AN INTERNET FOR EVERYONE
MANILA, January 10, 2004 (STAR) Klaus-Peter Wegge strokes the keypad of a cellphone. "The nubble on the Ď5í is in the right place ó that must be one of the newer models," he says, and heís right.
The Siemens S55 is, in fact, only a few weeks old. You can also hear the acknowledgment tone as soon as the phone is switched on, Wegge observes. "With the first software release, blind users didnít know if the phone was on or off, or when they should enter a PIN."
Wegge knows what heís talking about. Not only is he an IT specialist, heís blind. Wegge heads a small team at C-LAB, a joint research and development laboratory run by Siemens and the University of Paderborn in Germany.
Weggeís team concentrates on accessibility, the quality that makes technology easy to use for older and physically challenged users. Itís often the small things that cause problems for the disabled when they want to make a call or use a washing machine.
A classic example was the lack of an acknowledgment tone in the first S55 cellphones. Thatís something that just slipped past the developers, Wegge surmises. To prevent a repeat performance, Wegge, 43, has built up a network with other disabled people who report back to the Siemens Accessibility Competence Center whenever they discover a hidden weakness in a product.
For instance, an acquaintance drew his attention to the fact that in areas close to the German border, thereís no way of knowing if a cellphone has logged into a domestic network or a more expensive one in the neighboring country.
"Weíre working on a solution for our next generation models," says Wegge, leaving open whether the answer is different acknowledgment tones or simply blocking foreign networks. "We advise developers, but we donít tell them what to do," he adds. Besides, Wegge often comes up with solutions as soon as he becomes aware that a problem exists. Text Messages The specialists from C-LAB are particularly proud of the interface used in Siemens cellphones. It meets all the standards and has also been incorporated, in a trimmed-down version, in the new Siemens cordless Gigaset 5000 Micro.
To demonstrate, Wegge plugs a keypad the size of a pair of glasses into the S55 and pushes a few buttons. A female voice begins to read out saved text messages. "I hope you donít have anything obscene on this," he says with a grin.
It was Wegge who caused a sensation at the 1994 CeBIT computer trade fair with an Internet browser that could convert websites into simple text files, thereby making them accessible to the blind via a Braille display.
When Siemens Corporate Technology first set up the Access Initiative back in 1998, Wegge was immediately asked to come on board. Since then, he has been the companyís expert for technology oriented to the needs of the disabled. And itís an effort that pays off.
Wegge estimates that at least 65 percent of all blind cellphone owners use Siemens phones. And that figure could increase. The new SX1 can be equipped with software from Switzerlandís Svox that reads out menu items and text messages.
At almost all Siemens Groups there is now a contact person responsible for accessibility issues. However, convincing them is not always easy, says Wegge. Apparently, itís much easier to get an engineer interested in a problem Ė and sometimes even carried away Ė than a product manager who is often skeptical about features that donít seem to be commercially viable.
Here Wegge has a persuasive response. "In Germany alone, 10 percent of the population is disabled in some way or other. Thatís eight million people. Can you really afford to neglect them?" he says. And as far as mass-produced goods are concerned, Wegge also emphasizes the benefits for the non-disabled. "Design for all" is his motto.
That such an approach bears fruit is evidenced by the new cordless Gigaset E150 phone from Siemens which was launched in October 2003. It was a project in which Weggeís team played a major role.
The phone features large keys, a louder handset and ringing tone, an emergency call button, and large print for the display. Says Wegge, "It wasnít always certain that the unit would make it to the market."
But he is convinced that the phone should not be marketed with a "suitable for senior citizens or the disabled" tag because that stigmatizes people and is bad for sales.
"Universal design is there to serve everyone, including the non-disabled," says Professor Christian BŁhler from the Research Institute for Technology to Help the Disabled in Volmarstein, Germany. "After all, as far as humans are concerned, diversity is the norm."
Thatís why design that ensures easy operation is highly attractive to both young and old, disabled and non-disabled. In fact, achieving such designs is a process that Bosch und Siemens Hausgerate GmbH (BSH), which sells white goods, has refined into a fine art. Right from the development stage, checklists help ensure that products meet the needs of the disabled.
