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[Issue starts.]

* ISSUE 24, DECEMBER 2001.



Mobile industry convenes access group
- first meeting in January.

Funding for online learning centre
- NLB receives 120,000 pound grant.

Support promised for Lernout& Hauspie users - MediaGold to honour undertaking made before bankruptcy.

CAST breaks free mould
- users must pay for accessibility checker.

Book 'Forager' service launched
- a site to help people browse.

Back to basics
- accessible Windows taped.

News in brief: Train operator wins award; Cambridge workshop; Open source browser tests.

Section two: 'The Inbox' readers forum
- feedback sought on screen-reader; sound-card conflict; document indexing.

Section three: free software
- Linux: The day of the GNU.

Section four: education
- Early development: The toddler's interactive toy box.

Section five: Overview
- Accessible gaming: Games without frontiers.

[Contents end.]



The first ever pan-industry mobile phone accessibility working group is to hold its inaugural meeting in January, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

The group is to be hosted by Vodafone, with its initial members to be all the mobile phone operators with a UK presence, namely BT Cellnet, One2One, Orange and Vodafone. Subsequently mobile network operators from other countries will be invited to join, along with handset manufacturers, to create a global organisation.

Mike Duxbury, disability access manager at Vodafone and the driving force behind the project, says the group will take a concerted but realistic look at "what we can do, not just what people want us to do" in making mobile phone networks and handsets more accessible to people with disabilities.

This tone of realism was echoed by Nancy Valley, special markets and accessible products manager with mobile handset manufacturer Motorola, when she addressed last month's RNIB Techshare conference.

"Motorola is unlikely to reach a stage where it can guarantee that all products will be accessible for everyone," Valley said. "We can't can't pack everything into a product at a price people can afford. So we look to create a range of products."

Accessible features already built into some handsets include 'voice notes', whereby the user can record brief memos or instructions; text that can be magnified; and voice activation for number dialling, though some of these features are only available in the US. Fully voice-controlled menus "are coming", she said, although she could only promise this feature "within a couple of years".

Duxbury said Vodafone is also working on full text-to-speech services, including for SMS text messaging, but he could not offer a firm delivery date either. He said that to offer SMS-to-speech, compatibility issues would first have to be resolved between the four UK mobile operators.


The National Library for the Blind (http://www.nlbuk.org) has gained 120,000 pounds of funding from the PPP Healthcare Medical Trust (http://www.ppptrust.org), to create a new centre for online learning resources for the blind and visually impaired.

VILC � the Visual Impairment Learning Centre - will create and pilot web-based educational resources, working in conjunction with the RNIB, education portal Digital Brain (http://www.digitalbrain.com) and VICTAR, the Visual Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research at the University of Birmingham

The project will begin a research phase from May to summer 2002 and develop the first pilot resources by the middle of 2003.

VILC is one of two spin-off projects that have arisen from work by the NLB on a planned single web gateway to visual impairment resources, 'Visugate'. A second spin-off project, the Visual Impairment Library of Research (VILOR), was announced last month as a first point of access for anyone with an interest in visual impairment research. The project will aim to construct a research 'map' which is customisable to each user's field of interest.

Visugate itself is set to undergo testing in Spring next year ahead of a planned launch date in September. The gateway will initially carry brief descriptions and links to around 1,500 quality-controlled online documents and resources held by the project's 21 partners including the RNIB's Research Library; Action for Blind People; The British Journal of Visual Impairment; and the International Centre for Eye Health.

For more information see http://www.nlbuk.org/common/Visugate.html

NOTE: The project will eventually operate from an accessible site at http://www.visugate.org but this is not yet live.


Users of speech and language software developed by the now bankrupt Belgian technology giant Lernout & Hauspie are to receive ongoing product support, according to Scansoft (http://www.scansoft.com), the US company which bought the assets at auction earlier this month.

The scanning software company told E-Access Bulletin this week that support will be provided by business development firm MediaGold (http://www.mediagold.com) in accordance with an arrangement negotiated before the software sale.

The future of the products is less certain, with Scansoft's European marketing director Mark Erwich unable to rule out the discontinuation of one or more of them. Another Scansoft representative said: "Currently, there are no plans in place to integrate the respective technologies. However, we will continue to look at possibilities where they can either be merged or used together."

The three main access products bought by Scansoft are Dragon Naturally Speaking and Voice Xpress voice recognition software, and the Realspeak speech-synthesiser. Lernout & Hauspie's erstwhile Kurzweil range of scan-and-read software did not form part of the Scansoft deal, having been bought out in mid-November by managers who now trade as Kurzweil Educational Systems (http://www.kurzweiledu.com). Among the directors is access technology trailblazer Ray Kurzweil.

