Section One:

News: Confusion mars introduction of TV licence fee discount; Qualified

welcome for education access rights; People with disabilities less likely

to have internet access; Virtual think-tank debates technology design;

Play time.

Section Two: RNIB Information Society Advisory Group

Section Three:

The web - speech-enabled portals



Widespread confusion about how to claim the new 50% television licence

fee discount for blind people, and about who is eligible, has been reported

following the government's announcement of the discount in February.

The discount - to run from 1 April 2000 - was widely welcomed as a huge

improvement on the previous discount for the blind of a mere £1.25. However,

confusion has focused on whether the discount applies only to licence holders;

how people can apply for the new concession; and whether those receiving

the old discount qualify automatically for the 50% reduction.

Diane Evans, Information Officer at the Ty Clyd Independent Living Centre

for disabled people in South Wales and herself registered as blind, told

E-Access Bulletin that her own enquiries to the responsible government

agency, TV Licensing, on behalf of the people at her centre, had not received

a satisfactory response.

"When I telephoned the TV licence people I was told that there was no set

procedure for someone to claim the 50% reduction. After several hasty conversations

I was told that people who were already claiming would receive a form through

the post and they would have to take this with a copy of their registration

certificate to the post office or send it to them. I did point out that

they were sending forms to registered blind people and some of them would

not always have someone on hand to fill in the form. They then said that

the post office could fill in the form.

"The next problem is that a large proportion of the registered blind with

us have not claimed before because it was not worth all the hassle for

the small sum of money they offered - myself included. This seemed to throw

them into a panic and they asked if I would send in a letter to customer

services. Which I have done and as yet, still await a reply."

The RNIB, which also sought clarification from TV Licensing on behalf of

its members after receiving a large number of enquiries, said the fact

that some Post Offices had not been briefed about the new discount prior

to the announcement had compounded uncertainty for some people.

TV Licensing has now offered clarification on some of the outstanding points.

It says that all applicants must be registered blind to qualify for the

new discount, and that proof of registration therefore must be shown at

the Post Office where most people buy the licence. If applicants currently

pay for their licence by Direct Debit they should telephone TV Licensing

on 0845 602 3334, who will advise them how to send in their blindness certificate

to obtain the discount. People who received the £1.25 concession prior

to the introduction of the new discount do need to re-apply.

The discount applies to all households where there is at least one person

who is registered as blind. Refunds will be available for people who have

purchased new licences prior to the announcement.

The government also announced in February that all people over the age

of 75 are eligible for a free licence from November 1. People who are registered

blind and who also are or will be over-75 at that time are able to purchase

a part-licence with the 50% discount to run up to November.

However, Ms Evans says she is still waiting for a proper response to her

queries. "I have yet to hear back on whether there is any information on

the scheme that I can obtain in a medium that our clients can use, such

as large print. And I still have concerns about people who pay by Direct

Debit having to send their certificates in by post - what happens if they

go missing?"


Disabled students have given a qualified welcome to UK government plans

to guarantee disabled people new rights to technology and tackle discrimination

in the education system.

The draft Special Educational Needs and Disability Rights in Education

Bill, published last month, is designed to plug the hole left by the Disability

Discrimination Act (1995), which excluded education. It aims to introduce

enforceable civil rights for disabled people in education, including improved

access to technology.

The National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, Skill, predicts that

institutions will need to examine technology provision in a number of areas

including all electronic curriculum materials; all learning and teaching

tools provided electronically; computing and intranet provision for students;

the library; information technology support services; and institutions'

web sites.

Under the new regime institutions will be forced to make reasonable adjustments

where 'any arrangements, including physical features of premises, for services

place a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage.' Unjustified less

favourable treatment will also be unlawful.

