Accessibility of electronic commerce and new service and information technologies for older Australians and people with a disability - Report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission on a reference from the Attorney-General

Submissions and research have confirmed and added to the Commission’s initial understanding that digital technologies offer great potential in providing more effective and economical access to government and business information and services, and improved prospects for equal opportunity in many areas of life including education, for all Australians including older people and people with a disability. Work for this report has confirmed to the Commission that physical barriers, affordability and equipment access barriers, and attitudinal and awareness barriers are preventing some Australians with a disability and some older Australians from having equally effective access to e-commerce and other services using new technologies. Internet publication URL:
Report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
on a reference from the Attorney-General
31 March 2000


Letter of transmittal

1. Introduction and overview

1.1 This reference
1.2 Material published for this reference
1.3 Overview
1.4 Summary of recommended measures and proposed actions

2. Statistical indicators of a "digital divide": is there anything to be concerned about?

2.1 Internet access
2.2 ATMs and EFTPOS
2.3 Telephone banking and bill payment
2.4 What do these figures mean

3. Summary of barriers

4. Summary of benefits of access

4.1 Internet and other electronic document access
4.2 Telephone banking, bill payment and other interactive voice response systems
4.3 Automatic teller machines and similar devices

5. Initiatives and developments

5.1 Community access to the internet
5.2 Passage of the Electronic Transactions Act
5.3 Progress of copyright law reforms
5.4 Web page accessibility
5.4.1 Commonwealth government sites
5.4.2 State government sites
5.4.3 Private sector sites
5.5. Automatic teller machines and similar devices
5.5.1 ATMs
5.5.2 EFTPOS
5.5.3 Information kiosks
5.5.4 Automated ticketing machines
5.5.5 Identification methods
5.6 Phone banking, bill payment and other IVR systems

6. Approach to standard setting


Letter of transmittal

Hon. Daryl Williams AM QC MP
Suite MF 19
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Dear Attorney:

Pursuant to your reference dated 26 August 1999, I present the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's report on Access to electronic commerce and new service and information technologies for older Australians and people with a disability.

This report is, by design, brief, in the interests of economy and accessibility.

The Commission has sought in the conduct of this reference and in its approach to this report to take advantage of the potential of new technologies for achieving improved effectiveness, efficiency and accessibility of information and service delivery which this report and previous papers for this reference discuss.

This report therefore does not seek to restate the content of more detailed materials produced by the Commission and by other parties, including public submissions, which have been made available through the Commission's internet site (and in other formats where this has been requested) in the course of this reference and will remain available.
The pace of relevant technological developments is such that many of the technical details of this report are likely to become rapidly dated. The importance of ensuring that all Australians can participate in and benefit from these developments, however, will endure and require continuing attention by government, business and community.

31 March 2000


1. Introduction and overview

1.1 This reference

By reference dated 26 August 1999 the Attorney-General, the Hon. Daryl Williams AM QC MP, asked the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to

  • Investigate the implications for older Australians and those Australians with a disability of the rapid development and use of new technologies in electronic commerce and the provision of government and other services, and outline their specific needs in accessing services which utilise such technologies;
  • Examine the difficulties and restrictions faced by older Australians and those with a disability in achieving full and equal access to services utilising new technologies and deriving full benefit from such technologies;
  • Advise on options for use of digital technology in removing barriers to access to government and business information and services for older Australians and people with a disability;
  • Conduct an audit of the accessibility of Australian government and business internet sites, in particular for people with impaired vision, by reference to the Disability Discrimination Act and relevant Australian and international guidelines;
  • Advise on needs and options for education or training to promote equal access to electronic information and services for older Australians and for people with a disability;
  • Suggest other steps that could be taken by the Commonwealth and by service providers to improve access for older Australians and those with a disability to services utilising new technologies and suggest strategies for avoiding the marginalisation of these groups as a result of the use by service provider of such technologies; and
  • Suggest minimum standards that should be met when introducing new technologies into service provision.

The reference stated that the term electronic commerce should be interpreted broadly and should include electronic services such as banking. In conducting this reference the Commission was asked to

  • consult with individuals and organisations, particularly with service providers, relevant non-government organisations including those representing persons with a disability and older Australians, relevant government authorities and other interested parties;
  • have regard to relevant law, practice, research and experience;
  • have regard to Australia's international human rights obligations; and
  • give an update on progress by 1 December 1999 and provide a final report by 31 March 2000.

This reference has been given to the Commission by the Attorney-General in his capacity as Minister responsible for human rights legislation including the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, and in view of particular responsibility vested in him for matters concerning electronic commerce.

1.2 Material published for this reference

In the course of this reference the Commission has published through its internet site (and in other formats where this has been required) an initial Issues Paper (13 September 1999); a summary report of input from focus group discussions conducted for the reference (26 November 1999); an interim update of progress (released 10 December 1999); a working paper on web page accessibility issues, dealing with Commonwealth government sites in particular; two consultants’ reports on accessibility issues concerning automatic teller machines; those public submissions which have been provided in electronic form; and a resource page for the reference, providing links to on line resources found useful by the Commission (updated throughout the reference).

The Commission will maintain materials produced for this reference on its site for the information of interested parties in government, industry and the community. In particular, the Commission will continue to update and expand the resources page produced for this reference to facilitate access to information on accessibility issues and solutions in e-commerce and related areas.

1.3 Overview

Submissions and research have confirmed and added to the Commission’s initial understanding (as set out in the issues Paper for this reference) that digital technologies offer great potential in providing more effective and economical access to government and business information and services, and improved prospects for equal opportunity in many areas of life including education, for all Australians including older people and people with a disability.

Use of digital technology has particular potential benefits for many people with disabilities and older people in providing access to information and services in formats and locations which they can use, which previously have been difficult or impossible for them to have access to.

Digital technologies also offer providers of information and services great potential gains in efficiency and effectiveness gains which many providers have only begun to take advantage of.

Customers and citizens may benefit from potential savings if they participate (since information provides such as government and providers of services such as banking are already providing services and information at lower cost to the customer in digital form than in other forms), and may incur potential costs if they do not or cannot participate (since many service providers are increasingly moving to charge higher fees for higher cost forms of service including over the counter service and information in paper form). There are also less tangible personal and social costs if some members of the community do not have equally effective access to information and opportunities which other Australians are already coming to take for granted.

The Commission’s task in this reference was to examine issues affecting older Australians and people with a disability, not to examine all issues affecting equal and effective access to and use of new information and service technologies across the Australian community.

This report and the Commission’s other publications for this reference therefore do not make any extensive study of, or recommendations on further measures by the Commonwealth, other levels of government, industry or other bodies which might be necessary to improve effectiveness and equity of internet access across the Australian community in general, or groups who might particularly benefit by access and have particular needs in securing access, such as school students, people living in remote communities or people outside major metropolitan centres more generally.

Work for this reference has confirmed to the Commission that physical barriers, affordability and equipment access barriers, and attitudinal and awareness barriers are preventing some Australians with a disability and some older Australians from having equally effective access to e-commerce and other services using new technologies.

Many access issues are common between older Australians and people with disabilities, including accessibility of automatic teller machines, interactive voice response systems, and internet based services. Disability accessibility issues are more accurately perceived in many cases as universal access issues, such that appropriate design for access by people with disabilities will improve accessibility and usability for many older people and through the community more generally.