Lernout & Hauspie, once considered to be a high-flying European hitech business, was pronounced bankrupt in November 2000 by a Belgian court following the discovery of accounting irregularities in its Korean operations. In May this year the company's founders Jo Lernout and Pol Hauspie were detained in jail as part of an ongoing investigation into fraud and share price manipulation.


CAST, a US not-for-profit organisation promoting technology for all, has begun charging for downloads of its new website accessibility-checker, Bobby Worldwide.

Previous versions of the internationally-renowned Bobby system were supported by donations from major corporations and downloads were offered free at the CAST Web site (http://www.cast.org), where it remains free to check single pages.

Bobby Worldwide costs 99 dollars a user, or 3,000 dollars a server, with a discounted rate of 2,000 dollars a server for ten or more servers. Companies wishing to associate themselves explicitly with the Bobby campaign in promotional literature can still do so, at a price: 5,000 dollars for a 'Booster' sponsorship package or 10,000 for a 'Booster Premium' package.

"Revenue from the sale of Bobby Worldwide funds ongoing development, infrastructure, administrative, and support costs," according to the CAST web site. Bobby Worldwide's main advance on previous versions is that it is equipped to test sites against US 'Section 508' legislation which requires US government sites to be accessible to all.


An online service for blind and visually impaired people simulating the process of browsing through books in a library has been launched by the National Library for the Blind.

The NLB Book Forager is an accessible version of a system developed by Applied Psychology Research (http://www.youmeus.com) on behalf of 'Branching Out' (http://www.branching-out.net), a project run by the Society of Chief Librarians in England and Wales.

The NLB says the project is unusual in that it represents one of the few occasions when a technology has been made available to blind people at the same time as sighted people, and accessibility has been built up from the start.

A series of drop-down menus allows users to specify the level of 11 different qualities they would like a book to have, ranging from the amount of sex and violence to how optimistic or realistic it should be. They can also specify the age, gender and sexual orientation of the main character.

So far, the Forager software only handles 1,000 works of fiction published since 1998, which are all held in grade II Braille format by the NLB. Once a set of characteristics has been selected the software returns a list of appropriate titles, and users can order them by email.

For visually impaired people, choosing books in the past has often meant reading synopses that give the plot away, and the need to consult with others may have led to more conservative choices. The new system aims to change that, although its creators admit it works best for extreme choices, and does not always work that well if too many different characteristics are specified together.


Access software tutorial writer John Wilson has produced a recorded guide to the fundamentals of Windows-based computing, 'VIPs introduction to computers'.

The two audio cassettes, which costs 12 pounds including postage, are designed to offer the information needed by those new to computing or just to Windows in making a decision on whether or not to buy a new computer system.

Just under a third of the three-hour guide is taken up with an introduction to the different types of computers and peripherals, in particular the keyboards. It then covers key Windows utilities using a variety of screen readers. To learn more telephone Wilson on +44 (0)113 257 5957 or email jwjw@onetel.net.uk


* TRANSPORT OF DELIGHT: The website of Translink, a major

supplier of bus and train transport services in Northern Ireland, won one of four Breaking Barriers awards on the European Day of Disabled People on 3 December. As well as being accessible itself, the site provides information about the accessibility features of bus and train stations and facilities at each stop:

* CWUAAT'S THIS: Computer access software and accessible

peripherals are among the topics up for discussion at 'CWUAAT', a workshop on universal access and assistive technologies running in March next year at Trinity Hall, Cambridge: http://rehab-www.eng.cam.ac.uk/cwuaat

* MOZILLA UNLEASHED: Test versions of Mozilla, the open source

origin of the Netscape browser, are being offered on a nightly basis to volunteers willing to test it for accessibility. Testers are being asked to concentrate on the browsers support for keyboard control and Active Accessibility, a Microsoft standard for programmes to communicate with access aids.
For more on Mozilla see:
And to download the latest test version visit: http://ftp.mozilla.org/pub/mozilla/nightly/latest/mozilla-win32- installer.exe

[Section one ends.]


