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ISSUE 8, 2000

Section One: News:
- Rotating wheel Braille display could slash costs; Digital radio station spreads the word; Vodafone launches package for blind users; Dolphin dives into the net; WAI comes to Bristol; CAST forms alliance with Webable.

Section Two: Democracy
- Voting technology

Section Three: Focus
- Voice recognition

Section Four: Accessible gaming
- Educational games



A new form of refreshable Braille display for computers and other digital devices, in which characters are moved under the user's static finger � in contrast with current displays which are read with a moving finger - is about to be tested by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the US.

The Rotating-Wheel Based Braille display uses a system of small rods rising and falling, just as in current refreshable displays. But because the rods are beneath a rotating wheel a few inches in diameter, far fewer are needed to create what appears to be a long line of text.

The institute say its new machines should therefore be far cheaper than existing refreshable displays � in the region of 1,000 US Dollars, compared with current prices of around 10,000 Dollars � and more reliable as well.

Tests have shown that people reading Braille can quickly adapt to moving displays. However, for those who prefer to stick with stationary text, NIST is also working on two variations of the new system: one where the wheel stops and starts to create a series of stationary displays, and one where the display is in a line with a moving 'write head' underneath. Both could still be significantly cheaper and more reliable than existing systems.

NIST hopes to have a fully functioning prototype of the wheel working at its third annual electronic book workshop in Washington DC from September 25-27. 'Electronic Book 2000: Changing the Fundamentals of Reading' will examine e-book applications for libraries, education and government; digital rights management; and e-book standards and

The conference web site is at:

And for more information on the rotating wheel device see:
http://www.nist.gov/itl/div895/isis/projects/Braill e/


A new digital radio station devoted to the spoken word can now be received over the Internet as well as through the Sky Digital network (channel 942) and the Digital One Network. There are also plans to add alternative platforms including digital cable, digital satellite and mobile phone transmission.

'Oneword' is the first national radio station dedicated to the transmission of plays, books, comedy and reviews. It broadcasts from 6am to midnight, covering a wide range of genres from classic fiction to comedy and popular writing. Current programming includes The
Autobiography by John Major; The Inimitable Jeeves by PG Wodehouse; Last Orders by Graham Swift; Silas Marner by George Eliot; and Crisis Four by Andy McNab. Most books are read out unabridged, in a series of episodes.

The company's shareholders are The Guardian Media Group, Unique Broadcasting, audio publishers Chivers Communications, and audio book producers Heavy Entertainment.

The station's services are not specifically targeted at blind and visually impaired listeners, but it is keen to reach that audience. There are currently some problems with the accessibility of digital radio sets, not least their cost, but as prices fall and digital radio and other services become more accessible to blind users, the station could prove a flexible and enjoyable alternative to talking books.

Paul Kent, head of programmes at Oneword, says the service is set to become more accessible with greater 'signposting' of programmes on the channel itself, ensuring listeners are kept abreast of programmes due to appear later in the day or in the next few days.

The basic time slots are currently 15 minutes around peak times and 30 minutes at quieter times of the day or evening when people have more time to listen. There are even a few one hour slots. The station is a commercial enterprise and hence does carry advertising between and during programmes, although Kent says efforts are made to introduce the ads at natural breaks in the story to minimise disruption.

The station's web site is at:


Mobile phone company Vodafone has launched a new package specially designed for people who are blind or visually impaired. Developed in conjunction with the Queen Alexandra College in Birmingham, the package includes the Nokia 5110 phone at 9.99 UK Pounds, a choice of several tariffs and the normal monthly line rental.

The Nokia 5110 was chosen because it features large keys in varying shapes and brightlycoloured clip-on covers for easy identification by people who are partially sighted. It has a large back-lit screen for optimum visibility.

The package includes access to all Vodafone correspondence � including bills - in Braille or large print or on tape. All literature relating to the package, information sent with monthly bills and new product and special offer information will also be sent to customers in these formats.

For details call 0800 10 11 12 or fax 01295 815668, quoting 'Queen Alexandra College offer'.


Dolphin Computer Access, the leading developer of screen magnification, speech and Braille software, is to launch an Internet Service Provider aimed at blind and visually impaired computer users.