1.4 Summary of recommended measures and proposed actions

On the basis of submissions received and research conducted for this reference the Commission recommends the following measures for consideration by the Commonwealth, and by other parties concerned:

  • Ensuring as far as possible that on line and automated services are used to complement and enhance availability of direct human service rather than completely substituting for it, and that information on available alternatives to automated services is effectively available
  • Increased efforts by relevant government agencies in co-operation with industry associations and community organisations to ensure that people developing and implementing new technologies are aware of access issues
  • Increased business and government support for community access points for online services and for awareness, education and training for people who might otherwise remain on the wrong side of a "digital divide".
  • Specifically, increased provision (in particular by the Commonwealth) of superseded equipment, through organisations such as Technical Aid to the Disabled and computer clubs for seniors.
  • Increased focus on provision of appropriate equipment, software, training and information to meet needs of people requiring adapted or customised equipment to achieve effective internet access
  • Implementation of the Commonwealth's Electronic Transactions Act, and similar electronic transactions recognition measures at State level.
  • Appropriate resolution of issues affecting access to copyright material, whether by regulatory means in combination with negotiated agreements (as envisaged by the Government’s proposed reforms) or by negotiated agreement alone (if those reforms do not progress or only progress as proposed to be limited by the house of Representatives Legal and Constitutional Committee)
  • Particular attention to issues of equal and timely access to materials in electronic form for students with disabilities
  • Revision of Australian Standards applicable to ATMs and similar devices, to provide more effective guidance on achieving equal access consistent with requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act
  • Upgrading of accessibility of ATMs and similar devices including replacement with machines incorporating international best practice in accessibility
  • Continued attention by relevant Australian industry bodies to international developments in EFTPOS accessibility options
  • Attention to universal design approaches in implementation of automated identification technologies and smart card systems
  • Implementation by Commonwealth departments and agencies of Cabinet’s decisions of 21 March 2000 requiring web site accessibility
  • Other information and service providers ensuring compliance of their web sites with the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
  • Wider implementation of the existing Australian Standard on interactive voice response systems.
  • Ongoing support by the Commonwealth (as currently provided through the AccessAbility program administered by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) for assessment by community experts of access issues and options arising from new technologies
  • Consideration of means of achieving more open access to Australian Standards, comparable to that now available for legislation and regulatory materials
  • Governments providing leadership by requiring and applying international best practice on technology accessibility in their own operations, including specification of clearer accessibility benchmarks than presently provided in policies of most Australian governments
  • Relevant industry bodies taking an increased role in educating those developing and implementing new technologies on accessibility issues.

It is recognised that many of these recommended approaches are reflected in existing or currently proposed private and government initiatives. This report does not seek to give a recital or stocktake of all relevant initiatives. The Commission is however anxious to give appropriate recognition and encouragement to positive initiatives in response to the issues raised in this reference. We encourage bodies responsible for relevant initiatives to continue to notify them to the Commission.


2. Statistical indicators of a "digital divide": is there anything to be concerned about?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics collects and publishes extremely useful data on access to a range of e-commerce and new information and service technologies by Australians. To date these statistics have included figures grouped by age but not by disability status.
The Commission will discuss with the ABS possibilities for inclusion of figures for people with disabilities in future publications in this area.
The Commission’s Issues Paper referred to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures for May 1999 showing lower rates of access for older Australians to the internet, EFTPOS, ATMs, phone banking and bill payment. The most recent ABS figures (Use of the Internet by Householders, Australia, November 1999, results released March 2000, available at continue to show much lower rates of use of the internet, phone banking and ATMs among people aged 55 and over than among younger age groups. The rates of use among all age groups are increasing, and may now be increasing relatively more rapidly for older age groups. But on present trends, the most optimistic estimate would be that it will be years before even a majority of older people are reached effectively by these technologies, the internet in particular.

2.1 Internet access:

In the 12 months to November 1999, the internet was used in Australia by
  • 73% (1.3 million) of 18-24 year olds (up from 62% in the previous year)
  • 56% of 25 to 39 year olds (up from 40% in the previous year)
  • 44% of 40 to 54 year olds (up from 29% in the previous year)
  • 16% of people aged 55 years and over (up from 7% in the previous year).

2.2 EFTPOS and ATMs

The figures also continue to show a much lower proportion of older people using EFTPOS or ATMs. In the three months to November 1999:

  • 80% of persons aged 18-24 years used EFTPOS and 90% used an ATM ( the corresponding figures for 6 months previous, that is up to May 1999, were 80% and 92%);
  • 80% of 25-39 year olds used EFTPOS and 89% used an ATM (figures for 6 months previous were 80% and 89%) ;
  • 64% of 40-54 years olds used EFTPOS and 72% an ATM (figures for 6 months previous were 65% and 76%), but only
  • 31% of persons aged 55 years or more used EFTPOS and 44% an ATM (compared to 29% and 40% six months previously).

2.3 Telephone banking and bill payment

As at November 1999

  • 52 per cent of people age 25 to 39 (up from 48 per cent in May 1999) were using telephone banking or telephone bill payment, compared to
  • 26 per cent of people aged 55 or more (although this was up from 24 per cent in May 1999).

2.4 What do these figures mean

Two broad themes appear from these figures:

  • Access to each of these technologies is very much lower for people over 55 than for younger people
  • Access by older people is increasing, but very slowly for ATM and EFTPOS and telephone banking and bill payment, and more significantly but from an extremely low base for internet use.

A fair question is, how far should lower rates of use of new technologies be regarded as an issue for concern by government when it may represent individual decisions not to take advantage of these technologies?

Focus group research for this reference suggests that a substantial number of older people simply do not see sufficient benefit in new technologies to invest effort in using them.

Human rights commitments made by Australian governments to Australia’s people (through agreement to international human rights documents) require that people have access to information, government services, and other opportunities (in areas such as education, employment and the commercial services necessary to secure an adequate standard of living ) without unnecessary restrictions and without discrimination on grounds such as age or disability (as well as other grounds such as gender or race).

[In particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires parties to respect and ensure freedom of information (article 19), participation in democratic elections (article 25) and equal access to and treatment in public services and programs (articles 25 and 26) and to ensure these rights without any discrimination.]

These commitments do not, of course, imply any power or duty for government to have people take advantage of this access or these opportunities if they do not wish to – although there are more pragmatic reasons for concern, by government agencies as well as for business in seeking to achieve cost savings or more effective service through new technologies, if these services are not sufficiently well known or sufficiently attractive to potential users.

Where human rights issues do arise is if people are being excluded from services, information or opportunities because of avoidable barriers to access rather than simply choosing not to participate. As noted above, there are in fact barriers affecting participation and effectiveness of participation by older people and people with a disability. Some of these barriers appear avoidable with little more than attention to and forethought for the issues. Removal of other barriers would require more substantial efforts, although in the Commission’s view the investment required does not appear large compared to either commercial or social benefits accruing or potentially accruing in these areas.

It is very clear from research and submissions in this reference that many people with a disability are acutely aware of potential benefits from participation in use of new technologies but are being excluded or disadvantaged by particular barriers. It is also clear that the same issues arise for many older Australians. Work for this reference has emphasised to the Commission that many access issues are in fact, and need to be addressed as, universal access issues rather than issues to be approached (or overlooked) only as "minority issues". Issues which are commonly perceived as disability issues are more properly seen as universal design issues affecting access and use by the community more generally.

Alongside those older people who do not see significant benefit in use of new information technologies there are those who do see benefits but are hampered by the same barriers to those affecting people with disabilities. Perceptions of a lack of sufficient benefit in using new technologies is likely in itself to be at least partly a reflection of difficulties in use and barriers to access.

As noted in the Commission’s interim update of progress:

Focus group discussions indicate that physical barriers, affordability and equipment access barriers, and attitudinal and awareness barriers prevent some older Australians from accessing e-commerce. Where these barriers are overcome users see electronic banking in particular as cheaper, faster and easier. Perceptions of problems of security, of personal safety using ATMs and of personal information using internet services were also raised.
Focus group discussions with people with disabilities did not indicate the same problems of awareness of electronic commerce options. The groups were extremely knowledgeable about e-commerce options and could talk at length about transacting business over the net, ATMs, EFTPOS, smart cards, ticketing machines, barcode scanning in supermarkets and libraries, e-tickets and voice technologies. However, accessibility of equipment and of information formats across most electronic commerce technologies, and affordability and equipment access barriers were problems for these groups.
Despite the benefits of access to digital technologies and the potential for access to these technologies to be expanded by addressing barriers as identified in this reference, it needs to be recognised that in the medium term at least a substantial proportion of the Australian population, in particular among older people, will remain less than adequately reached and served through these technologies.

The Commission emphasises the importance of service providers ensuring as far as possible that on line and automated services are used to complement and enhance availability of direct human service rather than completely substituting for it.

3. Summary of barriers

Barriers identified by submissions and research materials include:

  • Cost of access to computers and internet connection
  • Limited public access facilities for people who cannot afford their own equipment
  • Limited sources of resources, assistance and information where adapted or customised equipment is required by people with disabilities and older people
  • Needs for awareness, and training in use of, available options
  • Inaccessibility of many web pages to people with vision impairments, slower connections and older equipment
  • Inaccessibility of many automatic teller machines, EFTPOS facilities, and other similar devices including public transport ticketing machines, to people with limited vision, manual dexterity or memory, or who are using a wheelchair
  • Concerns for safety when using ATMs and security when using EFTPOS facilities
  • Concerns regarding privacy and security of internet transactions
  • Difficulties in using interactive voice response systems (for bill payment and other services by phone) because of insufficient time provided for entry of information by the user, complexity of menus and lack of readily available recourse to human operator
  • Lack of provision, or delays in provision of materials in accessible formats (particularly in education), for reasons including copyright or other legal difficulties and the formats in which materials are made available by publishers.

