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[Issue starts]

ISSUE 9, 2000

Section One: News
- Olympics committee faces legal action over inaccessible web site; Battle is joined for ebooks standard; New breed of Adobe pdf files easier to navigate; 'Visugate' builds web of information partners; European Commission targets accessibility; Family site wins charity web awards.

Section Two: Education
- Books by CD-ROM

Section Three: Web accessibility
- Internet shopping

Section Four: Back to basics
- Digital books and other texts

[Contents ends]



The organisers of the Olympic Games in Sydney face legal action on two fronts for failing to make their web site accessible to blind people, with both individual and class actions a possibility after the games close this weekend, EAccess Bulletin has learned.

The Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) has already lost an Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission hearing held last year after a discrimination complaint was lodged by Bruce Maguire, who is blind. However despite having a year since then to make the site fully accessible, SOCOG refused, saying the process would be too expensive and time-consuming.

Some changes have been made to the site, with 'alt-text' tags being added to some images and text links added to image maps. However, Maguire says that not all images have been texttagged, and other problems persist, such as the accessibility of the Olympics results tables.

Although the commission ruling is not legally binding, Maguire told E-Access Bulletin this week that as soon as the games are over he will seek a further hearing to win damages under Australia's Disability Discrimination Act, and seek enforcement in Australia's Federal Court if SOCOG refuse to comply. There is also a possibility that a class action will be brought against SOCOG by blind people in Australia, he said.

Also under fire is IBM, which designed the site for SOCOG. IBM gave evidence in the initial hearing that the site would take 368 days to fix at a cost of two million US Dollars, although Maguire successfully called two expert witnesses to assert that the true cost of fixing it would be 30,000 Dollars, and that it would take just 2-4 weeks.

" I don't think of myself as an activist, in that I don't go looking for inaccessibility", he said. "However, if I encounter it in the course of my daily life, I do feel that I have some responsibility to try and overcome it.

"In general, I believe that accessibility can best be achieved through dialogue, education and consensus-building: however, disability discrimination legislation is useful when these processes fail, and as part of the ongoing task of creating a culture of respect for the principles of access and equity".

A handy guide to the Sydney Olympics
Accessibility Complaint, including a link to last year's ruling, has been produced by contenu.nu, a web content consultancy in Toronto:

And Lee Rhiannon, a Green Party member of the New South Wales legislative council, has taken up Maguire's case and created an online petition to IBM. This can be found at:
http://www.nsw.greens.org.au/parl/lee/ibmpetitio n.html


Software giants Microsoft and Adobe Systems have made new moves in their battle to create a dominant standard for 'e-books' � digitised book software and hardware.

Microsoft has announced a partnership with leading online bookshop Amazon.com to create a customised versions of its Microsoft Reader ebook software, allowing Internet users to buy and download e-books from the bookshop. The deal was announced at:
http://www.microsoft.com/PressPass/press/2000/ Aug00/AmazonPR.asp

Amazon does not actually sell e-books yet, although it plans to in the near future. However Barnes and Noble
(http://www.barnesandnoble.com), another major online bookshop, is leading the way in this field and already offers e-books for purchase and download in three different formats: Microsoft Reader, Glassbook (http://www.glassbook.com) and Rocket eBook (http://www.rocketebook.

Microsoft hopes to overtake the other two formats by dint of its general market dominance with Windows PCs. Rocket eBook is a
proprietary system, produced by 1997 start-up company NuvoMedia, while Glassbook has recently been acquired by Adobe Systems, as part of its bid to rival Microsoft by enhancing its own e-book system based on its Portable Document Format (pdf) software.

Glassbook's latest software (and indeed Microsoft Reader as well) includes text-tospeech capabilities, text annotation and
highlighting with electronic sticky notes, searching and text enhancement facilities that are intended to make content easier to read. See: http://www.glassbook.com/news/pr082800.htm

The e-books market is new but potentially lucrative. E-books have obvious advantages for blind and visually impaired people, as they can usually be readily converted into speech or Braille, but they are predicted to increase in popularity across a range of users as e-book readers become more portable and offer quick, mobile access to large libraries of books.

* See also Section Four, this issue: 'Back to

basics � digital books'.


