On Disabilities In Payments

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go through life blind? Or with a learning disability? Or perhaps what it will be like when you’re older and your mental acuity is not what it once was?

What must it be like to be almost totally reliant on loved ones, or worse, the honesty and goodwill of complete strangers?

I readily admit, these are not thoughts that I have very often, as any disabilities I have relate to my sparkling personality. However, I am now in a position to HAVE to think about it and it’s more than a little humbling to see what those with physical or mental challenges have to go through.

For the purposes of this blog, I will restrict myself to issues related to non-cash payments, as that is my skill-set, the limit of knowledge on the subject of disabilities, and there is more than enough material to fill several blogs, lets alone this one.

The issues faced today centre on the fact that the only ubiquitous form of non-cash payment is the branded credit / debit card (Visa, Mastercard et al), and both the cards themselves and the infrastructure necessary to accept them is geared almost entirely to those without any sort of disability. In fact, even if you wanted to make changes to the infrastructure, the effort would be entirely prohibitive given both the limited return on investment and the absence of any legislation.

For example, according to Action for the Blind there are approximately 360,000 in the UK with ‘sight loss’ (total population ~64M), yet the number of people who can actually read braille is under 20,000. So even card terminals with braille overlays are more for marketing / image purposes than actually providing a means for expanding independence. Terminal manufacturers don’t have to spend more, so why would they?

According to Dr. John Gill, one of the UK’s leading experts in the field of disabilities, challenges for the disabled related to non-cash payments go way beyond issues with sight. The elderly, for example, not only begin to have challenges with vision, but their declining ability to handle abstract concepts, hand tremors and even an aversion to / fear of new technology means that payment innovations will be largely avoided by this group. Especially if their individual needs are not built in from the beginning.

I have posited in previous blogs that mobile devices are far better placed to enable cashless payment for those with disabilities, but it’s clear that this will only be the case if considerable thought is put into the challenges from the outset. ‘Consistency of Interface’ (Dr. Gill’s primary interest), simplification of available technologies, and setting of individual preferences across all payment front-ends will all be required before adoption of mobile technologies is available to everyone.

Well, almost everyone.

Too many technologies aimed at disabilities are nothing more than smoke-and-mirrors, and any effort on the part of manufacturers is aimed at demonstrating that they are good citizens. And while there can and will never be 100% adoption of mobile technology, it represents a significant advance over current systems which are now in their 6th decade of use.

Payment systems for those with disabilities must be able to address the following or they will simply not be used:

  1. Consistency of Interface – Terminal manufactures have some standards they need to apply to their devices, but constancy of interface is not one of them. Even as a sighted person, I sometimes have an issue with where to put my card, where the OK button is, how to apply tip (or not) and so on. However, I CAN read the total, what are the options for those who can’t?
  2. Swiss Army Knife Approach – I love technology and innovation, yet even I use a fraction of the abilities of my phone. The elderly not only use even less, they want to SEE less available. The drive is for more and more functionality, but no-where is there an option for less, and until there is, adoption in the elderly will be limited.
  3. Non Reliance on Biometrics – You just have to look at payment innovation and see that biometrics will be a major factor. This ridiculous concept from MasterCard for example; MasterCard, Zwipe announce fingerprint-sensor card. But what about those with deformities, injuries, mobility issues? Apparently people who work with concrete or pineapples have fingerprint issues, as do those on various forms of chemotherapy. Who knew?
  4. Size of Keypad – Something as simple as this can result in the avoidance of non-cash payments. Combine a small PIN pad with low contrast fonts and you have just lost a payment.
  5. Learning Disorders / Mental Acuity Challenges – How do current payment technologies handle dyslexia? Or short-term memory loss? Or the onset of dementia? The use of the PIN is about as ubiquitous as the cards they authenticate, yet even this is out of reach for some. But who says the ‘PIN’ has to be numbers, can’t it just as easily be a picture of loved ones, or some other individual preference?

Clearly I am only scratching the surface here, and while there is no solution that will ever make everyone happy, there is a LOT more that can be done to make life easier for those with disabilities. Mobile devices are not perfect, but they represent a  considerable advantage over current payment technologies in terms of adapting preferences to an individual.

All we need is the attention this deserves.


[Note: A very special thank you to Dr. John Gill who was very generous with his time and his guidance. Please see http://www.johngilltech.com for more on this subject.]

If you think I'm wrong, please tell me why!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.