Gadgets 2

The other day, I had a conversation with a wifie which has set me thinking. I've no idea who she was, but we had been forced into it by circumstance. The doorway into our Post Office, always rather dark, was even gloomier than usual on account of the dull weather and, peering in, I'd pushed what I thought was the metal plate of its swing door, only to find myself patting someone's bum!

“I'm awfully sorry, but I thought you were the door,” I explained.

“Ah ken Ah'm big, but Ah'm no that bad!”

So, as the queue was lengthy, I decided to improve the atmosphere between us with conversation. It transpired we were both there to buy phone cards, she for herself, me for a nephew's birthday. More middle-aged than I, she was proud of having recently mastered a mobile. I explained that I'd recently acquired a new phone, with its own speech program, thus allowing me access to all keys and functions. And the wee wifie, an inhabitant of rural Scotland, obviously thought this was as it should be. I, as a visually impaired person, ought to have a mobile phone which I could use. It's a pity that designers of modern products don't think like this! Speaking for myself and my particular disability, I think that coping with everyday life is becoming more footery. There must have been a great leap into independence for the visually impaired when cassettes first appeared and again, when silicon chips meant many items could be miniaturised but current trends are quickly reversing this.

For instance, just about everything now comes with a screen. Fine on a telly, but is it really necessary on a washing machine? And screens mean menus, lists to be peered at and selected, whether it's the timer on the microwave for cooking a haggis or the wash programme suitable for sterilising the dog's blanket. What's wrong with dials? Or buttons? With either, unless your dexterity is very limited, most can set their machine virtually in the dark; I was about to say in a power cut then realised that these things wouldn't work then!

However, lists on screens mean that my choice of so many essential household items is becoming more limited. And it can't just be the likes of me. Most people over thirty something are starting to have problems with near vision and possibly, some loss of dexterity. Last week, I joined a queue at the puggy; that's a cash machine to anyone from the deep south. The other customers were concerned as to how I was going to manage. “Easy, by feel,” I said, “only disadvantage is I can never tell how much money I haven't got in my account.” They waited to ensure I'd manage and gave a round of applause when I pocketed my loot. “Yes,” I said, “apparently Australia and Canada have talking machines. Scotland has only one, in Glasgow.” Instant commotion. Not for the first time, “normally” sighted people were complaining just how difficult a puggy screen is to read in certain lights. Similarly with mobile phones. Even with my last model, where all I managed was shouting at it to activate certain numbers, I seemed to cope better than many of my contemporaries. Yes, modern design is alienating a large sector of the market.

But it needn't be like this. Recently, the “And finally” slot on the evening news concerned the Teddyphone, a mobile phone aimed at pre-school weans. Shaped like a wee teddy, the nose is the speaker and there's a button on each paw, preset by an adult to a different number. No screen as this is for wee people who cannot yet read, write or count. If I hadn't tracked down my talking Nokia, I'd have been reduced to acquiring one. Mind you, the Nokia does shopping lists and is less embarrassing to use outside the bank when calling for a taxi. But here's the rub, some design team has seen fit to design a phone for the under fives but can't be bothered to produce a model aimed at the over-forties. Why not? Probably because designers are themselves well under forty, possibly with toddlers at foot. And I suppose, by the very nature of the profession, there won't be that many visually impaired designers blundering around.

© Charlotte Bennie 2007