4. Summary of benefits of access

4.1 Internet and other electronic document access

The Commission’s Issues Paper for this reference noted that availability of information and services in electronic form via the internet has the potential to provide improved access to information and services for many people in the community, including older Australians and people with a disability; and to provide access more broadly, more cheaply and more quickly than is otherwise possible using other formats.

This does not mean that services and information through the internet are in fact affordably and effectively available for all Australians or for all older Australians and people with a disability in particular. It does mean that if and where entry level issues of affordable and effective internet access can be dealt with, there are very substantial gains to be made in use of the internet to provide economical and effective access to information and services across Australia.

As noted by the Commission’s issues paper and emphasised by many of the submissions and materials provided for the reference, there are particular potential benefits for older people and people with a disability in information, services or goods being available through the internet:

  • Reduced impact of transport and building access barriers: Access through the internet is possible for people whose disability or age makes it difficult or impossible for them to get to or use premises where goods, services or information are provided
  • Access for people who cannot turn paper pages: Many people who find it difficult or impossible to handle or read paper pages can use a computer, for example with a modified keyboard or with voice control
  • Access for people who cannot see or read print: People who are blind or have vision impairments can gain access to documents in electronic form and read them in Braille, audio or large print form. People who cannot read written English can access appropriately configured web pages by using screen readers that can convert text to voice and read out loud the content. Text to speech output capability is in fact now becoming available as a standard part of several major personal computer operating systems rather than only as a specialised add on (although this capacity requires high end and hence more expensive PCs and is not at this point part of the capacity of less expensive web access technologies such as the TV set top box).
  • Access for people who cannot read English: Emerging web-based technologies (such as the "babelfish" translation service) offer the prospect of greater equality and convenience of access and participation for people who are not fluent in English. Access to material in spoken form can also assist people who are not yet fluent in a written language.
  • Access for deaf people: Deaf people and people with hearing or speech impairments can use e-mail, including recently emerged instant messaging e-mail services, to avoid barriers in communicating by phone or telephone typewriter (TTY). On the web, deaf people or people with hearing impairments can be provided with ready access to captioning or transcription of sound material. Internet based video conferencing technology could also be used to provide more convenient and economical access to sign language interpreting services for deaf people in a manner similar to the Telephone Interpreter Service for spoken languages, as well as access to direct and/or relayed sign language communication in other contexts.

As well as being accessed from the internet through PCs or other devices, electronic documents can also be stored on and used through more portable specific purpose "e-books". Again, these offer great potential for people who cannot manage paper pages, and people who require text to speech output for whatever reason, or Braille output (so long as the material is in an accessible form and so long as anti-copying or other security measures do not disable these enabling technologies).

In particular, electronic publication offers blind and vision impaired students the prospect of access to the same textbooks and course materials as their classmates, at the same time, not months later after waiting for materials to be transcribed, read onto tape, scanned and reformatted or otherwise processed – if publishers and educational institutions co-operate to ensure early availability of material in electronic formats. Of course, in almost all cases the electronic version of a document now exists and could be distributed (literally at the touch of a button and at the speed of light) well in advance of the production and distribution of a printed version.

4.2 Telephone banking, bill payment and other interactive voice response systems

Automated telephone information and service facilities are increasingly being used by government and business in Australia. Facilities in this area include automated bill payment facilities, and telephone information services such as those of some public transport operators, where the user selects options and enters information through the telephone keypad.

As with provision of services through the internet, these facilities offer very substantial efficiencies in service delivery, and hence potential for improved profitability or reduced claim on public funds on the provider side, and greater convenience and availability of services for the consumer or citizen than might otherwise be the case. In particular, many such services are available on a 24 hour basis and typically avoid queuing otherwise required for direct human assistance.

Obviously, phone based information and services have a particular advantage at present in that many more Australians have access to, can use and are familiar with telephones than have access to and are familiar with using the internet. While internet access can be expected to rise (whether or not it achieves the same near universality as phone service in the foreseeable future), the importance of phone based services will not necessarily diminish and may well increase, in view of indications that telephones will become an increasingly important internet access device.

Automated phone based facilities have been criticised, including in submissions in this reference and in particular by and on behalf of older people, as inadequate and non user-friendly substitutes for human service provision. To some extent these criticisms appear to reflect problems in the way that many such systems have been implemented, and concern that these systems are being deployed as complete substitutes for direct human service provision, rather than inherent features of these systems.

For some people with disabilities, in particular blind people, these systems are experienced as a great advance in access to information and services. The self service model cannot be expected to suit all users, and may present serious access barriers to some people with disabilities, but for other people availability of this model represents independence and equality.

Phone banking for example provides voice instructions and input, via the user’s own familiar phone keypad, whereas over the counter service frequently requires dealing with or working around the limitations of paper forms and written signatures, and automatic tellers have a range of access barriers including a mainly visual interface. Automated phone based access to information such as public transport timetables (which otherwise requires dealing with print pages often with complex layout and very small print, or with web pages which in several cases have significant accessibility problems) are similarly appreciated by some users with vision impairments.

4.3 Automatic teller machines and similar devices

Tim Noonan’s report for the Commission on ATM accessibility for this reference points out that "early ATMs heralded an era where blind people could withdraw cash with full independence – and without the need to find assistance to complete paper deposit slips, and avoiding the necessity to sign their name", while noting that changes in more recent machines which have been of benefit to other users have often rendered ATMs unusable for blind people among others.

There are clearly benefits available more generally to people who can use these facilities, and consequent disadvantages to those who cannot, including that

  • Like internet and automated phone based services, ATMs are intended to be available 24 hours a day every day, while over the counter hours are much more restricted
  • Costs of ATM use are lower than banking services over the counter (although financial costs of ATM inaccessibility in this respect are presently borne by financial institutions via fee exemptions for people who cannot use ATMs because of disability)
  • ATM access is typically available through a range of institutions, and increasingly in non-bank locations (such as shopping centres) rather than only at the customer’s own bank premises.

EFTPOS facilities obviously have the additional advantage of availability in a great variety of premises and by phone. As well as the convenience which this offers to all customers, there are particular potential advantages for people with disabilities and older people in

    • reducing need for travel to bank premises;
    • avoiding barriers presented by those bank premises which remain physically inaccessible or by paper processes;
    • reducing hazards of carrying cash to perform transactions, to which older people and people with disabilities may be and feel particularly vulnerable.

5. Initiatives and developments

The Commission’s initial Issues Paper noted a range of relevant initiatives, in particular from the Commonwealth Government, to address access issues covered by this reference, including law reform initiatives by the Attorney-General (on copyright issues and recognition of electronic transactions); program initiatives through the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (including the AccessAbility and Networking the Nation programs and information programs on e-commerce); and the pilot Government Information Centre program (providing phone in access to web based information via human call centre assistants).

The Issues Paper also noted that other initiatives were under way or under consideration by State and Territory Governments; local government; business; education providers; libraries and other information service providers; community organisations, or partnerships between these.

Research and submissions indicated general views that these initiatives were worthy of support but that in virtually all cases they need to be pursued further or expanded in scale and in scope.

5.1 Community access to the internet

At November 1999 the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that 25% of all households (1.7 million) had home Internet access, up from 19 per cent in November 1998 but clearly very much still a minority of households. The proportion of households with a home computer rose slightly to nearly 50% of households (3.5 million) in November 1999 from 47% of households (3.2 million) in November 1998.

In the 12 months to November 1999, work and home were the sites of Internet access most likely to be reported by adults (2.8 million adults for both work and home). Other reported sites of Internet access included: friend's or neighbour's house, 2.1 million adult Internet users; TAFEs or other tertiary institutions, 1.2 million adults; public libraries, 0.8 million adults; shops, stores or telecafes, 0.3 million adults; schools, 0.2 million adults; and government agencies or departments, 0.2 million adults.