In a separate development, Adobe has stated that the new version of its Acrobat Reader software for Portable Document Format (pdf) files will be accessible to screen readers. Past versions of pdf have been widely attacked for their
inaccessibility, with their reliance on graphical layouts rather than plain text.

According to a report in Federal Computer Week - which was posted up by Adobe on its
accessibility site last month and hence implicitly endorsed � the new Acrobat Reader due next spring and its associated new pdf file creation tools will incorporate easy text navigation into documents, whatever their length or graphical layout.

The system will work best with new files but may also help make old pdf files more accessible to screen reader. The report can be accessed from:


The 'Visugate' project to create an accessible online gateway to a huge range of existing and newly digitised resources on visual impairment has already signed up 20 partner organisations to provide information through the service.

The 20 include RNIB's Research Library; Action for Blind People; The British Journal of Visual Impairment; the International Centre for Eye Health; the Department of Education at University of Birmingham and BT Soundings. Other partners are now being approached, and the National Library for the Blind, which is overseeing the project, says there is no limit to the potential number of organisations that can become involved.

The NLB is conducting a survey of potential Visugate users to ask them what resources and functionality they would like to see included in the service. For more information contact Joanna Widdows on joanna.widdows@nlbuk.org or visit the organisation's web site:


The European Commission is to place
information society accessibility issues at the heart of of its annual 'IST' information society technologies conference in Nice, France from 6- 8 November.

The 'Information society for all' conference will build on the commission's recent 'eEurope' policy proposals with an 'e-participation' track that will focus on three areas: European government and democracy; e-health; and the active participation and integration of all, especially people with disabilities and older adults.

The event's web site is at:


A charity which supports the parents and families of children born with disabilities � including blindness - has won the 'Charity Internet Site of the Year' award presented earlier this month by the Charity Times.

The 'Contact a Family' site
(http://www.cafamily.org.uk/) was praised for its design, navigability and use of access keys to ensure accessibility. Judges for the award included RNIB campaigns officer Julie Howell. Other sites shortlisted included YouthNet UK, creators of the youth advice service 'TheSite' (http://www.thesite.org/).

The award's web address is:

[Section one ends]



A specialist schoolteacher from Croydon has just completed a two-year labour of love to create a nationwide CD-ROM book service for
schoolchildren with visual impairments.

Val Lawson, who teaches visually impaired children for Croydon Local Education Authority (LEA), found that her pupil's needs were not being met by existing services. She told EAccess Bulletin: "Many disabled children are
now in mainstream schools, and making the curriculum accessible is a huge issue. Lots of young people with visual impairment also have other physical disabilities, which means they may have trouble holding a book or turning the pages, as well as reading text and pictures. Many of these children with are being taught in mainstream classes by teachers with no specialised experience.

"The Oxford Reading Tree - which is the main programme for teaching young children to read in 80 per cent of primary schools - does have tape and Braille versions, but this is not necessarily the most suitable format for visually impaired or disabled students."

Having decided to take action herself to address the lack or resources, Ms Lawson started out producing popular, illustrated books in CD format with digitised text, illustrations that were simplified and enhanced for visually impaired children, audio navigation tools and other accessibility features. Originally, books selected by children and teachers were modified on request, but the new versions were proving so popular that she decided to pilot materials from a pre-existing structured reading programme - the reading tree - and make them available for loan.

"This was a difficult time, because these pilot materials were not of sufficiently high quality for general release", she says. "I had managed to get permission from Oxford University Press to use their material, and had generated lots of interest from local education authorities, but I just didn't have time during the day to do the work. So I upgraded my home computer and started
working on the project at home."

Ms Lawson started by modifying every book illustration to remove backgrounds and enhance colour and definition.

"The big breakthrough came when I discovered Adobe Acrobat software," she says. "I found that by producing a menu system with links to and from various files, I could not only make an easy-to-use electronic format, but also compress the material so that all 112 books in the reading tree could fit on to one CD. The project then took on a life of its own and consumed mine for two years."

With little financial or technical support, Ms Lawson found the main cost was replacing and upgrading all her home equipment, as her PC did not have the memory to deal with complex graphic manipulation.

