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[Issue starts.]

* ISSUE 23, NOVEMBER 2001.


Section one: News.

News in brief: Nystagmus Network relaunches site; Braille in the digital age; Tactile printer launched.

Section two: 'the inbox'
- A compilation of readers' emails.

Section three: Child development: gaps in the education system.

Section four: Europe: an ever more accessible union on the web?

Section five: Accessible games: virtual reality nailbiter.

[Contents end.]



Concerns are surfacing about the inaccessibility to people with disabilities of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics web site, prompting many to wonder if the Olympic movement has learned any lessons from a damning tribunal ruling against it in Australia last year.

Following the Sydney Olympics and Paralympics of 2000, blind web user Bruce Maguire was awarded 20,000 Australian dollars in damages against the games' organising committee when the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission found the inaccessibility of the games' web site had caused Maguire undue "pain and suffering". Inaccessible sites do not allow blind people using text-to-speech converters or others using special software to access the information they need.

Now concern is being expressed on accessibility email lists that the organising committee of the forthcoming Winter Olympics, due to start on 8 February 2002, do not appear to have heeded the Australian case.

The reported shortcomings of the official games site at http://www.slc2002.org include the fact that not all images carry text tags and titles; inaccessible technologies such as javascript and Flash as used without alternatives being offered; metadata is not used to add information about pages; users are not warned wherever pop-up browser windows are used; page frames are used without titles; and not all audio files have captions.

There are also problems with clarity of text, some of which is placed over photographic images and is hard to read even for someone without visual impairment. On the other hand, the site appears to work well with some screen readers, and some accessibility features are present, such as text transcripts for videos.

Accessibility expert Joe Clark (http://www.joeclark.org) says many of the site's problems are relatively minor, and there are still many weeks left in which changes could be made. If the changes are not made, however, Clark warns that the Australian case could come back to haunt the US organisers.

"Human rights cases are international by definition. The principles of accommodating people with disabilities short of undue burden or hardship are essentially identical in the US, Australia and many other nations, so the Sydney case stands as an international precedent," he says. "The International Olympic Committee would be foolish to make the same mistake twice."

Some observers are harsher still. Another leading accessibility expert who asked to remain anonymous said: "Given the action against the Olympic site by the Australian authorities, the fact that the Salt Lake City site is not accessible shows a disregard for people with disabilities that is at best callous, and at worst deliberate."

Although doubts surround the applicability of the Australian ruling in US courts, America has its own law under which aggrieved people could act, the Americans with Disabilities Act
(http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm). Under the act organisations that do not make their facilities accessible can face fines of up to 50,000 US dollars.

On a more positive note, the organising committee for the Athens Olympic Summer Games in 2004 seems set to be the first to fully embrace the issue of web accessibility. A spokesperson for the Athens committee told E-Access Bulletin this week that it was currently redesigning its site (http://www.athens.olympic.org/en - though at the time of writing the site had been taken down doe work) and that, "In a second phase, [the committee] is planning to make it accessible for people with disabilities."

NOTE: For our past coverage of the Sydney case, see bulletin issues 9, 10, 11 and 17. And for Joe Clark's analysis of the new controversy, see: http://www.contenu.nu/article.htm?id=1202


The UK government's long neglected web gateway for information and consultation on disability policy, the 'Disability � on the agenda' site at http://www.disability.gov.uk, is due to finally relaunch in a new format in January, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

For the best part of a year the site has contained the same basic data and links along with a message stating: "The http://www.disability.gov.uk site is being updated."

The site was caught in limbo when its parent department, the former Department of Social Security, underwent a transformation after the last election into the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

A hiatus followed while the new department settled down, but a spokesperson said this week that the DWP's disability unit was finally set to relaunch the site with strong ministerial backing early in the New Year.

Those who check the site from time to time hoping for signs of life will be relieved to no longer find that the most recent feature on the 'What's new' page refers to a government consultation on a new code of practice under the Disability Discrimination Act which took place in May 2000.


Access technology developers and users are hard at work adapting to Windows XP, the new Microsoft operating system launched last month.

RNIB communications officer John Welsman, who switched to Windows XP when it was first released, is finding the system is noticeably more stable. It also contains some useful tools including a software 'wizard' to make setting up accessibility features more straightforward.

