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[Issue starts.]



Section one: News:
Iconic images of US attacks described for blind. UK copyright Bill supporters play for time �lobbying for a loophole. Pentagon becomes centre of accessibility � advises 43 other US government departments.
Reef on lookout for access partners � multichannel software company seeks resellers.
Achromatopsy awareness campaign � an international appeal. News in brief: DTI IS help; Book forager; Kasday tribute

Section two: Trials and tribulations. Access to pre-release versions of all kinds of computer software is vital to iron out access glitches, but without careful consideration it can backfire.

Section three: Speech wave breaks over europe. Europe's first voicecontrolled web portal likely to be followed in the months to come by a wave of similar services from across the Atlantic.

Section four: We have the power � but at a price. Reader responses to EAccess Bulletin reader enquiry on voice recognition software.

[Contents ends.]



Visually impaired people are able to keep informed of the latest news and implications of last week's US terrorist attacks by accessing a web service provided by the New York-based Visually Impaired Computer Users Group.

Many of the organisation's members worked in the towers, among them vice-president Vivian Yacu who was evacuated unhurt after the buildings were struck. The web site, at http://www.hicom.net/~oedipus/vicug provides accessible information about the location of hospitals and allows visitors to sign up to email alert service that updates them of travel problems.

The site also links to an archive of descriptions of television images associated with the attack. "Many of the indelible images from the attacks have been transformed into iconic images, about which we, the blind, are usually the last to learn," says webmaster Gregory Rosmaita.

"Imagine the cloud of smoke as a grey fish shaped like an oval reaching down from the top left corner and taking a bite out of the right hand tower two thirds of the way down," reads part of the description of the World Trade Centre cataclysm. For more visit: http://wtc.crysm.net


Supporters of a UK parliamentary private member's Bill to legalise the production of accessible versions of digital material on a non-profit basis will meet with government ministers on 26 September to secure the law's passage.

It is often necessary for blind and visually impaired people to create alternative versions of digital material to allow them to listen to them using screen readers (see also E-Access Bulletin August 2001). PDF documents produced by Adobe and eBooks formats are particularly prone to needing such manipulation.

Those supporting the Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Bill, as the draft legislation is know, are hoping it is sufficiently compatible with the government's plans to be given formal support. Failing that, supporters plan to find a 'backdoor' route into the legislative process with a first reading in the House of Lords, according to RNIB campaigns officer David Mann.

According to Mann the Bill, which was laid down by Labour MP Rachel Squire, "leaves the onus on authors or publishers to take people to task - and ultimately to court - if they thought a particular activity did conflict with their legitimate interests." Some fear government plans will be more cumbersome.

Melanie Johnson MP (http://www.welwyn-hatfield-labour.fsnet.co.uk ), parliamentary under-secretary of state for competition, consumers and markets at the Department of Trade and Industry, will represent the government at the meeting.

* Leading UK consumer book publisher Penguin Books

(http://www.penguin.co.uk) last month announced plans to launch eBooks delivered in Adobe eBook and Microsoft reader format. Their level of accessibility has yet to be determined.


Forty-three US government agencies have received access equipment and advice from the Department of Defence's Computer/Electronic Accommodations Programme (CAP) over the last year.

Congress asked the unit to start dealing with requests for its assistive technology services from employees of government departments outside the Department of Defence in October 2000. At the same time the CAP's yearly budget was increased from 2.5 million US dollars to 4.5 million dollars to allow it to meet the extra costs.

Demand for CAP's services is expected to increase as government departments wake-up to Section 508, a law introduced in June requiring them to provide accessible information technologies to employees.

Meanwhile, to increase awareness of the obligations of Section 508, the US government Centre for Information Technology Accommodation has revamped its 508-awareness web site:


The global Internet business software house Reef is looking for business partners specialising in accessibility, vice president Jack Berkowitz told E-Access Bulletin this week.

Reef (http://www.reef.com ) is hoping new international partners will be willing to resell Reef EveryWare, which can deliver Internet content differently depending on user preferences and methods of access.

The company's only existing partner in the access field is US-based consultancy and software supplier WebABLE (http://www.webable.com). Founder Mike Paciello said: "Reef's engine gives us a 'leg up' on the development curve that otherwise might have taken us much longer to produce."

Paciello said WebABLE is currently modifying its web site to act as a showcase for EveryWare before beginning work on two or three projects employing the software.


Two of our readers from Italy, Elisabetta and Gianni Luchetta, are creating a support network for people with the rare congenital disease achromatopsy and would like to raise awareness of its work ahead of a planned world convention on the condition.

