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ISSUE 5, MAY 2000

Section One:
News: Technology companies risking prosecution; European Commission presses for policy coherence; Growth for 'Speechmail' spoken email service; The internet on a disk; Volunteer computer helpers wanted.

Section Two: Special feature
- Accessible gaming

Section Three: Analysis
- European policy

Section Four:
Global online debate



Technology companies are breaking the law if they do not make their products accessible, The British Computer Society has warned.

The message was delivered at the society's Access for All conference held in London this month, which focused on the practical legal and social issues arising from the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), which came into force in 1995.

The society said the DDA is having more impact on the workplace and the rights of disabled people than any previous piece of legislation. The Act applies to all companies with more than 15 employees and requires that 'reasonable adjustments' must be made to working environments to accommodate disabled people. "Technology is often the route to enablement and is therefore encompassed in the term 'reasonable adjustment'," the society said.

The conference was used to publicise the BCS guide for employers on this issue � 'The Disability Discrimination Act - a practical guide for professionals and business managers.'

For more information see:


The European Commission has acknowledged the need to strengthen coherence between the many different parts of its policy-making machine that have a bearing on accessibility issues for people with disabilities.

"Because of the inter-relationships across diverse policy areas, there is a need for a co-ordinated vision and action in the fields of employment, education and vocational training, transport, the internal market, information society, new technologies and consumer policy", a commission statement said.

"Progress in improving access for people with disabilities has positive implications for European society at large. We are all disabled at some time in our lives. A child, a person with a broken leg, a parent with a pram or an elderly person are all disabled in one way or another. As a matter of fact, the needs of people with disabilities coincide with the needs of the majority."

The commission this week adopted a framework outlining key objectives for the European Union to pursue to promote full participation for all Europeans living with disabilities. They include a request for European standards bodies to determine, in cooperation with organisations representing the needs of elderly and disabled persons, requirements for standardisation to ensure accessibility for disabled and elderly people within the information society.

To assist policymakers and help measure progress in achieving accessibility, the commission will build a comprehensive base of knowledge on disability by collecting data on health status, social protection, health and safety at work, employment and education. An ad hoc module in the European labour force survey concerning employment of disabled people will be completed in 2002.

The commission is also to propose to the EU Council of Ministers that the year 2003 be declared European Year of Disabled Citizens to promote society's awareness of disability issues and provide a catalyst for the introduction of relevant new policies at all levels of government.


More than 70 UK internet service providers have adopted the SpeechMail telephone email service since its launch in January, the technology's manufacturer Vocalis has announced. SpeechMail enables people to listen to their messages, reply and delete them using simple spoken commands over the phone.

The procedure is made secure by the use of individual user account numbers and PINs. Once identified, the automatic system tells users who new messages are from, what the subject is and when it was sent. Subscribers can then choose to play, reply to, or delete a message, all using spoken commands.

SpeechMail also records voice replies of up to a minute in length and sends these as sound file attachments which recipients can hear by clicking on the file in their mail reader. SpeechMail subscribers can listen directly to recorded replies from other subscribers.

Apart from access to a phone, users do not need any special equipment. However, subscriptions cost £2.99 per month and telephone calls to the service are charged at standard national rates. For details see: www.speechmail.co.uk


Internet-on-a-Disk is a free electronic newsletter which is much prized by blind internet users. It reports on new electronic texts posted online which are free of extraneous material and hence of great use to blind people as well as the business and education sectors.

Published by the independent book publisher B&R Samizdat Express, the newsletter includes coverage of new electronic texts posted to the awesome Gutenberg project, the famous volunteer-driven initiative to transcribe copyright-free books into digital format. Gutenberg has already made about 2,500 texts available for free online including classic works of literature.

For more on Internet-on-a-Disk see:

And for more on the Gutenberg project see: http://promo.net/pg/


The RNIB is looking for experienced computer users throughout the UK to volunteer to help visually impaired and blind people get started with a new computer or solve technical problems. Volunteers will be able to decide how much time they want to devote to the project, and no specific expertise on technology for the blind is necessary as all volunteers will be given technical backup.

It is expected that volunteers will largely be able to help over the telephone, but visits to users' homes may also be necessary. Potential helpers should call 0845 604 2341 or e-mail tcsvolunit@rnib.org.uk



Most computer games depend on special graphics and fast-changing visual prompts, making them next to useless for the blind and visually impaired. But Grizzly Gulch, launched last month, is different.

The game, as one might guess, is set in a virtual Wild West. Players mosey round the eponymous imaginary town, gamble on card games, buy items from the general store and, of course, get involved in quick-draw gun fights against outlaws. Like most interactive computer games Grizzly Gulch allows players to adopt a character which they then use to explore a computer-generated world full of surprises and dangers, in a complex plot which changes depending on decisions made during the game.

So why is Grizzly Gulch different? "Absolutely no vision is required to play this game," say its makers Bavisoft (www.bavisoft.com). "It's like nothing you've experienced before - a game you have to hear to believe".

