+++E-Access Bulletin- Issue 36, December 2002.

Technology news for people with visual impairment (http://www.e-accessibility.com ).

Sponsored by the RNIB (http://www.rnib.org.uk ) and the National Library for the Blind (http://www.nlbuk.org ).

Please forward to others so they can subscribe by emailing eab-subs@headstar.com (full details at the end).

NOTE: This newsletter conforms to the accessible Text Email Newsletter (TEN) Standard. For example, all headings begin with a + sign, a change on previous issues, which have used the * symbol; and all items are numbered in the contents and throughout. For more see: http://www.headstar.com/ten

++Section One: News.


+01: Euro Grant For Virtual Assistant Project

The European Commission has awarded a multi-million euro research grant - one of its largest ever - to a group of academics, technology companies and sensory impairment charities to design a 'virtual personal assistant' accessible to everyone with a mobile phone.

The 'FASiL' project ('Flexible and adaptive spoken language and multi-modal interface' - http://www.fasil.co.uk/fasil.htm ) is to receive 3.5 million euros from the commission over two years, with a further 2.9 million euros to be provided by the research group members. The consortium is led by UK language technology company Vox Generation along with fellow language specialist SpeechWorks; Portugal Telecom; consultancy Cap Gemini Ernst & Young; the MIT Media Lab research organisation; and charities RNIB and RNID.

At the end of two years the group hopes to have developed a prototype system allowing people to access email, voicemail, calendar and address book functions over a mobile phone using either natural everyday speech or visual cues alone.

According to Keith Gladstone, head of technology research at the RNIB, his charity's 200,000 pound contribution and that of the RNID will enable the organisations to influence the development of the new technology. As well as potentially benefiting those with sensory impairments FASiL is aimed at a number of industries including the automotive industry for in-car use; call centres; and banks.

Though the project is not intended to produce a product ready for commercial release, the commercial partners are hoping to market the technology at some stage. Gladstone said the RNIB would aim to ensure any commercial outcome also caters for the needs of visually impaired people.

+02: Phoenix Rises From Ashes Of Cinema Plan

The UK's Film Council (http://www.filmcouncil.org.uk ) has quelled disappointment over its recent rejection of a six million pound national cinema accessibility plan by unveiling a new 900,000 pound scheme to boost audio description and other accessibility techniques.

The council will contribute 500,000 pounds of money it receives from the National Lottery towards the new scheme, with a further 410,000 being sought from the film industry.

Of the total, the Film Council will award up to 350,000 pounds to cinema owners and film distributors for new accessibility equipment for cinemas. If matching funding is secured, it says 75 cinemas - one in ten in the UK - could be made accessible to visually and hearing impaired people.

A further 60,000 pounds is earmarked for accessibility work on films released on less than 100 prints, with matching funding also sought. Of the remaining money 40,000 pounds will be spent on research and development work on personal captioning technology; and 50,000 pounds on financial support for web-based information services on films available to disabled people; and the creation of a wide-ranging disabilities policy for the council (see http://fastlink.headstar.com/fc ).

The move follows the council's controversial decision to reject a 6 million pound national plan to install audio description and subtitling equipment in all cinemas (see E-Access Bulletin, issue 35). It now hopes work on installing the new equipment will begin by summer 2003.

The council has yet to decide, however, which is the most suitable technology to use for much of the work. The system already available in a small number of cinemas uses CD-ROM to distribute and play audio descriptions (Digital Theater Systems - http://www.dtsonline.com/cinema ). However, Dolby Laboratories is developing an alternative technology that could distribute audio descriptions online to cinemas (http://fastlink.headstar.com/dolby ). "We hope to install the first systems in January," a spokesperson told E-Access Bulletin. "Potentially, it could be used for all the 2,500 UK screens equipped with Dolby Digital systems."

A third innovative solution developed by Scientific Generics (http://fastlink.headstar.com/gen ) is to transmit audio description and captions to mobile phones and handheld computers. However, such systems have yet to be widely tested.

