Welcome to the first edition of E-access Bulletin, an exciting new project sponsored by the Royal National Institute for the Blind, with further support from the National Library for the Blind and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. It is an email and web-only newsletter, covering all issues relating to the use of information and communications technology by blind and visually impaired people - issues of great topicality and vital importance, if the UK government is to achieve its ambition of building an inclusive 'information society'.

I hope very much you enjoy this newsletter.

Dan Jellinek, January 2000


The email newsletter on
technology issues for people
with visual impairment and blindness.


Sponsored by the Royal National Institute for the Blind
the National Library for the Blind
and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association www.gdba.org.uk

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Section One:
News: EU moves to ensure inclusive information society; Countdown to CSUN; New, improved BETSIE; Visual impairment web gateway planned; Contributions welcome.

Section Two:
New technologies: digital radio

Section Three:
Mobile telephony:
Wildfire from Orange, a voice-activated personal assistant

Section Four:
Web site accessibility: UK government boosts web access



The European Commission has launched a major new initiative - 'eEurope' - aimed at creating a socially inclusive information society, including a proposed new mandatory requirement for all government and other public service internet sites to be made accessible to the special access software used by blind and visually impaired people.

The move coincides with the Portugese Presidency of the EU - no coincidence, as Portugal is the first European country where web accessibility is already law. 'eEurope' focuses on ten priority areas, aimed at bringing every citizen online; creating a digitally literate Europe; and ensuring that the whole process is socially inclusive. Priority Seven is 'eParticipation for the disabled'.

Targets on accessibility, released for consultation, include:

"By the end of 2000: The Commission and member states should review the relevant legislation and standards programmes dealing with the information society, with a view to ensuring their conformity with accessibility principles. The Commission will [also] propose a recommendation to member states to take account of the requirements of people with disabilities in the procurement of information and communications products and services.

"By the end of 2001: The Commission and member states should commit themselves to making the design and content of all public web sites accessible to people with disabilities.

"By the end of 2002: The Commission will support the creation of a network of centres of excellence, at least one in each member state, that will develop a European curriculum module in Design-for-All to train designers and engineers."

The eEurope home page is at:
www.europa.eu.int/comm/dg13/eeurope/home.htm From here, one can access the eEurope consultation document - ironically available in Adobe pdf file only, not the most accessible of formats.

The Portugese internet accessibility group, PASIG, has set up an eEurope-People With Disabilities discussion group. You can find out more at: www.acessibilidade.net/eeurope/

* UK government boosts web access: section four,

this issue.


The countdown has begun to this year's vast annual 'Technologies and persons with disabilities' conference at the California State University Center on Disabilities, more commonly known as CSUN, to be held on March 20-25.

Among the many new technologies on display will be BrookesTalk, a specially adapted web browser for the blind and visually impaired developed by the School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences at Oxford Brookes University. BrookesTalk has functions that mimic sighted users' visual scanning of the web such as page summarisation, using grammatical techniques to provide an abstract about 20% the size of the page; keyword lists from a page; and overviews of web site structures. It also adapts search engines to create lists of 'pure' search results (stripping out ads or other extraneous material) which are easy to return to. See www.brookes.ac.uk/speech/

A team from the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia will demonstrate classroom applications of new techniques for Braille music notation including Tack Tiles (TM) Braille code for Music Notation and GOODFEEL (TM) Braille music transcription software. It says the techniques empower blind students to function in music classes on a level with their sighted peers, providing them an independence from tedious rote dictation or tapes which might limit their ability to progress.

A new 'virtual touch system' which displays virtual graphics through rounded pins on top of a special mouse will be on show from Israeli firm VirTouch. It provides tactile access to graphics, text, education programs, art, photography and tactile games, and displays text in regular alphabets as well as Braille.

A study of distance learning techniques for blind and visually impaired students - who can be uniquely disadvantaged by visually-oriented distance learning systems such as
videoconferencing - will be unveiled by the University of Northern Colorado. The internet is used as a central teaching resource, with a standardised navigation shell for the web so students do not feel "lost" each time they begin a new course; email lists; interactive customdesigned tutorials; discussion areas; and links to external assistive software.
See: http://vision.unco.edu/

Details of these and all other CSUN papers are at: www.csun.edu/cod/


BBC Online, the most popular web service in Europe, has released an improved version of BETSIE, the web-based system which translates its web pages into plain text without frames. The new version allows visually impaired users to alter the settings however they wish, changing the colour scheme or font size for best visibility.

BBC software developer Wayne Myers estimates that BETSIE is used to view around half a million BBC web pages every month. As well as the blind and visually impaired, he says users of BETSIE include an ever-growing number of people with portable handheld web access devices, who also require plain text output.

The BETSIE home page is at:


The National Library for the Blind is to co-ordinate the establishment of a new internet portal - working title 'Visugate' - providing access to a wide range of digitised information on blindness and visual impairment.

The NLB is seeking government funding for the project, which will involve the digitisation of information not already available in electronic formats, as well as links to existing digitised information on the web.