Examples cited include special training in new technologies and extra provision

such as voice recognition software for those who cannot use standard hardware

and applications; and a suggestion that blind students should be given

a list of all written articles that are required reading at the beginning

of each year so that libraries can arrange for these to be put on audio


"The bill will have a big impact on technology provision," said Skill Policy

Director Sophie Corlett. "Increasingly we are aware that scant attention

is being paid to accessibility." However, the body is seeking a number

of changes, including extension of the new rules to funding councils, inspection

agencies, professional bodies and work placement providers, all of which

it argues have a crucial role in influencing student education.

Skill also says the bill does not offer students on work placements enough

protection. "We are coming across more and more students who are being

refused work placements or refused entry to a course which has work placements

because they are disabled," said Corlett.

The Bill can be seen at:



People with disabilities are far less likely than others to have access

to the internet or own a computer according to research published in the

US last month.

While more than 50% of people who have no disability have a computer in

their household, the equivalent figure for those who are disabled is just

24%. The gap in internet access is even more pronounced. Almost three times

as many people without disability have access to the net at home compared

to those who are disabled - 31% versus 11%. Only 4% of disabled people

have access to the internet outside the home compared to more than a fifth

of those who are not disabled.

"People with disabilities are perhaps the single segment of society with

the most to gain from the new technologies of the electronic age," says

report author Stephen Kaye from the Disability Statistics Center, University

of California San Francisco. "Yet they have among the lowest rates of use

of these technologies."

The researchers argue that the huge difference cannot be explained by the

fact that the disabled are more likely to be elderly and therefore less

likely to use new technology. Significant differences in computer ownership

and internet access were also found for the age group 15 to 64.

Kaye said the differences in income can explain much of the difference

in access rates, as those who are disabled may need specialised software.

However, he does predict higher access rates among the disabled in the

future. "The advent of lower-cost computing - including the free computers

that come with extended subscription to an internet service provider -

may help to make this technology more available," he says.

Computer and Internet Use Among People with Disabilities can be found at:



The role of governments worldwide in encouraging accessible technology

design was a key topic of debate at Boosting the Net Economy 2000, a global

'virtual think-tank' hosted on the web last month by the publishers of

E-Access Bulletin, Headstar, with sponsorship from Bull.

Think-tank member Professor Elsa Rosenblad of the Chalmers University of

Technology, Sweden, said that governments and intergovernmental bodies

had an important role to play in ensuring that the design of technology

products was accessible to all parts of society, including older people

and disabled people, although a direct legislative approach was not desirable.

"I don't think it is successful to force any kind of technical development.

But I can see two ways of reaching the same goal. One is enforcement using

ISO-standards, the other is research to create new knowledge of the user's


"ISO-standards, especially ISO 9241 and ISO 9355 regarding ergonomic requirements,

could be used for control, criteria and evaluation of products at governmental

and other greater purchases. But probably a more successful way of achieving

products that are accessible to all would be governmental investment in

research of new knowledge of the user's situation. The severe problem of

accessibility is the lack of knowledge on the part of the designer of the

cognitive and physical abilities of the individual user. If this knowledge

was available, much better products would reach the market, as customer

orientation is an aim today."

A full report of the online debate is due to be posted onto its web site

on 10 May. See:



It's not only dull work-related software that can be made accessible: 'Accessible

Games' is a library of simple computer games designed for blind and visually

impaired computer users. Games on offer include WordPlay, Battleships,

BlackJack and Yahtzee, and they interface directly with speech synthesis


The games require you to download the Visual Basic 6.0 run time library

first, a 1 Megabyte download. After that trial versions of the games can

be downloaded for free, and after evaluation the registered versions are

pretty cheap (around 10 US Dollars each). See:




The need to base technology initiatives around individuals' social needs,

rather than the technologies themselves, was stressed at a special meeting

of the RNIB's Information Society Advisory Group on 5 April.