She also managed to get some help from a US software company, Fileopen systems
(http://www.fileopen.com/), in the form of a free copy of the company's 2,500 US Dollar security package. This protects all the files from unauthorised access, ensuring copyright cannot be breached.

"Given the restricted market, I knew I was going to have to set quite a high price for the CD to recoup some of my costs, but I was worried that educational services might not be able to afford it", she says. "So I decided to offer a master copy, printable version, to my local education authority for them to distribute to other visually impaired services on a non-profit making basis, and was delighted when they offered not only to distribute it free, but also to help with publicity."

There are two versions of the CD. The first has a licence to print one copy built into the installation code, and has been restricted to a specific audience because of copyright limitations. The second version works solely on screen.

"The screen version was a total act of faith on my part," says Ms Lawson. "The first child who tried to use it was a six year old girl with central vision loss. She thought it was wonderful. She found the display easy to read, loved the pictures and mastered the navigation system in minutes. She then spent about 45 minutes showing off her reading and IT skills to everyone else in the room!"

The screen-only version has layout in a landscape format which fills the entire screen. Menu navigation is supported by speech and may be driven by touch-screen if required. The menu links have voice-overs, activated by the mouse when it enters the menu zone. A click of the mouse turns each page, and the final screen allows a choice of reading the story again, or finishing and returning to the main menu.

Ms Lawson is looking for feedback from other people using the CD. For further information visit her website at:

And the Oxford Reading Tree site is at: http://www.oup.co.uk/oxed/primary/ort/

[Section two ends]



By rights, Internet shopping should be a Godsend for blind and partially sighted people, allowing them to browse and buy whatever they want without having to negotiate crowded shops and public transport.

But a report just published by the Royal National Institute for the Blind shows the truth is somewhat different: blind people are in fact being excluded from the e-shopping revolution through lazy web design and ignorance on the part of site owners. What is more the culprits � major high street names among them � could be rendering themselves liable to prosecution under the Disability Discrimination Act.

Julie Howell, resident web accessibility expert at the RNIB and the report's author, says: 'The Act requires that all service providers should make information about their companies and services accessible for blind or partially-sighted people. Even our biggest high street stores are clearly not doing this.

"It's not just a question of legality, these businesses are losing a potential 8.5 million disabled customers too."

The RNIB first investigated the web sites of 17 major high street stores and banks last year, so companies have had 12 months to get their act together. The 17 were Abbey National, Alliance and Leicester, Asda, Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins, Evans, HSBC, Marks and Spencer, NatWest, Pizza Hut, Pizza Express, Post Office, Safeway, Sainsburys, Somerfield, Tesco and WH Smith.

The new report follows up on the original findings, and pronounces the results 'extremely disappointing'. All the companies failed to measure up in at least one of five different test categories used, and some failed in all five.

The test categories were:
1. Is the web site text legible, with strong visual contrast?
2. Does every image have a text tag, which can be converted to speech description?
3. Are alternatives offered to framed sites? 4. Is the site available in HTML, as opposed to image, pdf or other formats?
5. Do all pages pass the 'Bobby' test � the standard software package which tests for accessibility? (see http://www.cast.org/bobby)

"All three high street banks we visited failed the test, even though banking is supposed to be a universally essential service", says Howell. "Online supermarkets also performed
particularly badly. The only company which did reasonably well was Marks and Spencer."

One case study described in the report is that of Peter, who is blind and has been using the internet for three years using a PC and JAWS screen reader. Peter heard about the Debenhams summer sale on TV, and tried subsequently to log onto the store's web site.

"What a disappointment", he said. "I wanted to check the availability of men's shirts, but I kept hearing 'unsupported script'. It was really confusing. I did find some information eventually, but it took me so long to work my way past the nonsense, it would probably have been quicker to go to the store."

Another disabled user, Caroline, was asked to try out the Safeway website and do some home grocery shopping. She uses a PW Webspeak browser. She said: "It would really help me if heavy things like cat food could be delivered to my home. I think I'm quite good with the internet, but I found the Safeway site a real struggle. I kept hearing 'image, image' and didn't know what was going on. I just gave up in the end."

