In an emergency, accessibility counts

Woman using her finger to touch a big table-like touch screen with big letters and one letter marked in green.

Since 2017, the two researchers at the Department of Computer Science have been carrying out research they hope will lead to emergency apps and websites being accessible to everyone.

In their evaluations of emergency information and communications technology (ICT), Chen and Gjøsæter have found that universal design practices like large buttons, high contrast text, and captions in many languages are often overlooked.

In emergency situations, hazards like smoke or quakes can create situational disabilities like blindness or difficulty moving that make universal design (UD) an essential part of effective emergency ICT.

Managing today’s disasters

The global pandemic has had a profound effect on all aspects of our lives and revealed serious shortcomings in our emergency preparedness. Over the past few months, emergency management practitioners have rushed to release apps to track and contain the virus.

In their haste, many of these developers are rolling out non-accessible apps and trying to add UD later. This not only undermines the app’s effectiveness and excludes vulnerable populations, but often ends up costing more time and money than if the app had been universally designed from the start.

If the whole area is burning, you don’t want to have to stand around for 15 minutes trying to report where the fire is. – Terje Gjøsæter

Situational disability

Designing an app that is accessible for someone who is permanently blind or deaf means it is also useful for anyone with a temporary or situational disability. 

The smoke from a fire may make it hard to see or the shaking from an earthquake might make it hard to press the right button. Gjøsæter, Chen, and University of Agder researcher Jaziar Radianti  describe these disabilities in a recent article as a spectrum from “situational” to “temporary” to “permanent”.  

For example, a new parent holding a child in his or her arms has a situational motor disability similar to the temporary disability of having an injured arm in a sling, or the permanent disability of having an amputated arm.

Similarly, being distracted or having a cataract can make someone situationally or temporarily blind, while being in a noisy bar or having an ear infection can make someone effectively deaf. 

“With COVID19, one issue is that the apps aren’t getting the information to new immigrants in their native language” says Chen. “This was a factor in the disease spreading more quickly through immigrant neighbourhoods.”

Around the world, there have been similar complaints that tracing and safety information has not reached people with disabilities. “They should be able to get equal information,” Chen insists.

“Video captions in multiple languages and websites that comply with accessibility standards go a long way to protecting people from the spread of disease.”

Toward greater accessibility

Language is not the only barrier to using many of these emergency management apps. Many of them have long and confusing registration processes and clumsy interfaces that exclude people who are not tech-savvy. As Chen puts it, ”if people can’t figure out how to use it, it doesn’t work.”

Chen, Gjøsæter and Radianti

Weiqin Chen, Terje Gjøsæter and their colleague Jaziar Radianti attending a conference. Photo: Private.

Universal design is also important for managing more commonplace emergencies like wildfires or flooding that rely on reporting from the public. Those systems need to be easy to use and accessible to be effective.

“With wildfires, firefighters can’t be everywhere at once, so the ability of the general public to help receive and share information for decision making and prioritising resources is essential,” explains Gjøsæter.

“The smoke from fires and the need to move quickly can create situational disabilities that make it difficult for people to use their phone. If the whole area is burning, you don’t want to have to stand around for 15 minutes trying to report where the fire is.”

In emergency situations like these, communication becomes more complex. At the same time, there is an urgent need to convey accessible information about how to avoid danger. Accessible communication can include—audio, video, text, and relevant languages— to ensure that no one is excluded.

Testing technology and improving policies

In an ideal situation, all ICT for emergency management would follow universal design best practices. There are EU and Norwegian laws like the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Act and web standards like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG2) that require UD implementation. In practice though, universal design is rarely prioritised in the design process.

Chen and Gjøsæter are working to change this. They have been organising workshops and special tracks in universal design of ICT for Emergency Management at the prestigious International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM).

They are also involved in the Universal Design of ICT track of the master’s in Applied Computer Information Technology at OsloMet.

Their goal is to ensure that the next generation of ICT designers understand the need for implementing universal design in their products and are qualified to do so.

Video captions in multiple languages and websites that comply with accessibility standards go a long way to protecting people from the spread of disease. – Weiqin Chen

There is not a lot of existing research on universal design of ICT for Emergency Management, but after reviewing research papers, they have created a research agenda outlining future directions.

They are now focusing on how situational disabilities can make it difficult for people to assess their environment and act in a disaster, and how universal design of ICT can mitigate this. To succeed in their research, they need input from all stakeholders, including people with disabilities.

One of these stakeholders, Chen and Gjøsæter’s student Siv Tunold, is blind and has been evaluating emergency apps in collaboration with the two OsloMet researchers. Tunold found that while maps are an essential part of helping managers locate people at risk and sending out information, they are also notoriously difficult to adapt for people with disabilities.

Most mapping apps even struggle in simple adverse conditions like bright sun and can become completely unusable in an emergency. Making maps accessible improves the effectiveness of emergency managers and responders while also helping people with permanent or situational disabilities.

COVID-19 tracking app

Already hampered by a troubled rollout and ultimately recalled over privacy concerns, the effectiveness of Norway’s COVID-19 app, Smittestopp, was also reduced by difficult-to-use interfaces and limited language options.

Norwegian authorities acknowledge that even they neglected universal design principles in their hurry to release the app to the public:

“The development work has moved very quickly, and we regret that the app is not yet universally designed. The app is now under continuous testing, and we will incorporate improvements continuously. This is a high priority in the future.”


Fruitful cross-disciplinary collaboration

Chen and Gjøsæter are currently working closely with emergency management experts.  The researchers and the experts have learned a lot from each other. “I had very little understanding of emergency management when we started,” says Chen.

This kind of cross disciplinary work is often very difficult, as different groups use different terminologies. “We have managed to work well as a team and learn from each other,” Chen continues. “This has led to good results”.

This ongoing collaboration will help the emergency management experts to better understand universal design and more easily incorporate it into their technology in order to make these lifesaving apps more effective—not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone.

Over the past few years, the pair have been steadily building up their knowledge base. They have partnered with the Centre of Integrated Emergency Management ( ) and their colleague Jaziar Radianti ( of the University of Agder. They are now looking to external funding sources like the Norwegian Research Council as they seek to expand their research.


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Universal design research group

  • Universal Design of ICT (UD-ICT)

    This research group focuses on better understanding of the ICT challenges faced by diverse users in diverse situations, and also designs, develops and evaluates ICT systems with users to ensure universal design.

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Published: 22/07/2020
Last updated: 04/01/2021
Text: Matthew Davidson
Photo: Benjamin A. Ward / OsloMet