'Dolphinaccess.net' will be a low-cost service combining Internet access, free email accounts and web space with web content provision. The only charge will be that of a dial-up call rate, which will be kept to a minimum using the best telecommunications deal that can be struck, the company says. Dolphin is not intending to make a profit from the service, but simply to build a community of users.

"With an ordinary free ISP you may pick up a CD-ROM from your supermarket or wherever to install the software, but it is often very graphical and not accessible to a keyboard in any way", a spokeswoman for the company said. "Our installation software will all be accessible, and we will also feature content including links to sites of interest to blind and visually impaired computer users."

The service is due to be launched in the UK in the autumn and to other countries including Ireland, Scandinavia, Holland, Australia and the US by the end of the year. For more information call 01905 754577 or visit


The Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium
(http://www.w3c.org/wai) is to hold a series of three working group meetings at the HewlettPackard Laboratories in Bristol in the first week of October 2000.

The meetings include a workshop on web device independent authoring on 3-4 October
(http://www.w3.org/2000/07/diw) which will examine what accessibility guidelines should exist for content that will span multiple platforms such as web, digital television and mobile phones. The other two meetings will cover web content accessibility and web authoring tool accessibility.


CAST, the non-profit Centre for Applied Special Technologies and creator of the industry standard BOBBY free accessibility testing software, has announced a partnership with accessibility consultancy WebABLE.

Under the alliance WebABLE has become the centre's 'preferred agent' for corporate web site accessibility reviews, based around the BOBBY test.

Meanwhile WebABLE's chief technology
officer Mike Paciello has written a new book, "Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities", which includes tips and techniques on improving site accessibility. The book has a US focus, particularly on the legal side. It will be available by September 15, 2000 but can be ordered now from major online bookshops.

[Section one ends]



The recent elections in Zimbabwe gripped the world's attention with their explosive mix of politics and racial tension. But while coverage was largely focused on whether the vote was fair and free from violence, any particular difficulties that disabled people may have had in casting their votes went largely unnoticed.

There is some evidence, however, that people with sight loss were seriously disadvantaged by the organisation of the poll. According to the Dorothy Duncan Braille Library and
Transcription Service in Zimbabwe, one boy of voting age was told that only an election official could mark his ballot paper, and he left without knowing whether his vote was cast the way he requested. Another blind person tried to make sure the official marked her ballot paper as she requested by shouting out her choice so everyone in the room could hear.

These tales highlight some of the problems faced by disabled voters generally, and people with sight loss in particular, in elections all over the world. Can officials be trusted to cast the vote as requested? Can people cast their vote at all?

The UK is certainly not exempt from these worries, although there are technological developments in the offing which may make it easier for the visually impaired to vote fairly and securely.

Last year, the Home Office Working Party on Electoral Procedures produced its long-awaited final report
(http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/ccpd/eleclink.ht m). In it the group made a number of
recommendations to improve access to elections for disabled people including that large print posters of the ballot paper should be displayed and ballot paper templates or polling aids provided in polling stations.

It also recommended that national minimum access standards should be introduced to assist local authorities, returning officers and presiding officers in identifying and setting up accessible polling stations, although it saw no need for the standards to be made mandatory as it claimed accessibility issues are adequately covered under existing legislation. Finally, it recommended that the Home Office should issue new guidance to electoral administrators on all aspects of disabled access to electoral services.

Many of these recommendations became law this year when Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act 2000. Among a number of regulations designed to improve access for disabled people was that polling stations should have a 'device' to help the partially sighted vote without any need of assistance from the presiding officer.

What is a device? The Electoral Reform Society (http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk), which has condemned access arrangements for disabled people in the past, says the term could simply mean magnifiers that can be used to view ballot forms. "Even so, that is quite a big step given the terrible situation in which disabled people have found themselves in the UK," says the society's Press and Campaigns Officer Alex Folkes.

The new legislation also paved the way for a range of pilot schemes for new electoral procedures. The intention was that innovative new technologies could be tested in local elections with a view to applying them to national parliamentary elections at a later stage.