The disease affects just one in 33,000 people and is therefore largely unknown and often misdiagnosed by many optometrists. Life for sufferers � who include the Luchettas' own young son Lorenzo - can be very hard, with sunlight-blindness and greatly impaired eyesight.

The Association of Italian Achromatics is interested in talking to anyone affected by this disease so it can record and understand their needs and help them.

To find out more, including a moving personal account of Lorenzo's experiences, see the Luchettas' contribution to the European Parliament's temporary committee on human genetics in Italian and English at:
http://www.europarl.eu.int/comparl/tempcom/genetics/contributions/cont ri_acromati.pdf
This is a pdf document � for a plain text version or to simply make contact email:


DTI IS HELP: The Department of Trade and Industry's 'UKISHELP' web site promoting UK participation in European Commission Information Society programmes has unveiled a new frames-free and graphics-free version:

DIABETES QUERY: A bulletin reader writes to ask any blind and diabetic people who use a speaking blood sugar monitor, or 'glucometer', if they are effective and worth the current retail price of 500 UK pounds. Please email dan@headstar.com with your experiences or advice.

BOOK FORAGER: The National Library for the Blind (http://www.nlbuk.org ) is to launch in December a library search system called 'Book Forager', which is designed to make suggestions about which books are most appropriate for each reader. A test version is at: http://www.forager.co.uk/nlb

KASDAY TRIBUTE: In our last issue we mentioned the granting of a special award to Dr Leonard Kasday of the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, Philadelphia by the International Coalition of Access Engineers and Specialists (ICAES). Dr Kasday sadly passed away earlier this year, and a tribute to him from Michael Burks of the International Centre of Disability Resources on the Internet can be found at: http://www.icdri.org/passing_of_len_kasday.htm

[Section One ends.]


Phil Cain phil@headstar.com

Giving visually impaired computer users access to pre-release versions of all kinds of computer software is a vital step to help developers iron out minor access glitches at the last minute.

Last month online service provider AOL became one of the first of the major technology companies to seek out visually impaired beta testers. AOL hopes these testers will offer last minute suggestions to make its new software accessible enough to gain the approval of the US National Federation of the Blind (http://www.nfb.org) by November. If it fails to come up to scratch by then, the NFB has pledged it will restart a legal case against AOL suspended last November.

Despite having accepted the need for accessibility the company has found to its dismay that many in the Internet access community remain deeply antagonistic. Embarrassingly, this antagonism surfaced when a widely-circulated open invitation to beta test its new software was greeted with derision by some members of international email discussion lists dedicated to computer access issues.

Of particular concern to many was that AOL seemed to be requiring testers to join the AOL service, filling out membership forms and submitting credit card numbers. Some wondered why this information was needed when the testing period was said to be free.

Internet access campaigner Katie Haritos-Shea says AOL's registration arrangement was indicative of the corporation's ignorance of the fact that 70% of disabled people in the US are out of work and so are unlikely to have credit card numbers. According to Haritos-Shea the company will only gain the respect of the disabled community by employing disabled people in its accessibility unit. "It is a real job," she says.

Internet access consultant David Poehlman's comments echoed these sentiments, saying it is important companies do not use the beta testing process to answer questions that should have been dealt with by employees of the company. "Accessibility testing should only be a sort of bug catcher rather than an answer to the question, 'Is this software accessible?' That question should have already have been internally answered through proper development processes and testing."

Poehlman also says that, "Beta testing should be available to be performed independently of the service for which the software is being tested." In the case of AOL, he said, this would mean testers should be able to test the software without having to sign up to the service. But Poehlman also indicated that the public furore surrounding the AOL beta test could have been avoided, saying: "It is important that beta testers be gathered quietly and that they sign non-disclosure agreements."

Curtis Chong, technology director at the NFB, says it is important for software companies to realise that it is sometimes too early to do accessibility beta testing. According to Chong, Microsoft had asked him several years ago whether the NFB would be interested in testing future versions of the Windows operating system for accessibility." I told Microsoft that we were not interested," Chong said, "primarily because there was no screen access technology that would be compatible with these versions."

It is often the case that mainstream beta testers for non-access aspects of major software products choose to test the software in their spare time simply because they are dependent on the products in their lives and want to see them become more appropriate to their needs.

The danger is that by failing to build in accessibility in the past, many people with disabilities have long ago been forced to find alternatives to mainstream software packages and therefore have little interest in testing new versions for accessiblity. For this to change, software companies will have to prove that from now on they will consistently view accessibility as more than just an afterthought.

* In our next issue: AOL Accessibility Director Debbie Fletter responds.

[Section two ends.]


