Experts discuss making kiosks accessible to the blind, Pt. I

Requiring kiosks to be accessible to blind consumers is nothing new. In fact, the government introduced the Technology Bill of Rights for the Blind on Jan. 27, 2010, to establish minimum non-visual access standards for electronic devices.

However, the National Federation of the Blind doesn't want to wait any longer for that legislation to become law. The advocacy group is hoping to take the issue to court, recently filing suits against United Airlines and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

The NFB has accused both the airline and airport of violating the civil rights of the blind by not designing their self-service kiosks to accommodate blind travelers.

The U.S. Postal Service's kiosk incorporates
the Trace Center's EZ Access for accessibility.

Federation spokesman Chris Danielsen said McCarran was singled out because government officials installed the kiosks. In contrast, kiosks at most airports are installed by private carriers, he said.

McCarran began installing touchscreen kiosks in 2003, and now has more than 220 kiosks that each cost $20,000 to $30,000.

"McCarran International Airport is unique in the fact that no self-service kiosks are owned or operated by an airline," airport spokeswoman Elaine Sanchez said in a written statement to USA Today. "Due to lack of space and to provide better customer service in the ticketing lobby, it made sense for the airport to create a kiosk that every airline could participate in, so passengers could go anywhere in the terminal to print their boarding passes instead of having different kiosks from different airlines."

Government kiosks already are supposed to be accessible, after Congress' 1998 amendment of the Rehabilitation Act requiring federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.

The United case was brought on behalf of California plaintiffs and is predicated on California law rather than federal law, Danielsen said. United's carrier, which is owned by United Continental Holdings Inc., has asked that the lawsuit be dismissed. The U.S. Department of Justice is expected to weigh in on the case by April 21, according to court documents.

Getting on board with NFB requests
Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace R&D Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said kiosk deployers can easily make their machines accessible to not only the blind, but to people with a variety of disabilities.

"Keep in mind these changes would also help those with low vision, reading disabilities and physical disabilities," he said.

Because customer service is moving away from human interaction and more toward self-service, making kiosks accessible to as many people as possible is the only fair thing to do, according to Vanderheiden.

"It's really hard to travel if you can't use a kiosk. Airports are sometimes so busy that the only way you can make your flight is by checking in at the kiosk instead of waiting in a long line," he said.

And adding the accessibility isn't rocket science, said Vanderheiden. In fact, his research group at the University of Wisconsin has been developing for several years the accessibility features that the NFB is demanding.

"The cross-disability techniques pioneered here at the university have already been built into automated postal kiosks, Amtrak ticket machines, and Information systems at Phoenix Airport and are available from several companies," he said.

The main problem is that many deployers are taking the "let's wait and see what happens" approach — waiting until they are required by law to implement accessibility features — according to Vanderheiden. He said going that route is a huge mistake.

"If you just start planning for it and rolling it in now, you are going to be much better off than if you wait until you are forced to do it," Vanderheiden said. "It's going to be much more expensive if you wait. You are better off getting in front of it now."

Components needed to make the change
Vanderheiden said it's actually not expensive to build new kiosks to meet the NFB's requests. Most kiosks operate on Windows, Linux or a Mac system that already have voice output built into them.

"So you don't have to go buy voice output," he said. "You can if you want a prettier voice, but blind people just want a voice they can understand."

To be more accessible, kiosks need a headphone jack, so a blind user can interact with them privately; a keyboard with keys you can find by touch; and the correct software applications to make everything work correctly.

Vanderheiden said brand new software isn't necessary. Instead, the standard software would be written so that in addition to what it normally does, the software also allows users to step through all the items on the screen using the keypad, reading them aloud as the user moves to them. A separate key on the keypad can be used to activate things on screen.

Do we have to throw away current kiosks?
That's a good question, according to Vanderheiden, who said disability advocacy groups he's worked with understand the high costs associated with getting rid of all existing, non-accessible kiosks.

"A lot of companies are getting close to rollovers, so when you buy new ones, buy accessible ones," he said. "And if you're replacing a quarter or 10 percent of them every year, replace them with accessible ones and distribute them evenly, so you don't have all the more accessible kiosks in one airport. The disability groups that we work with have been quite good about trying to work with airlines when they think they are trying to be helpful."

That grace period, however, is running out, according to Danielsen. Although he couldn't comment on what measures the NFB would and would not accept, leaving that area to be negotiated between the group and airports and airlines, he said the NFB's sympathy for cost concerns is somewhat limited.

"The airports and airlines knew that the kiosks they installed could not be used by blind people, and both the laws that require accessible technology and the technological solutions that would have made the kiosks accessible have been around for years," Danielsen said.

He said that just as it's easier to put in wheelchair ramps and other accessibility enhancements when erecting a new building, while it's more difficult to retrofit an existing building, airports and airlines could have saved themselves money and effort had they addressed this obvious problem from the outset.

"The technology to make kiosks accessible has existed since airports and airlines began installing them," he said. "So, our position is that there was no excuse for airports and airlines not to deploy accessible technology."

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of stories discussing kiosks and accessibility issues. Next week's story includes information about specific companies and the technology they've created to build more accessible kiosks.

Should deployers be required to only install kiosks that are accessible to people with disabilities? Leave your comment below.

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