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Section One:
News: Funding fears over access to libraries; Email that talks; Technology for independence; 'JobsGoPublic' goes accessible; Downing Street's missed opportunity.

Section Two:
New technology - audio description

Section Three:
Education - virtual learning environments

Section Four:
Viewpoint - accessibility and cost



Funding for vital access projects for the use of public libraries by blind and visually impaired people could be jeopardised by the imminent absorption of the UK's Library and Information Commission into a sprawling new Museums, Libraries and Archives Commission, to include everything from libraries to art galleries.

The current LIC has a strong track record on promoting access to libraries by blind and visually impaired people, and has commissioned more than a dozen major reports on the subject including the modernisation of the catalogue system to include alternative formats; the development of an efficient inter-library loan scheme; the enrolment of any visually impaired library user through only one of the many specialist providers; and a more rational method for title selection.

The reports have been commissioned from a £200,000 grant from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which is subject to renewal under the Treasury's comprehensive spending review - already a subject of some nervousness in the visual impairment sector. But the emergence next week of the new monster Museums,
Libraries and Archives Commission has led to greater concerns that even if the money is renewed, it could be expected to cover not only library access but also access to museums and art galleries, and perhaps even be further stretched to cover access by other major groups of disabled people such as those who have hearing
difficulties, physical access problems or learning difficulties.

To date the grant has been administered jointly by the LIC and Share The Vision (STV), the umbrella organisation for public libraries and alternative format producers such as the RNIB and the NLB. The funding has been widely welcomed as government recognition that universal access has to be backed up by careful studies of access problems.

One of the programme's most interesting recent findings is that Microsoft NT is the best operating system for public libraries to ensure their systems are optimally accessible for blind and visually impaired people and people with other disabilities.

This finding comes in a report prepared by Tornado Labs for the LIC. Tornado tested a number of software packages and concluded that NT met its primary requirement that visually impaired users should be able to customise a mainstream operating system, add personal characteristics for screen readers and magnification packages and then use these identifiers on other systems.

The problem for the research team was to find a package which would allow the user to store characteristics, identify these in a registry, copy them onto a carrier such as a floppy disk, reload them into another system and the reproduce them without complications. The NT system allows the construction of 'roaming profiles' which can be used from any workstation on the system but it also allows this until now elusive property of reinstalling on another system.

The drawback of this solution - as the report admits - is that NT is not likely to be used in the domestic environment, so many users of public terminals who go through a lengthy
customisation procedure will not be able to copy the relevant file and use it at home. Most domestic users have Windows 9X on their systems, and convergence between the two Microsoft products is still some way off.

However, the importance of the LIC finding is that the accessibility characteristics identified as vital will be incorporated into any specification issued to tenderers for the supply of equipment to public libraries. It is hoped that the specification will be parachuted into other government departments where public interaction is key, such as the health service.


A real-time voice discussion service which operates using ordinary email and computer microphones has been launched by US firm HearMe. The company claims that
VoiceCONTACT is the first technology of its kind, and says it will remain free, although it plans to charge for upgrades with additional functionality.

VoiceCONTACT users must visit the HearMe website at
http://www.hearme.com/products/voicecontact/d ownload/
The user is then prompted with instructions on how to send a live voice e-mail discussion using ordinary PC microphones. HearMe sends the invitation and the recipient then clicks on an embedded link in the e-mail to join the conversation.

"With VoiceCONTACT, all you need to know is someone's email address in order to invite them to a voice conversation. That's what's so powerful. You don't need to know if they have particular software, a user name, just their email address," company spokesman Danielle Borel said.

Although the service is not specifically designed for people with sight loss, HearMe says it could prove of great use to blind people.

However there may currently be access problems for blind users in using the web site and typing email addresses into the online form. It seems likely that a more accessible version will have to be designed before blind users can take full advantage. E-Access Bulletin would be interested to hear from readers about their experiences in trying to use HearMe, or if they know of any other similar services.


The RNIB is to hold a special action group meeting on 5 April on 'ICT for independence - developing a strategy for learning, working and living'.

The meeting will plan the institute's strategy over the next few years for developing and lobbying for access to all kinds of information and communications technologies by blind and visually impaired people. Topics under discussion will include access to digital TV; the establishment of a partnership with a mainstream PC distributor to ensure lower costs of access technology; ways to alleviate technology access difficulties for deafblind people; and the need to ensure a key presence on any industry group involve in setting standards for new technologies such as Wireless Access Protocol.