All contributions from readers to E-access Bulletin are extremely welcome, whether they be feedback about our coverage; ideas or requests for stories; or articles to be considered for publication.

All offerings should be sent by email to the editor, Dan Jellinek, on dan@headstar.com - thank you very much in anticipation!



With crystal clear sound, no interference and additional services, digital radio - or, as it is formally known, Digital Audio Broadcasting - is possibly the most significant advance in public radio broadcasting since its introduction. However, for the blind and partially sighted, there are serious concerns with the new developments in the medium which has proved their long-term friend and often their communications lifeline.

First, to listen to digital transmissions, a new receiver will be required. Unlike a simple analogue tuner, it contains significant computer circuitry to decode the signal and is therefore very expensive. For example, the Arcam Alpha 10 digital radio tuner, sold as a hi-fi component, costs nearly £800.

Prices will fall as take-up increases - the snowball of supply and demand has not yet begun rolling - but there are more profound worries. The Digital Audio Broadcasting standard includes a data channel, which is transmitted alongside the audio signal. This works similarly to TV Teletext, and radio receivers will contain viewing panels on which this information can be displayed.

To an extent, this seems contradictory. Radio with visual information - surely that's called television? The BBC says not. A spokesperson says: "First, we won't broadcast moving pictures, as that takes up too much bandwidth. And second, digital radio draws on the strengths of radio, which are its portability and its intimacy". They are keen to point out that the visuals are not a vital semantic component: "They enhance, rather than depict the audio. You can switch them off or ignore them, and still have radio."

The biggest benefit from digital radio is its sound clarity. Until the 1990s, advances in radio transmission and reception had been steady but small. FM (frequency modulation) arrived for a clearer, but less robust signal. Stereo emerged, with the added spatial definition, but also increased hiss.

With these changes, though, the basic technology had not altered significantly - they used analogue signals, and the receivers were inexpensive. Nevertheless, analogue transmission is wasteful of capacity, and prone to signal corruption.

In 1987, the BBC and some private sector consortia put together proposals for Digital Audio Broadcasting - a digital radio signal essentially made up of ones and zeros. In a way, this was radio going back to its roots - Morse code, the first method of communication using radio waves over long distances, was a kind of digital signal. And Digital Audio Broadcasting is immune to corruption for much the same reason as Morse - all that needs to fight through the static is a stream of ones and zeros (or dots and dashes) rather than a perfect, fluctuating representation of the soundwave.

Those who have heard the new system agree it produces astonishingly clear sound. More importantly there is no interference, even in bad weather or while moving. A side-effect to this is that, unlike with analogue transmission which fades gradually as you move out of range, with digital the cut-off point is abrupt: it's everything or nothing.

There are other benefits: because the bandwidth is used more efficiently, more stations can fit into the spectrum. The BBC plans several, including extended news and music services, as does Digital One (www.digitalone.co.uk), the UK's first commercial digital radio network run as a joint venture between GWR, the UK's largest private radio group, and cable company ntl.

And then of course there is the possibility of parallel transmission of data, alongside the audio signal - which brings us back to the danger for blind or visually impaired people of losing the purity of the medium.

As long as the data panels remain strictly supplementary, there is no particular cause for concern. But as this 'optional' feature creeps into ever-more prominence, perhaps displaying vital telephone numbers, web site information and the like which, for sighted people, is tedious when narrated, it could become more contentious. Cinderella radio deserves the clarity of sound and the extension of choice, as long as she doesn't in the process metamorphose into her more showy ugly sister.

The BBC has a text-only guide to digital radio at: www.bbc.co.uk/digitalradio/text/ - the version with images is at: www.bbc.co.uk/digitalradio/

And the Radio Works' guide to DAB is at: www.radioworks.demon.co.uk/DAB/DAB1.htm



The mobile phone company Orange
(www.orange.co.uk) is in the process of rolling out a new speech recognition service for its phones - 'Wildfire'.

In fact Wildfire, they would have you believe, is more than a service: it is "an intelligent, invisible personal assistant" who uses the latest speech recognition technology to listen, react and respond to your spoken requests.

Furthermore, the service is anthropomorphised - it is not an 'it', but a husky-voiced 'she', and the web site makes great play of 'her' willingness to obey. While this might indulge unreformed (or is it unreformable?) male fantasies, it is doubtful that many female users will find it quite so endearing. Perhaps there should be a choice between a female and correspondingly sexy male voice.

The technology is based on the premise that voice activation and control is more intuitive and convenient than pressing buttons. As such, it has great potential value for the blind and partially sighted, as it allows one to do virtually anything that would have previously required dialling or menu-selection from the telephone handset, including manage and sort voicemail; phone people by name; interrupt a message playback if a call comes in; build an address book; and so on.

In an amusing innovation, the commands one uses to access the services are colloquial. For example, being told there is a message, one is expected to reply "What's it say?" However, although one is colloquial, one must be precise: and if, for example, you ask more primly: "What DOES it say?", Wildfire becomes confused, and although she tends to get there in the end it could quickly become irritating both for the user and for the others on the crowded train that is today's surrogate office.

