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[Issue starts.]

* ISSUE 32, AUGUST 2002.


Section one: News.

  1. Design network completes Euro action plan - national design centres join forces.
  2. US Congress backs accessible e-voting - overwhelming vote for national standards.
  3. Open VISTA for digital television - research begins on voice-activated programme guides.
  4. National library database revealed - national catalogue overcomes delays.
  5. Design insights for digital libraries - good site navigation is key.

News in brief: 6: E-book finder � new online archive; 7: Workers cooperative � skills database launches; 8: Construction guidelines � accessible web book.

Section two: 'The Inbox' - Readers' forum. - 9: Discussion forum; 10: Learning languages; 11: Fireworks display.

12: Section three: Analysis � Communications Bill. - More hot air than wind of change? Derek Parkinson finds only halfhearted commitments to accessibility in the government's sweeping new technology regulation bill.

13: Section four: Net history � 'phreaking'. - Telephone engaged: many of the early 'telephone hackers' were blind. Phil Cain retraces the steps of one networking pioneer now working on the right side of the law.

14: Section five: Writing competition - first prize. We present 'OASIS', the winning entry of our creative writing competition, by Neill McBride.

[Contents ends.]



Web accessibility standards in Europe have received a boost with the launch by the European Commission of the European Secretariat for the Design for All e-Accessibility Network (ESDeaN). The network aims to establish national centres of excellence; provide a forum for sharing best practices between designers and engineers; and raise public awareness of accessibility issues.

ESDeaN has around 90 organizations in the network and is actively seeking new applicants. Details can be found at: http://fastlink.headstar.com/esdean
So far, national contact centres have been established in 15 countries throughout Europe:

Thee creation of ESDeaN marks the fifth and final stage in theaccessiblity programme seet out in the commission's 2002 'eEurope' social action plan. The other key components were closer cooperation between member states, adoption of Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines for public websites, publication of accessibility standards and a review of legislation.

Progress with eEurope accessibility initiatives are due to be discussed at a conference on 9 September, hosted by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute in Copenhagen: http://www.etsi.org/frameset/home.htm?/cce


The US Congress is set to adopt new national standards for accessible voting, following an overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives to accept proposals from the Senate based on the premise that new voting systems provide �a practical and effective means for voters with physical disabilities to cast a secret ballot�.

As well as stating that new voting systems should be in place by 2006, the legislation earmarks federal funds to help states upgrade their systems and improve registration procedures.

The Congress decision � by some 410 votes to two - concludes efforts by the US legislature to harmonise two separate strands of law drafted to prevent a repeat of the electoral controversy that surrounded the 2000 presidential election. For a comparison of the Senate and Representatives proposals see:

The Senate proposals were supported by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (http://www.c-c-d.org), a national coalition which includes the American Association of People with Disabilities and the American Council of the Blind.


A new voice-based application that could replace text-based electronic programme guides for digital TV, allowing visually impaired users to speak questions and commands to their TVs and receive voice responses, is being developed by UK researchers.

Virtual Interface for a Set-Top Agent (VISTA) is currently being tested by a mixed sighted and visually impaired test groups at the University of London and Victoria University, Manchester. According to Jonathan Freeman of Goldsmiths College London, the 18-month project aims to make the platform-independent system responsive to natural, conversational requests such as �What time is the news on?� rather than a specialised vocabulary of commands.

Although Freeman says there is no guarantee that VISTA will go into commercial production, he thinks the underlying technology could be highly adaptable, and thus act as a valuable first step towards voiceenabled interactive TV.

The 18-month project, which is led by the Independent Television Commission (ITC), also includes BSkyB, City University, Sensory, Televirtual, the University of East Anglia, the Victoria University of Manchester, and is part-funded by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Economic and Social Research Council (see http://fastlink.headstar.com/itc).

Although the ITC is due to be absorbed imminently into the new communications industry 'super-regulator' Ofcom (see also section three, this issue), this will not affect progress with VISTA, Freeman says.


The long-delayed �Reveal� project to create a national database of information resources in accessible formats looks set to finally begin development on 1 October, following agreement on terms by the project�s main partners, the National Library for the Blind (NLB) and the RNIB.