* SOFTWARE ASSESSMENT: Andy Berry, a rehabilitation worker at

Lewisham Council, writes to ask if any bulletin readers have experience of using the 'LookOUT' screen reader or Magnice screen magnifier, from Choice Technology (http://www.screenreader.co.uk). [Respond to: inbox@headstar.com]

* CONFLICT RESOLITION: Katy Dymoke from Touchdown Dance

emailed to say responses to her request run in our October issue confirmed that the demands put on computer sound-cards by music on a CD-ROM may conflict with the voice synthesizer software used by screen readers. Dymoke said that in future she would make the possibility of such problems clear by listing system requirements for full accessibility on the case of the CD-ROM. Like Andy Berry above, Dymoke is also now interested to learn about the LookOUT screenreader. [Respond to: inbox@headstar.com]

* DIGITAL INDEXING: In answer to last month's request from

Anthony Bernard of Sri Lanka for ideas on software that can be used to index books he had scanned on to CD, teacher Val Lawson wrote: "Have you thought of using Adobe Acrobat? I believe that Version 5 supports screen readers." [Further ideas to: index@headstar.com]

[Section two ends.]



by Dan Jellinek dan@headstar.com

The use of free software like the Linux operating system is not widespread by visually impaired people, partly due to a general focus of access technology development on Microsoft Windows. But this could soon be set to change, with growing realisation of the high accessibility, affordability and flexibility of free software.

Many people equate free software with open source software, but not all open source software is 'free', as defined by Richard Stallman's Free Software Foundation (http://www.fsf.org).

Stallman is also the developer of GNU, a free operating system which was combined with a core or 'kernel' called Linux to form GNU/Linux (commonly referred to simply as Linux).

The free software definition (http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/freesw. html) which applies to software developed under the 'GNU General Public License' (and protected by a legally binding system called 'copyleft', a sort of anti-copyright) is emphatically about much more than cost: 'free as in freedom' is the preferred mantra. Indeed, free software can be sold, if people can find ways of adding value for example through writing manuals.

The definition has four main elements: the freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0); the freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it (freedom 1); the freedom to redistribute copies (freedom 2); and the freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public (freedom 3). Access to software source code � 'open source' - is a precondition for freedoms 1 and 3.

At the RNIB's recent 'Techshare 2001' conference (http://www.rnib.org.uk/techshare) Janina Sajka, director of technology research and development at the American Foundation for the Blind (http://www.afb.org), said the active free software development community now numbers some 300,000 people worldwide.

"Free software has really taken off in the last year or so, including in the corporate world � IBM is spending a million dollars on Linux development," Sajka said. "It is often of outstanding quality."

One of the easiest ways for screen reader users to gain an idea of GNU/Linux is a free package called Speakup (http://www.linuxspeakup. org), she said, which works with Linux to read all the screens and messages aloud. It has not yet been accepted into the Linux 'kernel' as a default standard, but there are three versions of Linux that do come ready packaged with Speakup - Debian (http://www.debian.org), Red Hat (http://www.redhat.com) and Slackware (http://www.slackware.com).

"With Speakup, a blind person or a deafblind person using Braille TTY [teletypewriter] output can install and configure a computer operating system from scratch for the first time," Sajka said.

Once Linux is installed, there is free software available to allow the user to carry out the whole range of tasks available to the Windows user, she said. Content is generally first keyed into a raw text editor and then formatted subsequently for output as a word processor document, web page or whatever, a system which boosts accessibility.

There is a free software equivalent to the Microsoft Office suite of desktop software packages, 'OpenOffice' (http://www.openoffice.org), a form of which runs on 'GNOME' (http://www.gnome.org), one of the major graphical interfaces for Linux. Both GNOME and OpenOffice have been developed by Sun Microsystems in an attempt to break Microsoft's hold on the desktop market.

As a point-and-click graphical environment like Windows, GNOME is not as accessible as the basic 'command line' form of Linux, but Sajka said Sun has recognised that it has to be made accessible, not least because under US law software must be accessible if it is to compete for federal contracts.

In November the 'Gnopernicus' project, led by German firm BAUM (http://www.baum.de), was announced to develop combined screen magnification and screen reader features for GNOME (http://developer.gnome.org/projects/gap/AT/Gnopernicus).

In Europe, another graphical interface for Linux is more commonly used � KDE (http://www.kde.org). This too has an accessibility project underway, although it is not as far down the line as the work for GNOME, Sajka said.

Beyond the usual desktop applications, Linux also shines in the field of internet and other communications, she said � "AT&T use it to run the world's telephone systems."

The accessibility of the command line system means that Linux is certainly the system of choice for blind computer programmers, she said, and indeed there are many blind programmers working in this field. But should the ordinary blind or visually impaired computer user use Linux?

"The answer today is � perhaps", Sajka said. "Anyone who used to like DOS will like Linux � it is very accessible. You can listen to an audio file or browse the web from a text command line, not a graphical interface. It's also very stable � it's nice to compute all day and go away and come back and never have to reboot. There is also increased flexibility � you take what you like and leave the rest.