+03: Mobile Speech Email And Talking Phones

A service that allows visually impaired users to pick up and listen to emails using mobile phones, personal digital assistants or fixed phones, anywhere in the world, is being tested by mobile communications specialist Message Earth (http://www.messageearth.com ) in collaboration with handset manufacturer Nokia and the RNIB.

The 'Nokia One' trial (http://www.messageearth.com/rnib ) also allows for voice activated email messages to be sent. Testing is scheduled to conclude early next year, and if successful the RNIB intends to launch a live service costing around 15 pounds a month.

The scheme takes advantage of existing technologies such as the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) wireless infrastructures. Users will be able to choose from SMS text messaging, Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) or voice activation from their mobile or ordinary fixed line phone to send and retrieve data from a remote computer. There will be no need to buy additional hardware.

There are 15 participants in the trial including sighted and non-sighted volunteers with varied knowledge of the technologies being used. A similar system was launched by Message Earth in Finland this month in association with the Finish Federation of the Visually Impaired (http://www.nkl.fi/english ).

Meanwhile, Vodafone UK and the RNIB will be launching a 'speaking phone' this January: a combination of the Nokia 9210i Communicator with German- developed TALX speech software technology (see http://fastlink.headstar.com/vod - and for more on TALX see also E-Access Bulletin, September 2001).

The two organisations have also formed a partnership whereby each will train the other's staff on accessibility and mobile products and services. For more on special needs products and services from Vodafone email disability.access@vodaphone.co.uk .

+04: Cash Boost For European Year

'Windows on the world of ICT', a Warwickshire project to help visually impaired people use accessible technology in the county's 42 public libraries, is among 93 projects unveiled last week as part of the UK's participation in the European Year of People with Disabilities 2003 (http://www.eypd2003.org ).

"In rural counties like ours, people can become very isolated. I can think of several people who are in reach of a library who would really benefit from this," said John Davis, project worker with the Warwickshire Association for the Blind.

In all, the projects have received 1.3 million pounds of a UK government fund for the European year totalling 2.3 million pounds, with the remaining 1 million pounds to be allocated by the end of this month.

National projects include a plan for a UK disabled people's parliament, submitted by the British Council of Disabled People (http://www.bcodp.org.uk ); while successful regional bids include a project from Deafblind Scotland (http://www.deafblindscotland.org.uk ). For a full list of successful bids see: http://www.disability.gov.uk/euro/successful.html .

+05: Carefirst

A group of 13 local authorities which use a leading social service software management system last month joined up with the RNIB and the system's developer to work on ways of improving accessibility, following adverse reports in the media.

The 'CareFirst' Access Consortium (http://www.cfaccess.org.uk ) was formed some two years after BBC Radio Four's 'InTouch' programme (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/intouch.shtml ) reported that access problems with the software - manufactured by OLM Systems (http://www.olmsystems.co.uk ) - had prevented a visually impaired person getting a job with Glasgow social services.

According to Ruth Loebl, RNIB's representative on the group, members have committed around 20,000 pounds between them to write scripts to allow the widely-used 'JAWS' screenreader software to access the system. Each member council contributes an amount which depends on the number of visually impaired employees they have, which they can reclaim from the Department for Work and Pensions' 'Access to work' budget.

One of CareFirst's many access problems is that it does not support keyboard access, Loebl said. However OLM Systems has committed to abide by access guidelines when adding new modules to the system.

Loebl said she hopes the consortium can be dissolved after two years because the problems will then be solved. "The key to it is that the developer is willing to change developing methods. You can't do this from the customer side only," she said.

+06: E

The publisher of E-Access Bulletin, Headstar, today launches a new draft standard for accessible text email newsletters dubbed the TEN Standard (http://www.headstar.com/ten ).

Derived from our work on this bulletin over three years, plus feedback from our recent reader survey (see E-Access Bulletin, November 2002) the standard covers everything from how to number stories within a newsletter to preferred formats for web addresses and ways to divide the newsletter into sections.

