Victor Pineda travels the world to make speeches and advise governments on urban planning and development. But when he encounters a touch-screen kiosk, he’s stymied. For people like him, who use wheelchairs and have limited use of their hands and arms, displays like these are a barrier rather than a convenience.
People with disabilities affecting mobility, vision, hearing, and cognitive function often move to cities to take advantage of their comprehensive transit systems and social services. But US law doesn’t specify how municipalities should design and implement digital services for disabled people. As a result, cities sometimes adopt new technologies that can end up causing, rather than resolving, problems of accessibility.
Nowhere was this more evident than with New York City’s LinkNYC kiosks, which were installed on sidewalks in 2016 without including instructions in audible form or screen-reading functionality. Shortly after they went in, the American Federation for the Blind sued the city. The suit was settled in 2017 and the kiosks have been updated, but Pineda says touch screens in general are still not fully accessible to people with disabilities.
Also problematic: the social-media-based apps that some municipal governments have started using to solicit feedback from residents. Blind and low-vision people typically can’t use the apps, and people over 65 are less likely to, says James Thurston, a vice president at the nonprofit G3ict, which promotes accessible information and communication technologies. “Cities may think they’re getting data from all their residents, but if those apps aren’t accessible, they’re leaving out the voices of large chunks of their population,” he says.
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