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Screened Out? by Clive Lever

(Note:  This article appeared in the BCAB Newsletter of Spring 2018.)


Imagine going into a restaurant, and when you are shown to your seat, you have to ask what payment method they accept before deciding whether you can eat there? Because a growing number of restaurants expect their customers to pay by keying their PIN into the flat touchscreen of an iPad, this nightmare is in danger of becoming a reality for many blind and partially-sighted shoppers, travellers and restaurant goers, and for people with other impairments too. People have told me: “I would hate having to faff around with a touchscreen! It would make me feel incredibly stressed, people in the queue would shout at me and I’d end up fleeing in floods of tears then ranting about it on Twitter!”

When Chip and PIN machines became commonplace, many blind and partially-sighted people felt alarmed that they would not be able to use them. They feared that their introduction could make it difficult for them to shop for goods and services. However, for many, they represent a far more convenient payment method than having to sign cheques whilst at the front of a queue of busy and sometimes impatient fellow customers.

Recently, however, a member of an Email discussion list comprised of blind and partially-sighted people wrote to highlight the problem. Some retailers are now asking their customers to type in their PIN numbers on the flat touchscreen of their company’s Smart device. Whilst most such devices, including iPads and Android tablets have built in speech output, the company rarely, if ever, activates it on its own devices. Nor should it be expected to, since this would result in its customers’ PIN numbers being announced through the device’s speakers, thus compromising security. Not only that, but flat touchscreens also present access difficulties for people with other impairments too. These include people with manual dexterity problems, people with reduced sensitivity in their fingers due to the onset of diabetes, people with Parkinson’s disease, and people with dyslexia.

The following message drew sight-impaired people’s attention to the problem:

“A friend of mine, who has good partial sight, has been telling me about a problem she had when wanting to pay for a meal with her bank card at a newly opened restaurant. She was handed an iPad to put in her PIN, but although she uses one anyway, in this case, the screen fore and background colours were such that she couldn’t see to do it. In the end, she asked the waiter to input the numbers. If she hadn’t been prepared just to let the waiter do it, I wonder what the legal position would have been if she definitely had, what is still in the vast majority of places, the means of paying her bill, but through no fault of her own was at the time unable to. The waiter was apparently embarrassed and uncomfortable about being entrusted with her PIN, and straight away reported the issue to the proprietor.

I suppose another solution that would require some trust on the part of the restaurant this time, would be for her to go out and get money from a cash machine. From my point of view, that too could be very difficult, just finding any ATM and in particular one that had the headphone socket. Is this the beginning of a return to signing chits with bunches of carbons where, half the time, my signature doesn’t come out?”

As the discussion developed, then spread to other Email groups populated by blind and partially-sighted people, it became clear that this was not an isolated instance. One person wrote to tell of two very different experiences in two restaurants:

“I have also had this aggravation in at least two Peterborough restaurants. In one of them, the staff actually used some creative thinking, and split the bill into three payments that could be made using Contactless. Fortunately, no fraud protection systems from the card company kicked into screw things up, which was my concern about doing it that way. But it worked!

In the other one, however, the staff were extremely unhelpful, and had no idea how to get round the problem, which – as I was out with a mainstream group – was to say the least rather frustrating and embarrassing.”

It also came to light that restaurant bills were not the only type of payment which blind and partially-sighted people have struggled with to make payments because of the use of flat touchscreen technology. One correspondent wrote:

“I was in an Apple Store and their keypad was completely flat so I couldn’t use it. It took me by surprise and, needless to say, I didn’t have £700 in cash on me! I think the Store might have machines that are totally flat, and where I take my daughter horse-riding, they use an iPad so I couldn’t put my PIN in. I suppose I could have asked them to put VoiceOver on but I didn’t have any headphones with me, and it actually took me by surprise. So I get round it by booking her lessons before I go, and pay over the phone.”

Another writer wrote to say:

“I came across a Chip and Pin device on an aircraft that was a touchscreen. I had to tell my son my PIN in order for him to make the payment using my card.”

