Braille-enabled vending machines for visually-impaired

Photo used for illustration purposes only

This article is written in conjunction with the International Day of Persons with Disabilities which is annually celebrated on Dec 3.

KUALA LUMPUR – Visually impaired people face a number of visual challenges every day, from reading the label on a canned drink to figuring out if they are at the right bus stop.

But despite having fellow Malaysians who are disabled, many of the infrastructures and facilities are not disabled-friendly.

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According to the Ministry of Health’s National Eye Survey conducted in 2018, the prevalence of low vision among the general population is 2.44 per cent while blindness is at 0.29 per cent. This means that 800,000 Malaysians could be partially sighted, whereas almost 95,000 are blind.

Accessibility and Advocacy Executive at the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB) Siti Huraizah Ruslan when contacted by Bernama recently, cited a simple example of a regular food or drink vending machine located in almost every neighbourhood that is easily accessible to able-bodied people, yet does not accommodate visually-impaired people.

Such a barrier faced by the visually-impaired community has equally impeded their access to vending machines serving refreshments in public spaces, she said, noting that, they are also hustling with their life’s commitment and oftimes, they do not have time to go to any cafetaria to grab their meals or drinks.

The painful reality

Siti Huraizah who is also a committee member at the Society of the Blind in Malaysia (SBM) said, such reality is painful for herself and her friends who are visually-impaired, hence making it also crucial for them to find ways to be independent and lead a normal life wherever possible.

“Most of the facilities provided, especially in Malaysia, do not feature universal design features that can be used by all walks of life. It hinders the visually impaired people from using the facilities independently even though this has been enshrined in the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 (Act 685).

“As we all know, the visually impaired are not able to see clearly but we use other senses to live life just like those who are visually impaired.

“So, when we speak in the context of a vending machine, it needs to be equipped with braille to be read by touch and spoken announcements to be heard,” she said, adding that, for those with limited vision, the use of colour contrast on the lights on the buttons is important to make it easier for them to distinguish the functions provided.

Early this month, the MAB teamed up with a leading food and beverage vending operator Atlas Vending, to roll out a pilot programme for drink vending machines specially equipped with additional assistive features to enable accessibility for visually-impaired customers.

The vending machines, which were certified by the Malaysia Book of Records on May 28 this year as the first braille-enabled vending machines in Malaysia, will carry some of the popular bottled and canned drinks such as Wonda Coffee and Chill Soya Bean. Audio instructions are also incorporated for all visually-impaired users to purchase drinks, with cash and cashless payment options.

Equipped with Braille plates

Elaborating on the historic collaboration, Siti Huraizah said all 11 vending machines have been deployed across the Klang Valley, including around Brickfields area. The locations were also chosen in consultation with the MAB, with the identified locations being places where the visually-impaired travel back and forth to MAB for work and social purposes.

“For ease of access, the machines have been equipped with braille plates as well as indicator lights and motion-sensor triggered audio instructions. The vending machines’ assistive features were designed and tested in collaboration with MAB’s Access team, which specialises in evaluating accessibility functions for the visually-impaired.

“This is to ensure that the special features are well-suited to the needs of visually-impaired consumers, although the vending machines also retain typical features for the use of other consumers.

“For the partially sighted, they may be able to perceive colour and light, and even movement and form, thus the indicator lights on the machines are a helpful assistive tool, in addition to the braille plates and audio instructions for all visually-impaired users,” she explained.

MAB Chief Executive Officer George Thomas said the collaboration is part of the organisation’s aim to educate and create equal opportunities for visually-impaired persons, to enable them to enjoy the same quality of life as the sighted.

“If there is no such assistive technology for vending machines available, people will surely not realise that our visually-impaired members face barriers in performing seemingly simple tasks that sighted persons may not give a second thought to, like purchasing a can of drink from a vending machine without assistance,” he said.

Increasing accessibility

Head of Marketing & Ancillary Business at Atlas Vending Amy Gan said, the initiative is in line with the company’s aim to reduce barriers facing the visually-impaired community, as the company targets to progressively increase accessibility for people with special needs, enabling them to gain access and improving their purchase experience.

“We are extremely delighted that this collaboration has come into fruition after months of working with the team at MAB from conceptualisation to prototype testing, and to the actual rollout. At each step, the feedback and suggestions from the MAB team were studied and incorporated to ensure that the final design of the machines would be truly convenient for visually-impaired customers.

“Details such as the spoken speed of the audio instructions and colours of the indicator lights were crucial guidance for us, helping the Atlas Vending technology team to improve the physical design and software features.

“Furthermore, we have been in business of dispensing delight for the past 40 years, so this initiative to improve inclusivity by progressively increasing accessibility using technology is another milestone for us, as we are also are looking forward to expanding the rollout further where there is a demand or a need from the community,” she said.

The existing assistive features for the visually-impaired customers can be adapted to various types of vending machines, not just for selling drinks, she said, noting that “it is certainly possible to introduce braille-enabled vending machines for selling food products in the near future.”

“The braille-enabled vending machines have been well-received and we look forward to working with NGOs like MAB and other partners to further increase accessibility to vending machines and expand the number of machines in use. We are also currently exploring the introduction of vending machines designed for other customers with special needs, such as wheelchair users,” Amy added.