We would very much like to receive further feedback on the standard, and to also invite individuals or organisations who may find it useful in their work to 'sign up' to the standard. This would merely entail letting us know you find it useful and endorse it, and also how you may be putting it to use (please email ten-standard@headstar.com). We will list everyone who backs the new standard on the web page cited at the top of this story.

++News In Brief.



Drive, the English version of Dutch audio driving game 'Snellen', was released for testing last month. Drivers must sit alongside obstinate co-pilot Bob and test the speed of a vehicle which gains speed by picking up boosters: http://drive.soundsupport.net .


The proceedings of 'Braille in the age of digitisation', a seminar held in Copenhagen in April this year (see E-Access Bulletin, May 2002), are now available to download in HTML or Word formats. The conference advocated teaching children Braille in a rich multimedia environment: http://www.ibos.dk/braille .


The British Museum's 'Compass' web site (http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/compass ), an online guide to its collections, was among five winners of the National Library for the Blind's Visionary Design awards sponsored by Barclays. For a full list see: http://www.nlbuk.org/news .


A cheap downloadable software package which can read Word documents out loud to users has been launched by 20/20 Speech (http://www.2020speech.com ), a company jointly owned by technology innovators QinetiQ (formerly the UK government's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency) and NXT plc. 'Type2Talk' costs under 15 pounds: http://www.type2talk.com .


The UK's Disability Rights Commission has helped a visually impaired man obtain product insurance documents in Braille from a major electrical store. The store, which cannot be named because of a confidentiality deal, is also drafting a set of service standards with the commission's help. The commission's home page is at: http://www.drc-gb.org .

[Section one ends].

++SECTION TWO: 'THE INBOX'- READERS' FORUM. - Please email all contributions or responses to inbox@headstar.com .



Our regular correspondent Jane Fleming comments on our piece about customer service in high street technology stores (see E-Access Bulletin, November 2002): "Browsing the high street and listening to people who are already computer literate is one way to get to know about hardware. But people on low income (such as myself, on Invalidity Benefit) need to find a second hand computer shop, or find one in the newspaper. Then ask to be told how it works.

"There are cheap machines with modems about, especially in local repair shops like the one near me - or take a friend to a Sunday market to check the spec. I would not go to Dixons, PC World or anything like that: they are sellers, not shops for advice. It is possible to use computers at the library, and to find cheap ones locally. People should not have the impression it is not for the visually disabled, registered blind or old people. Not true: get to the library."


Following our piece on accessibility of the technology used by museums and art galleries, Clive Lever of Maidstone in Kent, a blind radio enthusiast and past contributor to our newsletter, writes in with an unfortunate tale of two visits to the National Sound Archive (NSA) at the British Library - what seemed like an ideal cultural visit for a blind person.

"I first visited the NSA in the early 1990s in its old premises in Museum Street. They had every conceivable book on music, every conceivable music magazine, and radio times going back to the dawn of radio time, a scanner without speech, and no sound whatsoever. There were no staff on hand to give assistance, so it was 'water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink'.

"In the late 1990s, despite my previous experiences, I gave it a go once more, knowing the NSA has moved to more modern premises. However, all the listening posts required that you look at the screen, so, for example, a collection of famous voices from the past was relayed on headphones, but their owners were only identified visually. To find out what sound recordings could be heard at the library, you needed to register as a member for the given fee. I asked whether, if I paid the fee, there would be any assistance available when I went into the members' sections of the library, so that I'd be able to know what items they had in their catalogue. Nobody could tell me.

"The message was clear: pay up first, then ask again and take your chance. There were no Braille leaflets on display, and I heard people with other disabilities complain that there were not enough places where visitors could sit down and rest. This would seem to bear out the findings of your report, that often when much money is spent modernising such museums, visually- impaired people are overlooked. But what excuse is there for the National Sound Archive to be so ocularcentric?

"The last time I visited was in 1999, and I've visited twice since, each time with a different sighted companion, who hasn't been able to understand why the experience was not 100 per cent joyful, and therefore has come away thinking me to be an ungrateful grouch. I would certainly not go back until I have corroborated evidence that things have changed drastically for the better."