"But total accessibility must not be allowed to affect functionality," warns Susanne Stolz, who develops stove applications at BSH. After all, disabled people also want to have the latest technology.
A number of BSH household appliances have already won the Breaking Barriers Award, including the EK 79054 glass-ceramic range top. The burners are positioned so that pans donít have to be lifted over one another when being removed from the range.
According to Stolz, the non-disabled also appreciate pyrolytic ovens that clean themselves and burners that automatically switch off as soon as a pan is removed. BSH also has a model kitchen at an exhibition staged by the German Society for Gerontotechnology (GGT) in Iserlohn.
Throughout Germany, the GGT currently has some 650 senior citizens who test products for user-friendliness on behalf of manufacturers. The tests are carried out both at the exhibition, where they are monitored by GGT engineers, and under everyday conditions at home.
Afterwards, participants are asked to complete questionnaires about the products. Testers usually find fault with minor details, which are then remedied in the development process. Sometimes, though, more substantial changes are necessary. For example, while the large keys on a phone won praise, the cable was considered bothersome. The manufacturer responded to the criticism by offering a cordless version. Strict Regulations Accessibility has become a hot issue since legislation in the United States introduced strict penalties for companies failing to ensure that their products meet the needs of the disabled, while also meeting the latest technological standards.
For example, if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were to determine that a Siemens cellphone was incompatible with hearing aids, the company would be automatically excluded from bidding for public contracts in the turbine or medical technology sectors.
"Thatís like making the whole family liable for something committed by one member," says Wegge. Not that Siemens has ever found itself in such a situation. But even well-intentioned measures can miss the mark.
While drinking coffee in a fast-food restaurant at a Chicago airport, he discovered something written in Braille on the cup. But the cup was so hot that he had burned his fingers before he could read it. Later, when the cup was empty, he was able to make out the warning: "Careful, hot!" A nice thought, says Wegge.
Sanctions are less drastic in Germany, where the Equal Opportunities for the Disabled Act has been in force since May 2002. The law stipulates that the disabled must not be excluded from using the Internet and other technologies.
"All federal agencies must make their websites suitable for use by the disabled by 2005 at the latest," explains Stefan Berninger from the "Web for All" association in Heidelberg. The organization advises companies and public authorities on how to design their websites.
For Berninger, a wheelchair user, hindrances in the Web are just like a high curb on the sidewalk. "Itís not me whoís disabled; itís whatís disabling me that counts," he says.
Even seemingly minor hindrances can become insurmountable obstacles. For example, the instruction "Click the red button" is of no use to someone whoís color-blind Ė yet as many as eight percent of all men have this disability.
A survey by the German Ministry of Economics found that 43 percent of disabled persons have legibility and navigation problems on the Internet. Thatís regrettable given that the Internet is an ideal means of contact for many disabled and elderly people.
Indeed, around 80 percent of disabled people use the Web. By contrast, for the population as a whole, the proportion is only 50 percent. Moreover, a truly accessible website neednít require more work to create, provided that this is taken into account from the very beginning.
The people from "Web for All" recommend the use of style sheets that allow design to be separated from content, which can be listened to with voice software or read via a Braille display. Itís also important that pictures, logos and buttons should also be equipped with text that appears when clicked. Exemplary Search Engine Anna Courtpozanis, who tests Internet sites at "Web for All," had to grin at the well-intentioned advice she found on the website of a municipal utility: "If you canít see the text, please click here."
However, Courtpozanis couldnít see the text or click the button because sheís blind. Less than 10 percent of all websites are genuinely accessible to the blind, although 80 percent of them can be used with a little patience and experience. The Google search engine is an exemplary site in this regard.
On the other hand, those sites where new windows continually open of their own accord are annoying. As Courtpozanis says, these can be links to sex sites or simply advertising that pops up.
Back at C-LAB, Wegge recently discovered a highly disabled-friendly site for a chain of adult stores. He grins: "Even so, itís sites like these that really make you regret being blind!" (Source: Pictures of the Future, The Magazine for Research and Innovation)
Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi
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