It has not all been plain sailing, however. Dialogue boxes, for instance, take a little bit of getting used to, Welsman says, with more of them being presented in web page format than before. Welsman also says XP is even more memory-hungry than its predecessors and recommends users equip themselves with at least 128 megabytes of 'RAM' memory.

Access software developers have not all modified their programs to cope with the new operating system, though there is a test release available of an XP-compatible version of the popular JAWS screen reader (http://www.freedomscientific.com). Close competitor WindowEyes (http://www.gwmicro.com/windoweyes/windoweyes.htm) is expected to release an XP compatible version in January.

Both, however, look likely to be pipped to the post this week by the release of an XP-compatible version of Supernova, a combined screen reader and magnifier from Dolphin (http://www.dolphinuk.co.uk). It remains to be seen if Supernova developers have given themselves enough time to iron out every XP wrinkle.


A draft standard for a language to create voice web sites is being widely criticised for undermining the open source philosophy some believe is key to the Internet's success.

Although much online discussion surrounding the standard has praised its technical merits, unease has arisen because organisations involved in drafting specifications have not ruled out charging royalties for using the patented technologies implied by the standard. As reported in our last issue ('Patently unfair', October 2001) the matter of whether or not such charges will be allowed by the web standards body the World Wide Web Consortium is a hot potato.

The outlet for much of the discontent over VoiceXML 2.0 has been the email discussion group:


A new US National Centre on Accessible Information Technology, to be known as 'AccessIT', is to be created at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The project is to be funded from a 3.5 million dollar grant from the US government National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (http://www.ed.gov/offices/OSERS/NIDRR) to run over the next five years.

The new unit will be jointly headed by Kurt Johnson of the Centre for Technology and Sheryl Burgstahler of the university's innovative DO-IT project which offers Internet-based mentoring to students with disabilities (http://www.washington.edu/doit - and see also our November 2000 issue).


* NYSTAGMUS SITE: The UK Nystagmus Network has relaunched its

web site with new sections for children and academic research. Nystagmus is characterised by rapid involuntary eye movements that often seriously impairs vision:

* DANISH MEET: A conference on Braille in the digital age is taking

place from 16-19 April next year in Copenhagen, Denmark, hosted by the country's major blindness groups:

* TACTILE PRINTER: Anglia Polytechnic University has developed a

versatile tactile printing machine which can produce tactile diagrams, signs and maps annotated with raised text, Braille or Moon, on a variety of materials:

[Section one ends.]


* DIGITAL INDEXING. "A major problem that blind students face is

the dearth of text-books," writes Anthony Bernard from Sri Lanka. "Braille books in a third world country like Sri Lanka can be quite expensive. Since I retired from my teaching job in February this year, I have some free time which I can use to scan books onto CD for blind readers. But I do not have the software to compile tables of contents, indexed search facilities and so on. Do special software packages exist to do this kind of work? I hope someone can send me the relevant information." [inbox@headstar.com]

* WHEELCHAIR AID. Long-term bulletin reader David Porter would

like to hear from anyone who knows of technology that may help blind users of powered wheelchairs to see kerbs at the edge of pavements. He would also like to find information on a long cane with a light near the tip, which a person with severe tunnel vision might use to check the ground ahead when it is dark. [inbox@headstsar.com]

* WILCO. Simon Wilkes would like to hear from people who are

interested in developing accessible Citizens' Band and hand held radio equipment. Telephone (UK) 020 8478 5841

* GLUCOMETER UPDATE. Following our recent call for information

and advice on talking glucometers for people with diabetes who are blind, and the excellent reader response (see E-Access bulletin, October 2001), we have received three further emails offering valuable information.

Tim Culhane from Dublin, Ireland writes: "I have recently heard about a talking glucometer which has been introduced to Britain and Ireland in the last year. It is called the Gluki Plus, manufactured by the Austrian company CareTec:

"It is designed with the visually impaired in mind, with a large clear display, and integrated speech output. The meter itself is quite small and very simple to use. Also, you only need a tiny drop of blood for a test.

"The only problem is it costs 700 Irish pounds. However, I'm sure if you can show that the device is necessary for you to live independently, funding should be available from the NHS or similar bodies in other countries."