Dan Jellinek dan@headstar.com

The launch last month of Europe's first comprehensive voice-controlled web portal, 'eckoh' (http://www.eckoh.com - see E-Access Bulletin, August 2001), is likely to be followed in the months to come by a wave of other similar services from across the Atlantic, where they are already well underway.

There are a number of organisations already very active in targeting the US corporate market including BeVocal (http://www.bevocal.com), Tell Me (http://www.tellme.com ), HeyAnita (http://www.heyanita.com) and OnStar (http://www.onstar.com) which has launched a full in-car voice portal service providing voice dialling services and voice-activated Internet access.

"I suspect Europe as a whole is at least 18 months behind the US in this field," says Bob McDowall, business and technology consultant to Bloor Research. "However, the gap will be probably be narrowed by US companies introducing their services more quickly into Europe. Mediterranean Europe would appear to provide the most high-level growth in the short to medium term because of the aversion to mouse and keyboard by so many in the corporate world there."

Voice recognition technology in general has improved substantially over the past two to three years, he says. The main challenges faced now relate to the way information accessible by voice is organised.

"Selection can be made quickly and easily on a text screen, but voice portals have still to find an optimal way of enabling users to move rapidly through a menu or move rapidly from one section to another."

The technologies are not universally applicable, he says, but lend themselves particularly to use in accessing short, precise pieces of information in response to enquiries. "The information is likely to be for immediate use or application, and will be of a non-analytical or reflective nature. I would suggest that such information will gain little or nothing from being personalised."

In the US, one of the strongest leaders of such services is AOL, with its AOLbyPhone offering
(http://www.aol.com/anywhere/aolbyphone_non.adp ) for accessing email, weather, finances and other services. The service recently won an editor's choice award from the US-based Speech Technology magazine (http://www.speechtechmag.com), although as yet there are no public plans to bring the service to Europe.

The other major area of voice-controlled services for mainstream use is in accessing the ever-expanding range of sophistated services offered by mobile phones and other portable communications devices, such as text messaging and address book management.

There are also voice-activated services to enable people to interact with their mobile devices such as Wildfire (http://www.wildfire.com), which has been available for some time in both the US and Europe.

In the UK, mobile phone operator Orange has approximately 40,000 customers using the service, with its most popular features being voiceactivated dialling and voice-enabled voice messaging.

In an interesting cross-fertilisation of phone and Internet, planned developments for Wildfire include the ability to interact with the same services by voice or web and email as preferred.

"Voice is a good medium for access but not always appropriate," says Mike Hartnett, director of business planning at Wildfire. "For instance, if I have a calendar service I am likely to want to create the bulk of the initial information through a web-based interface because that type of detail is more easily input that way. However, when I am mobile or remote from web access and receive a reminder regarding a certain event via voice, I should be able to acknowledge or perhaps change that particular calendar entry via voice.

"The work going on now is to work through scenarios to provide the most flexible and appropriate access for a given user at a given time."

Other developments planned include greater automatic 'intelligent customisation'. For instance when you first start working with Wildfire it helps you to learn and use the services. As you become accustomed to them the early help prompts are weaned away to enable greater speed and efficiency.

And in a move which will bring the service directly into competition with the 'voice portal' providers, wildfire is also working on an extension to enable full voice-activated web access which should be available through Orange by the end of 2002.

Another voice service for mobile devices that has been designed with the visual impairment community expressly in mind is TALX (http://www.talx.de/index_e.htm), a software package which enables users to access all the advanced functions of Nokia communicators such as text messaging and Internet access using voice commands.

The company is German but TALX co-founder Torsten Brand, who is himself blind, says an English version is now fully functional. The company has found distributors in Germany, Italy, Sweden and Belgium though it is still looking for a UK partner for distribution and translation of the full user manual. Brand says TALX hopes to release a new version for the Nokia Communicator 9210 in the second quarter of 2002.

And so, as Europe catches up with the US in this cutting edge field, the future looks bright for voice access to the Internet and personal communications. "In principle it should be much easier to access the Internet by voice than mouse, keyboard and computer screen," says Bob McDowall. "It also opens the internet up geographically and demographically to a much wider range of people." This expansion will certainly include greater ease of access for the blind and visually impaired community.

[Section three ends.]



There has been a strong response from readers to last issue's request from Gill Burrington of Burrington Partnership for advice on the voice recognition software offering text-to-speech, dictation, and Internet navigation "that work well together and are not outrageously expensive".

Pete Gurney wrote in to say: "there is a premium version of the free accessible office software suite 'EasyOffice' that costs just under 40 US dollars from e-press (http://www.e-press.com).

