Patrick R.W. Roe

The world community has clearly reached a major tele-communications crossroads of interconnecting super-highways, highways, secondary roads and country lanes destined to revolutionize many of our daily habits, tasks, and leisure activities.

Ever faster computers promise CD - quality sound and high definition video, with instant access.

Subscribers have direct access to image, music and film archives. Video on demand may make some current cable services obsolete. Coming soon: interactive films.

The Internet began as a network linking major universities. Users can already gain cheap or free access to databases and research institutes worldwide.

Users can communicate privately with one another via electronic mail, take part in joint discussion forums and even "chat" on line, via a host of special interest services. Exchanges can involve text, images, sound and computer programs.

Hundreds of games available over computer networks. Users can "download" them to their own computer, or play on-line, even against other users.

* by cable TV network for unlimited time,
* or by phone line, with variable charges.

The "virtual supermarket" is an electronic catalogue from which consumers can order goods on line, make travel bookings, theatre bookings, etc.

* by subscription to one or more services,
* determined by duration of connection time,
* or both.

Microcomputer and modem to link up with a telephone, with data storage.

connected to a cable network with a special decoder. Interactive, but without data storage capability.

(Figure 1-1) High-speed communications put a world of services at the end of each phone line or cable TV outlet.

For service providers, accurately forecasting the customer demand for future telecommunications services and the best network on which to deliver them is a major challenge and one on which the very future of some of these companies may depend.

For disabled and elderly people, who currently number some 120 million people in geographic Europe, the future telecommunications services offer promising new opportunities but also potential barriers if their needs are not taken into account right from the design stage.

There is currently a strong worldwide trend towards liberalization and deregulation of the telecommunications industry. Indeed, in their recommendation to the European Council "Europe and the Global Information Society" the high-level group of experts recommended that the pace of liberalization and deregulation be accelerated in Europe in order to meet the challenges ahead (Bangemann et al., 1994). They also strongly recommended that the universal service provision be shared amongst all the service providers and not just by the National Telecommunication companies. A further recommendation was that standardization processes be speeded up within Europe. These recommendations have been taken up in the Commission's subsequent Green Paper on "Telecommunications Infrastructure and Cable Television Networks" (European Commission, 1994 and 1995).

Within this environment of increased competition, there will be growing pressure to drop the universal service provision and to concentrate on what is perceived as the more lucrative parts of the market (for example, business customers, large agglomerations, etc.) and there is clearly a risk that sections of the population will be left out. There is therefore an acute danger in relieving the service providers of their universal service obligation unless the obligation is truly shared amongst all service providers. 'Shedding without sharing' would lead to a truly catastrophic situation for millions of people.

There is also a risk in speeding up standardization procedures. It has been strongly recommended that disabled and elderly users be involved all along the standardization process (see chapter 3.1). This could mean some delay, but would avoid modifications having to be made at a later stage which may be more costly in the long run and outweigh the advantage of bringing out a standard a few months earlier.

It should be appreciated that a service or network is more attractive to the consumer if all the people he or she wishes to reach are connected. Imagine, if a user could only reach half of his or her friends, family and business partners over the telephone. This goal of connecting the entire population to the network is well understood by the industry and has been and continues to be a driving force in the continuing expansion of the network. Indeed the success or failure of a new service or network strongly depends on the 'critical mass' of potential users.

Not only is there then a moral and legal obligation (see chapter 3.2) to include the entire population and in particular elderly and disabled people, but there is also a commercial incentive not to exclude large sections of the population. Disabled and elderly people currently make up about 20% of the market in the European Union and this proportion will grow with the ageing of the population to an estimated 25% by the year 2030 (see chapter 2.1). The industry 'neglects this section of the market at its own peril' (see chapter 2.3) and there is a growing awareness amongst the industry that this part of the population can no longer be considered an insignificant minority for whom it would be too expensive to develop specific products but that they represent a growing market to whom new services can be provided.

