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EZ Access: Making the world more accessible one product at a time

Law and Heideman

Trace Center ergonomist Chris Law (right) and Viking engineering manager Bill Heideman. Photo: Bob Rashid, Nov. 2000. (34K JPG)

"Disabilities exist only because of the way the world is currently designed. The fact that someone is unable to see wouldn't be a burden on them if the products they use were accessible to people who have low vision or no vision."

Trace Center ergonomist Chris Law's philosophy echoes the purpose of the UW-Madison College of Engineering. To help design a more usable world for all, Trace developed EZTM Access, a cross-product solution that makes everyday technology accessible for people who are aging or otherwise have functional limitations.

EZ Access operates on standard products, but adds inexpensive voice technology and other enhancements to provide easier use by people who are blind, have low vision or hearing, physical or reading problems. In one application of this technology, the Trace Center is working with telecommunications company Viking Electronics in Hudson, Wisconsin, to build this cross-disability solution into apartment entry systems.

In late 1999, Viking Electronics was invited by the City of San Francisco to discuss how public housing entry systems could be made accessible for individuals with sensory and physical impairments. After connecting with the Trace Center, Viking Engineering Manager Bill Heideman set forth to adapt a door entry system to include EZ Access.

"Viking makes about 100 different products right now, including apartment entry systems that are very simple to use," said Heideman. "In this project, we saw an opportunity to take our present technology and make it work in this new situation. We make apartment entry systems and digital voice announcers, so it was just a matter of marrying them. The Trace Center has been very helpful in outlining the necessary functions of the product."

At this point in the collaboration, Viking and the Trace Center are refining the techniques used in the system. "It's still very much a research effort at this point," said Law. "Eventually, we want to focus on production and implementation of this system. The mission of the Trace Center is to get as many products as we can in the public to be accessible for individuals with any type of disability, and working with more companies and more products helps us perfect a cross-product solution."

For Viking, the partnership means improved product research. "I think it would have gone a totally different direction — probably the wrong direction — if we hadn't worked with the Trace Center," said Heideman. "It's very difficult for us to do real-life testing on a product, and I think that's a big advantage of the Trace Center."

Law explained that it is vital for university researchers to collaborate with companies. "Supporting this link between UW-Madison and industry is something worthwhile," said Law. "It's been a positive experience and we appreciate what we've learned by working with Viking. It's helping us meet the mission of the Trace Center."