The meeting was designed to take stock of the institute's work promoting

access to information and communications technologies and help set future

priorities. Ian Bruce, RNIB Director General, said: "For blind people to

take charge of their lives they need the same information as everyone else,

and additional specific information. This is particularly important nowadays

Fazilet Hadi, RNIB Director of Policy, said it was important to anchor

new technology projects in widely-used current technology systems, like


It was also important to understand the differences between the needs of

various types of blind and visually impaired technology users, Ms Hadi

said. "Have they been visually impaired all their lives, or have they had

to find new ways of working in the forties, or new techniques in their


Keith Gladstone, RNIB Head of Information Systems, said everyone was now

surrounded by far more information than they can cope with, so the ability

to scan and filter information was vital. For blind and visually impaired

people, however, that ability is vastly reduced, making it much harder

for them to deal with 'information overload'.

An increased number of information channels, for example with digital television,

the increasing specialisation of each channel and the growth of unmediated

or unmoderated streams of information via the internet are all adding to

the burden of choice, he said. It was important to understand the real

impact all these changes are having on peoples' lives and address the

issues arising, which may or may not involve technology directly.

John Gill, Chief Scientist in the institute's Scientific Research Unit,

and Steve Tyler, Digital (ICT) Access Manager, listed some of the key technological

developments likely to have a major influence on the lives of blind and

visually impaired people in the next decade. They included:

* the convergence of mobile communications, digital television and web

services so that it becomes increasingly difficult to tell one technological

device from another;

* the development of interactive public services via digital television,

such as health services;

* the development of digital radio (Digital Audio Broadcasting), with on-screen

displays, and its convergence with the Internet and Internet-based radio


* the use of mobile telephony as a location system, with accuracy likely

to be refined to a few metres in the near future;

* the growth in a 5-10 year timescale of visual substitution systems, which

capture information using cameras, process them rapidly using special algorithms

to extract key features and then present them to users in a multi-modal

display; and

* in the longer term, the development of direct cortical stimulation to

mimic sight should advance, although this field currently seems stalled

because of an imperfect understanding of how the brain works.

There were also important social background trends to bear in mind in the

medium term, Gill said. These included demographic changes which would

see more older people, with multiple sight problems such as poor contrast

sensitivity and poor accommodation. Inclusive design of systems like digital

television sets would therefore become even more important: if people had

to press buttons on a control and read a screen at the same time, for example,

such multiple sight problems would become a severe handicap.

Unfortunately, competitive pressure on manufacturers is so high that they

have little time or resources to make their technologies accessible, he

said. This meant legislation to enforce accessibility would be needed,

but before that could be put in place further work was needed to establish

scientific standards on which to base such legislation.

Tyler said that although the high-tech business arena is extremely complex

and fast-moving, the RNIB must make it a priority to deal with manufacturers

directly at the same time as pressing the government for legislative changes.

"We must sell mainstream access into business. Also mainstream development

is vital, because visually impaired people mainly access information through

ordinary, not specialist devices."

But as well as presenting access challenges, the web and other technologies

offered enormous possibilities for the RNIB in providing its own information

services, he said.

Stephen King, Director of the RNIB's Technical and Consumer Services, said

that in tackling access issues it was vital to take an integrated approach

which simultaneously combines researching user needs; finding technical

solutions; working on industry standards; and pushing for legislation.

"A technical solution on its own doesn't work, it's just a pilot. A standard

on its own doesn't work: it needs legislation. And a regulatory framework

on its own doesn't work, there needs to be a technical solution. So we

need to take an integrated approach."

It was also vital to spot and influence access issues very early on in

the development of a technology, he said, because technologies are designed

very early on. There was therefore a corresponding need to understand what

the requirements are from the blind and visually impaired community at

an early stage, based on solid research of how blind people use technology.

Without this, lobbyists could find themselves in the embarrassing position

of influencing a design only to find it did not actually meet a real need

after all.