The project, which was originally due to launch in April 2001, will log hundreds of thousands of resources, with details of who holds them and how they can be obtained. It will also hold information on whether a particular work is in production or planed for future production, to help avoid duplication of work by different agencies in making information accessible.

The intention is to provide visually impaired people with the same access to library and other information sources nationwide as mainstream library readers enjoy, with the ability to identify, locate and request any title.

The system will be based on the Geac software used by the NLB (http://www.library.geac.com), with work planned to take six months, to be followed by a formal launch in spring 2003. The project�s costs of around 200,000 pounds are being met by Resource, the government agency for libraries (http://www.resource.gov.uk); the British Library (http://www.bl.uk); The John Ellerman Foundation (http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/jef.html); and private sponsor Lloyds TSB.

For further background on Reveal see:


Designers of accessible web sites for libraries, search engines and directories place too much emphasis on transcribing text or rendering images as text and not enough on the layout of navigation links, according to a study by Manchester Metropolitan University.

The research, which compared how 40 sighted and visually impaired subjects accessed a series of test sites, found that even where information had been rendered as text, design features like frames made finding information difficult.

According to researcher Jenny Craven, accessibility could be improved in many cases by simple alterations. �A site can be made easier to navigate for people using screen readers by placing navigation bars along the top of a page or alphabetically, rather than down the sides, or scattered through a page as they often are,� she said.

Full findings of the two-year Non-Visual Access project (NoVA - http://www.mmu.ac.uk/h-ss/cerlim/projects/nova.htm) are due to be published shortly. The project is government-funded as part of a national project to move public libraries online (http://www.resource.gov.uk/).


*6: E-BOOK FINDER: A free web-based search tool to help find

details of book titles published in e-book format went live this week. The archive is said to contain information on tens of thousands of ebooks issued by over 400 publishers:

*7: WORKERS CO-OPERATIVE: Furniture makers, horticultural

services and even a web designer are among early registrations on a new online searchable database of people with disabilities seeking employment, created by the Wales-based Disabled Workers Cooperative. The aim is to help local businesses find people with the skills they need:

*8: CONSTRUCTION GUIDELINES: A group of US experts has

published a book, 'Constructing accessible web sites', which as well as detailed technical guidance, provides insights into accessibility guidelines and laws worldwide:

[Section one ends.]


*9: DISCUSSION FORUM: This month, E-Access Bulletin would

like to put its own call for information out about accessible online dicussion forums. We are planning to develop fully accessible online debate software, to allow large groups of people to join in debates or discussions via the web and email.

We would therefore be interested to hear from blind internet users who have taken part in oniline debates, and would like to have input into our 'dream specification' for fully accessible software of this kind. Thanks very much in advance � input please to inbox@headstar.com

*10: LEARNING LANGUAGES: In our last issue, Samson Perera of

the Sri Lanka Council for the Blind wrote in seeking materials in Braille, cassette or ASCII to help him learn about computer hardware, how to manage the Bios setup and also computer languages such as Java and C plus.

In response, Paul Magill of Australia suggested: �A great place to start if you are interested in learning computer languages and programming is the Blind Programming site: http://www.blindprogramming.com

The E-Access Bulletin team has since joined the email list at this site and can strongly endorse this recommendation � it is an excellent resource.

In a second valuable response, Sally Hutchinson of the RNIB wrote in to say her organisation holds a wide range of titles on Bios, Java and C Plus available in Braille or cassette. For information on loaning or purchasing any of these titles, contact Maxine Jones at the RNIB Export Team on exports@rnib.org.uk

*11: FIREWORKS DISPLAY: Kate Page of the wildlife

conservation agency English Nature would like to know if pop-up menus created using the web animation software Macromedia Fireworks are accessible using JAWS 4.0 � �I can't find any keystrokes to access them,� she says. [Responses to inbox@headstar.com].

[Section two ends.]



by Derek Parkinson derek@headstar.com

When technology comes to define a historical period - as it has in our own Digital Age � its significance cannot be measured in sets of dry figures. The Digital Age signals new expectations about how fluidly we communicate, and our access to information, other people, and institutions.