"I think that if assistive technology were invented today, it would look only at Linux. This did not happen because when assistive technology began to be developed, UNIX [the forerunner to Linux] was not free, and Windows became universally used in business."

Momentum does appear to be building up behind Linux in the access community. Soon the DAISY digital book standard will be made compatible with Linux, and next year for the first time there will be a Linux accessibility track (co-ordinated by Sun) at the annual conference on 'Technologies and persons with disabilities' at California State University Northridge, CSUN (http://www.csun.edu/cod/conf2002).

Ultimately however, the really compelling reason why free software could be the future for the accessibility community is one of independence, she said. "With free software, lobbying the IT giants to make their products accessible becomes irrelevant. We don't need advocates, we need engineers."

NOTE: For further information on Linux and accessibility, see the documents section of programmer Saqib Shaikh's web site, which includes the 'Blinux Software Map', a superb overview of assistive software available:

See also 'The talking penguin' by programmer John Tucker, at: http://www.poetsroads.demon.co.uk/sa/talking_computers.html

[Section three ends.]



by Tamara Fletcher tamara@headstar.com

Computer games and educational programs can provide a compelling way for children to learn how to interact with computers. But as most children's software requires sight, blind or visually impaired children can be placed at a disadvantage.

"The problem is that most so-called text within children's software is not really text at all, but pictures of letters - bitmapped text - and is very difficult to convert to real text," says children's software developer Ronald Cooper. To make matters worse, even when text is not presented as an image, there is a dearth of screen-reading software suitable for children. To overcome this, Cooper's company RJ Cooper & Associates (http://www.rjcooper.com) is developing a screen reader for children, 'KeyRead'.

The development process for this software has involved visiting disabled children in different parts of the US. The upshot of one of these visits was a piece of software called 'Find the Buttons', which teaches blind children about the concept of a graphical user interface using a mouse.

As the child moves the mouse around across different sized panels on the screen, different sounds are heard depending on whether the mouse pointer is inside or outside a panel. Entering the various panels and clicking leads to stories or games being run. A downloadable version of the software, which was developed in association with a toddler from New Jersey called Jimmy, can be found at: http://www.rjcooper.com/find-the-buttons

Though unusual, Cooper's products are not the only ones to address the needs of the visually impaired child.

In an attempt to equip visually impaired children with keyboard skills, RE -M (http://www.r-e-m.co.uk/specialneeds) manufactures pre-reading software such as the 'concept keyboard', where different keys make different sounds when they are pressed. The company also produces software and equipment such as accessible switches that are helpful aids for preschool children using computers.

The Northern Grid for Learning (http://www.northerngrid.org), a consortium of education authorities in the north of England, has recently produced a free piece of educational developmental software suitable for children from toddlers to young adults to help parents and teachers to assess which visual imagery is most stimulating for them. Called the SENSwitcher, the software selects combinations of contrasting colours and shapes and records the child's responses. Through interaction it aims to provide an enjoyable way for children to learn cause and effect.

Recently, the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab has entered the field too, with a prototype sophisticated technological toy called the 'Bricket' (http://llk.media.mit.edu/projects/bricket), a sort of intelligent building block that has sensors and can emit sounds. At the heart of each block is a small, programmable microcomputer onto which programs written on a computer using screen-reading software and the simple LOGO programming language can be downloaded. The Bricket can then control and interact with a large variety of sensors, for example playing a song when someone walks though a door.

The Bricket is not exclusively designed for children, although MIT scientists have already found that bricks with brains can assist visually impaired children play, develop and learn with computer enhanced Lego: http://el.www.media.mit.edu/groups/el/projects/legologo

MIT graduate student Rahul Bhargava hopes the Bricket will become useful as a learning tool: "The experience of building computational constructions is rich in small challenges that require hard thinking to overcome. The idea of computation should by no means be limited to the computer and its screen interface. I hope to adapt this technology to provide the blind and visually impaired with a new way of understanding the power of computation."

[Section four ends.]



by Saqib Shaikh ss@saqibshaikh.com

The idea of using a computer to play games dates back to the 1980s, when adventure games were popular. Because these games were textbased, blind people were able to play, but as computers developed companies began increasingly to produce games relying on visuals.

This trend meant that until a few years ago, text-based adventure games remained almost the only games playable by a blind person. To this day there is still a small, but active community of text-based games enthusiasts, both archiving old and developing new adventures. Two of the biggest collections of these can be found at ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive and http://interactivefiction.about.com

In the late 1990s a New Jersey based company called Personal Computer Systems (PCS http://www.pcsgames.com) began to break the mould with the launch of a range of sound- and text- driven games running on the DOS operating system. The games ranged from card and board games to sports and action games, including a car racing game.