On the topic of libraries, Mary Gwynne of Swansea Council writes in to ask where the council can obtain advice on the software needed for computers and information points that will be accessible to the public in libraries. Answers please to inbox@headstar.com .


Katy Dymoke of the Manchester-based arts group Touchdown Dance, which runs community dance workshops and projects for visually impaired people of all ages, writes in with an appeal for equipment.

"We are looking for a multi-tape copying machine. We don't mind whether it's second-hand or new, is there anyone out there who can help us? We also have a new web site coming up with a text only version, by Christmas we hope." Responses please to touchdd@aol.com .

[Section two ends].

++16: Section Three: Interview- Maria Eagle.


MINISTER WITH A MISSION by Dan Jellinek dan@headstar.com .

When Maria Eagle was appointed the UK's minister for disabled people after Labour's re-election in the summer of 2001, there was scepticism in some quarters that someone who was not themselves disabled could act as a creditable champion for people's rights.

A typical early question she received in an online discussion at 'Youreable.com', for example, ran: "Would you have a male minister for women? What are your credentials to work for disabled people?"

Eagle's response was to point out her background as a lawyer in employment and discrimination law, and to say she is someone who has "fought hard for equality to be mainstreamed in Labour Party policy and practice for many years".

The MP for Liverpool Garston qualified as a solicitor in 1992, specialising in employment law, plaintiff personal injury, medical negligence and housing cases. She first became an MP in 1997, and her record as a fighter for issues of conscience was established early when the government adopted her backbench bill against fur farming. She has since called for a return of all-women shortlists, having been selected from one herself.

One might also detect a family tendency to champion equality: her identical twin sister Angela is also a government minister, at the Home Office, with a brief covering race equality and community as well as Europe.

Unsurprisingly given her grounding in employment law, one of Eagle's strongest personal crusades is to improve employment prospects for people with disabilities, with the launch last month of a new green paper 'Pathways to work: helping people into employment'.

Last month Eagle addressed Techshare (http://www.rnib.org.uk/techshare ), the RNIB's annual event on access to technology by visually impaired people, and afterwards she talked to E-Access Bulletin about the significance of the new policy.

"People on incapacity benefit are often not seen as jobseekers, although many of them including people who become visually impaired or blind saw themselves going back to work when they first started receiving the benefit but have ended up not doing so," she said.

"The green paper sets out an intensive programme of help for people, including personal advisers, specialist employment programmes and financial incentives such as a 40 pounds a week 'return to work' credit [where the person earns less than 15,000 pounds].

"The plan is to assist people with aspirations to work. As a society we've never done this before, we've excluded blind people, but many of them would like to work, thank you very much".

The pathways project is to be backed up by 97 million pounds to fund six pilot projects across the UK, starting in late 2003. The move coincides with a general strengthening of the civil rights of people with disabilities, with for example the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) being extended to companies with fewer than 15 employees. And then there is the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (SENDA), which from September this year has meant it is unlawful to discriminate against disabled students at any stage of the education process, including access to computers and other technologies in the classroom.

"Some places are better than others, but overall there is a will among educationalists, parents and pupils to make SENDA work," Eagle told E- Access Bulletin.

"There is a lot of past good practice and voluntary improvement, but until September it had been lawful to discriminate so many will start from scratch.

"The Department for Education and Science is running huge programmes of computerisation, providing access for teachers' kids and colleges, and there is a need to tack on access to these projects. There is new money for local education authorities for implementation of SENDA, but cost is not usually the main issue, it is simply thinking about it at the right time."

If schools or colleges continued to discriminate, she said, legal action was a real possibility under the new powers given to parents. "Legal challenge under SENDA is perfectly possible. Not as a first resort, but if parents think their children are not getting into a mainstream school because of discrimination, the law can be a last resort."

Asked about the application of the DDA to web site accessibility, a matter of ongoing debate, Eagle was clear that in many cases it would indeed apply.

"If the law tried to specifically mention everything we would still be writing it. But if those with web sites are services providers, they have to comply. So just because the web is not mentioned in the act, doesn't mean it is not covered, and it would be wrong to assume so.