A full report of the meeting will be carried in our next issue.


The UK's major online gateway to jobs in the public sector - 'JobsGoPublic' - is creating an accessible version of its entire web site, so blind and visually impaired people will be able to access jobs information and accessible versions of application forms.

JobsGoPublic carries recruitment details for a wide range of public sector bodies including government departments, local councils and NHS bodies. The accessible version of the site will conform to the BOBBY web access standard.

At the time of writing the site is not yet functional, but it is promised online in the next week or two at:
And the main (non-accessible) site is at: www.jobsgopublic.co.uk/


Access to technology by blind, visually impaired and disabled people was conspicuous by its absence from a report unveiled by Prime Minister Tony Blair last month into a strategy for realising universal access to the internet.

The report, commissioned from consultant BoozAllen & Hamilton, warned of the potential for a digital divide to open up in the UK over the next three years, seriously disadvantaging people and communities who were not connected to the internet and equipped with the skills to use it properly.

However, greater accessibility for blind and visually impaired people - surely a crucial factor in any programme to universalise internet access - was not specifically mentioned as a policy priority. Among the recommendations that were included was the classification of
telecommunication companies as central utilities; offering tax incentives to companies that provide access to underserved populations; encouraging National Lottery grants for relevant projects; issuing 'internet credits' for free access to public terminals; providing the unemployed with free access; and providing incentives for more people to access government services online.

The report is online at:



You are watching the film 'Die Hard', and Bruce Willis is talking on the phone to a policeman. Injured and trapped in a hijacked tower block after a gunfight, Willis sounds tired and nervous. A blind or visually impaired member of the audience can pick this up, but what they would not realise is that, as Willis is talking, he is pulling a piece of glass from the sole of his foot.

Recent research shows that many people with sight loss find films or television programmes extremely difficult to follow. Reasons for this include the fact that there are no verbal descriptions of subtitles; there is often confusion between characters; scenes change too fast; and films and dramas often conclude without any dialogue.

There is a solution, however: audio description, the verbal description of scenes that occur between periods of dialogue, which can be carried as a separate sound-track on digital television or in specially adapted cinemas.

The RNIB has launched a campaign, Talking Images', to raise £2.3 million to help film makers and producers set up audio description, find relevant technical information and get in touch with skilled 'describers'.

Audio describing should only cost about £6,000 per film and the campaign aims to raise awareness in the film industry about its benefits for those with sight loss. Once a film is completed, scenes are described and recorded on audio track which is then mixed and transmitted alongside the film using equipment such as the Cinetracker in cinemas. From there the signal is broadcast to members of the audience wearing headsets.
However, although £6,000 is a tiny fraction of the production costs of a film, the RNIB has dug in for a long campaign and expects few changes in the short term.

For television, audio description will only be available in the summer through providers of digital terrestrial TV although the RNIB is also lobbying cable and satellite providers to provide a service.

Viewers will need a special module for set top boxes or integrated digital televisions which can decode the audio description track. Guidelines from the ITC state that 2% of programmes should be audio-described this year and the targets rise by 2% every 2 years after 2000.

The RNIB has welcomed last month's increase in the TV licence fee concession for blind people to 50%, but has warned it should not be used as an excuse for broadcasters to ignore access issues like audio description. "The 50% concession is a recognition that although 94% of blind people watch TV, they do not get the full benefit of what TV has to offer," said RNIB's Broadcasting Officer Denise Evans.

Evans warned that description technology may be costly and that the government should subsidise the additional module that is necessary for set-top boxes. "Without this, blind people's access to television could remain a matter of wealth".

Programmes identified by those with sight loss as particularly difficult to follow without description include films, dramas, soaps and wildlife documentaries. However, the RNIB is campaigning for programme makers to transmit more audio-described programmes and want to see a wide variety available.

There are currently 60 videos available in described format include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Junglebook, Braveheart, Hear My Song, Lady and the Tramp, Little Mermaid, the Horse Whisperer, and yes . . . Die Hard. For more information on described videos use the RNIB helpline: 0345 669999.



Staffordshire University is investigating access by the blind and visually impaired to 'virtual learning environments' (VLEs) including internet-based education.