In some cases, equipment and services will still have to be specifically designed for this section of the population, but manufacturers and service providers are moving towards integrating the needs of disabled and elderly people into their products for the general consumers. This has the obvious advantage that it can often be done at little or no extra cost, as long as the users' specific needs are taken into account right from the design stage.

Companies who are investing in "Human Factors Engineering" will also benefit from the experience gained when it comes to engineering more user friendly products for the public at large. Usability, in which the user interface plays a key role (see chapter 4.9) is of course a key factor in the success of a product or service and clear guidelines for "Human Factors" engineers are required as well as standards for measuring usability (see chapter 2.4). Very often, products well designed for elderly and disabled people will also be well designed for all consumers for whom the ease of use of new services or equipment is a key consideration when purchasing a new product.

There are also examples of services developed initially for disabled users being requested by other sections of the population. For instance, there has been a demand from ex-patriates living abroad for electronic newspapers initially designed for blind people (see chapter 4.3). The obvious advantage is that they can receive in this way their national newspaper on the same day as it is printed in their country which may not be the case for the printed version. An additional advantage for all readers is that you can scan the newspaper for keywords of subjects of particular interest. As in all services, cost is an important factor here in determining whether such a service could become widespread.

There are also examples that occur the other way round, i.e. services initially targeted at a particular section of the market offering opportunities to disabled people. An example that immediately springs to mind is that of videophones which were initially aimed at business customers for videoconference calls, but have obvious applications for deaf users who can use them for sign language communication or lip-reading (see chapter 4.2). There are in fact many other applications for videophones such as distance learning, teleworking and telecare (see chapters 4.5 and 5.3) which are of particular interest to mobility impaired people, elderly people and people living in isolated areas.

Another example that could be given is that of smart cards. This technology will allow a user's preferences to be recorded on the smart card. This would be helpful to all users (language preference, size of text, etc.) but would be crucial to many disabled and elderly users in choosing their preferred mode of access, speed of access, simplified menus etc. (see chapter 4.8). This is an exceptional opportunity to integrate the needs of disabled and elderly people in what is to become a widely available means of access for services ranging from bank cash dispensers, public transport, electronic purses and public telephones.

There are numerous other examples that cannot all be mentioned here but it is hoped that some of the other services and equipment discussed in chapter 4, such as text telephones and relay services (see chapter 4.1), mobile phones (see chapter 4.4) and emergency and alarm services (see chapter 4.6) will provide useful examples of what can be achieved and stimulate the reader into thinking up other services for which there may be a demand.

The current development of new networks and services such as those to be provided on the narrow band and wide band Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN and B-ISDN) (see chapter 2.2) bring with them new possibilities, but also potential new barriers and problems for disabled and elderly people if accessibility and usability aspects are not carefully considered.

These new services offer an opportunity to create a 'dream' scenario in which all people would have access to the new services and equipment, using the redundancy of information within the system, wherever they may be and whatever their disability (see chapter 5). It should be stressed here, the importance of keeping the redundancy of information within the system and let the user choose his or her preferred output. For instance, it should be possible to choose voice, text or images. Text on the screen would, for example, be essential for speech impaired people and non-signing deaf people, whilst this feature could prove useful for all users, for instance when giving an address or telephone number over the phone.

However the dream scenario could easily turn into a 'nightmare walk down the superhighway' if the needs of elderly and disabled people are not taken into account right from the design stage and within the standardization process.

The reality will probably turn out to be somewhere between these two scenarios, but decision makers certainly have the responsibility and a unique opportunity to reach out to a wider market and ensure that future telecommunications are indeed telecommunications for all.


BANGEMANN, M. et al. (1994). Europe and the Global Information Society. Recommendations to the European Council.

EUROPEAN COMMISSION, (1994 and 1995). Green Paper on the Liberalization of Telecommunications infrastructure and Cable Television Networks (Parts one and two).