Other commands are similar, for example, 'Next item' if you want to listen to the next message, or 'Previous item'. If you forget any of the commands, you can ask 'What are my options?' and if you change your mind at any time just say 'Never mind', and Wildfire will stop what it/she is doing.

Such a sophisticated voice-activated tool might be expected to be a great boon for the blind and visually impaired, but Kevin Carey, director of the technology access charity HumanITy, gives it a qualified welcome. "It is a technology going in a sensible direction - they're doing all the right things, but there are still problems in the way it's implemented".

The positive points are that Wildfire is run exclusively at the 'server-end' - you phone the network, and Wildfire's intelligence resides on a remote computer-system. This means that features can be added, and yet your phone need not be upgraded or customised in any particular way. Wildfire is simply a short dial away, rather like BT's Callminder system with a sprinkling of extra personification and voice-activation.

This strength, however, is in other ways a weakness. First, the fact that the service resides on the network rather than a chip in one's phone means that it costs per minute. The charges vary, but they are not insignificant, and so ensure that one's relationship with Wildfire must be fleeting and snatched. The effort required to spark Wildfire off in the first place is significant (and costly) too: setting up the address book, like everything else, is done online. What's more, learning how to use the system in the first place requires a sighted friend to read out its manual. Online help is scarce and costly.

One way Carey believes the cost and bother of the laborious set-up procedure could be minimised is by using the Internet. If you could simply import your current address books from your PC or personal-organiser, via a web page, to Wildfire, it would save all the hassle. Orange claims that such services are in the pipeline.

Until then, Carey believes the network should give some free configuration time. This might lose Orange some initial revenue, but it would convince more people to be bothered to install the system in the first place. When such solutions arrive, when Wildfire increases its vocabulary, and when the networks upon which it resides implement a more flexible phone-tariff to better represent the usage patterns of such services, then it may just live up to its promise.

One or two other mobile manufacturers are producing or are set to produce voice recognition services, in a sign that the field is set to take off in 2000.

Ericsson is to use the new 'Bluetooth' standard for wireless data transfer in a new headset for use with its phones to be released in the summer. The device will allow the user to leave the phone up to 10 metres away - it could be in another room - to be activated and used remotely by speaking into the headset using voice recognition.

And Samsung's new SGH 800/810 mobile includes a Voice feature which will allow you to dial someone's number simply by saying their name, use voice commands for the menu controls, and record voice memos. Unlike Wildfire, this is a handset-resident service, and therefore has the opposite advantages and disadvantages to Wildfire's server-end system.

For more on Wildfire visit:

For more on Ericsson's planned Bluetooth products visit:
http://bluetooth.ericsson.se/bluetooth/application.as p

And for more on the Samsung SGH 800/810 you can try visiting the fairly inaccessible page at: http://samsungelectronics.com/mobile/products/gs m/sgh810/index.html
The most useful information on the phone here is the manual, but it is only available to download as an Adobe pdf file.



All new UK government internet sites will be expected to be accessible to special access software used by blind and visually impaired people, and existing sites must be made accessible as soon as possible, according to new guidelines released by the Cabinet Office.

Among the guidelines are that web page 'frames' - fixed sections which use a more complicated structure - should only be used where there is no straightforward alternative. If frames are implemented then a 'No frames' alternative must be supplied for the entire site and access to it should be easily visible on the homepage.

Although compliance is not compulsory, ministers will expect swift action to bring sites up to scratch. Compliance will be policed by a 'New media team' in the Cabinet Office, headed by the e-envoy Alex Allan.

The guidelines can be found at:

The RNIB has welcomed the guidelines.
Campaigns officer Julie Howell said that, while few government sites yet comply with the guidelines, she was optimistic that this would change.

"The government departments I've spoken to are worried about the Disability Discrimination Act - they don't want to be the first to be sued. Since the guidelines were published I've had departments or their web site designers ringing me non-stop. They are competitive, they all want to be the best".

She said it was also encouraging that she had not been hearing excuses from departments about why they could not comply with the guidelines, despite some of them being fairly tough to meet. "The guidelines say all departments have to adhere to the accessibility rules unless there is a demonstrable reason why they should not. We are keen to hear of any such reasons, to enable us to help tackle any problems, but so far everyone we've spoken to has been fully supportive".

However, Howell admits that the situation outside the public sector offers more cause for concern. "Business is a different matter. They do not have to facilitate services to the public like government. Often they say that if they have a phone line alongside web information then that is enough to cater for blind or visually impaired people, but we say that is not enough - web services should be accessible".

To help both government and private sector companies check their web sites for accessibility, the RNIB is looking to assemble a group of blind consultants to give sites the once-over. Anyone interested in joining this project should contact Julie Howell on 0171 391 2191. Readers can also use this number to obtain a free copy of the RNIB/Web Accessibility Initiative video on accessible web site design, 'Web Sites that Work'.

The RNIB will also be looking to be involved in the new European 'eEurope - Information society for all' project on the information society and accessibility (see news, this issue). Its public policy team is currently compiling a response to the eEurope consultation document, to be submitted before the 1 February deadline.


* * * ISSUE ENDS * * *


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