The price of computers available in the market and suitable for internet use, as well as the price of other elements of information and communications access using the internet, have been declining since the inception of the use of personal computers in conjunction with the internet. This has been very marked relative to the capacities of systems available, substantial in real terms relative to other consumer items including printed material, and significant in nominal dollar value. Despite this, the proportion of households having a home computer is only increasing slowly.

A computer for home internet use would still be regarded as a very substantial investment by the great majority of Australian households and would be likely to remain financially out of reach for many. Some households are likely to reallocate expenditures to achieve internet access as the usefulness of this access expands and becomes more obvious, but this choice remains effectively unavailable to people on low and fixed incomes including many older people and people with disabilities, at least pending further development and deployment of a wider range of internet access technologies such as web phones and web TV.

Unequal opportunities which appear likely to persist in the medium term at least for home or work based access to the internet add to the importance of access through community facilities (through local, State and Territory, and Commonwealth government programs, educational institutions, commercial facilities and community organisations).

The Commission asked for comments on needs and options for increasing access to computer technology and internet access facilities for older Australians or people with a disability including

  • Possibilities for further use of equipment which is surplus to government or business requirements
  • Possibilities for increased access through libraries, schools or other community facilities

having regard to experience gained in initiatives in this area to date.

Submissions have welcomed current business, government and community initiatives for provision of community access points for online services and for awareness, education and training for people who might otherwise remain on the wrong side of a "digital divide", including many older people and people with a disability; but called for increased business and government provision of and support for similar initiatives.

The Commission understands that a comprehensive stocktake of Commonwealth internet access initiatives will be available shortly from the National Office for the Information Economy in the context of revision of the revision of NOIE’s Strategic Framework for the Information Economy and preparation of an action plan to address priorities in community access.

Systematic provision of superseded government equipment for community use through partnerships with community organisations, as called for in a number of submissions in this reference, is understood to be under consideration within the Commonwealth government, but no decision or indication of progress is available at the time of writing.

As stated in the interim update for this reference:

The Commission understands that there is no fundamental barrier to donation of public resources if the agency responsible is satisfied that this represents appropriate value for the public resources involved.
This may occur if resources should properly be written off – which is likely to apply to many superseded computers which are capable of being restored by community organisations for useful service, but would cost more to dispose of commercially than they are worth to the Commonwealth. Computers that many Commonwealth departments and agencies may dispose of as superseded – high range 486s and lower range Pentiums – appear to be capable of performing an important role in providing at least introductory access to online services for older Australians and people with a disability.
An alternative path may be to consider provision of equipment for community access not because computers are redundant to public purposes, but explicitly as a means of achieving those purposes.

The Commission recommends

  • Increased business and government support for community access points for online services and for awareness, education and training for people who might otherwise remain on the wrong side of a "digital divide".
  • Specifically, increased provision (in particular by the Commonwealth) of superseded equipment through organisations such as Technical Aid to the Disabled and computer clubs for seniors.
  • Increased focus on provision of appropriate equipment, software, training and information to meet needs of people requiring adapted or customised equipment to achieve effective internet access.

5.2 Passage of the Electronic Transactions Act

The Commission’s interim update on this reference welcomed the passage of the Electronic Transactions Act 1999, in view of the potential for conduct of transactions in digital form to remove barriers to independent and effective participation, including by people with vision impairments. This legislation is intended to allow electronic communications to satisfy existing legal requirements for writing, signature, document production and the retention of documents, subject to certain minimum requirements. It will apply to a limited range of Commonwealth laws (to be specified in the near future by regulation) until 1 July 2001, after which it will apply to all laws of the Commonwealth not specifically exempted (by further regulations).

This staged process is intended to allow agencies time to put in place the requisite information systems to communicate electronically with their clients in line with the Prime Minister’s commitment that all appropriate services will be delivered electronically by 2001.

This legislation seeks to give electronic formats equivalent recognition to paper formats. Understandably in this context, the legislation does not seek to require or prohibit any particular electronic format. (Seeking to require accessible format as a condition of recognition of validity could have a number of undesirable consequences for certainty of transactions and actually discourage use of digital formats, and the Commission has not seen and does not make any proposal for such a measure.) It needs to be re-emphasised for implementation purposes, however (as pointed out in previous papers for this reference including on World Wide Web accessibility in particular), that not every digital communications format is automatically an accessible format so as to satisfy community needs and the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act.

The Commission urges all Commonwealth agencies and Departments to
  • proceed as early as possible to meet the requirements of the Electronic Transactions Act and make electronic transaction formats available to the public and staff in relevant dealings and publicise this availability
  • ensure in this process that systems adopted comply with accessibility requirements
  • consider extending initiatives, similar to those undertaken by Centrelink or in partnership with community organisations or public access points such as libraries, to provide internet access facilities to clients to allow them to take advantage of electronic transaction facilities.

Similar measures to the Electronic Transactions Act are advancing at State level. Noting that the States are responsible for a larger range of transactions than the Commonwealth it appears reasonable that they should take further time to settle the regimes to be applied.

The Commission urges that in considering legislation for recognition of electronic transactions and its implementation States give attention to accessibility issues to ensure compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act and equivalent provisions of their own laws.

5.3 Progress on copyright law reforms

The Commission’s Issues Paper noted proposed reforms to the Copyright Act intended (in the Attorney-General’s words) "to ensure that copyright law continues to promote creative endeavour and, at the same time, allow reasonable access to copyright material on the Internet and through new communications technology". The Attorney noted that under the proposed amendments

  • existing exceptions for fair dealing for purposes including research or study, criticism or review, and reporting news, and for libraries would continue to apply to the reproduction and communication of copyright material in electronic form
  • a statutory licence would be established for the electronic use of copyright material by institutions assisting persons with print and intellectual disabilities, and
  • existing statutory licences in the Copyright Act for copying by educational institutions would be extended to the reproduction and communication of copyright material in electronic form.

The proposed scheme is based on agreement between educational institutions, such as universities and schools, and the relevant collecting societies (representing the rights of copyright owners) on issues such as process and the rate of remuneration for owners to be applied. The proposed legislation provides that, where agreement is not possible, the Copyright Tribunal would have new jurisdiction to determine these matters.

Submissions to the Commission in this reference on behalf of people with disabilities welcomed these proposed amendments.

The House of Representatives Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee has now reported on this Bill . Its report was tabled on 6 December 1999 and is available on line (although only in PDF format) via

The Committee was concerned that

the greatest potential for copyright infringement lies in the digital domain, given the ease of digital to digital reproduction of material (para 1.23).

and concluded that

in view of the differences between the print and digital environments, the Committee thinks it desirable to maintain some form of barrier or "firewall" between them, when the copyright owner does no consent to reproduction of his or her material in the digital environment. (para 1.25) … The Committee proposed that in order to prevent users from digitising print material, only limited exceptions should apply to reproductions from hardcopy to digital form (para 1.27).

The Committee Chairman (Mr Kevin Andrews MP, LP, Menzies) summarised the Committee’s position as follows in presenting the report to Parliament (quoted in part):

The committee supports much of the bill as it was introduced to the parliament. However, the committee recommends some readjustments to the balance of interests, as suggested by the bill, because of the perceived increased risk of copyright infringement within a digital environment.
Evidence to the committee suggested that access which is reasonable in the print environment may not be reasonable in the digital environment. This is because the risk of unauthorised use of copyright material in the digital environment is far greater than in the print environment. As honourable members will appreciate, a digitised copy is, in effect, a mint copy of the original, able to be further reproduced easily. The committee believes that the digital environment cannot be likened to the print environment in all respects.
The right to digitised material ought to be the exclusive right of the copyright owner, except in certain limited circumstances. The committee agreed that users may only digitise copyright material for the following purposes: firstly, criticism and review; secondly, reporting the news or judicial proceedings; and, thirdly, professional advice and preservation. The committee also agreed that libraries could digitise material in their collections for the purposes of delivering it electronically to a user in a remote location where delivery of a print copy by post would be unreasonably slow.
The decision to provide a work in a digital form should be the considered decision of the copyright owner. The committee considers that the ability to control the first digitisation of a work at the frontier between the print and digital environments is a fundamental principle that should be given special recognition under copyright law. The measures proposed in this report not only provide a statement of support for copyright owners but also recognise the special access needs of users.