He adds: "I have been using the 'One touch' meter from LifeScan (http://www.lifescan.com) since I was diagnosed with diabetes five years ago. This can be attached to a voice synthesiser, and I have found it reasonably good. Its main disadvantage is that you have to place the drop of blood in a particular spot on the test strip, and you need a large amount. The meter plus synthesiser is also quite bulky."

Carolyn Rupe from Perth, Western Australia, adds: "I have been using a Gluki Plus Glucometer for about six years now and I have found it to be extremely good. It beeps when you have put enough blood on the strip and then after 45 seconds it speaks your result.

"The metre is turned on when the strip is inserted into the machine and turns off when the strip is removed. The machine is about the size of an audio cassette, so it is very portable. It holds the last ten tests in its memory so you are able to recall them when you like.

"The cost of these machines in Australia is around 1,250 Australian dollars. The machines are also available through the Royal Blind Society in New South Wales and Australians can also apply for a lottery grant to obtain one."

Finally Virginia Carcedo of CIDAT, the technology centre of the Spanish national blindness organisation ONCE, writes: "ONCE in cooperation with a major company has developed and manufactured the 'Sonogluco'. It converts into speech the relevant information in the visual display of the mainstream glucometer device into which the Sonogluco is built, the 'GlucoTouch' [editor's note: this is another technology from LifeScan].

"There are now units for six different languages: Spanish, English, French, German, Italian and Portuguese. The combined unit costs 197 euros, plus VAT where appropriate." Further information from: http://www.once.es/cidat

[Section two ends.]



By Tamara Fletcher tamara@headstar.com

Although there are around 22,000 visually impaired children in the UK, there is little educational technology or software for such children available in mainstream schools. This problem is compounded by a shortage of advice for parents on how to make do without such aids.

Under section two of the new Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (http://www.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts2001/20010010.htm), local authorities "must arrange for the parent of any child in their area with special educational needs to be provided with advice and information . . . relating to those needs".

According to Chris Stevens, special needs manager for the government educational technology agency Becta (http://www.becta.org.uk), technology for pre-school children in particular receives too little attention.

"Becta has done a lot of work on raising awareness of local education authorities and software developers", Stevens says. "Awareness is growing but there is still a concern among technology providers that building in accessibility means it will cost more money," says Stevens.

Olga Miller, children's policy officer at the RNIB, is also concerned. "Currently there is no clear route for parents to follow for children to get access to technology at home. This continues to be a massive area of need. With training parents could do a lot to encourage their children to be independent but provision is very poor, with no real central help."

Wendy Sainsbury, national family support officer at 'LOOK' (http://www.look.graphicbox.co.uk), a support organisation for families with visually impaired children, supports this view.

Although there are a few organisations which distribute grants, such as Electronic Aids for the Blind (http://www.eabnet.org.uk) and the National Blind Children's Society (http://www.nbcs.org.uk), she says: "On the whole children don't have the access that they should have. Often where there is provision, children have to share equipment. Funding for home access is the biggest problem of all � the situation is a complete nightmare as there are not many places families can get grants."

Provision of access technology in schools is similarly problematic. Miller says there is extremely patchy coverage of access technology caused by fragmentation of local education authority funding for the visually impaired, whereby each LEA's support services are structured differently.

This problem is aggravated, Miller says, by the fact that many schools are tied into LEA managed service provider agreements which do not offer enough flexibility to allow provision of access equipment. For example under the agreements only standard-sized computer screens may be available, so schools would find it hard to request larger screens for visually impaired children.

Lesley Waddell, senior ICT development officer at the RNIB, agrees: "The service provider comes in and installs all the basic hardware but access technology is never part of this bundle. It is the responsibility of the individual schools to determine what they need which is sometimes difficult if people are not aware of the different options available to them."

The Department for Education and Science has published the white paper 'Schools - achieving success' (http://www.dfes.gov.uk/achievingsuccess) which promises a restructuring of the LEA and school funding systems from 2003-04. Central to this will be a reform of education 'standard spending assessments', which will allow for individual LEAs and schools to decide what to spend on particular areas of the service.

