July 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 7

Cell Phone Accessibility

All for One and One for All: The Use of "All-in-One" Multifunctional Document Centers by People Who are Blind or Have Low Vision

As most AccessWorld readers are well aware, unemployment is a major issue for the blind and visually impaired population. According to estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for people with moderate to severe vision loss can be upwards of 70 percent. This is several times the national average. While there are many reasons for this alarmingly high figure, it stands to reason that a large part of the blame belongs to work environments that use office equipment and tools that are either completely inaccessible or overly difficult for a person who is blind or visually impaired to use. This is certainly the case with high-end Multifunctional Document Centers (MDCs), which can be found in nearly any office.

MDCs, also sometimes referred to as "All-in-One Printers," are devices that perform many different tasks, such as printing, copying, scanning, and faxing, as opposed to older office devices that perform only single tasks. Modern MDCs provide more features and functions than ever before, but this added functionality has made many of these products more complex and difficult to use. In the past, accessibility to basic copiers for people with visual impairments was not as significant an issue. Typically, copiers had simpler user interfaces with tactile keypads for selecting the number of copies along with "Start," "Clear," and "Stop" buttons. As technology has advanced, the user interface was redesigned and has become more complex, often requiring the use of non-tactile controls and/or a touchscreen display. These changes to the user interface created accessibility barriers for people with visual impairments that previously did not exist.

Back in 2006, Darren Burton and Lee Huffman authored a series of articles in AccessWorld ("Can You Make Me Some Copies, Please," "Man versus Machine: A Review of Multifunctional Desktop Copiers," and "Accessing the Machine: Two Solutions for Using Large Multifunctional Copy Machines") in which they evaluated the accessibility of many of the MDCs that were available at the time. They found that, while there were some accessibility solutions offered (notably by Canon and Xerox), by and large, these products were simply inaccessible for people with vision loss. Even the products that did offer accessibility solutions only offered limited access and were not always easy to use. Since then, MDCs have become even more complex and reliant on touchscreen displays. However, in recent years, a number of additional companies, including Lexmark and Ricoh, have developed accessibility solutions that promise to offer improved access.

The American Foundation for the Blind has partnered with Mississippi State University on a grant from the National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) to revisit the issue of MDC accessibility and determine whether the newer devices are currently accessible to blind and visually impaired users. This project is divided into three major activities: a survey of MDC users, an expert analysis of major MDCs, and a user study to determine the usability of MDCs. The results of each activity will be summarized and published in AccessWorld.

Survey of MDC Users

The first step in this project was to conduct a survey of MDC users who are blind or visually impaired. The purpose of this survey was to gather information on the types of experiences that users have with MDCs. This will allow us to identify the major accessibility barriers, if any, that prevent users from accessing the device, as well as determine the features and functions that are the most and least in demand by this population. We will use this information, along with the results of our expert analysis and user study, to work with MDC manufacturers to improve their products.

A survey was developed by AFB that was designed to collect information in a number of different areas, including the following: the demographics of the participants; the types and functions of MDCs that participants have experience with; the frequency with which they use the various functions of the MDC; any accessibility barriers they encounter; and their preferred methods for interacting with MDCs. The survey was launched in October 2011 and remained open for a period of six months. It was promoted through an announcement that was posted in AccessWorld and sent to a number of blindness organizations, asking for visually impaired people with MDC experience to fill out an online survey.

Who Completed the Survey

The survey was completed by 26 blind and 34 low-vision users of MDCs whose median age range was 45 to 54 years old. Over half of those who answered the survey were women, and most were white. Most participants were college graduates, and more than a third had attended graduate school. Two-thirds of the participants were currently employed. The median household income was $40,000 to $60,000, which is similar to the entire U.S. population.

About two-thirds of the participants were visually impaired from birth. The vast majority had received some formal training to assist them in living with vision loss.

Use of MDCs

The largest number of participants had an MDC that they used at home for personal use, with almost as many participants using an MDC for work. The most common MDC brand was Hewlett-Packard followed by Canon. Other brands mentioned (but used by only a small number of participants) included Lexmark, Brother, Epson, Xerox, Dell, Kyocera, and Toshiba.

All participants reported they have used MDCs that are able to make copies. In addition, most MDCs are able to scan, print, and fax. The most important MDC function for survey participants was printing, followed by scanning, then copying. A majority of participants selected these three functions as being very or somewhat important to their specific needs. Although almost half thought faxing was very or somewhat important, it was the least important function overall. The vast majority of individuals used the MDC for printing more than once a week, followed by copying and scanning, both of which were used more than once a week by about half the participants. Faxing was used more than once a week by only one-quarter of participants.

More than half the participants used assistive technology to make their MDCs usable. However, few had assistive technology training specific to the MDC.

Preferred Techniques for Access

The survey listed a number of techniques individuals might prefer to have available in order to make MDC controls and displays more accessible to them. Visual techniques were listed for those with low vision, and non-visual techniques were presented to blind participants.


Almost all participants with low vision preferred larger letters and numbers on control labels. High contrast between background and labeling and between background and controls was preferred by a large majority. Speech output software and tactile controls were preferred by almost all blind participants. More than half of blind individuals wanted tactile bumps for identification.


For displays, more than three-quarters of individuals with low vision preferred high contrast between the background and characters on the display screen and larger characters on the display. About two-thirds of those with low vision responded that they preferred to have low glare, and two-thirds wanted to have a built-in screen magnifier. Less than half said they would prefer a brighter screen. Participants who are blind overwhelmingly preferred speech output for displays, and less than half preferred support for braille displays.

Although individuals with low vision were not specifically asked about their preferences for non-visual techniques, a number of participants in this group wrote comments that they would prefer speech output for both controls and displays. In future AFB surveys, we plan to include non-visual techniques as well as visual techniques for those with low vision.

Comparing Participants with Low Vision to those who are Blind

Responses were compared between participants with low vision and those who are blind. The only important difference found was that those with low vision used the MDC copy function more often than those who are blind.

Summary and Conclusion

Most blind and low vision participants used an MDC at home for personal use, and about two-thirds used it for work. Hewlett Packard was the MDC brand most often used by the survey respondents. Of the MDC's functions, printing is the most important to participants, followed by scanning and copying. Printing is used most often, followed by copying and scanning. Faxing is not used as often and is not considered as important as the other three functions. The copying function is likely to be used more often by those with low vision than those who are blind. There are a number of techniques that participants would prefer MDCs to have available in order to make controls and displays more accessible. The most important are higher contrast, larger characters, speech output, and tactile controls.

There is a clear demand among these participants for improved accessibility features for MDCs. It should also be noted that only 60 completed surveys were collected over a period of six months despite our offering a stipend and promoting the survey in AccessWorld and through a number of blindness organizations. This relatively small figure reflects how few people who are blind or visually impaired have experience using MDCs.

This survey is the first part of a larger project to gather information on the accessibility of MDCs that can be used to make these systems more accessible and available for users who are blind or visually impaired. The next steps for this project are to identify the currently available MDCs that offer accessibility solutions and to evaluate their accessibility and functionality through expert analysis and a user study. The results from those evaluations will be included as part of a future article in AccessWorld.


This survey was paid for through a subaward received from Mississippi State University as part of the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) on Employment Outcomes for Individuals Who are Blind or Visually Impaired.

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