In this context, the UK Government�s draft Communication Bill makes disappointing reading, cramped by a vision of market forces as the primary agent for positive change, and with a corresponding belief that its single biggest contribution will be to intervene as little as possible. This is not an encouraging sign for visually impaired people, who might otherwise hope that the shift to digital technologies could change the landscape of opportunities, narrowing the gap between themselves and sighted people. The early signs are that the government will do little to encourage this, and that the transition to digital technologies in TV and radio may even widen the gap.

A recent dissection of the draft proposals by the RNIB concludes: �Blind, partially sighted and deafblind people rightly feel that they suffer huge discrimination in and exclusion from digital communications services. They feel by and large that government is not listening to or acting on their concerns in this area.�

The bill sets out the powers and responsibilities of the sprawling new communications industry regulator Ofcom, which is charged with protecting the interests of service users and setting licence terms for telecommunications, TV and radio service providers.

Potentially at least, Ofcom is well placed to push accessibility further up the digital agenda. However, the bill shows little ambition in this area. For example, although it lays down targets for audio-described digital TV content, these are pegged at ten per cent of all services. Even worse, service providers have 10 years from launch to reach even this low quota. According to the RNIB, a target of 50 percent audio-described content is far more desirable and achievable and was actually considered up to the final committee stages of the bill�s history.

More positively, the bill does extend the audio-description quotas from terrestrial to satellite and cable services. In an unpublished assessment, the government reportedly justifies this on the grounds that public interest outweighs any potential impact on the industry. According to an RNIB source, the assessment concluded: �While there are costs to industry, particularly as regards subtitling, signing and audio description, these have to be set against the resulting considerable social benefits.� Clearly, the government does at least partially acknowledge the principle that it has a role in shaping the market for desirable ends. The argument concerns how it should intervene.

Content is only one of three issues that need to be tackled for truly accessible digital services, the other two being delivery and reception. With digital terrestrial TV for example, only 45 households currently have access to audio-described services through a prototype module, with commercial availability still a long way off.

According to the RNIB, manufacturers are resistant to incorporating the technology within set-top boxes, while service providers and the government appears to be unwilling to subsidise an affordable module that could be bought separately.

In the House of Commons recently, the Labour MP Roger Berry questioned the Department of Culture, Media and Sport on whether the government will ensure that future digital TVs and set-top boxes will be enabled for audio-description.

The relevant government minister, Kim Howells, replied that �the design features and production of set top boxes are matters for the manufacturers to decide�. Past experience suggests that these decisions are unlikely to break new ground � �Manufacturers will do whatever they can to avoid new standards,� says Leen Petre of the RNIB.

Although cable services have been available for longer, they have made even less progress � at present, no-one is able to receive audiodescribed content on cable. Although there are no significant technology barriers, early improvements are unlikely given the volatile position of service providers, with major players NTL and Telewest struggling with a mountain of debt, poor records of service and constant changes in the boardroom.

Only satellite services have made much headway, with Sky Digital offering a basic audio-described service, although Sky�s own electronic programme guides have been criticised for poor accessibility. The RNIB has called on the government to require all digital broadcasters to follow Sky�s lead and make audio description available through software downloads, but this would still require upgraded set-top boxes and TVs.

Overall, the bill disappoints with its lack of commitment. It acknowledges the potential for a regulator to further the interests of disabled people, but then fails to give Ofcom the powers needed to fully play that role.

In particular, it equivocates over Ofcom�s responsibilities, charging the watchdog to �have regard to� the needs of disabled people �where it appears relevant�. It makes only tentative moves to increase levels of accessible content and effectively ducks any responsibility for ensuring that user equipment is both accessible and affordable.