At present if a child has a special educational needs statement issued by an LEA, which is required by law for all who need one, the authority has a responsibility to cater for the individual needs of that child. However this is a catch-22 situation which means in practice that the quality of the provision depends on quality of the statement. "There are so many children with woolly statements not worth the paper they're written on and then there are very good ones that the LEAs are not providing for," Sainsbury says.

Furthermore, although most registered blind children have statements, those with partial sight often do not. Nystagmus sufferers are most often without statements as the severity of the eye condition can vary from day to day.

The picture is not all bleak, however, and some local authorities offer quite good provision and support.

North Yorkshire County Council has a Sensory and Physical Support Service and a visual impairment support team (http://www.northyorks.gov.uk/pps/sensory/special.shtm). There is a toy and equipment lending library for young children, and if the equipment looks like it has long-term benefits the service will help parents to access funding for their own equipment. Awareness training days for teachers and other professionals are also offered.

"The awareness days are very successful, with lots of positive feedback," says Janet Pentlow, the vision team's advisory support teacher. "We are about to embark on six training days across the county for early education providers as an introduction to hearing, visual and physical impairment."

One place where schools and education authorities can locate and exchange ideas and resources for the education of children with visual impairment is the 'inclusion' area of the National Grid for Learning (http://www.ngfl.gov.uk), the Becta-run educational web portal (http://inclusion.ngfl.gov.uk).

Becta has also recently established a 'VI forum' email discussion list whereby educational practitioners can discuss issues relating to the teaching of students with visual impairments (to subscribe email majordomo@ngfl.gov.uk, leaving the subject blank, with 'subscribe viforum' in the message body).

Through national moves like these it is to be hoped that, as more schools and education authorities do begin to improve their practices towards teaching visually impaired children, their experiences and resources can be shared by all.

[Section three ends.]



By Phil Cain phil@headstar.com

As reported in last month's bulletin, the European Commission has said it will begin making the main official EU web portal, 'Europa' (http://europa.eu.int), more accessible and is encouraging member states to follow suit. E-Access Bulletin has since asked some questions to find out where these good intentions might be leading. We reproduce these below, along with the answers we received from various commission spokespeople.

Q: The commission said in its recent statement that member states and European institutions will "take on board" accessibility proposals by end of 2001. What does this actually mean?

  1. It means the commission and member states have committed themselves to adopting the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) content guidelines by the end of 2001. This does not mean that all these sites will be compliant - as the commission has said, "Europa is a massive site, featuring well over a million pages, so the adoption of the guidelines marks the beginning of a long compliance process, not the end."

The adoption is a policy decision which must be followed by a major implementation program. There are many ways of going about this, which is why it is so useful to exchange experiences between the commission and member states and benchmark progress. What we do know is that this program will take years, and will be part of a wider development towards 'Europa second generation'.

To read more about the generation plan click on further reading at: http://europa.eu.int/information_society/accessibility

Q: What has been achieved so far?

  1. Within the commission, the implementation program has already begun. In fact, there are some highly WAI-compliant pages already there. Training programs for web designers are also being prepared and new web templates developed.

However, resources are not infinite - we aim to ensure that all of the 100,000 or so new pages published each year from the end of this year are compliant. This must obviously be the first priority, otherwise the task will just keep getting bigger. The next task would be to tackle the 1.5 million or so 'old pages' - here, it is unlikely that all pages would be reworked. Instead, pages will probably be sorted according to priority, and tackled in an ongoing process.

Q: The commission and member states were said to have "agreed to exchange information and benchmark their progress". What information are they planning to exchange and by whom will their progress be benchmarked?

  1. Under the commission's Employment division, there is a group of senior officials appointed by the member states to follow-up the eEurope 2002 Action Plan implementation in relation to e-Inclusion. This group - known as Employment and Social Dimension of the Information Society (ESDIS) � is charged with benchmarking and monitoring progress on this action plan, including the adoption by public sites of WAI guidelines.

The benchmarking will done at member state level and reported to this group. ESDIS is also advised by a group of experts on Internet accessibility called the eAccessibility Group, whose members were appointed by the member states. ESDIS will report regularly on their monitoring activities and highlight identified best practices from member states.

Q: Which organisations will be responsible for making Europa accessible?