Staffordshire has pioneered the use of VLEs for its staff and students: in the 1998-99 academic year 3,500 students used the systems, and the figure is expected to jump to 6,000 this year.

Virtual learning means resources can be accessed by students online in an organised manner. Students and tutors can search published material on a server and gather relevant items in a 'basket'. All users can communicate with each other using email and notice boards, and the use of content is tracked giving feedback to tutors. VLEs can also be used to improve central administration, assign work and track submitted work.

Mark Stiles, manager of the university's Learning Development Centre, told E-Access Bulletin that while Staffordshire has a good track record on access to information technology, feedback from some visually impaired students showed they were experiencing difficulties with the virtual learning environment.

The study will look at difficulties faced by those in four categories of disability including the visually impaired. Stiles expects the study to be completed in the next few weeks, when the results will be published.

The Staffordshire project is one of more than a dozen across the UK supported by DISinHE, otherwise known by its snappy full title of the Central Clearing House for Information Technology for Accessibility and Disability in Higher Education. Several others of these projects are focused specifically on solving problems experienced by the blind and visually impaired.

Funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee of the UK Higher Education Funding Councils, DISinHE's overarching objective is "to make sure all information is available in some form or another to all people."

Established in 1998 as part of the Department of Applied Computing at the University of Dundee, DISinHE is focused on tackling five accessibility problems: excessive graphic portrayal of information; the requirement to use a mouse; poor structuring of content; excessive use of cutting edge technology which is not fully supported; and poor choice in output options.

The organisation says the victims of these problems are most often disabled users who are visually impaired, dyslexic, have motor disability or are cognitively impaired. However, it says poor design affects everyone.

Another study backed by DISinHE is one examining voice recognition software, at University College Worcester. This aims to develop effective training and usage guidelines for good practice in voice recognition which can be used throughout the university and elsewhere. Meanwhile City University is looking at the web for people with visual impairment. Study objectives include a review of software and other systems that assist those with sight loss to access the web.

For more information on DISinHE and the supporting studies see:



Manufacturers of technological devices often feel they cannot easily make them more accessible to blind people because they are - quite rightly - concerned about the cost of building better displays,
speech conversion or speech recognition into their products. They may use the
argument in their defence that visually impaired are merely one interest group among many.

But the point they are missing is that one day - if indeed it is not happening already - the majority of sighted people will also have access difficulties because they will become overloaded with visual cues.

Visually impaired people have a uniquely insightful experience of technology,
ironically because of the very difficulties they face in accessing it. They are
therefore well-placed to advise
manufacturers on how easy it is to use various devices, and how designs might be altered for the benefit of everyone.

How many people really bother to read
information that they are being charged for their ATM transactions when the
charge information is displayed as they take their card? How many sighted
people know what the icons on the
computer do without the text labels? If manufacturers concentrate exclusively on visual information, these problems arise. Currently everything from mobile web
browsing to in-car navigation systems are on displays which are either far too
cramped, or inappropriately large in a situation where a car driver should be looking at the road.

To take another example, it is well known that many people have trouble setting
their video recorders, and there is still only a visual indication when you enter an invalid 'Video Plus' number. Why not use an audible signal, which would both help alert a sighted user and be vital for a visually impaired user?

Accessible design should be commercially viable, since disabled people are among the highest users of technology. The popular 'Parrot' talking organiser was not designed for blind people, but once it became popular in this market, its manufacturer realised it would be worthwhile to modify it and build in new features specifically targeted at blind users.

There could be much wider use of speech synthesis technology in consumer goods for the benefit of everyone, for example in car radios and traffic navigation systems where the driver could be concentrating on the road. If this technology were applied in volume,
implementation costs should fall significantly.

Much of the technology behind text-to-speech chips already exists, and price need not remain a barrier to implementation for long. Speech chips are getting more and more powerful while remaining relatively stable in price. The increase in power should provide faster, more responsive and better quality speech.

If we can demonstrate the benefits of this approach for general use it could be
instrumental in bringing the cost of
accessibility down to a point where it is no longer a cause for its exclusion.

* Article by Tristram Llewellyn of The

Visually Impaired Radio and Electronics Society (VIRES). VIRES promotes the
enjoyment of amateur radio and
electronics for visually impaired people. See:

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