With the switchover to digital TV rolling across the UK between now and 2012, blind people and people with impaired vision, who paradoxically are major watchers of TV, have more to cope with than most in finding and installing the best new receiving, viewing and recording equipment.
Although there is a national Digital TV Help Scheme offering (relatively) accessible digital TV receiver equipment and installation support at a low cost and free to people on benefits, people will often still be faced with tough choices about which equipment to choose or use when they want to buy outside of this scheme, or share a household with others.
It is fortunate then that one organisation has been testing every major piece of digital TV equipment to come on the market for the past three years with a specific focus on use by people with disabilities, and will continue doing so for some time to come. This organisation is Ricability (www.ricability.org.uk), a unique charity whose origins date back more than 50 years to the birth of the UK consumer rights movement.
Ricability’s roots are in the Consumer Association (CA) – now known simply by the name of its product comparison publication brand Which? – the body set up in 1957 by the activist, policymaker and entrepreneur Michael Young (later Lord Young of Dartington), who also invented the Open University. In 1963 the CA founded a research arm, RICA, to undertake research to a high academic standard in an eclectic mix of subject areas from estate agents to town planning. But the body soon found itself focusing on the specific needs of elderly and disabled consumers, a field that was to become its specialist area.
In the Seventies, RICA’s work covered everything from medicines to special footwear, invalid mobility vehicles and ground breaking research into the sexual problems experienced by disabled people. Then a series of 13 comparative test reports launched RICA’s central interest in the assessments of special equipment and mainstream products through laboratory tests and assessments carried out by disabled people, an interest which has carried through to today’s digital TV tests.
RICA continued to be managed by the CA until 1991 when it became a fully independent product research and comparison charity known as Ricability – pronounced ‘Ry-ka-bility’ – with its own board of trustees and program of work. Through its trustees Ricability maintains a close association with Which?, and the latter still provides part of Ricability’s core funding. The charity’s other main source of funding is the Department of Health, and it also receives money for specific projects from various other companies, funds and organisations.
Recent Ricability reports -which are available online as well as in print and audio CD or cassette – have included ‘Stay in touch’, examining fixed and mobile telecoms equipment and services for older and disabled customers; ‘What’s new’, a guide to the latest home gadgets and electrical goods for elderly and disabled people; and ‘A guide to buying a textphone’, for deaf people and people with impaired hearing. It will shortly be publishing reports on shopping trolleys and bath lifts.
In the area of consumer electronics, TV has been its strongest recent focus. Digital television can enhance a person’s viewing experience in a number of ways, and new features such as Audio Description (AD) can radically improve access to programmes by the visually impaired. However the digital switchover will require many people to buy and install new equipment; more channels mean more complex channel navigation systems and more buttons on a remote control. Some set-top boxes incorporate AD while others don’t; on some the feature is easier to use than others, some switch the feature off when the viewer changes channel.
In 2005 Ricability won the commission from the then DTI (now BERR) to carry out accessibility and usability testing on digital television products in anticipation of the digital switchover (www.ricability-digitaltv.org.uk ).
Since then the body has reviewed, recommended and produced detailed reports for consumers on more than a hundred iDTVs, set-top boxes, indoor aerials and digital television recorders. The government commission was renewed in December and testing will continue until at least 2009.
The ‘ease of use’ research is conducted for Ricability at the Milton Keynes laboratory of Intertek RPT (www.uk.intertek-etlsemko.com), a global leader in testing and certification of electrical products with whom both Ricability and Which? have a longstanding relationship
This week Ricability and Digital UK have announced the launch of a new badge that will be applied to digital television products to identify those that are easiest to install (see News, this issue). Ricability has also been consulted over product design, one example being the SKY Digital remote control; information from testing is also fed back to the manufacturers in order to assist them improve their future designs.
As everyday consumer products such as television sets converge with more sophisticated information and computing devices, Ricability will continue to offer a helping hand to people with disabilities in the information age.