to your personal identity. Many of these devices are touch screens and have no tactile buttons or markings. There is no way for a visually impaired person to enter his or her PIN number confidentially to complete a purchase. One must often give one's PIN number to the total stranger behind the counter to enter the number for one. Not only does the sales clerk hear the PIN number, but so do the people in line near you. How safe is that? Then, where do you sign on the screen? There is generally no tactile marking to show where to sign, and the line on the display is often too thin and low contrast to see.

Displays on Home Medical Devices

Perhaps the most serious barrier to accessibility caused by small visual displays is the barrier to monitoring and caring for your own personal well-being independently. Home medical devices, including scales, thermometers, and blood pressure monitors, as well as life-sustaining diabetes monitoring equipment, such as blood glucose meters, insulin pumps, and some insulin pens, have imbedded small visual displays that make them difficult to use or inaccessible to people with low vision.

According to the National Health Information Survey of 2007, 21% of adults with diabetes have a visual impairment. Regardless of their vision loss, they must monitor their blood sugar levels and administer medication and insulin on the basis of the readings displayed on these home medical devices. If the displays cannot be read clearly, life-threatening mistakes can be made.

Another thing to keep in mind is that small visual displays degrade over time because, like everything else, they are susceptible to their environments. For example, cell phone screens become scratched from being dropped and are often placed at the bottoms of purses and backpacks, which causes more damage to the displays. Displays, such as those on outdoor ATMs, can become degraded from constant exposure to harsh sunlight, humidity, and heat and cold. Images on point-of-sale devices can "burn in" from long hours of daily use and the lack of screen savers. They are poked with styluses and dirty fingers and can be scratched by fingernails and rings. Often devices with embedded displays are expensive, and, especially for individual consumers on limited budgets, they are not easily replaceable when a display becomes damaged or when a model with an easier-to-see display comes to market. In short, whether you are at work, at home, talking on your cell phone, listening to music, purchasing items at a store, or caring for your personal health, small visual displays affect your life. The higher the quality of the display, including high contrast, large fonts, reduced glare, easier-to-see colors, and damage-resistant screens, the more readable they become to the 20 million people in the United States who report having trouble seeing even with contact lenses or eyeglasses.

The American Foundation for the Blind's CareerConnect program operates a web site that includes a database of currently employed individuals who are blind or have low vision who offer mentorship and support to people who are visually impaired who are entering the workplace or pursuing postsecondary training. CareerConnect staff recently worked closely with product evaluation staff at AFB TECH to design and administer a survey regarding small visual displays. This survey was pilot-tested online via the AccessWorld website. This survey on small visual displays was the most responded to survey by AccessWorld readers with low vision in the history of the publication, and we would like to thank all our readers who took time to respond to it. The volume of response further illustrates the importance of the issue and the impact that small visual displays have on people with low vision. Once tested in AccessWorld, the survey on small visual displays was e-mailed to registered CareerConnect mentors who have low vision. A summary of the results follows.

Summary of the Survey

According to the 51 responding CareerConnect mentors, most indicated that cell phones with small visual displays were the most problematic devices. Closely following cell phones were digital cameras, point-of-sale devices, self-service kiosks, and office equipment. The majority of respondents indicated that devices with small visual displays were "very difficult to use most of the time."

When asked how they generally accessed information on small screen displays, the majority indicated that they used their functional vision and held the device close. This choice was closely followed by those who said that they asked another person for assistance, which is not a suitable solution for employees in a work setting.

When asked what they thought would help them use products with small visual displays better, most indicated larger fonts, followed by increased contrast between the letters and their backgrounds, and reducing the amount of glare on the display.

The respondents had the ability to enter information to expand on their answers and to enter information about specific models of devices with which they had problems. This added information gave us valuable insights into how the respondents felt about specific models and manufacturers.

The results of the CareerConnect mentor survey were closely mirrored by the results of the same survey answered by 62 AccessWorld readers. We were able to identify patterns in the data that will provide valuable input into AFB TECH's product evaluation plans. We also appreciate the fact that several respondents provided contact information and expressed an interest in being contacted concerning their experiences using small visual displays and their willingness to assist with future research.

A primary goal of the AFB TECH staff is to educate and engage in a dialogue with manufacturers about the accessibility of products, why it is necessary, and how it can be profitable. To this end, AFB TECH is working to create standards to improve the readability of small visual displays that are used in so many of today's products, to make them more accessible to people with low vision. As the number of Americans who experience vision loss rises, more and more people will begin to have difficulty using products with embedded small visual displays.

With continued product evaluation, research on the optimal characteristics of small visual display, and candid discussions between AFB TECH staff and manufacturers of products, we hope soon to report success in establishing a standard for small visual displays, which will help make the technology we use in our daily lives more accessible to people with low vision.

For more information on AFB TECH's initiatives for developing standards for small visual displays, please go to www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=53&TopicID=386&DocumentID=4438.

Funding for this project was provided by the George B. Storer Foundation.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail us at accessworld@afb.net.

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