"And in any case, why would anyone want to exclude more than eight million people from their web site?"

NOTE: A summary and full copy of the green paper 'Pathways to work: helping people into employment' are available as pdf files at: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/consultations/consult/2002/pathways Copies of the summary are also available in Braille, audio cassette, CD-ROM and large print free of charge by phoning 020 8867 3201 and quoting code PTW1. Consultation responses can be submitted by email on pathwaystowork@dwp.gsi.gov.uk until 10 February 2003.

[Section three ends].

++17: Section Four: Focus- Training


THE BATTLE FOR RECOGNITION by Phil Cain phil@headstar.com .

With little to stop unscrupulous or incompetent access technology trainers from exploiting visually impaired peoples' need for education and assistance, the most reliable guide to training quality up until now has been personal recommendation.

The world's first assessed training scheme for visual impairment technology trainers aims to put this right by certifying its first students before Christmas. It is the British Computer Association of the Blind's Trainer Certification Scheme (BTCS - http://www.bcab.org.uk/btcs ).

Other training does exist, mostly in the US, but BCTS is the only scheme where trainers receive certificates for performance and not merely for attendance.

BCTS project manager Steve Plumpton says enrolment began in September last year and since then around ten groups of between four and six people have taken the course. Around 20 students are expected to make the grade by Easter, and the first two should gain their certificates this month, subject to their performance in a final interview on 19 December.

Students are safe in the knowledge that no-one can actually fail, assuming they are prepared to retake the exams. As with recognised National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) courses the only grades are pass or an instruction to make either minor or serious changes to the submission on the next attempt.

There are currently two kinds of course on offer, one for experienced teachers and one for those new to the job. The main difference between the courses is the speed they cover the material, with the novice's course for example having a five day rather than a three day initial training workshop.

The two streams do differ in another important aspect: price, with the novices' course costing 1,000 pounds and the one for experienced trainers costing 1,500 pounds.

However, according to Les Molyneux, an experienced IT trainer enrolled on the three day course, it is not worth trying to economise by pretending you are more experienced than you really are. "The course was demanding to say the least. I never realised how much work you would have to put in," he said.

Though it will soon boast its first graduates, the scheme faces its share of challenges. Foremost is to gain NVQ status from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), the UK educational standards watchdog, which last week turned down an initial application. A meeting between a representative of the training scheme and the QCA will be held at the end of the week to find out the reasons for the rejection, says Plumpton.

Gaining official recognition is more than just a matter of boosting the scheme's esteem. According to Plumpton it could be the source of a fresh batch of students from organisations such as the Employment Service or the University for Industry (http://www.ufiltd.co.uk ), the public private partnership behind the national lifelong learning scheme Learndirect (http://www.learndirect.co.uk ). Though interested in offering the course, neither are likely to use it to train trainers or use the trainers it produces without QCA accreditation. Plumpton hopes the scheme will gain recognition next summer.

Currently a 75,000 yearly grant from the RNIB allows the cost of delivering the course to be reduced from an estimated true cost per student of some 5,000 pounds, but this cannot be relied on forever. Although the RNIB is committed to fund the project until April 2004, Plumpton acknowledges the charity's funds are limited and other sources of revenue will eventually have to be sought.

One source of extra help may come from overseas. "It is important we take the scheme worldwide," says Plumpton. To this end, he says, BTCS is cultivating a relationship with the American Federation for the Blind and Canadian organisations, and has already had strong interest from mainland Europe.

In the short term Plumpton has another money spinning idea, which is to start a new entry level course to familiarise people with access technology well enough to give a basic demonstration. This would not be aimed at professional trainers but at the 800 or so rehabilitation workers at rehab centres and local blind societies around the country. At 300 pounds each, this could make a contribution to the bottom line of the grander scheme of BTCS.

[Section four ends].

++18: Section Five: Focus- Digital Tv.


LABORATORY COUCH POTATOES by Mel Poluck mel@headstar.com .

To sit for 45 minutes at a time on a sofa and watch television might not seem like tough work, but someone has to do it.