This begs the question as to what he would have done if he’d been travelling without a sighted companion, as sometimes happens. This problem isn’t entirely confined to the use of iPads. Some people have encountered chip and PIN machines with flat touchscreens not usable by blind people. Nor is this an entirely new problem. One correspondent wrote:

“A couple of years ago, when I worked at Sense, someone contacted us because they’d been confronted in a shop by a Chip and PIN machine with completely flat, touch sensitive keypad.

Sense contacted the industry body, which, if I remember rightly, was the Card Payments Association. Their response was decisive. Those devices were at that time not authorised for use in the UK. In their view, they were not sufficiently secure. But they were also very aware of the accessibility issues. They asked for the details of the retail outlet using it. The following week they paid them a visit and told them in no uncertain terms to change their chip and PIN machine.” The writer was not certain whether the use of tablets is, or is not, authorised.

It has also been pointed out that:

  • iPads may be less secure and at greater risk of being hacked than the Chip And PIN payment method
  • A blind customer has to take it on trust that the iPad they are handed is a company device and not someone’s private tablet
  • Nor does a customer know for certain what a third party is actually doing with the iPad
  • Not only are there plenty of people who are not users of smart technology, but if the customer uses an Android device and the retailer presents them with an iPad, they may not know what to do with it

Suggested solutions

My immediate thought would be to connect a headset to the device concerned, always assuming that it wasn’t so far locked down as to prevent using headset and the speech.” This may be difficult to do if you are paying for a meal in a noisy restaurant. Also, Different devices have different headphone sockets now, so there is always a risk that the headphones you bring will not fit the tablet which is brought to you. Clearly, Deafblind people would need a different alternative solution on hand, which goes to show that a range of solutions is needed, as there is no solution that will suit everybody. This is no different from the versatility needed to provide information in alternative formats, where a Braille document will be a boon to some and a bind to others, whilst audio or large print information will suit people for whom Braille is not the answer.

It has been suggested that people bring enough cash to pay for the goods and services they expect to buy. This may work when paying restaurant bills of under £100 for example, but is highly impractical when buying an item such as a Smartphone, which may cost upwards of £500. Some people find it difficult to get hold of large amounts of cash, because of the rate at which branches of banks are disappearing from the High Street.

The suggestion has also been made above that the retailer could break the bill down into smaller chunks, so that it could be paid with several contactless transactions. Again, this would work for payments amounting to less than £100, but couldn’t be used to pay for goods with significantly larger price tags. The process itself would be repetitive and laborious, and too many multiple payments in a row to the same payee could result in security alerts being raised on the customer’s bank account. One correspondent wrote: “On the issue of contactless payments, the level needs to be raised from £30 as soon as possible, though this is feasible with Apple Pay as it is more secure than the current card contactless technology. However, the terminals have the software, but some aren’t upgraded to lift the restriction on apple Pay payments yet.”

Another contributor to the discussion suggested that the customer could ask to use the “customer not present” facility. Restaurants often use this to take deposits for party bookings, wakes and so on; then the customer would just need to show them a credit or debit card.

Some companies allow their customers to pay using Apps which can be downloaded onto their own Smartphone. Wetherspoons’ app has been cited as a good example of this. There is, apparently, a trial by Barclay’s Bank of an App to be used with a phone which would enable payments in restaurants and similar places where card fraud is a problem. The bill amount is keyed into a device which is brought to the customer and then he/she just holds the phone over the device and the bill is paid. This will work for those who have Smartphones, as long as the App would be available on all platforms – Apple, Android and so on. However, other solutions, including some above, would still need to be made available for those who don’t have Smartphones. Ironically, one environment where the problem of paying for goods via touchscreens has been encountered is in some of the shops where people buy their Smartphones, such as apple franchise stores. In those cases, shopkeepers could be encouraged to download the App onto the phone before taking the payment for it.