The Abbey National site failed all five tests, because it was designed in Macromedia Flash, with no HTML alternative. A spokesman told EAB that the company was now working on an HTML site which would be fully accessible. Pizza Hut and Abbey National are also working on new, accessible sites.

Ms Howell said: "Poor or careless coding of HTML and complex screen designs are the most common problems, but most of the companies we tested are now trying to address this in response to the report."

An executive summary of 'Get the message online: making internet shopping accessible' can be viewed at:

The full report can be purchased for £5 from RNIB customer services. Email
CServices@rnib.org.uk or telephone 0845 702 3153.

[Section three ends]


One of the ways in which the Internet is proving a liberating resource for blind and visually impaired people is as a repository of electronic texts. For the first time, a wide range of books, newspapers, journals, periodicals and articles are available online, 24-hours a day, to be accessed at the reader's convenience.

Combined with email services and computer disks or CD-ROMs with digitised texts send through the post, the result � thanks to special access software like text-to-speech - is access for the first time by blind people to the information they want, when they want it. No more waiting for others to transcribe it to Braille or read it aloud: no more restriction to the information, or extracts from the information, that others arbitrarily decide is of most interest.

The vast majority of digital texts available online are in ASCII (plain text) format, and can thus be read by any computer whether PC or Mac, DOS or Windows. The following is a round-up of digitised plain text resources on the Internet and in other media.


The awesome Gutenberg project is a volunteerdriven 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.

The books are entered onto a database in 'plain vanilla ASCII' � the plainest of plain text formats, with for example italics, underlines and bolds all represented by capital letters.

Project Gutenberg has the goal of turning two million conventional books (mostly titles already out of copyright) into electronic texts freely available on the internet. The site includes several easy ways of finding a book: by title, author, subject or even by other details including language, version or author's birth-date. Once you have located a title, it can be downloaded onto your computer to read offline at your leisure.

Visit the site at http://www.gutenberg.net/ and click on "E-Text Listings" to obtain a full listing of all titles available, or "search" to search on any of the criteria mentioned above. This site, however, was not designed with visual
impairment in mind and some people may not find it easy to read or screen-reader-friendly.


The NLB site, designed for easy access by those with a visual-impairment and found at
www.nlbuk.org, is a good source of electronic texts and contains some valuable areas such as 'Where can I get ideas about new books to read?' and 'The Fiction Cafe (Books for young people)'.


Visit http://www.ipl.org/reading/books/ for another very useful resource of electronic texts arranged in 10 easy-to-browse categories including languages, natural sciences and mathematics, the arts and literature and rhetoric.

Although the site is not written with visual impairment in mind, no frames or side-menus mean that it is quite accessible.


This site at
http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/lists.html is an index of more than 12,000 English works which are available free of charge and as full texts on the Internet. The service is part of the Digital Library Project of the University of Pennsylvania.


The TNAUK site at http://www.tnauk.org.uk/ offers access to more than 200 titles on tape, disk, e-mail or downloadable from their website, for a subscription charge of 20 UK Pounds a year. Texts available include daily newspapers and weekly magazines, as well as other monthly and quarterly publications. A full listing of all their publications in all formats is available on the website or by telephone on 01435 866102.

Their website has black on grey text that may cause problems in reading for some, and contains formatting that is not fully accessible although there is a link to a text-only version. The direct address of the "text only" version is
http://www.tnauk.org.uk/TextSite/Introduction.ht m


A full catalogue of all publications available from the RNIB can be obtained on disk from them or viewed on their website at
http://www.rnib.org.uk/ More than 40 titles are available on disk including the 'New Beacon'.


The next generation of talking books will be based on electronic formats. These special CDs will be played on e-book readers or on computers with the correct player software.

E-books that conform to the 'DAISY'
consortium standard can combine a digital recording of a human voice reading the book with the text of the book in electronic form. The two can interact so that it is easy to move through the book by chapter, page, sub-headings or even to search for phrases or single words, from which point the spoken playback can instantly continue.

For further information visit

* This article was produced in association with

AbilityNet, a charity concerned with all areas of computing and every disability, which acts as an independent assessor of access technologies. For more information contact AbilityNet on freephone 0800 269545, email:
or see its web site:

[Section four ends]


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[Issue ends]


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