Other members of the Committee similarly referred to the exemption for users in remote areas as recognising

an important aim to ensure that new technology benefits all Australians, not just those in metropolitan areas. (Nicola Roxon MP, ALP, Gellibrand)

It appears necessary for the Commission to emphasise that special access needs are not restricted to people in remote or regional areas, and "all Australians" necessarily includes people with a disability wherever in Australia they live.

The Committee’s proposed exemption for rural users is expressed to apply where more than four day’s wait for material by post would otherwise be required. By contrast, the submission to the Commission by the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind noted that transcription into audio or Braille of an average 200-page book currently takes six to eight weeks from paper format, and therefore suggested that to reduce delays publishers should be required to lodge electronic files of their publications with a central agency or agencies, with appropriate controls on eligibility for access. Other submissions to the Commission in relation to education in particular expressed concern regarding delays of weeks or months involved in working through copyright issues, and arranging for reproduction of materials in an alternative format, which place students with a disability at a vast disadvantage. The Commission suggests that these issues are no less deserving of attention.

As acknowledged by all parties, the balancing of rights of copyright owners to benefit from their works (and thus the incentive to create works) against reasonable public rights of access is a complex task, made more complex by changing technologies and by a need to conform to relevant international standards. It is not the Commission’s role to seek to substitute its judgment on these matters for that of Government or Parliament. It is difficult to see, however, how an appropriate balance can be struck if access needs and rights of people who simply cannot access material in print on paper are not explicitly attended to and given due weight.

The Committee stated that it

envisages that access to copyright material will not be hindered by requiring the consent of the copyright owner to first digitisation. The Committee expects that copyright owners would be willing to provide digital versions of their works, and that market forces would ensure they do so on reasonable terms.

Whether market forces can reasonably be expected to produce reasonable public access to copyright works in general might require further consideration by bodies with more authority in economic analysis than the Commission, having regard to the nature of copyright as both a statutory restraint on trade in ideas and a foundation for markets by creating or recognising tradeable rights. (It may be observed that the Committee did not regard it as appropriate to rely on this expectation regarding users in remote areas.)

Parliament has previously recognised, however, in passing discrimination legislation that unregulated market forces may not be sufficient to produce equitable access for people with disabilities or other disadvantaged groups.

If copyright holders retain an absolute right of control over digitisation of their works so far as copyright law is concerned, failure or refusal to make material available on reasonable terms could nonetheless involve them in liability under the Disability Discrimination Act.

If issues in this area are appropriately resolved within the framework of copyright law (either through a combination of a statutory license scheme along the lines proposed by the Government with agreements with copyright holders on terms of remuneration, or through agreements commencing from the starting point of all rights remaining vested with copyright holders) it would be possible and appropriate for the Commission and other bodies administering disability discrimination law to defer to this framework, in particular in exercising the power to decline or terminate complaints where another more appropriate remedy is reasonably available.

The Commission believes all parties concerned would prefer resolution of these issues without the need to resort to complaint procedures under the Disability Discrimination Act. Complaints would, of course, have to be dealt with according to law as and when received.

The Commission recommends consideration by the Attorney-General of issues raised in this reference in considering the Government’s response to the Legal and Constitutional Committee report on the Copyright Act amending legislation.

Whether or not copyright reform, in the form proposed by the Government or in the considerably more limited form proposed by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, is enacted in the near future there appears to be urgent need for institution (whether by negotiation or regulation) of a regime for timely and reliable electronic provision or reproduction of copyright materials for students, including ensuring that security measures adopted by publishers to protect their own legitimate interests do not lock out or disable accessibility options.

The Commission is not persuaded, on materials currently available, that any child’s right to equal opportunity in education (as recognised in the Disability Discrimination Act and by Australia’s agreement to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) should defer to a statutorily created property right simply because that child has a disability.

In the United States a major collaborative effort was launched in October 1999 to achieve equal access for students who are blind or visually impaired (see Equal Access to Textbooks and Educational Materials: Publishers and Blindness Field Join Together to Find Solutions: )

Children who are blind or visually impaired have the same right to a quality education as any other child … Unfortunately, students who are blind or visually impaired routinely do not receive their classroom materials at the same time as their sighted classmates. Braille, large print, or audio recorded instructional materials often arrive long after classes begin or, too frequently, not at all. With the technology available today, advance planning and timely distribution of these tools for learning, barriers to a student’s progress can be eliminated.

The Commission considers that a similar effort is required in Australia, whether voluntary, prompted by legislation in the terms of the Attorney’s proposed Copyright Act reforms, or by potential for or experience of Disability Discrimination Act litigation.

The Commission recommends, and will be happy to facilitate, further discussions between all relevant parties on options for resolution of issues in relation to access to materials for students.

5.4 Web page accessibility

Previous papers for this reference (including the initial Issues Paper and a Working Paper on Web Accessibility) have discussed issues in this area in detail. It is not necessary to restate this material at length here. These papers point to

  • barriers commonly experienced by people with disabilities and other users wit older equipment or slower connections
  • benefits of implementing universal design approaches in web pages
  • the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and associated material as the appropriate reference point in implementing web page accessibility, including for purposes of compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act.

5.4.1 Commonwealth government sites

As part of this reference the Attorney-General asked the Commission to conduct an audit of the accessibility of Australian government and business internet sites, in particular for people with impaired vision, by reference to the Disability Discrimination Act and relevant Australian and international guidelines. A working paper discussing results of a preliminary audit focusing on Commonwealth web pages was released in December 1999. The results were that :

  • Most Commonwealth sites tested showed significant accessibility barriers
  • Many sites presented barriers to users who cannot see images, cannot access documents in PDF format, or have difficulty with sites using frames
  • A substantial number of sites appeared to require excessive download times even at the home page level
  • Most barriers found appeared relatively easy for providers to remedy on existing pages and to avoid for new pages
  • Some sites appear to have dealt effectively with accessibility issues as well as long download times by implementing text only equivalent sites; a smaller number had implemented the W3C preferred approach of making the one accessible version
  • These results showed a need for agencies to conduct simple testing of their own sites at a minimum, and indicate a need for consideration of more detailed useability testing and quality assurance measures .

An initial and particular focus was placed on the Commonwealth’s own activity because of the significant leadership role taken by the Commonwealth on information economy and society issues, and the particular obligations of the Commonwealth under human rights and discrimination law.

A number of initiatives have been taken at individual agency level.

Policy and guidance documents have been available through the Commission’s Advisory Notes on Web Accessibility, first issued in 1997, and AusInfo's Guidelines for Commonwealth Information in Electronic Formats, released in March 1999 emphasised accessibility issues and now reissued in a revised edition taking account of developments from the World Wide Web Consortium.

In practice, many Commonwealth sites show significant improvements since the Commission’s December 1999 working paper was released. Definitive and reliable assessments are difficult to make, in view of the tendency for web pages to be constantly "under construction", with the potential both for improvements to have been made which a body such as the Commission is not yet aware of, and for errors to have crept into a previously accessible site.

The Commission has continued in this report therefore to refrain from "naming" sites presenting particular access barriers This policy of restraint is not adopted as a permanent policy, however. It also needs to be recalled that people with a disability who are affected by inaccessible features of a site are free to complain under the Disability Discrimination Act.

A number of Commonwealth agencies merit recognition as having made particular progress in achieving accessibility at this point (although this does not imply that no further improvement in accessibility or usability is possible).

These include the Australian Taxation Office, the Federal Court of Australia and the Office of Disability within the Department of Family and Community Services. Progress by the ATO merits particular recognition in view of the significance of its services across the Australian community (including for people with disabilities and older people whether as individuals or in business), the size and range of tasks of the site involved, and the commitment which the ATO has expressed to the Commission for continuing to improve accessibility and usability, including in more challenging areas of on line transactions as well as in information provision.

The Commission will consider appropriate means for ongoing recognition of access achievements in consultation with other relevant agencies.

It has to be said, however, that notwithstanding some examples of progress, the accessibility record of Commonwealth departments and agencies remains very mixed.

The Commission therefore regards as necessary and very welcome the decision by Cabinet on 21 March 2000 to adopt specific accessibility requirements for Commonwealth sites as part of its policy for use of the internet, including requirements for

  • all Commonwealth departments and agencies to evaluate their sites for compliance with the W3C accessibility standards from 1 June 2000
  • all new contracted site work to include accessibility benchmarks from 1 June 2000
  • all Commonwealth sites to pass accessibility testing by reference to W3C standards by 1 December 2000.
The Commission notes the importance of agencies and departments acting to implement Cabinet’s decision to evaluate web site accessibility by June 2000 and achieve W3C standards compliance by December 2000.