These pilot schemes have included all-postal ballots, mobile ballot boxes and extended voting hours. More significantly however, several areas have tested electronic voting procedures, allowing people to cast their votes over the Internet or using touchscreen computers in polling stations.

Evaluation reports on each of these pilot schemes can be found at:
http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/ccpd/cnu/evalcon t.htm

Meanwhile the Improvement and Development Agency for Local Government
(http://www.idea.gov.uk) is currently developing a national electronic register of voters (http://www.idea-infoage.gov.uk/er3.htm), which may act as the precursor to electronic voting in national elections. This in turn could be a more secure and accessible means of voting for blind and visually impaired people as well as those with other disabilities.

Even if electronic voting from people's homes does not become a reality for some time, touchscreen voting in polling stations holds great potential for people with sight loss. It may be possible to magnify the images on screen, for example, to make participation easier.

However, while the Electoral Reform Society says electronic voting may indeed improve accessibility, it says a range of problems have to be solved first, and it has established a commission to examine the issue more closely.

"Electronic voting has the potential to improve access for people with disabilities but hacking has the potential to throw the whole system into chaos and this issue needs serious
consideration," says Folkes. Of even more concern to the society is equality of access. "Only around 10% of the population are online which is a very small minority," Folkes says.

[Section two ends]



This summer, IBM announced the release of a string of new voice recognition products designed to improve access to the internet by speech alone. From the hype surrounding the launch of these products - including the WebSphere Voice Server and Embedded
ViaVoice - you would be forgiven for thinking they would usher in a period of truly hands free computing.

IBM has described voice and multi-modal access to information as the 'natural interfaces', and would seem to be a boon for blind and visually impaired technology users. But as we reported in our last issue (E-Access Bulletin July 2000), the situation is not that clear-cut.

Technology consultant Nuala Davis of
AbilityNet (http://www.abilitynet.co.uk) says: "While you may soon be able to check stock prices and football scores over the internet using your voice alone, the leap to hands-free home computing is still some way off for the vast majority of people. Generally, we would advise people to have a basic understanding of computers and to have used a screen reader before they attempt to use any voice recognition software."

Davis says AbilityNet frequently hears from people who have unrealistic expectations for voice recognition in computing, many of them well-meaning relatives making enquiries on behalf of relatives who have recently lost their sight and want access to the internet.

"As long as we take the time to explain why being familiar with computing is essential, then most people understand," says Davis. "Even sighted people using voice recognition for the first time need a lot of training."

For example, you can't simply say to a computer, 'send an e-mail to my Dad', and have it do the rest, she said. Only voice commands that correspond to existing menu or keyboard commands can be used.

Many who have not used a word processor before will not know what the term 'bold' means, so coping with an error message would certainly cause problems. Simple but essential commands such as those used to files or 'Save as' in word processing packages like Word are another source of potential difficulty. And even using the best voice recognition applications currently available, computer users still need to be familiar with basics such as drop-down menus, check boxes and help dialogue boxes.

Voice recognition also has its limitations for those already used to keyboards. Software can misinterpret a pause during dictation, and users can then find it a struggle to return to the file they were working on.

Clive Bradbury of T & T Consultancy
(http://www.tandt-consultancy.co.uk), a supplier of voice recognition software for people with disabilities, says that while some packages are very powerful, it is the human input which causes most frustration.

He cites the case of one user to highlight how different regional accents can also lead to mistakes: a Geordie was using voice recognition at work, and needed to refer to industrial crane 'loads', but because of the person's accent the computer consistently misinterpreted the 'load' as 'lord'. And the simple phrase "isn't it?" can be a source of frequent dictation error as it is spoken in so many different ways by different people - innit?

Bradbury agrees that it is much better if users come to voice recognition with some keyboard skills. "You do need some PC skills, but you don't need to be a PC expert," he says.

According to T And T, the best package available is 'NaturallySpeaking' from Dragon systems (http://www.dragonsys.com). People with visual impairment can use the software alongside the widely-used JAWS screen-reader from Henter-Joyce (http://www.hj.com), although a further piece of software � JawBone � is required to enable the two packages to work together.

This means the combined solution is not cheap � with JAWS retailing at around 500 UK Pounds (plus the cost of a voice synthesiser), NaturallySpeaking Professional Version (required for use with JawBone) costing around 450 Pounds and JawBone a further 400 Pounds, the whole lot will cost around 1,350 Pounds plus VAT.