The University of Brighton's School of Computing, Mathematical and Information Science (http://www.cmis.brighton.ac.uk ) last month began a research project to investigate how user-friendly digital television technology is for visually impaired people and other social groups.

The department, which has run a course on interactive design and usability for digital TV since last year, is inviting volunteer viewers to a laboratory mocked up as a living room with sofas and a television with digital set top boxes. Viewers are invited to participate in 45-minute usability sessions, followed by an interview on their viewing habits.

Volunteers are observed on TV and computer screens and recorded by a researcher behind a two-way mirror, as they navigate channels and programme guides. The researcher can see what the volunteer is watching, the remote control and the facial expressions of the viewer on a single screen in addition to hearing the viewers' comments. All the footage is recorded using MovieStar software (http://www.dazzle.com/products/MovieStar5.html ), and set top boxes have been donated by manufacturers OpenTV (http://www.opentv.com ) and Liberate (http://www.liberate.com ).

It is estimated that some 95 per cent of the UK's population will access digital TV by 2006, by which time hundreds of channels and other services will be available from cable, satellite and terrestrial broadcasters. But with increasing concern about the inaccessibility of digital TV for visually impaired people, the Brighton team has set out to identify potential accessibility barriers before digital TV becomes a feature in every home.

Digital TV sets rely on text-based electronic programme guides (EPGs) for the viewer to interact with and view programmes, and to access other kinds of information such as interactive public service information from local authorities. EPGs are often overloaded with small text and multicoloured symbols to represent buttons on the remote control. If that is not baffling enough, the style of EPGs varies between set-top box companies, and they are not easy to upgrade once set-top box manufacturers approve them since each box has its own specifications.

The Independent Television Commission has its own project underway to create devices with voice recognition and speech synthesis for EPGs (the Virtual Interface for a Set-Top Agent (VISTA) scheme - see E-Access Bulletin, August 2002).

Meanwhile film already recorded in Brighton shows volunteers from a group of sighted, over-65-year olds experiencing great difficulty in accessing channels and information and in using the remote control that was also loaded with buttons of various shapes and colours. Often, they only pressed the prominent or larger keys. There also seemed to be confusion over what services digital TV actually offered.

Such results from sighted users only serves to reinforce what has already been a disappointed reaction from the visually impaired community and its representative organisations on new rules governing the accessibility of digital TV contained in the government's impending Communications Bill (see E- Access Bulletin, July 2002).

The next stage for researchers at Brighton is to invite a volunteer group of visually impaired people to come and use the TV lab next month. They are also designing a usability web site to act as a resource centre for broadcasters, allowing academic and commercial researchers to share information; and organising a European conference on interactive television in April 2003 (http://www.cmis.brighton.ac.uk/staff/rng/EuroITV ).

The Brighton research aims to find out what the precise accessibility needs of visually impaired people are, but once these are determined there will be - and indeed there already is - a need for parallel campaigning and awareness work to ensure technology companies and policymakers are aware of these needs.

'Easy TV', a partnership between the Independent Television Commission (ITC), the Consumers' Association and the Design Council, is one initiative that aims to boost awareness among designers of digital television products of the difficulties experienced by all kinds of user (see http://fastlink.headstar.com/easy and E-Access Bulletin, November 2002).

And the RNIB is due to step up its 'Get the picture' campaign (http://www.rnib.org.uk/campaign/getpicture.htm ), which is lobbying MPs on digital TV access issues. In the 16 months the campaign has been running it has gained support from such luminaries as Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman, and lobbying will continue into the New Year as the communications bill is passed and the first new 'super-regulator' for broadcasting and the internet, Ofcom, is created. It's going to be a busy year.

NOTE: If any of our visually impaired readers would like to volunteer to take part in the Brighton research please contact Mike Rice on m.d.rice@brighton.ac.uk .

[Section five ends].

++End Notes.


+How To Receive This Bulletin

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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 . 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 - Mel Poluck mel@headstar.com
  • Editorial advisor - Kevin Carey humanity@atlas.co.uk .

ISSN 1476-6337

[Issue ends].