Ensuring biometrics work for everyone

Too often products are designed without taking people with disabilities into account and with security technologies, the limited usability of some biometrics could have serious consequences


Senior man listening to music on laptop wearing headphones

Biometric technologies, such as fingerprint identification, retina scanning or voice recognition, can improve the experience, security and usability of electronic devices for many. All too often, however, those with disabilities are overlooked in the design process.

People with a loss of dexterity may have difficulty using biometric fingerprint technology, someone with a voice tremor could struggle with voice identification and blind people may find facial recognition does not work for them.

If people with disabilities are forced to discard biometric security innovations they could be less secure online. “Then people are less able to engage in a digital lifestyle,” says Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet. “This has a huge impact and leads to massive disenfranchisement.” So how can biometrics be made more accessible?

Biometrics must be inclusive

There is limited research into the usability of biometrics for people with disabilities. However, a recent study by US not-for-profit organisation MITRE found biometrics that required dynamic device positioning, such as holding a phone or laptop in a certain place in relation to your face, lack usability for people with limited or no vision, according to researcher and senior human factors engineer Ronna ten Brink.

Accessible products are not just easier for disabled people, they’re easier for everyone to use

In fact, a large number of us could be affected if digital identity technologies are not accessible, especially as we get older. Chris Millington, managing director of emporia telecom, which has been making simplified smartphone features for retirees, says: “For many of us there is disability, such as hearing loss, sight loss and loss of dexterity, in the ageing process.” 

Becca Scollan, senior human factors engineer at the MITRE Corporation alongside ten Brink, agrees. “You might not have a disability now, but you could injure yourself,” she says. “We all age which brings on greater potential for having a disability.”

Laws against discrimination not thoroughly enforced

Legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Equality Act in the UK, exists to prevent discrimination against disabled people. However, Christopherson says it is not always enforced. 

It’s not enough to strive to meet minimum requirements either, says Matt Webb, group head of digital at LAB Group, who has decades of experience working with technology providers. At the moment, too many tech developers are working towards the lowest possible bar, he says. “So if someone can’t use a fingerprint scanner, just give them a password,” he says. “That kind of approach is a worry.”

Technology companies gain from accessibility

There are many reasons technology companies should want to make biometric authentication accessible, without being forced to do so. “It’s good for your brand and you’ve got the purple pound,” says Christopherson. “Accessible products are not just easier for disabled people, they’re easier for everyone to use. Plus disabled users are massive advocates for tech, so you have a really invested audience.”

Technology companies should be supported in the process. “It’s about supporting organisations [to create accessible products],” according to Keir Haines, senior product designer at Designability, a charity that enables disabled people to live with greater independence. 

Offering choice of biometric identification

How can tech providers enrol disabled people in the development process? “It’s about building on a more diverse framework at the beginning of the design process,” says Dr Louise Hickman, senior research officer at the Ada Lovelace Institute. Accessibility should be woven in right from the start and not considered as an afterthought, she says.

Having more diverse teams would also help. “Ideally in the development team, but definitely in the user testing,” adds Christopherson. 

Another solution is giving users a choice when it comes to biometric accessibility and security. One of the recommendations from the MITRE report is to offer more than one biometric option for users. “Biometrics best practice is to offer a range of alternatives so people can choose from a range of options,” says ten Brink. Users can then select the biometric option that suits them best.

Biometrics and the potential for disabled people

Biometrics have the potential to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Christopherson says that, as a blind person, he struggles to use CAPTCHA, which relies on images to determine whether a user is human. “I’m often told I’m a robot,” he says. “But if CAPTCHA challenges were replaced by biometrics that would help a lot. For disabled people, biometrics represent a huge opportunity.”

Voice recognition can be a game-changer for people with physical disabilities or sight loss, while biometric logins, such as fingerprint, face or iris authentication, can work for people with physical disabilities or those with dyslexia who might struggle to remember passwords. 

“Accessing services in person can have additional challenges when you have a disability, so anything that allows you more access to services from wherever you are in the world is something which helps people with disabilities,” says ten Brink. 

But technology providers need to keep disabled people in mind when developing biometric innovations. It’s important to make products inclusive now. “If we don’t, then the only people who are going to be left using passwords are the disabled because they’ve not been catered for,” says LAB Group’s Webb. 

It’s not just people with disabilities who will benefit from more usable products. “It’s in everyone’s best interests to design with people with disabilities in mind because you’re generally making your products better,” Scollan at MITRE concludes.