Bavisoft was established this year, and is dedicated to creating superior quality software for the blind and visually impaired. Grizzly Gulch is the company's flagship product and reflects a mushrooming interest in blind gaming in the US, where the visually impaired have access to a growing number of games produced by both professionals and amateur programmers.

The gaming frenzy in the States does not appear to be reflected in the UK, however. The RNIB's Technology Information Service has only had a few enquiries about computer games, and developers dedicated to blind gaming in this country are hard to find.

Even so, dozens of computer games for the visually impaired are listed on the US website Disability Specialtys (www.disabilityspecialtys.com) � a website staffed by, and run for, the visually impaired and people with other disabilities.

Among those catalogued include Destination Mars, which involves navigating a spaceship, and Run for President, in which you must outwit your computer in a virtual election for the White House. Gamers may also seek the mythical Excalibur in Arthur's Quest, enter the world of Star Trek or play a simple version of Monopoly.

Two of the most advanced games available pitch players into situations where they have to use a series of non-visual clues and prompts to solve complex problems. The advanced submarine simulation game Lone Wolf requires good compass skills, while Haze Maze players are challenged to navigate themselves through mazes using the changing sound of footprints and other audible clues.

While conventional designers have used 2-D or 3-D graphics and sound to build games, those programmed for the blind and visually impaired usually depend entirely on audible prompts and speech.

Bavisoft have used more than 1,000 digitally recorded sound effects for Grizzly Gulch. Original music is used, with professional voice recordings for the characters and 'full stereo environments' for each of the many locations. Users can also access a fully audible help facility.

Although Grizzly Gulch is well-produced and has received good reviews it is also among the most expensive games at around 50 US Dollars. To play you must also have a DirectX compatible stereo sound card and speakers, and indeed it is essential before buying any games online to carefully check the minimum system requirements.

At the other end of the spectrum there are a multitude of simpler games that are available free or for very little. Robert Betz is the brains behind the Floridabased Accessible Games
(www.gamesfortheblind.com) and he is committed to producing simple, easy to play games at a reasonable price. "I am blind myself, so I know the financial burdens many blind people experience. For this reason, I only charge 10 US Dollars for each game," he says.

"I spend a great deal of time writing help files for all my games. A user should be able to read the help file one time, and know everything they need to know about the game." One of his games is Accessible Battleship, which is based on a simple grid. As the player move from cell to cell the grid co-ordinates are spoken by their screen reader - in this case Battleship is compatible with JAWS for Windows. A combination of sound effects and spoken feedback are used to inform the player the result of each 'shot'. Launched just two months ago, Accessible Games now offers seven games including BlackJack and Yahtzee.

Other US companies in this market include Personal Computer Systems (www.pcsgames.com) which is operated and maintained by blind programmers. They plan to launch two new games this year, PCS Space Invaders which is a reaction game based on audible signals, and Snipe Hunt.

ESP Softworks (www.espsoftworks.com) produces several highly complex games for the blind and visually impaired. The company has just launched Shell Shock, an artillery-style command game that can be played by two players. Others scheduled for release this year include The Genesis Project which sounds more like a role playing adventure game and 'Battle Chess' which has still to be officially named. The company says Battle Chess is "a cross between the classic game of Chess and the bone-crushing spirit of Doom". Game on.

* In future issues, E-Access Bulletin will be taking a

look at role-playing games and educational games for the visually impaired.


The arrival of the Disability Rights Commission at the same time as the imminent incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law is a happy coincidence. It might be somewhat grandiose to term it the beginning of a new era, but this is certainly an opportune moment.

'E-Europe', the European Union's initiative on ecommerce and a fair information society, is picking up speed and we are about to enter the era of massmarket digital television and web-enabled phones. If we do not get our accessibility messages across now, we may miss out for a whole technological generation, saddled yet again with the trauma and costs of retro-engineering and indifferent compatibility.

Even now, reference to accessibility often amounts to little more than tokenism - at the E-Europe Meeting in Lisbon on 10-11 April, for example, one rapporteur ended his presentation with the sentence: ". . . and, of course, we discussed social exclusion". There are signs, however, that in spite of the somewhat abstract and tenuous character of rights declarations, access is finally becoming an important issue in Europe.

The Lisbon meeting had been called to construct an action plan for the rapid implementation of EEurope, following on from a special meeting of heads of state, and it will be ratified at a European summit in June. One of the initiative's 10 target areas was the inclusion of disabled people and although user representation was poor, some headway was made, particularly as the RNIB was strongly represented.

The sessions on disability tended to revolve around rather abstract ideas such as "raising public awareness", "avoiding the fragmentation of standards", "improving standards in education and employment" and "establishing codes of practice and benchmarking". Given the rights framework, I had to overcome my resentment at a debate which considered whether or not disabled people should be 'included', and if so, how far and how fast in order to get discussion into much more concrete areas. All the abstraction is a means to an end, after all, so we came up with five priority areas for action on access: health information; library access; broadcasting; banking and financial services and mass retail.

