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Remote controls

A remote control is an electronic device used for the remote operation of a machine. Due to the majority of modern devices being controlled by this kind of device, and the amount of function controls found on most modern remote controls, blind and partially sighted people and those with other disabilities often encounter difficulties with remote controls that render them inaccessible.

About remote controls

A selection of TV remote controlsA remote control can also be referred to as a "remote" or "controller". It is known by many other names as well, such as the "clicker", "channel-changer", etc. Commonly, remote controls are used to issue commands from a distance to televisions or other consumer electronics such as stereo systems and DVD players. Remote controls for these devices are usually small wireless handheld objects with an array of buttons for adjusting various settings such as television channel, track number, and volume. In fact, for the majority of modern devices with this kind of control, the remote contains all the function controls while the controlled device itself only has a handful of essential primary controls. Most of these remotes communicate to their respective devices via infrared (IR) signals and a few via radio signals.

Universal remote controls

A universal remote is a remote control that can be programmed to operate various brands of one or more types of consumer electronics devices. Low-end universal remotes can only control a set number of devices determined by their manufacturer, while mid- and high-end universal remotes allow the user to program in new control codes to the remote. Many remotes sold with various electronic devices include universal remote capabilities for other types of device, which allow the remote to control other devices beyond the device it came with. For example, a DVD player remote may be programmed to operate various brands of televisions.

The future of remote controls

Touchscreen remotes

A selection of touchscreen remotesThese remote controls feature an LCD screen that can be either monochrome or full color. The "buttons" are actually images on the screen which, when touched, will send infra-red signals out to control devices. Some models have multiple screens that are accessed through buttons on the touch-screen and other models have a combination of the touchscreen and "hard" (traditional) buttons.

Some models of the touchscreen remotes are programmed using a graphical interface program on a PC, which allows the user to customize the screens, backgrounds, buttons and even the actions the buttons perform. This "project" that is created is then downloaded into the remote through a USB cable or, in most recent models, by wireless.

Universal Remote Consoles

Wireless communication technologies make it feasible to remotely control devices and services from virtually any mobile and stationary device. A Universal Remote Console (URC) is a combination of hardware and software that allows a user to control and view displays of any compatible electronic and information technology device or service in a way that is accessible and convenient to the user.

A typical URC platform is a personal device, such as a PDA, mobile telephone, wrist-watch, braille-based note-taker, or other assistive technology devices. A URC can be operated in any one of a wide range of methods, including touch-screen, hard buttons, switches, speech and natural language. 

Possible devices to be controlled by a URC include TVs, VCRs, stereos, thermostats, microwave ovens, lights, and home security systems in the home environment; and information kiosks, ATMs, electronic directories, elevators, and copy machines in the public and work environment; as well as Web services such as online travel agencies, or world time services.

People with disabilities and their assistive technologies would be beneficiaries of the accessibility provided by a URC and as such a standard (ISO/IEC 24752:2008) has recently been written that will allow a target manufacturer to author a single user interface per URC platform that would be compatible with all existing and forthcoming URC platforms.


Problems encountered by disabled people and the ageing population using remote controls

Blind and Partially Sighted

Photograph of an elderly man looking at remote control keysThe decreasing size of remote controls means small keys and small labels that people with visual disabilities find inaccessible. Some people are unable to distinguish between certain colour combinations used on keypads.

Hearing impaired

Hearing impaired users cannot identify commands or controls that require hearing, so visual or tactile feedback when keys are pressed would be recommended.

Cognitively impaired

Some current remote controls have a huge number of keys for various functions. Those with cognitive impairments may have particular difficulty in learning the function of so many keys.

Physically impaired

Due to reduced mobility and manual dexterity lifting and carrying a remote control or pressing small keys may prove difficult for those with physical impairments.

Photograph of an eldlery person holding a remote controlAgeing population

Elderly people often experience changes in vision, hearing, dexterity and understanding as they age, therefore they may encounter issues with small buttons and labels, identifiying the function of keys and holding the remote control unit.

Checklist for Remote controls



  • Include basic keys for power on/off, volume control, mute, channel entry and channel up/down
  • Include accessibility keys e.g., for turning on digital subtitles and audio description
  • Keys should be well separated with generous spacing between them (at least 50% of the width of the key)
  • Keys should be large and differentiable by shape, size or texture
  • Distinct shapes must correspond to the icons on the screen
  • A raised tactile dot should be placed on the number '5' key without decreasing legibility of the visual marking
  • Provide tactual and audible feedback when a key is activated
  • Keys should be prioritised for inclusion on the remote control
  • The keys should be logically grouped
  • Provide pre-programmable keys for frequent functions
  • The keys should be placed in an intuitive position for single handed operation
  • The system must be error tolerant by providing a clear unambiguous key that permits the user to go back a step
  • Position keys in a way that is consistent with functions, e.g., position the channel up key above the channel down key
  • Keys should be operated independently avoiding double key pressing


  • Text and symbol labels should be clear, legible using an appropriate typeface and contrasted to the colour of the keys or background
  • Labels should be done in the maximum print size possible
  • Labelling should be durable and not rub off
  • Labels should be intuitive and standardised


  • Graphical symbols (such as icons) should be accompanied by text
  • An inactive space should be provided around each target

Physical characteristics and operation

  • The remote control has a fixed hand strap
  • The remote control has a textured grip
  • The remote control should be easy to hold by someone with a weak grip
  • There should not be parts which can easily come off
  • There should be consistent design of the user interface adhering to the relevant standards whenever possible
  • The remote control should be easy to operate on flat surfaces
  • The remote control should be easy to operate one-handed
  • The weight should be low if the users include children and older people. For interactive television applications, the user may need to hold the remote control for prolonged periods
  • The directional properties of the infra-red beam should be wide so that someone with poor manual dexterity does not lose signal
  • The remote control contains an audible or visual device that is activated from a base unit for easy location


  • Access to the battery compartment should be straightforward
  • Battery insertion should be simple

Instruction manuals

  • Use simple clear concise language
  • Have a table of contents and a good index
  • Be task orientated
  • Provide alternate formats (e.g. audio tape, large print)
  • Use a typeface with good legibility
  • Information contained in pictures should also be explained in the text
  • Provide information on what to do if the remote control does not work correctly, or the user is unable to understand the instructions (e.g. a telephone help number)



  • ANSI INCITS 389-2005 Information Technology - Protocol to facilitate operation of information and electronic products through remote and alternative interfaces and intelligent agents - Universal Remote Console
  • BS EN ISO 16201:2006 Technical aids for disabled persons. Environmental control systems for daily living
  • BS EN 60417:1999 Graphical symbols for use on equipment
  • BS EN 61603-7:2003 Transmission systems for audio and/or video and related signals using infra-red radiation. Digital audio signals for conference and similar applications
  • ISO/IEC 24752-1 (2008) Information technology - User interfaces - Universal remote console - Part 1: Framework
  • ISO/IEC 24752-2 (2008) Information technology - User interfaces - Universal remote console - Part 2: User interface socket description
  • ISO/IEC 24752-3 (2008) Information technology - User interfaces - Universal remote console - Part 3: Presentation template
  • ISO/IEC 24752-4 (2008) Information technology - User interfaces - Universal remote console - Part 4: Target description
  • ISO/IEC 24752-5 (2008) Information technology - User interfaces - Universal remote console - Part 5: Resource description

Further information