Naturally Speaking can be used to manipulate most text-based computer applications including email and Internet access software. It comes with a 10,000 word vocabulary and has the ability to place words in context, which means that where it is unsure about a word that has been dictated, it will look for a similar phrase where that was previously used. Users can also train the software to recognise any individual word precisely as they pronounce it, in an attempt to solve problems with accents.

Bradbury says most people adapt to dictation fairly quickly. Reports and more formal correspondence are usually composed first as users become familiar with dictation, and with practice users can format text, move the cursor and operate Naturally Speaking using their voice and only a few key stroke commands.

[Section three ends]



You can run for President of the US, journey to Mars or quest for Excalibur: as our recent series of articles on accessible computer gaming has shown, over the past couple of years a great variety of games have become available for people who are partially sighted or blind.

There is a surprising gap in this diversity, however: very few of these games are designed specifically for children, and even fewer are educational. In the UK, specialists in education for the visually impaired have found there is a wealth of useful software for children with learning difficulties, but almost no choice for children who are blind or have severe sight loss.

While there is no strict definition of an educational game, and many games could be argued to have educational elements, games with a strong focus on teaching are all but nonexistent in this country.

"I can't think of one game that is advertised specifically for blind children", says Fiona Balfour, computer teacher at the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh. "Almost all games depend on the user having at least some vision."

Balfour says many attempts to adapt games for children at the school have proved frustrating. While changes to keyboards and screen
magnification can improve accessibility, they can also make the game itself too challenging. Since a large proportion of her pupils have learning difficulties and sight loss, some adapted games remain inaccessible even though they are, in theory, playable.

Even so, she has had some success. The 'Thinking Things' series of games from Edmark (http://www.edmark.com) can be adapted for the visually impaired, as can a number of others available from the UK based R-E-M who
specialise in educational software (http://www.re -m.co.uk) and usefully have a quick reference table on their website which lists different software and games packages according to their suitability for different special needs groups.

Balfour says the most useful resource would be an adventure game for blind pupils which would stimulate problem solving skills. "I don't see why some sighted adventure games can't easily be adapted in this way, as giving children the ability to make choices in these adventures would be really interesting," she says.

The lack of educational software for the visually impaired appears to be a global problem: even in the US, where blind gaming has many devotees, there appear to be very few examples. However, there may be some cause for optimism about the future. In the course of its research for this article, E-Access Bulletin found that although there are very few products currently available, there are signs that some specialist companies in the US are beginning to focus their efforts on younger computer users.

PCSGames (http://www.pcsgames.com) is
operated and maintained by blind programmers and their products are fully accessible to blind computer users. The company offers two educational games for children, A2Z Key Finder and Mobius Mountain.

A2Z Key Finder is designed to teach early keyboard skills to toddlers aged between two and four. The game can be set to play a letter, number and a corresponding sound, and it also has a 'Follow the Leader' function which invites children to follow prompts.

Mobius Mountain is a maths adventure game which follows the format of the snakes and ladders board game, but instead of rolling dice for their turn, players must solve mathematical problems. The game has a series of difficulty levels, making it suitable for children from four to eight years old.

Both games are both Windows and DOS
compatible, and no special adaptive equipment is necessary to play them.

The American Printing House for the Blind (http://www.aph.org), established in 1858 and claiming to be the world's largest company devoted to the visually impaired, has developed two games for blind or visually impaired children, Math Flash and Talking Typer.

Math Flash is mathematics tutor for
schoolchildren which allows users to control the difficulty of the problems set, with the added flexibility for teachers to add problems into the exercises. Talking Typer for Windows is a typing tutor which instructs through lessons, practice and games. The game speaks a series of letters or words and waits for students to type, and can be used in a network. Both these games are for those aged six and over and require no special access software.

In all, though, these few US examples show how far there is to go, particularly in the UK, before blind and visually impaired schoolchildren and their teachers have a decent choice of computerised learning tools. We await
developments with interest.

[Section four ends]


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Copyright 2000 Headstar Ltd

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[Issue ends]