There was also a need to influence the hearts and minds not only of politicians

but of the designers of new technology - many of them young people - to

make them want to participate. "If the 25-year-old who is designing an

interface for everybody to use does not understand what we need and want

to do it, it will not get designed in. So we need to work with industry,

work out how they are going to develop standards and influence them with

sound ergonomic research".

Finally, the RNIB should explore all possibilities to work closely with

international partners to draw in wider expertise and to help influence

an industry which is global, he said. The benchmark for future success

should be the current design of a telephone keypad, he said, which is universal

and was developed with input from the RNIB.

Colin Low, Vice Chairman of the RNIB, suggested that the RNIB should try

to influence the work of the new Disability Rights Commission, of which

he is a member. "The commission is an institution which the government

has created to move disability issues up the political agenda. We need

to take it at face value and work with it.

"Although I have to say that promoting inclusive design is not high up

on the commission's agenda, unless people like us do a bit of pushing it

might not get as high up the agenda as it should be." He said there was

a general tension within the commission over whether to put its weight

behind calls for new legislation or whether education and persuasion were

the way forward. The outcome was likely to be a combination - "advocacy

with teeth".

Initial conclusions of the ISAG meeting have been collated by Stephen King

in a discussion document to be placed before the RNIB's Policy Committee

on 10 May. After discussion this paper will lead towards a green paper

developed over the summer to feed into RNIB's strategic planning process

in the autumn.

The full text of this document is reproduced below: if you would like to

comment on it, or obtain copies of the various formal background papers

on technology and access issues which were considered by ISAG, please email

Pam Hichens on phichens@rnib.org.uk



We need to be careful to start with people and their needs and wants first,

rather than the technology. An overall framework of ensuring people can

carry on doing what other people do is a helpful way of prioritising.

We developed a broad framework around ensuring access and use of financial

and payment systems; communications systems; everyday cultural media and

events; the technologies used in everyday learning and employment; health

support information and systems; everyday living (shopping, transport,

housekeeping, eating out, etc); and citizenship. In all these areas we

anticipate change in the way people interact with technology over the next

few years.


The human intermediary, skilled in description, may become even more important,

and the explosion of available information may mean an information overload,

leading to the need for new strategies. There is the potential for significant

changes to the way we live, eg closing bank branches or less travel. The

concept of universal or inclusive standards of service are as important

as concepts of inclusive system and product design.


Because of the affordability issue and the demographics of people with

serious sight loss, many people we deal with will be using old technologies

for a long time. Particularly if the new technology proposes significant

new learning overheads. At the same time other segments are likely to be

early adopters of new technologies that bring significant advantages. The

PC is a good example of this. Digital TV is likely to be a much bigger

example. We are going to have to work with a long tail of old technologies.


Many of the existing technologies (mobile phone, PC, TV, Bank ATMs, etc)

still present major challenges but also benefits. And they will be with

us for many years. The barrier is training, enabling people to (continue

to) use. This is a huge resource issue still, enabling people to take advantage

of what is already there.


We need to understand technologies and their likely impacts early enough

in the development cycle to influence them. And develop user needs, perhaps

when few users know what the benefits may be. The key issue however is

to ensure we develop user needs from good research.


We concluded that no one approach is enough on its own. We need well developed

campaigns: for regulation, for hearts and minds, and for funding. We need

good human factors research. We need to have persuasive and expert consultants

there at the right time to give advice, we need technical solutions, and

as important, demand from consumers. We need to develop long term sophisticated

strategies and stick with them.


There was a general consensus that the changing face of broadcasting and

its new interactive dimensions was a priority area for us to increase our

efforts. This is likely to feed strongly into cultural, daily living and

financial inclusion. To do this we need to build on our industry contacts.


The other huge challenge is to develop new strategies for skilling people

to (re)learn how to use everyday technology, or adaptions that can help.

Though inclusive design may make things easier, the generality of training

and instructions assume visual feedback. Perhaps this is the major area

for us to develop our volunteer activity at the field level. This connected

to trained describers.