In the years that followed, blind people, along with most other people, began to migrate to Windows. PCS met this growing market by converting their games to Windows and recording sound files to replace the textual information that had previously been read out by a DOS screen reader.

These games were still relatively static and crude compared to their mainstream counterparts, but over the past year or two there have been further major advances.

The first attempt at making more exciting games for Windows was by gamesfortheblind.com (http://www.gamesfortheblind.com). This company produced a variety of games, including card games, educational games and a version of Battleships. Originally the programs were written to interface with the JAWS screen-reader, but more recent versions also work with WindowEyes, and the company is now working on producing self-voicing versions that use the Eloquence software synthesiser. Gamesfortheblind.com also produced the first accessible game that can be played over the Internet, StarFight (http://www.gamesfortheblind.com/aig/star.html). This is a version of Battleships using spaceships rather than boats. Users log onto a chat server and find an opponent to play remotely.

Last year computer-based entertainment was revolutionised with the launch of a Wild West game called Grizzly Gulch from Bavisoft (http://www.bavisoft.com). It is self-voicing, and uses stereo sound clips to produce a life-like atmosphere. Your mission is to prevent a crime to impress the sheriff, after which the sheriff will send you on bounty missions.

Throughout the game your main task is to fight off baddies by engaging in gun-fights. You will hear them taunting you from different directions, and you must turn to shoot them. In some scenes you will also hear frightened bystanders, who you must try not to shoot.

There is also a casino, where you can play games such as slot machines, Poker, Blackjack or the shell game, where there are three shells, with a coin hidden under one. One of the outer shells is swapped with the central shells repeatedly, and at the end you must guess where the coin is. This is represented by hearing a sound playing to the left when the left shell is exchanged and a noise to the right when the right shell is exchanged. You must concentrate hard and follow the exchange.

Another company which has recently entered the blind gaming arena is GMA Games (http://www.gmagames.com), with Lone Wolf and Trek 2000. The former is a World War II game in which you pilot a submarine by listening to the sound of the motors and sensors. One particularly nice feature of this game is that as well as being able to play predefined missions, players can create their own missions, and a few player-defined missions are included on the GMA web site. Trek 2000 is based on Star Trek, and again play is accomplished through sound effects and signals from sensors.

GMA recently released a third game which many, including myself, believe is the best accessible game released to date - Shades Of Doom, an audio version of the popular Doom game (for a full description of this game see 'Biological warfare', section five, E-Access Bulletin November 2001).

Another company producing games for the blind is ESP Softworks (http://www.espsoftworks.com). They recently released their first game, ESP Pinball. This game is based on the classic pinball table, with each level having a new theme, such as Pacman or soccer. As you play you can hear the ball rolling around from the left to the right. Different sound effects are used to symbolise different events. For example, in the Pacman table there are different sounds to signal that food has appeared or is being eaten, or to indicate the position of ghosts.

You knock the ball up the table by flipping the paddles. Every so often the ball will stop rolling - maybe when it is caught against a bumper - and then a scan will start. You will hear a beeping while the board is scanned from 9 o'clock to 3 o'clock and round. During the scanning you will hear the sounds for objects found, at which point you can hit the paddle and send the ball rolling off again. Beware, however, that if a ghost is hiding behind something it won't be picked up during the scan!

ESP also has a demo of their second game on their site, which is soon to be released: Monkey Business, an arcade style game. Plans for a teleportation device have been stolen from your boss by undercover monkeys controlled by the evil Dr Wobble. On each level you must catch all the monkeys and retrieve the pages of the plan, assisted by a coordinate reader and object detector.

Finally, there are two more companies which have made an entry into the blind gaming arena. Educational software company MindsEye2 (http://www.mindseye2.com) has released a children's audio crossword puzzle. And second, there is Zform (http://www.zform.com), a non-profit organisation that aims to produce games that can be enjoyed by both blind and sighted gamers alike. They have not yet started development on their first game, a medieval chess game with audio effects that can be played over the Internet, but estimate it should take around a year to develop.

With the long-awaited release of a second title from Bavisoft also due out early in the New Year � this time based in a haunted village � and a new car-racing game due out from ESP, it seems blind computer gaming is finally coming of age.

[Section five ends.]


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Copyright 2001 Headstar Ltd. http://www.headstar.com 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 http://www.eaccessibility. com is also cited.

Editor - Dan Jellinek dan@headstar.com Deputy Editor - Phil Cain phil@headstar.com Reporter - Tamara Fletcher tamara@headstar.com Editorial Advisor - Kevin Carey humanity@atlas.co.uk

[Issue ends.]