Sometimes customers can pay for their goods or services over the phone. This works where a customer makes regular or fixed payments of known amounts, but would not be suitable for paying a restaurant bill, where the customer only knows the amount payable after the goods have been consumed.

It is clear that none of these solutions will be suitable for all affected disabled people. However, if retailers and service providers are creative and flexible, allowing a variety of payment methods, the chances are higher that each shopper will find an alternative payment method that works for him or her. If they cannot remain versatile, offering a variety of payment methods, it is unacceptable that an inherently inaccessible payment method should ever become the only way to pay for goods and services on the High Street, as this would prevent some disabled people from shopping independently and safely.

The Equality Act and other regulations

It may not be the exact letter of the law, but some guidelines on implementing the Disability Discrimination Act, and subsequently the Equality Act 2010 state that where a service provider has implemented a procedure, policy or practice that creates a barrier to access to their service buy disabled people, it is their duty to alter or remove the procedure or practice in order to remove the barrier. It could be argued, therefore, that if a service provider or retailer currently offers the use of an inaccessible flat touchscreen as the only acceptable method of payment, they may need either to stop using the inaccessible technology altogether, or put in place alternative, more accessible payment methods alongside it. One participant in the discussions reminded readers that:

“There is a duty in the Equality Act 2010 to be anticipatory towards the needs of all customers, including those with disabilities. Any business manager of a small company or a large one should have regard for this.”

This means that providers should consider the needs of their disabled customers from the outset. It is not a reasonable excuse to claim that no adjustment is in place because nobody has requested one before. Rather, they must strive to get it right first time.

One message, from someone who has worked in the retail industry, told that when he was in the sector, he had some documentation to say that Chip and PIN readers had to have physical buttons on them and, in most cases, there were only a few readers anyway. Where his employer organisation had touchscreen payment terminals, the Chip and PIN part of the system had to be a separate piece of equipment which could talk to the terminal but was separate, and the PIN process was operated from that separate device. There used to be a service you could complain to about systems which didn’t follow this. It may have changed now, but having a touchscreen only Chip and PIN reader would be very problematic for a number of reasons, not least the problem it would have for blind and partially sighted people. (See below for links to the Payment Services Regulator and the UK Cards Association.)

Pressing for change

  • Get a journalist interested enough to write an article in one of the major newspapers.
  • Try to contact Martin Lewis to see if he would take up the cudgel.
  • Alert Which? Magazine to the issue.
  • Tell friends, and friends of friends (and so on) via Social Media.
  • Get an item on Radio 4’s In Touch, or, since the issue could also affect people with disabilities other than vision impairment, You And Yours
  • Write an article, or do an interview for E-Access Bulletin
  • Include an item on the BCAB podcast
  • Last but not least, raise awareness of associated exclusion issues with appropriate regulatory organisations

(UK Cards Association, Payment Systems Regulator)

Note to blind consumers: On no account divulge your PIN number to the staff taking payments from you, and don’t let your credit or debit card out of your hand. They may not be allowed to ask you to do either.

Further reading

Canadian blogger Geoffrey Stark was writing about the epidemic of inaccessible touchscreens to blind consumers as far back as 2010

In America, a chain of restaurants was sued for being inaccessible to blind people because of its excessive reliance on touchscreen technology

Read more at:

An American company named Ergonomic Solutions also outlined the problems faced by blind and partially-sighted consumers unable to access required touchscreens at the point of sale.

And Dr John Gill, known to many blind and partially-sighted people for the work he did whilst working for the RNIB, was writing about the merits and drawbacks of touchscreens as far back as 2000.

See also

BBC News- Barclays Android App Makes £100 Contactless Payments

It would be worth finding out whether the Android App would make it possible for vision impaired customers to pay using a shop’s or restaurant’s Apple devices, or whether Apple have anything equivalent under development.

(Newsletter Editor’s note: contributors to Clive’s piece gave their permission for comments to be reproduced, while others may be found on public Email lists.)