5.4.2 State government sites

A number of State governments have policy documents on internet use in place with requirements on accessibility similar to (although generally less detailed than) the first edition of AusInfo’s guidelines. Despite this, the Commission can confirm from its own research that (while not naming individual sites at this point) accessibility of State government sites is at least as patchy and problematic as found in Commonwealth sites in December 1999, including in states which have applied very substantial effort to on line access to Government information and services in other respects.

The Commission is aware that a number of major State government agencies and enterprises are currently revising their sites to provide improved access and usability and would welcome further information on these initiatives as they occur.

The Commission recommends that State and Territory governments consider adopting specific targets and requirements on accessibility comparable to those now adopted by the Commonwealth.

5.4.3 Private sector sites

Surveying by Commission staff of private sector sites (selected principally using indicators of the most visited Australian sites) indicates a similar range of accessibility problems as found in surveying Commonwealth government sites, with

  • images and image maps lacking "alt text" labels, and dynamic elements not having text equivalents
  • pages having excessive download times
  • users being required to download additional software, not always compatible with older equipment or useable by vision impaired people, with no alternative means of access being provided
  • frames used without providing no frames alternatives, and frames not properly labelled to enable screen reader software to cope with them .

It should be noted that some problems, in particular extensive use of PDF format without ensuring accessibility by providing HTML, text or wordprocessor format alternatives or ensuring effective conversion, appear more common on public sector than private sector sites. Conversely, problems which at this point appear more common for commercial sites are ensuring that interactive elements, such as a form which a user has to fill in to gain access to goods or services, are accessible and that security elements do not unnecessarily exclude people using older equipment or who cannot see screens.

The Commission has decided against publishing details of access problems with identified private sector sites in this report.

Particular access problems were noted in submissions and research materials with the first generation of internet banking products which required downloading of specialised software and which contained in some cases techniques such as an on screen touchscreen unusable by blind people or some people with physical disabilities. It is thus encouraging to note reports that much improved accessibility is being achieved by a number of banks in moving to mainstream internet browser based products. As already noted, however, internet or browser based technologies do not in themselves guarantee effective accessibility or ease of use (and, as at 20 March 2000, at least one major national bank’s product in this area clearly required further development).

It may need to be re-emphasised that in pointing to the W3C guidelines the Commission is not suggesting that formats other than HTML cannot be used. While the W3C guidelines prefer use of HTML to other formats requiring users to download additional software, they emphasise provision of alternatives (so that a user can have access to the information or services on a site whether or not they can use shockwave or flash animation for example) and for implementation of accessibility elements within other formats. To the extent that some transactions systems may rely on Java programming for functions or security, for example, this means developers should ensure they implement the recently developed Java accessibility elements.

The Commission has seen mixed reports on accessibility of a number of on line shopping services, with some blind people in particular reporting services as accessible and achieving for users great advances in independence and choice of products, but others reporting less success with the same sites.

Differences of view of this kind should not be taken to mean that those reporting problems are in error. As with other elements of internet and computer technology, access tools used by people with disabilities are improving consistently. Some elements of the disability community are highly informed and implementing each new "user side" access technology as fast as they can, because of the great benefits to be gained from equal and timely access to information and transactions – but not all older people and people with disabilities have access to the finances or expertise to be using the latest technology.

Site designs which can be made to work very well for people with a high level of expertise and up to date equipment will not necessarily work for all. There are a range of automated tools available to check whether pages will work on older browsers or for users who cannot see, but as indicated in the Commission’s working paper on web accessibility, these tools should not be taken as a substitute for testing with or feedback from "real live humans".

At present commercial web sites (in common with government web sites) are subject to the general and open ended requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act. The Commission provides its view of how these requirements apply to the web through its Advisory Notes in this area, which take the World Wide Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as their major reference point.

While the advisory approach does not have the authority and certainty which prescriptive regulatory standards would offer, the Commission believes this approach, together with the capacity for complaints to be made, remains appropriate at present, rather than specific web accessibility regulation supplementing the existing application of the Disability Discrimination Act.

Development of specific regulatory standards for web access would first require amendment to the Disability Discrimination Act to widen the power to make disability standards. The time required for other standards development processes under the Act (none of which have yet produced a final result), including for compliance with Regulation Impact Statement requirements, would present particular problems for regulating as rapidly changing an area as the internet. The present approach of applying the current version from time to time of the most authoritative international standards avoids this issue of "regulatory lag" as well as potential problems for industry and consumers if Australia were to put in place distinctive requirements in this area.

These views are able to be revisited in the light of further developments and experience. They should not be misunderstood as meaning that this area is or should be unregulated. In the Commission’s view, in this area as in others the availability of recourse under the Disability Discrimination Act provides a useful stimulus to accessibility efforts by industry or more specific regulatory bodies.

The Commission is very pleased to have been advised by the Australian Internet Industry Association of its commitment to a major education effort on accessibility issues. Details of this initiative are anticipated to be made available by the Association in the near future.

5.5. Automatic teller machines and similar devices

5.5.1 ATMs

The Commission’s initial Issues Paper for this reference, several submissions, and the summary report of focus group discussions all dealt with ATM access as an issue of major importance to people with disabilities and to older Australians. As noted elsewhere in this report, use of ATMs remains very much lower for people over 55 than for people in younger age groups.

To add further detail on accessibility barriers and options, two consultants’ reports were commissioned for this reference on accessibility issues concerning automatic teller machines and were released on 4 February 2000. The Commission is indebted to the authors, Mr John Moxon (of Moxon Green and Associates) and Mr Tim Noonan (of Softspeak Computer Services).

Mr Noonan’s report notes that while the very limited features of the early IBM ATMs made them relatively easy for blind people to use by learning the sequences,

since the release of newer full-screen ATMs, the wider public have realised that the original IBM ATMs left a lot to be desired. People with low vision also found that the newer style machines were a lot easier to read and use. This point demonstrates that one user interface approach does not suit all and that flexibility and configurability are necessary to meet the differing requirements of people in our society.

The summary of disability access requirements set out in the Noonan report is worth setting out in a little detail:

  • the crux of accessibility to ATMs for people who are blind is that the screen cannot be read and some or all of the keyboard functions are unclear or unlabelled.
  • for people with low vision, the problem is the difficulty encountered reading the ATM signage, screen, key labels and receipts. Glare, poor lighting and the all-to-often small and low contrast print combine to make access difficult.  Newer ATMs with larger clearer screens are preferred by people with some residual vision.
  • ATMs can cause difficulties for people with cognitive or learning disabilities when the steps in the transaction are not consistent, logical and focused on the result. This group needs consistency of steps in transactions, without distractions and a limited number of potentially distracting choices.
  • A spoken audio equivalent of the ATM screen information (through speaker or headphones) would most likely assist some people in this group through reinforcement, and also accommodate those who cannot read effectively. For people who are dyslexic (for whom letters and numbers regularly get transposed or out of order) a voice enabled ATM would result in less confusing and error-prone ATM interactions.People from a non English speaking background (NESB) would similarly benefit from voice guidance in addition to the screen display, particularly when many can speak simple English, but have difficulties reading it comfortably. The percentage of Australians who are unable to read is substantial, so voice output for ATMs would also benefit this segment of the community.
  • People with physical disabilities may not be able to access the ATM keypad, card reader screen or cash dispenser, due to its height from the ground, steps leading to the machine, or due to other physical barriers.One alternative is to find ATMs that are nearby which are more accessible to the person, however, customers are financially penalised if they opt to use an ATM which isn't owned by the establishment they bank with – even though this alternative machine might be more accessible and nearby. …
  • ATM accessibility in Australia needs to go a great deal further than token brailling of the numeric keypad before the machines can be used with independence and confidence by anyone who has difficulty reading the ATM screen.Glare, and the size and contrast of print on ATM screens are the main problems that people with low vision face when conducting an ATM transaction. Lack of contrast and poor definition labelling on the machine and difficult to read receipts are also a barrier. Although many newer ATMs have clearer screens, there are still many new ATMs which are very difficult to read, particularly when sunlight creates glare.  Glare compensating screen technology has been developed by NCR, but is not yet in very wide use in Australia

Mr Moxon’s report adds further detail:

  • People with severe vision impairment (including, of course people who are blind) are unable to use the ATMs unaided due to there being no audio output on any machine audited. In addition, no machine had tactile indicators of the orientation that the card must have for it to be accepted by the ATM, no machine had appropriate tactile indicators on the keys on the key pad, and many ATMs had poor contrast and font size on screen messages.
  • People who might have difficulty understanding the processes needed to be followed to operate the ATMs (including people with intellectual disability, people on medication which affects their cognitive processes, and some older people) might find the procedures difficult to learn due to their varying between banks and in some cases between ATMs belonging to the same bank.
  • People with physical disabilities (including wheelchair users, those using walking aids, and those with poor hand function) are significantly disadvantaged by the design of the ATMs. On all ATMs the keypad, and card and money slots are positioned too high and too far away from the user to allow the ATM to be operated when facing it. Most wheelchair users can only operate ATMs by sitting side-on to the machine. For some this is simply not possible and for others it can cause medical problems due to twisting of the spine.
  • People who use walking aids find they have no grab-rail to hold onto and no shelf, in most cases, on which to rest their bags while operating the ATM. Ironically, the ATMs with a shelf achieve it by recessing the keyboard and screen even further away from the customer.
  • People with poor hand function are disadvantaged by the keys being close together and by the difficulty of grasping their card to retrieve it and grasping their cash and receipt.

The Australian Standard on automatic teller machines deals principally with issues of physical access to machines (accessible location and reach to controls), rather than with the full range of issues affecting accessibility and use raised in focus group discussions, submissions and research resources for this reference.

Mr Moxon’s report states as its principal recommendation :

Australian Standard AS 3769 (1992), Automatic Teller Machines – User Access, needs to be reviewed by Standards Australia as a matter of urgency to ensure that it properly reflects the access needs of all people with disabilities.

As an interim measure this report recommends that banks should refer to Australian Standard AS 1428.1 and AS 1428.2, rather than relying on AS3769 alone, for guidance on the design, siting and installation of ATMs, paying particular attention to locating controls within the reach of wheelchair users and the installation of audio interfaces.

One submission noted that standard AS 3769 is presently under revision. The Commission does not have any details of processes in this respect at the time of writing.

The Commission is not in a position itself to declare or prescribe what the technical specifications should be of an appropriate standard for ATM access. It appears clear, however, that the current Australian Standard on ATM access is outdated and inadequate, and is likely to have a misleading effect with some industry participants being led to believe that having followed Australian standards they have fulfilled all relevant requirements, despite the failure of the Australian standards regime to address the range of issues encompassed by the Disability Discrimination Act and its State and Territory equivalents and failure to keep pace with changes in technical possibilities and consumer expectations.

In addition to limitations in the current content of the Australian Standard in this area, there are problems inherent in the present nature of Australian standards as private proprietary standards, both in terms of availability and in terms of development processes. Australian Standards are now available on line, which is a welcome development in public access to these important documents, but are available only in PDF format (which can present significant access problems of its own for blind users among others) and only for purchase. Such a system lacks the public availability and accountability now provided by free and open on line access to legislation and parliamentary processes – or other material which while not directly part of Australian law has significant legal consequences, such as international treaties and the records of deliberations of bodies interpreting or applying treaties.

In applying the Disability Discrimination Act to complaints, the general practice of the Commission has been to give considerable (though not always conclusive) weight to relevant Australian Standards in deciding whether unreasonable barriers have been imposed by a particular approach to design or construction of premises or facilities – in fairness to parties placing reliance on these standards and in some cases for want of any other application specifications to define what access should be taken to mean.

However, it has been pointed out by the federal Office of Regulation Review [Grey Letter Law - Report of the Commonwealth Interdepartmental Committee on Quasi-regulation (9 September 1999)] that Australian Standards in themselves have no legal or regulatory status and ought not to be treated a having such status without being subjected to the processes of open scrutiny required for regulation and quasi-regulation.

In relation to ATMs these issues may to some extent be overtaken by industry developments. ATMs are produced by overseas based manufacturers for international markets. The pace of development in accessibility options developed by manufacturers and being adopted or tried by banks in the USA in particular (partly in response to Americans with Disabilities Act requirements) is considerably faster than is customary in Australian Standards processes. For example, on 15 March 2000 Bank of America announced a roll out of 2500 talking ATMs. The Australian Bankers Association in its submission for this reference noted that its members were committed to upgrading ATM facilities to more modern designs including in relation to accessibility features. The Commission understands that several banks will be in a position to announce major upgrading programs shortly.

It is not clear whether distinctively Australian standards for the ATM itself are now much more practicable than distinctive national standards for the Web. Interests of Australian consumers and industry may be best served by ensuring that best practice in international standards and in actual technology on the ground is reflected in practice and standards adopted here.

Authoritative standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act based on the comprehensive Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee Final Report to U.S. Access Board, May 12 1999, were due to have been issued on 7 February 2000 but have been delayed. These standards would apply to all information and transaction machines.

The Commission will consult further with relevant parties on appropriate approaches to standards and practice in these areas for Disability Discrimination Act purposes during 2000.

5.5.2 EFTPOS

The most detailed comments on EFTPOS access issues for this reference are found in the "Accessible e-commerce in Australia" discussion paper issued in 1999 for the AccessAbility program (which as noted in previous papers for this reference also provides a wealth of information on ecommerce accessibility issues across a wide range of technologies.) This report notes that:

  • For people who are blind or vision impaired, entry of the required PIN for EFTPOS transactions is often difficult or impossible, due to the card reader design. Some units are touch-sensitive, accepting digits when any of the buttons are slightly touched for orientation.
  • People with severe motor disabilities may not be able to enter their PIN at all. For EFTPOS and ATM transactions, this inability may require them to reveal their PIN, in contravention of the banking conditions-of-use for the account
  • People with memory impairments, or who have dyslexia, may have difficulty recalling or reliably entering their PIN;
  • For people who are blind, it may be unclear which orientation to use when inserting a card into a card access device;
  • For people with physical disabilities, it may not be possible to reach the card reader, or the person may not have the fine motor control required to insert the card or easily enter their PIN.

This report indicates that technology is already available and in use by some service providers in Australia to provide better accessibility than is generally provided at present (in particular to avoid accidental digit entry from highly sensitive keypads), although a more general accessibility solution is so far at prototype stage only.

The Commission urges continued attention by relevant Australian industry bodies to international developments in EFTPOS accessibility options.

5.5.3 Information kiosks

The Commission's initial Issues Paper for this reference referred briefly to issues regarding information kiosk machines. More detail of issues in this area is provided by a number of resources linked from the resources page for this reference. The issues and current developments are well summarised in the "Accessible ecommerce in Australia" discussion paper:

An Information Kiosk is a public terminal which contains a multimedia computer and usually employs a touch-screen for user interaction. Store directories, product catalogues, ticket selling, information provision, online forms completion, job searching, phone number look-up and a wide variety of other activities can be offered by such devices. In the three months leading to February 1999, the ABS found that 2% of Australians used an information kiosk to pay bills or transfer funds.
The problem of accessibility for information kiosks is widespread, both in Australia and in other countries. For people who are blind or vision impaired, accessibility of public information kiosks is a particular issue due to the highly visual nature of both the information presented, and the visual feedback methods required to select and enter information e.g. the heavy reliance on touch-screens and the absence of a keyboard or keypad device.
Activities such as voting, looking up a name or information in a building or store directory, or finding out tourist information may need to be performed using information kiosks, since this information either isn’t readily available in other ways, or it may need to be obtained immediately.
Over time, the distinction between an Automatic Teller Machine and an information kiosk will continue to blur, making access to cash and financial services potentially more complex. Currently, it is due to the relatively limited range of services and options offered by current ATM units that allows some people with disabilities to perform some ATM transactions with reasonable levels of success. Of course, as discussed [elsewhere in this paper], this access is still difficult, may result in additional expense, and usually relies heavily on the person’s memory.
It has been argued that much of the information and services offered by current information kiosks either can or will be available from other sources, e.g. the internet and over the telephone. This may well be the case, but nevertheless, the whole purpose of information kiosks is their convenient location, easy access and the provision of information that is relevant to the location and situation at hand.

This discussion paper notes work conducted by the Trace Center at the University of Wisconsin (and available through its web site at on methods of making information kiosks accessible and effective for most groups of people with disabilities. This includes development of user interface approaches designed to provide information for, and to accept input from, different groups of people with disabilities including people who are blind, people who have reduced vision, people who are deaf, people who are hard of hearing, people who are deaf-blind and people with physical disabilities.