"Both the free and premium editions allow you to control your machine via voice and browse the web. But the premium edition includes two versions of 'Easy Voice Recognition', one for slower machines and the other with continuous dictation which needs at least a 600 megahertz machine. It also includes an easy web creation program, and a barcode program. Within a few weeks Dixons in the UK will apparently be selling the premium package."

Most other correspondents recommended Dragon Systems' NaturallySpeaking (http://www.dragonsys.com). Pratik Patel, Project Manager, CUNY Assistive Technology Services, said: "What your reader appears to want is a system like we see in Star Trek. A fullyfunctional voice recognition system like that is on its way; but [in] five to 10 years.

"While NaturallySpeaking from Dragon currently offers the best performance, due to the need to integrate the technology with other programs it is difficult to achieve perfect results.

"NaturallySpeaking, IBM's voice recognition software ViaVoice (http://www-4.ibm.com/software/speech), or Voice XPress from Lernout & Hauspie (http://www.lhsl.com/voicexpress) rely heavily on the Microsoft Active Accessibility modules to provide them with the proper information in various programs. Despite Microsoft's claims, Active Accessibility is not readily used by programmers when programs come out.

"Moreover, there is no feature in any of the three voice recognition software mentioned above that allows one to read every feature of the operating systems such as dialogue boxes. To do that, one has to obtain JAWS for Windows from Henter-Joyce
(http://www.hj.com/JAWS/JAWS.html ), plus an additional program called 'JawBone' from a third company, Next Generation Technologies (http://www.ngtvoice.com/software/jawbone). JawBone acts as an interface betwen JAWS and NaturallySpeaking Professional Version.

"The cost of all three combined runs to around 2,100 US dollars. As if this weren't bad enough, Gill will have to increase her system RAM up to at least 256 MB.

"One of the best things NaturallySpeaking allows is improved speech recognition accuracy. With the proper training it is possible to achieve 96-98 per cent accuracy. This also comes at a cost, however. At least 20 hours' of training is needed with a trainer who can show the nuances of the software, and I would recommend that users train at least 40 hours more to perfect these skills."

Other Dragon enthusiasts included Sam Howie, who suggested Gill experiments first with a demonstration copy, and Bill Klein of SoVerNet in Vermont (http://www.sover.net), who said: "I am the president of a fast-growing international corporation. My position requires the use of, many widely diversified programs and a great deal of 'dictation' to MS Excel, Word and Outlook Express, to name just a few.

"I'm blind. I've been using Dragon for five years and would be lost without it. In conjunction with my screen reader, I can do almost anything I want. I found that the limitations of Dragon are userdependent - the more you train it, the better it, and you, become. It has numerous navigation features such as file opening and closing commands and will work as fast as you require, or speak.

"Much of my correspondence requires technical language and scientific terminology, and occasionally, Dragon doesn't recognise a word. One spells the word, says it and it's in the system. I've never required any support."

Rick Williams added to the general buzz for Dragon: "I use NaturallySpeaking Professional linked with JAWS via JawBone. The package can take very fast dictation and read back well. It can also dictate direct into Word and, Outlook Express (not so good as it is designed to work with Outlook), and is readily customised.

"There are a number of companies who can supply and train people in using this package, including bdf solutions (http://www.bdfsolutions. co.uk )."

Gill Burrington was delighted with this wide-ranging and valuable set of responses. She said: "Two particular things have become apparent. First, there seems to be no inexpensive solution. Second, the restricted choice.

"Having been at at a conference in Washington recently, I have gained some further useful information. The first new (to me) software I discovered was ZoomText (http://www.aisquared.com) which costs around 450 US dollars (430 pounds in the UK), which offers an integrated screen magnifier and screen reader.

"I came home clutching my demo copy and tried to run the programme but my system froze. Their helpful helpdesk diagnosed that the reason for this is that I have not got an accelerated graphics card.

"Also new to me was Arkenstone's OPENBook, costing 675 pounds (http://www.arkenstone.org/main.html ). This allows voice synthesis and Braille output from a scanner, so would be useful for reading journal articles, or indeed the bills which arrive through the post with such depressing frequency! However, the helpful information on Arkenstone's site showed me my four-year-old scanner isn't adequate.

"Taking everything into account, I am giving serious attention to upgrading everything. I should go for the highest specification I can afford, but the total cost is depressing.

"Whatever my final decision, I am hugely grateful to everyone who took the time to respond to my call for help. I know I could have spoken to an advisor in one of the organisations specialising in helping visually impaired people, but knowing what real users of these solutions feel about them will be a tremendous help."

[Section four 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.]