The first two of these five areas are public services which all citizens pay for through a combination of local tax, VAT, income and other taxes; the last two are vital sectors where profitability is high; and broadcasting is a mix of public provision (paid for by a licence fee with a minute concession for blindness) and profitable private enterprise. It crossed my mind at the time that my income tax form was inaccessible! Still, the topic is now on the main EU agenda and we strongly recommended that disability access should not be in a separate box but should be integrated across the whole E-Europe agenda.

Meanwhile, the UK's Cabinet Office has been looking into standards for digital television, particularly as they might be implemented for the broadcasting of government information and the facilitation of interactive services such as formfilling and voting. There will be a section in the next draft on disability access, largely generated as the result of the web accessibility guidelines for government web sites adopted by the government in December 1999.

The situation in respect of Third Generation mobile phones is less promising because there is much less regulation in this area than there is in broadcasting, and as technological convergence advances, it may be impossible to define where largely deregulated telecommunications and publishing stop and wellregulated broadcasting starts.

There are three major lessons to be drawn from recent experience. The first is that lobbying will have to be diversified from its UK government focus to the EU, to standard-setting bodies (if you can find them), and to industry. Secondly, there will need to be a pan-disability dimension which makes alliances with all kinds of groups which are classified or classify themselves as part of the "social exclusion" remit. Finally, this necessarily more complex process will have to be undertaken ever more rapidly which will entail a hard look at the resources we deploy for lobbying and at our client consultation procedures; fewer committees and more networks; fewer binding resolutions and more trust.



Governments and intergovernmental bodies have a key role to play in ensuring the design of technology products is accessible to all parts of society, according to the newly-published report of the global online think-tank Boosting the Net Economy 2000.

However a direct legislative approach is not the best way forward, according to think-tank member Professor Elsa Rosenblad of the Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. "I don't think it is successful to force any kind of technical development", Professor Rosenblad said. "But I can see two ways of reaching the same goal. One is enforcement using standards, the other is research to create new knowledge of the user's situation.

"International Standards Organisation 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. That would bring forward a development of measurable accessibility. Only products that would meet these criteria could then be considered for large-scale purchases.

"But probably a more successful way of achieving products that are accessible to all would be governmental investment in new research into the user's situation. Lack of knowledge on the part of the designer of the cognitive and physical abilities of the individual user is a severe problem.

"Accessibility problems do not exist because companies don't want to solve them, but because they have not got the knowledge to do it. They are used to working with their customers - the purchasers - but not with the individual end-users. Accessibility is determined by a knowledge of the users' goals and handling capacities, their values and benefits of the use and the context of use. If this knowledge was available, much better products would reach the market."

Yong-Suk Lee of the National Computerization Agency, Republic of Korea, said there was a need for governments to distinguish the citizen from the consumer. "We all wear different hats. one as a citizen, one as a consumer. Appropriate policies for the citizen may be different from appropriate policies for the consumer, and citizens' rights may be different from consumers' rights.

"When governments are making policies, it is important to make this distinction. For example, when we want companies to make products for the disabled, the logic for the policy would not come from the consumer area but from the citizen area. In other words, this probably has little to do with consumer protection but involves protecting the quality of life for all citizens, or the basic rights of citizens - thereby justifying the strongest of government interventions."

Cynthia Waddell of the City Manager's Department, City of San Jose, US, said that unless accessibility components are built into the design of web sites and networks, significant populations may be locked out as the web rapidly advances from a text-based communication format to a graphical format embracing audio and video clip tools.

"Yet, we have learned that the benefits of accessible web design extend beyond the community of people with disabilities. Consumers operating cell phones, personal digital assistants and information appliances can readily reach the content of the web because accessible web design separates the content from the presentation. Most importantly, however, accessible web design enables low technology to access high technology. Consumers with slow modems and low bandwidth can access the web even if they do not have state-of-the-art technology.

"The past month has brought significant breakthroughs in the area of industry consensus in accessibility. For example, the over 400 members of the World Wide Web Consortium (www.w3c.org) have reached consensus on not only web authoring tool accessibility features but also user agent accessibility features.

"Governments must also adopt accessible web design policies and implementation steps. From August all US federal government web sites and higher education institutions will have to incorporate accessible web design by law. In fact, US federal contracting officers for web design sites and services will be personally liable if they do not procure products or services that have accessibility components.

"This new federal law also requires that a business losing a bid for a federal contract can challenge the awarding of that contract if the business can demonstrate that their product or service exceeds the accessibility features of the business that won the contract. The business incentive seeks to reward those businesses who have devoted research and development on accessibility."

The online debate spanned more than 40 nations in all continents and was hosted by the publisher of EAccess Bulletin, Headstar, with backing from Bull Information Systems. The full report of the debate is on the web at:

* * * ISSUE ENDS * * *

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Published by Headstar Ltd www.headstar.com Copyright 2000 Headstar Ltd
The Bulletin may be reproduced in full as long as all parts including this copyright notice are included. Sections of the report may be quoted as long as they are clearly sourced as 'taken from e-access bulletin, a free monthly email newsletter', and our web site address (www.e-accessibility.com) is also cited. E-Access Bulletin May 2000