To deliver the complex and multi dimensional strategies needed, we need

expertise from right across the organisation. We have to get better at

working across the organisation. We also need to be able to move and respond

very quickly. Inevitably this will mean problems and costly mistakes and

blind alleys. But we have to empower people to act at the speed industry

and commerce are working to.


We have a lot of expertise and services around information and we should

build out from these. Our strategic intent is knowledge and expertise development

and beacon of good practice so we can campaign effectively as well as provide

service. Overall, building services from where we are is lower risk than

moving into new markets and new products.

We already act as a file translation intermediary (braille/large print/audio)

and we need to adapt this to adapting/enhancing all sorts of digital media.

We have an excellent web site, where we can develop chat rooms, emotional

support services, webcasting and other audio initiatives. We have expert

information design knowledge that can be developed into consultancy skills

as well as courses for delivery by us and others.

We have expertise in organising volunteers, where we could develop new

skills, and develop courses and structures for a new generation of information

intermediaries (readers, describers, etc). We have good contacts in the

broadcast media and arts communities that we can build on.


Influencing industry is probably now equally or more important that influencing

government. We need to develop these skills and build supporter networks.

This will involve behaving in a more "businesslike" way, which will be

a cultural challenge. Ideas such as "accessibility awards" in the industry's

own awards structure rather than our own awards such as See it Right.




A new breed of web portal that you can access by ordinary telephone - no

need for a 'web-enabled' mobile phone - is under development in the US

and set to cross the Atlantic, in a potentially valuable development for

blind and visually impaired web users.

Several big players have already explored the possibilities of voice access

to their e-commerce sites in the US including telecoms giant AT&T, the

online video store BigStar.com and the auction site Priceline.com. However,

it is now recognised that the potential of voice access extends beyond

e-commerce to new 'voice portals' - gateways to a whole range of information

online that can be accessed using a phone instead of a visual browser.

The services generally use an automated system that responds to a combination

of voice and key-pad commands. They can then translate the information

you give into commands to seek certain information from the internet, which

can then be relayed back to you using a computer-generated voice.

One of the first voice portals, launched this month across the US, is Quack.com,

which allows anyone to access specific information from the internet by

phone. Users dial a freephone number and speak to an automated host who

guides the caller to the information they want by asking simple questions.

Central to the service is its ability to offer 'personalised' information.

When users sign up, they key in preferences on the Quack.com web site which

then allows callers to automatically access information on specific share

prices, regional weather, specific sports teams and other topics via the


"While our service wasn't originally designed with visually impaired people

in mind, it has become apparent that it's very useful for that particular

group," Quack spokesman Alex Quilici told E-Access Bulletin. He said visually

impaired users have offered positive feedback and suggestions for additional


Information (which is channelled from a variety of different web sources)

is currently limited to news and lifestyle topics including the weather,

film reviews and news, restaurants, sports, stocks and shares, travel and

traffic news. Quack intends to offer more sophisticated services in due

course, including the ability to shop online. "As a result of the technology's

flexibility, the company can quickly add new applications and features,

and a range of new consumer services is currently in development," the

company says.

Just as impressive as the technology is the fact that Quack is free to

use. Calls are made to freephone numbers and registration is free. So where's

the catch? Although the Quack web site fails to refer to it directly, the

service does carry short advertisements which are slotted in depending

on what information is being accessed by the caller. However, Quilici says

that all ads are opt-in (in other words the user has an option to request

further details) and must be informative - "For example, if someone requests

a baseball score for the Minnesota Twins, the ad might be 'would you like

to know about the Twins upcoming home games?"

So when will the UK see its first voice portal? Given the companies involved

in voice access to the internet a UK appearance appears certain in the

near future. IBM, AT&T, Amazon.com and Deloitte and Touche are all involved

in developing the technology and it is inevitable they will be looking

to markets beyond the US in the next few years.

For more on Quack see:


* * * ISSUE ENDS * * *


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