  1. The central responsibility for managing Europa resides with the commission's Press division, while most of the actual content is provided by staff throughout the commission. There is therefore a need to train a great number of webmasters, as well as control a significant number of contractors. The modernisation workplan will be executed with the help of several companies that supply specific pieces of technology; provide general design consultancy; manage specific pages and sections; and provide content to individual services.
  2. What will be done to encourage European and member state funded organisations to make their web sites accessible?
  3. We encourage our projects which are receiving European Commission funds to adopt the WAI guidelines. We are also studying how encourage initiatives funded by the commission to adopt the guidelines. Present member states' different approaches and experiences will be reported at ESDIS group and best practices will be identified. We will then encourage member states to adopt these best practices.

NOTE: The European Commission eEurope web page will report progress on all eEurope Action Points:

[Section four ends.]



By Tamara Fletcher tamara@headstar.com

The time is the distant future, the location an impregnable, top-secret military research base deep inside a mountain on a remote island. A few hours ago all transmissions from the base suddenly ceased, at the very moment of activation of a classified biological experiment three years in the planning.

As a secret agent for the FDN � the Federation of Democratic Nations - you have been sent to investigate whether the experiment has horribly misfired. As you land your shuttle you have little idea of the mutated foes you will have to combat to access the heart of the base and shut down the experiment.

So runs the preamble to 'Shades of Doom' from GMA games (http://www.gmagames.com), hailed by enthusiasts as one of the best computer games so far created for blind and visually impaired players.

The game uses a sophisticated combination of spoken instructions and multi-layered sounds � up to 32 playing simultaneously - which indicate anything from how many monsters are in a room to wind direction or the humming of computer equipment. The game is 'self-voicing', so does not require a separate piece of screen-reader software.

Control of your actions is by joystick and by various keys which allow you to perform tasks such as access weapons or determine the state of your health. As you approach objects, be they doors or monsters, their position and nature is indicated by a beep which intensifies the closer you get. You find out what the object is by pressing a key.

"I think Shades of Doom is the best interactive game for visually impaired people so far because not only do you not have to rely on a screen reader but you can control whatever your character does. It's really addictive," says Maurice Press, director of the consultancy Disability Resource Team (http://www.disabilityresourceteam.co.uk) by day and a games enthusiast by night.

Blind since birth, Press has always loved computer games and is proud to have just completed Shades of Doom with 23,000 points � though not without "some difficulty, lack of sleep and not being spoken to by my wife".

Visually impaired people have in the past encountered serious difficulties with accessibility to gaming software. "The visually impaired community got very excited in the early days about the games on the market which would say on the screen, 'you are in a forest, standing near a tree. Turn left or right?' But then everyone else got things like Gameboy and we felt very much behind," he says.

"Since then people have been trying to make virtual reality games. I would say the first successful one for the visually impaired was Grizzly Gulch by Bavisoft (http://www.bavisoft.com) as it was the first time you didn't need a speech program and could just listen to everything through your speakers or headphones and interact with characters getting into gun fights or whatever".

With Shades of Doom � which is loosely based on the hugely popular 'Doom' game for sighted people - the gaming experience is taken to new heights with a range of exotic monsters, from mutant dogs and humans to a "slimy thing" which is very tricky to kill � Press recommends that you "set a 10 second delay on a disrupter mine and run like hell."

There are red herrings and tricks in the game too, to catch you unaware. "On level two there is a security chip hidden in a toilet. To get it you need to flush the toilet and when you do so, the slimy monster will come out and kill you unless you're very fast." Other testing adversaries include "a mad scientist with a laugh like a chipmunk" who snatches your security chips unless you're very quick, and "I'm not going to tell you what's in the crate on level five, but you need to get away from that pretty quickly too."

Press regularly participates in gaming user groups, sharing playing tips with both sighted and visually impaired enthusiasts. He sees a good future ahead for his hobby: one game to watch out for next year will be a fighter plane flight-simulator which Press himself is helping develop for a company that he cannot yet name. Different keys will enable the player to find out and control plane speed and height, with other sounds and announcements warning of attacks and other events.

It should be released around February. In the meantime, perhaps games addicts who have finished Shades of Doom will be able to get a little sleep.

NOTE: For our past coverage of accessible gaming, see issues 5, 6 and 8.

[Section five ends.]


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Please send comments on coverage or leads to Dan Jellinek at: dan@headstar.com

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.e-accessibility.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.]