Smartphones – A Revolution in Payments for Those With A Disability

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

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

These are generally not thoughts most of us have very often, but for those with physical or mental challenges even the most menial of tasks become extremely difficult.

For the purposes of this blog we will only address how these difficulties are dealt with in the world of payments, specifically non-cash payments.

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

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

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

We posit that mobile devices are far better placed to enable cashless payment for those with a disability, but it’s clear that this will only be the case if considerable thought is put into the challenges from the outset. ‘Consistency of Interface’ (Dr. Gill’s primary interest), simplification of available technologies, and setting of individual preferences across all payment front-ends are pre-cursors to widespread adoption among the disabled.

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

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

Clearly we are only scratching the surface here, and while there is no solution that will ever make everyone happy, there is a LOT more that can be done to make life easier for the disabled. Mobile devices are not perfect, but they represent a considerable advantage over current payment technologies in terms of adapting preferences to an individual, with or without disabilities.

All we need is the attention this deserves.

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

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