[Section three ends.]



by Phil Cain phil@headstar.com

Communications technnologies are now a source of freedom, education and entertainment for millions of visually impaired people. But blind people have also been involved in some of the more alternative, not to mention illegal, uses of technology over the years � activities generally grouped under the heading of 'hacking'.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, for example, the so called 'phone phreakers' took advantage of the fact that phone networks of the time in the UK and US sent a small number of switching tones over the same wire that transmitted sound from the mouthpiece. This meant the ordinary phone user could send commands to the network switches by making sounds into the mouthpiece. Observation of the noises phones made in use, plus subterfuge and a generous dose of trial and error were enough to give phreakers the repetoire of noises needed to make free calls, set up conference calls or listen in to other people.

Among the first to discover the loophole in the US phone system was Joe Engressia, who as a blind child had begun to explore the phone, using his perfectly pitched whistle. A highly-tuned aural awareness such as Engressia's is also useful in other ways, according to fellow pioneer Bill Acker: "It helps you know where you are in the network."

Acker, who is also blind, says his love affair with the phone began when he found out that "the phone makes such wonderful, wonderful noises". By the time he was a teenager at the Dominican LaVelle School for the Blind in the Bronx, his entanglement was deepening. "I was phreaking four, five, six, seven hours a day. I lived in the network."

However, Engressia's conviction for toll fraud in mid-1971 showed that phreaking carried considerable risks. These risks increased further in the October 1971 when public attention was drawn to the phenomenon by the publication of an exposé in Esquire magazine (http://www.webcrunchers.com/crunch/esq-art.html).

Before the end of 1971 Acker was beginning to feel the heat himself, with New York Telephone Company investigator Tom Duffy calling at to his school having heard Acker had said he could make free calls for one of the school's teaching nuns to her native Ireland.

"I was scared to death," Acker says. "But I had watched enough TV to say 'I have the right to remain silent.' Duffy then left the room for a few minutes, giving me time to think. 'What am I afraid of?' I thought. 'Am I afraid they will cart me off to jail? Why am I in a cold sweat?' In the end I realised I was scared simply because they might find a way to stop me from doing it."

Acker also offers another reason for silence: "Protecting myself was very much on my mind, but protecting my brothers and sisters in crime was also certainly high on the agenda."

Phreakers enjoyed a strong camaraderie, regularly calling one another and exchanging ideas in conference calls set up using a 'bluebox' - one of the earliest tone generators, later famously made and used by Apple Computers founder Steve Wozniak

"Most often phreaked calls were to other phreaks," Acker says. The fraternity continues to this day, with many maintaining contact. Others, however, have drifted off.

Whatever his reasons, Acker's silence meant Duffy had little choice but to call at his mother's house. Here, to Acker's annoyance, his mother agreed to hand some of his tools of the trade including his highly-prized 'bluebox', built into an old typewriter case. "My mother was conflicted," Acker now says. "She was aware that this [phreaking] was important to my development, but found it difficult to deal with the illegality."

Acker had less trouble dealing with it, however, and was soon equipped with a new, pocketsized bluebox. But in 1976 his number was up, and he was indicted for conspiracy to commit toll fraud, having been recorded on a police wire tap advising a Florida-based phreak called Dave on how to call Haiti using an exchange in the Dominican Republic. Dave was convicted, but Acker got away on a technicality. Despite his good fortune, he says: "The indictment did put the fear of God into me."

On the more positive side, phreaking was an early example of how a communications network could be used to enable a diverse, geographically dispersed set of people work together to solve complex technical problems.

And, although the advent of digital telephony has made phreaking a thing of the past, Acker's enthusiasm for collaborative networking continues through his participation in open source programming project Linux Speakup (http://www.linux-speakup.org). "My focus is still on the network," he says.

[Section four ends.]


The following story by Neill McBride has won first prize in our competition for creative writing on the topic 'keeping in touch with technology'. Neill wins a 'Victor' e-book reader worth more than 300 pounds, donated by VisuAide (http://www.visuaide.com). Thanks to everyone who sent in an entry � the standard was truly exceptional. In our next issue we will publish details of our runners-up, who will each receive a set of classic e-books on CD.

Year: 2006.

