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The London Olympics offers a great opportunity to improve accessibility technology for disabled and elderly people and provide a lasting legacy for everyone, says John Gill

When the UK hosts the Olympics in 2012, the capital will attract thousands of visitors and tourists attending a variety of stadiums and venues and using public transport, airports, hotels and theatres. they will need access to information and use ticket machines, maps, turnstiles, elevators, bus stops, automatic doors, trains, taxis and public telephones.

A significant percentage will be elderly or will have a disability, and there is an increasing need to make appropriate special provision for them. To date, most of this relates to providing access for wheelchairs or the installation of hearing aid loops.

However, the advent of a range of new mainstream technologies offers exciting possibilities for providing new services which can greatly help blind and partially sighted visitors, those with other disabilities, or those who need assistance in other ways. It is important to remember that in most cases improving these services will also be of benefit to non-disabled visitors.

Information systems, for example, is a case in point. Most information, whether about a sports venue, museum or train times, is provided in print. This is often of limited use to blind and partially-sighted people. So they may rely on other people passing on the information, or try obtaining it from the internet.

But the problem with many websites is that they are difficult or impossible to use by people who rely on assistive technology, such as screen readers with speech output.

A tourist will also need to find out the possible methods of reaching a destination. This may involve more than one mode of transport, and this person may not be able to walk up more than 10 steps.

Ideally, there should be a unified service that can provide this information, taking into account the user’s special needs. As well as the total journey time and the total cost of the various options, it would be helpful if the information service was able to indicate where stairways and elevators are situated.

Other information may be needed when a person is actually on their journey. In the event of a service disruption, an information system should be able to re-route the user, taking into account their special needs.

For blind people, conventional signage is of limited value. A variety of electronic systems have been developed for indicating landmarks. These include beacons that give out an audible message, which has been triggered from a device carried by the blind person.

An alternative approach is to use audio guides. Digital systems can be triggered automatically at various locations to provide a flexible range of information. However, these systems are usually restricted to a pre-defined area.

Satellite navigation systems, coupled to a detailed digital map of the area, are more flexible but are limited to outdoor use where there is line of sight to a number of satellites. It is possible to combine satellite positioning with a mobile phone incorporating a camera so that the blind user calls a service centre to receive audio guidance from a human operator; the operator has a computer display showing the map of the area and the position of the caller combined with photographs from the camera.

This type of system can cope with complex navigation problems such as queues where it is not obvious to the blind person where the queue starts, or even the purpose of the queue.

Machines that are easy to use are also a necessity. On public transport, for example, it is often necessary to purchase a ticket from a self-service terminal. Many of these machines are not well designed — the instructions can be difficult to read and the sequence of actions difficult to follow. There are many ways to improve access to these; for example, the coding on a smart card can indicate a person’s preferences, such as large characters on the screen.

It is important that new services are compatible and integrated, irrespective of whether they use RFID, smart card, mobile communication, short-range wireless or near-field communication technologies. There is also a need to have a consistent user interface which has been thoroughly tested with users with a wide range of abilities.

The London Olympics provides an opportunity for companies to provide systems to help travellers which will be a lasting legacy to the community. Good design for disabled people is frequently good design for everyone.

Dr John Gill, chief scientist of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, is the author of the recently-published book Accessibility for visitors. Click here for a free copy.