As noted in previous papers in this reference, development of legally binding standards on Information/Transaction Machines (where these machines are used to deliver Federal Government information or services) is progressing in the United States. Standards on electronic and information technology acquired or used by the United States Government are now scheduled to be released for public comment shortly and to be in force by August 2000.

The Commission urges attention by service providers and relevant Australian industry bodies to international developments in practice, and in standards development, in accessibility options and requirements for information kiosk type machines.

5.5.4 Automated ticketing machines

The resources page for this inquiry provides a link to a very useful report on the experience of people with acquired brain injury in using automated ticketing machines as well as ATMs and other devices. The access difficulties noted in this report also appear relevant to wider sections of the public including other people with disabilities.

The Commission is not aware of progress on standards development specifically on accessibility of ticketing machines, although these machines appear clearly within the reach of the general standards on access to information and transaction machines being developed through the United States Access Board.

The Commission urges public transport and other relevant service providers to ensure that consumers have effective access to information on alternatives to automated services, given the severe difficulties which some people have in using these facilities.

The Commission urges continued attention by relevant Australian industry bodies to international developments in practice, and in standards development, in accessibility options and requirements for machines such as ticketing machines providing automated services.

5.5.5 Identification methods

The "Accessible ecommerce in Australia" discussion paper also points out barriers which arise unless e-commerce and related facilities provide users with an appropriate range of options for establishing identity in transactions. The Commission commends the following points to the attention of service providers:

As we continue to move away from paper-based financial transactions, where the signature was the main means of verification of identity, long-distance electronic transactions open the risk to fraud, misrepresentation and the like. It is these changes which are leading to an increased reliance on reliable methods of verification of identity, such as biometrics.
However, no one or two single methods of verification will be applicable to all of the diverse range of people who are disabled or elderly in our society, but if there is some flexibility of methods used, then almost all people should be able to be identified with confidence and convenience.
A variety of scenarios can be proposed where one or more methods will fall down for certain members of the population, just a few examples might include:
Signatures may be difficult to obtain and thumb prints won't work if a person has no hands, or if a blind person doesn't know exactly where to place a hand or thumb for geometry or finger/thumb print recognition;
Retinal scans may not work if the person has artificial eyes, or if they can't look into the camera;
People with severe dyslexia, memory problems or physical disabilities may not be able to reliably enter their PIN;
People who don't drive clearly can't produce a driver's licence.
Voice Prints may be identical for people who use speech synthesisers to speak;
People who can't visually read wouldn't be able to speak a random phrase for voice-print analysis.
It is strongly recommended that if a biometric measure is used, that more than one option be provided, and in particular that (if required) individuals can retain PIN entry to identify themselves.

Discriminatory impact of use of a single identification method has been the subject of a number of complaints under the Disability Discrimination Act to date, in relation to specification of a driver's licence as a prerequisite for access to services such as video hire. As pointed out in the examples quoted above, potential for discriminatory exclusion by adoption of a single required identification method for access to services is just as present in more sophisticated technologies including in e-commerce applications. General community access is enhanced and potential for discrimination reduced, on the other hand, if the potential of digital technologies to give users a choice of formats is taken advantage of.

Technical developments such as biometric sensing offer exciting potential for removal of access barriers for many people with disabilities and older people (among others) and for addressing concerns regarding privacy and security in accessing services and information - but if relied on exclusively without provision of other options can impose further barriers for some other users.

Similarly, smart card technologies offer great potential for improving access to automated services for some people with disabilities - for example by enabling a machine such as an ATM to more easily recognise and automatically be configured for a user's preferred input and output formats, favourite transaction and so on. However, these technologies involve their own physical barriers as well as privacy and security concerns for some users. A report by Blind Citizens Australia on smart cards for the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts' AccessAbility program is expected to be available shortly and to provide important information and recommendations on directions in this area.

The Commission recommends close attention to universal design approaches in implementation of automated identification technologies and smart card systems.

5.6 Phone banking, bill payment and other interactive voice response systems

Earlier papers in this reference noted that despite their benefits in terms of efficiency and potential benefits to the public in access to services and information these facilities often involve access difficulties for some people with disabilities and older Australians, as well as other difficulties based on language. Issues noted included

  • lack in some cases of a sufficiently clear and early "exit option" to a human operator for people who cannot use or understand automated facilities
  • inability of people who use telephone typewriters (TTYs) because of deafness or speech impairments to use automated telephone information or service facilities
  • problems for people who cannot manage required keyboard input within the response times allowed by some automated systems.

The Commission's Issues Paper noted recently issued U.S. Federal Communications Commission rules which require that

Voice mail, auto-attendant, and interactive voice response systems shall provide at least one mode which does not require users to respond within a timed interval or allows users to adjust the timing and repetition of those intervals so that the systems can be used both by people with slower response times and by Telecommunication Relay Services or other situations where a person is interpreting for or assisting a user.

Submissions and research materials indicated that wider implementation of the Australian Standard on IVR systems, and closer attention to usability issues generally, would improve accessibility and usability of these systems. The "Accessible ecommerce in Australia" discussion paper recommends compliance by all such services with Australian and New Zealand standard AS/NZS 4263 and notes that

In preparing this standard, consideration was given to the needs of elderly and users with physical disabilities, including allowing longer waiting times for responses to questions, consistency of frequently used commands etc.

Centrelink's submission similarly emphasised the importance this standard, including the facility for customers to always have the option of speaking to a human operator or to default to an operator if they do not make a menu selection, or outside normal business hours to leave a message for a later call back.

The Commission endorses these recommendations for wider implementation of the existing Australian Standard on IVR systems but also repeats the comments made above in relation to standards for ATMs on the limitations of a private proprietary standards model for regulating matters of major public interest.

6. Approach to standard setting

This reference asked the Commission to report on minimum standards that should be met when introducing new technologies into service provision. This report discusses issues and developments regarding accessibility of a number of specific technologies:

  • In relation to the world wide web and other electronic document distribution, the Commission believes the appropriate standards to apply are the accessibility guidelines developed internationally (and being updated regularly) by industry and user experts through the World Wide Web consortium.
  • In relation to automatic teller machines, there is in the Commission's view no appropriate and readily applicable standard currently available, but emerging industry best practice internationally and United States standard setting processes indicate directions for Australian industry practice and standard setting.
  • In relation to interactive voice response systems, the Commission believes that many problems would be resolved by wider awareness, availability and application of the relevant existing Australian Standard.

It is obvious, however, that rapid emergence of new digital technologies is occurring and will continue, bringing both new benefits and new potential barriers and challenges. In addition to the technologies discussed in this report, there are further emerging technologies where important accessibility issues are already apparent, as identified in the "Accessible ecommerce in Australia" discussion paper and, without doubt, additional technologies not discussed there will emerge in the near future.

The Commission has not performed a formal regulation impact assessment on possible approaches to standard setting for new technologies, because it does not have current power in any event to put detailed regulatory requirements in place across the areas covered by this reference. A less formal view can however be offered.

Traditional regulatory and standard setting processes are unlikely to be able to keep pace with developments in digital service and information technologies, or to be able to foresee and specify requirements for all the features of new technologies. Submissions and research have emphasised the importance of accessibility being built into technologies from the start, but also the undesirability of regulatory approaches which unduly delay or constrain availability to consumers of new technologies.

It appears desirable that the Disability Discrimination Act continue to provide broad and general requirements for accessibility in service and information delivery, but that more specific accessibility standards are given recognition for Disability Discrimination Act purposes as they emerge, in particular from open industry/consumer consensus processes internationally (and from Australian Standards processes to the extent that they can be shown to be sufficiently open to involvement from all relevant interests).

In this context, the Commission recommends:

  • Ongoing support by the Commonwealth (as currently provided through the AccessAbility program administered by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) for assessment by community experts of access issues and options arising from new technologies
  • Consideration of means of achieving more open access to Australian Standards material, comparable to that now available for legislation and regulatory materials
  • Governments providing leadership by requiring and applying international best practice on technology accessibility in their own operations, including specification of clearer accessibility benchmarks than presently provided in policies of most Australian governments
  • Relevant industry bodies taking an increased role in educating those developing and implementing new technologies on accessibility issues.

Copyright © Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2000.