Mary sighed as she turned page after page of the Sunday newspaper only to find article after article on the heroic England squad. England had taken on the might of Germany in the World Cup Final and won, but that was over a week ago! 'You'd think they'd have gotten over it by now' Mary thought. Football just wasn't her thing. Despairing she turned the final few pages that would inevitably lead to the sports section when her eyes caught the headline: 'OASIS development project gets public and private backing'. Mary read on with interest.

Year: 2010.

Eve woke from a deep sleep to the sound of the clock radio. It had been a weekend of unimaginable celebrations as England regained the World Cup in an epic final against Brazil.

"Mark, what time is it?" Eve asked sleepily.

"Eight sixteen," came Mark's reply.

"Oh no!" Eve sighed as she threw back the bed sheets and struggled to her feet. "I'm going to be late again unless I get a move on."

Mark opened the curtains as Eve headed for the shower. With morning daylight filling the room Eve called back, "Mark, could you make me a coffee? I'm going to have to drink it on the run."

"Okay," Mark replied.

Within twenty minutes Eve was washed, dressed and with coffee cup in hand heading for the front door. Mark opened the door as Eve grabbed her white cane and stepped into the foyer. "Please don't forget to organise the shopping," Eve reminded Mark, "and you'd better order an extra bottle of wine as my mum's visiting tonight."

"I will arrange for the shopping to be delivered at six pm" replied Mark. Mark closed the door as Eve headed for the lift.

That evening Eve finished putting away the final bits and pieces of the shopping when the doorbell rang. "It is Mrs Stewart," Mark announced as the front door opened. "Hello Mrs Stewart. I hope you had a pleasant journey?"

Mrs Stewart, without a response, headed for the kitchen where she could hear Eve calling. "Hi darling, and how are you?"

"Fine," came Eve's reply. "How was the journey?

"Oh, much the same as usual but at least there was no delays!" .

"Mrs Stewart and Eve, would you like a coffee?" Mark asked politely. Mrs Stewart looked dismissively towards Eve and Eve could sense her mum's discomfort.

"No thanks Mark," Eve answered, "I'll open a bottle of wine instead. You'd prefer a glass of wine mum?"

"Yes, that'll be lovely," Eve's mum replied.

The glasses were poured and Eve and her mum chatted about dad, family, home, work and all those other things that fill the void when a child lives far from home. Eve loved the monthly visit from her mum. The chance to catch up, face to face, with all the news from home meant so much more than telephone conversations and emails, but Eve knew her mum felt uncomfortable in her flat and, although, her mum wouldn't admit it, she knew it was because of Mark.

With dinner behind them, and the wine glasses refilled, Eve decided to broach the subject of Mark once more. "Mum, you do know I'm happy living here, but do you think you'll ever get used to having Mark around?"

"Of course darling," Mrs Stewart answered, "it doesn't bother me in the slightest."

"Are you sure mum?" asked Eve. "Because you haven't answered Mark all night and I don't recall in all your visits hearing you speak to Mark."

"I'm sorry darling. It's difficult for me; maybe it's a generation thing. When I put you forward for the OASIS Development Project I had know idea it would have been so, " Eve's mum paused searching for the right words, "so unconventional."

"Mum I love it here and if you just relaxed and gave it a go you'd soon love it too. Mark is great. He really looks after me and I feel safe here in my flat knowing Mark's with me."

"Sweetheart, I really wish you wouldn't call it Mark. It's simply a computer." Eve's mum interjected.

"Mark is an online automated security and information system." Eve corrected her mother's description. "Mark keeps everything in check for me and it's great. You know the problems I've had keeping tabs on things, well, Mark sorts all that out for me now."

"I know dear, but I don't think I'll ever feel comfortable talking to it."

"Please mum, just give it a go," Eve cajoled.

So, with another long drink of wine, Eve's mum took a deep breath and spoke. "Okay. Mark, if we're going to get on please don't call me Mrs Stewart. Call me Mary."

[Section five ends.]


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

Copyright 2002 Headstar Ltd. http://www.headstar.com ISSN 1476-6337
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 News editor - Derek Parkinson derek@headstar.com Reporter - Tamara Fletcher tamara@headstar.com Editorial advisor - Kevin Carey humanity@atlas.co.uk

[Issue ends.]