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Archive for Thursday, March 13, 2003

High tech challenge booms loud, clear

As population ages, devices must become simpler to use

March 13, 2003

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— To Annemarie Cooke, the world looks something like an Impressionist painting. Details and colors are washed out, and anything beyond arm's length is almost impossible to make out.

Cooke was a newspaper reporter when her vision began to fail 25 years ago. She had few options for adjusting at work beyond making the text on her computer appear larger.

Now, using software that reads aloud what is on the screen, Cooke, 50, is an executive at a nonprofit organization for the blind and dyslexic.

"All you have to do is breathe or blink and you can use technology effectively," Cooke said. But it is not all easy -- cell phones and their tiny controls "are a nightmare."

Cooke's experience illustrates that while specialized devices offer assistance in dazzling ways, technology companies are just beginning to work harder at making all computers, gadgets and Web sites easier to use for people with disabilities.

Government regulations are largely forcing the change, but so is the quest for profits. High-tech companies say that as the big baby boomer generation grows old, business will suffer if computers and other devices befuddle aging eyes, ears and fingers.

"The voice of boomers will come through loud and clear," said Madelyn Bryant McIntire, Microsoft's director of accessible technologies.

Age group explodes

Forty-two percent of people older than 65 have a disability, according to the Census Bureau. And the number of Americans older than 65 is expected to soar from 35 million now (12 percent of the population) to 59 million (18 percent of the population) in 2023.

Some technology companies such as Microsoft and Xerox have begun working more closely with organizations for the disabled and smaller companies that design add-on software. Telecommunications companies are closely examining services popular among deaf and hearing-impaired people of all ages, such as instant messaging over computers and two-way pagers.

AT&T and Sprint recently started offering video relay, in which a deaf person sets up a Web camera on his computer and uses sign language to address an operator, who in turn translates to the hearing party on the other end.

Users say video relay is faster and conveys more emotion than the traditional TTY system, in which a deaf person types his or her end of the conversation and an operator reads it to the hearing person and then types back responses.

Even baby boomers who develop hearing loss but do not know sign language will have several phone technologies at their disposal.

To help lip-readers, researchers in Israel have developed software that gathers the individual sounds in a phone conversation and displays a computer-animated face that appears to speak what the person on the other end of the line is saying. Northview Enterprises of Clearwater, Fla., plans to adapt the Lip-C Cell software soon for American English.

UltraTec of Madison, Wis., hopes to gain regulatory approval soon for its CapTel phone, which uses a captioning service as a silent middle man, so a person with poor hearing can read a transcript of a phone conversation almost in real time.

Much to be done

But technology still has a long way to go.

For example, newer digital cell phones often interfere with hearing aids.

Many disabled people find wireless devices so hard to master that engineers plan an extensive discussion on design improvements at this month's CTIA Wireless 2003, one of the industry's most important conventions.

Despite a 1998 law requiring federal agencies to tailor their Web sites for people with disabilities, a recent study funded by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that fewer than 15 percent of federal sites made their content sufficiently clear and easy to find.

Too many Web sites use fine print and light blue colors, which become more difficult to see as people age, and layouts that can trip up screen-reading software, said Bill Gribbons, a design expert at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.

Gribbons advises financial services firms, health care providers and insurance companies on how to make their Web sites better for their aging clientele.

"Many times designers simply aren't aware of these things. What works well from their perspective can be problematic for an aging user," Gribbons said. "When I talk to my students, I refer to it as designing for our future selves."

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