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Senior-friendly products good for all

By Yasuhiro Komatsu

 The Daily Yomiuri, August 29, 2003

The population has been aging quickly, and in 2025 one of every four Japanese will be 65 or older. As people age, their vision, hearing, sense of balance, adaptability and other physical abilities inevitably deteriorate. The loss of these abilities progresses over time.

Many elderly people suffer from multiple mild but progressive disabilities or are on the verge of becoming disabled. Therefore, a society nearing a phase in which a significant percentage of its population is elderly should orient itself toward serving the needs of disabled people. In their efforts to develop products and services for the elderly, businesses need to bear in mind that they must also be serving the needs of people with disabilities.

If information technology becomes truly user-friendly for the elderly and disabled, it will help them socialize with others and easily obtain necessary information. Such circumstances will certainly encourage elderly people to support themselves as much as possible and take part in activities, thus improving the quality of their lives. The Internet, government agencies and media organizations today offer information that is highly useful for elderly and disabled people.

Information itself does not create barriers, but because many of the IT devices and services are difficult to use for elderly people and those with disabilities, the pervasiveness of IT may actually create more barriers for those people. It is an urgent task for the government to foster a barrier-free IT environment.

Universal design (UD) is a term coined in 1992 by Ronald Mace (1941-1998), a U.S. architect and product designer, to describe the concept of designing products to address the needs of people regardless of their age, ability, physique, sex or nationality. Until this concept caught on, companies had usually tried to retrofit or add something extra to conventional products and services when developing them for use by the disabled. But UD changed this way of thinking completely by promoting the development of products and services that can be used by anybody.

A situation in which information has to be obtained in a dark or noisy place can happen to anybody and is exactly what those with visual and hearing impairments face every day. Those IT devices and services that are developed under the concept of UD are actually good for not only elderly and disabled people, but also for many other people.

IT equipment and services that are based on the concept of UD are becoming the norm in other countries. A pioneer in this field is captioned television broadcasting, launched in the United States in 1973. This service was initially meant for hearing-impaired people, but the number of users unexpectedly expanded as elderly people as well as the nation's immigrant population who were learning English found the service effective. The increasing demand led to the passage of the Television Decoder Circuitry Act in 1990 that requires all television sets sold in the United States, including imported models, with screens of 33 centimeters or larger to have closed-caption decoding capability.

Recently, UD is being introduced as part of an effort to make telecommunications and IT equipment barrier-free, with special priority given to ensuring accessibility to information offered on the Internet. The concept of UD has been already incorporated into legislation in Australia, Canada, the European Union, Hong Kong and the United States.

The United States has established several key laws concerning the accessibility of communication and information equipment. Those include Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1986, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and Section 225 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was revised in 2000 and put into effect in 2001 and obliges government entities to select equipment that incorporates UD and ensures accessibility to people with disabilities when developing, procuring, maintaining or using electronic and information technology. With this revision, anyone who believes they have been precluded from obtaining information because of inaccessible technology can file a complaint with the federal government.

Almost all public organizations are affected by this act because government entities as defined in the act include all federal government organizations and state government organizations that receive federal government funding. IT-related companies that target the U.S. market are therefore urged to develop products and services in accordance with UD principles.

Inspired by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the United States, ways to improve IT accessibility have been discussed in Japan since the late 1980s. As a result, "guidelines on accessibility of information devices for disabled persons" were adopted in 1990 with a revision in 2000 to have the concept of UD incorporated. Likewise, "guidelines for accessibility of electric and communication equipment for disabled people" were introduced in 1998.

As for Internet content, two guidelines emerged in 1990--"issues to be addressed and measures to ensure assistance for the use of information and communication and accessibility of Web site contents to elderly and disabled persons" and "promotion of assistance for the use of information and communication and ensuring the accessibility of the Internet." But all these guidelines only urge local governments and private companies to follow them and are not binding.

It has often been pointed out that companies see little incentive for developing IT devices and services for elderly and disabled people. Behind the lack of enthusiasm is the perception that manufacturing technology for such products is different, depending on physical conditions, and that little profit is expected due to the small size of market for each product.

Guidelines on accessibility that would obligate development of products in line with UD principles will promote integration of specifications of IT devices and services, their compatibility and the realization of reasonable pricing. The outcome will be an increase in demand for such products and services.

Ensuring accessibility is an issue that should be urgently addressed from the viewpoint of expanding the market of products and services for elderly people. In order to help make it happen, the government should take the initiative and set up binding guidelines on accessibility.


Copyright 2002 Global Action on Aging
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