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[Issue starts.]

* ISSUE 27, MARCH 2002.


- �Talking Link� portal set for September launch. - Macromedia allows animations to be tagged. - �Dolphinaccess� addresses internet service problems. - Government backs copyright exemption for visually impaired. - Code implies UK disability act applies to web. - Metadata initiative reviews access standards.

News in brief: Credit change; Athens Olympic site; New inexpensive screen-reader.

Section two - 'The Inbox'
- Readers' forum

Section three: Focus. Music: Catching up with one's notes. - Visually impaired people are often musical, but their progress is hindered by unwieldy Braille notation. Derek Parkinson investigates some high tech alternatives.

Section four: Product road-test. E-book readers: To Victor the spoils? - With widespread adoption of e-books just around the corner, Saqib Shaikh assesses three current reading technologies.

Section five: Communications. Regulation: Tough balancing act for 'uber regulator'
The government is laying the foundations for a new single media and telecoms super-regulator Ofcom, but recent US experience shows that the difficulties are unlikely to end there. Derek Parkinson reports.

[Contents ends.]



A new RNIB-backed 'Talking Link' project has set a September launch date for all three of its major components: a searchable index to accessible web sites; an accessible internet service provider; and a new method for sending and receiving sound over the internet.

Not surprisingly Chris Knowles, managing director of the Chorley-based company Five Links which is behind the project, says his team is working flat out to hit the deadline.

Once complete the Talking Link site (http://www.talkinglink.com ) will contain a searchable directory of web sites that satisfy the main international accessibility standards. Knowles says he is very hopeful the site will itself gain an RNIB's 'See it right' accessibility award.

The site will offer novices the option to download basic screenreading and magnification packages for free. Knowles says these are simple enough to learn in minutes.

Five Links has also developed a compression algorithm to allow audio files to be played in real time over normal dial up modems, and is using this at the core of a new audio-media distribution system.

In its third project, Talking Link will run an accessible internet service provider, and is attempting to reach a further deal with cable company Telewest to deliver accessible content through set-top boxes.

The RNIB has already provided financial and practical backing for the project.

The company has received further assistance from the Department of Work and Pensions, Department of Trade and Industry and the Office of the e-Envoy, and is hopeful of receiving funds from the Small Firms Merit Award for Research and Technology scheme (http://www.smartwise.org.uk ).


Web designers using Macromedia�s 'Flash' web graphic animation technology can now add text tags, allowing visually impaired users to access animations with screen readers for the first time.

The silicon valley company has launched Flash MX (http://www.macromedia.com/software/flash ), a new version of the software which developers can use to add descriptive text to animations and user interfaces. And the latest version of the web browser 'plug-in' software that allows people to view the animations, Flash Player 6, now also supports the screen readers used by visually impaired people.

�This will make more sites accessible to disabled people because up till now there�s been this thing with parallel sites. It�s been either Flash or HTML,� said Matthew Carey, a designer at design agency Text Matters (http://www.textmatters.com ). Underlying the new tagging capability are tools that allow developers to split animations into separate sequences. The animation flows seamlessly when played, but also for the first time allows the user to navigate with the browser �back� button, an essential feature for accessibility.

GW Micro has become the first screen-reader software manufacturer to respond to these developments, launching an upgraded version of its 'Window Eyes' product that is compatible with the new Flash tools.


Dolphin Computer Access, which runs an internet service provider aimed at visually impaired people called dolphinaccess.net, this week issued a statement to explain recent shortcomings in service brought to the attention of E-Access Bulletin by frustrated readers.

The ISP's parent company Dolphin Computer Access said its connection and support service supplier Affinity Internet Holdings had been contacted and was now dealing with the matter. Affinity were said to be making additional ports available at the end of March and to be hiring extra help-desk staff.

"This means that we should see improvements in the next couple of weeks," Dolphin's statement concluded. When contacted by E-Access Bulletin, Affinity said the connection problems had been caused by a "software glitch in the network" which it had cured this week.

Dolphin did not rule out compensating its internet customers for the problems they have experienced with the service for more than six weeks. Many are signed up to an 'anytime' package costing 14.99 pounds a month, but are only able to establish a connection during office hours, equivalent to a 'worktime' service that costs 9.99 pounds. Dolphinaccess.net product manager Mark Hill encouraged disgruntled customers to email him on mark.hill@dolphinuk.co.uk

One angry subscriber to the service who has had difficulty connecting since January said: "From their perspective as a company, it is what they need to say, but it doesn't address the fact that I've only had food in because I've been able to shop from work."


The UK government has said it will support a private member's bill to legalise the limited production of accessible digital versions of copyright material on a non-profit basis, in its second reading today. Private bills are brought to Parliament by backbench MPs, in this case the Labour MP Rachel Squire.

If it is voted through, the Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Bill will enter the committee stage where amendments to its wording can be made.

Though the government backing will mean it has a better chance of making it into the statute books it is no guarantee of success, warns RNIB campaigns officer David Mann. "It is still a private member's bill and will get pushed out if other business comes along."

But if all goes well, sections of the proposed legislation that would allow the distribution of single digital copies between qualifying individuals could come into force as soon as July, Mann says. This would have enormous immediate benefit, particularly for students, he says.


A new draft code of practice for the UK's Disability Discrimination Act suggests that organisations may be legally obliged to provide websites that are accessible to disabled people.

The act itself makes no specific mention of web sites but the new code, which offers guidance on sections of the act due to come into force in October 2004, refers to e-commerce sites. It says: "An airline company provides a flight reservation and booking service to the public on its website. This is a provision of a service and is subject to the act."

According to observers, although the draft is not an infallible interpretation of the act but the courts would almost certainly consider it a guide. It could therefore help resolve the question of whether or not websites would be subject to the same law that obliges service providers to ensure that "a physical feature is not making their service impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people to use".

To read the code see:


The 'Dublin Core' Metadata Initiative, an international forum committed to developing metadata standards, has created an interest group to work on accessibility issues.

The group (http://dublincore.org/groups/access ) is intended to be an open forum, drawing together participants from all countries and sectors, especially "those with experience in the development and use of metadata relating to accessibility". The group has set up a mailing list where discussions will take place at. To join see: http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/dc-accessibility.html

Dublin Core, named after the Dublin, Ohio venue of the initiative's first workshop in 1995, recently submitted a proposal to the European Commission for a network of groups to work on implementing metadata standards across Europe. Since 1995 a further eight workshops have been held in England, Australia, Finland, Germany, Canada and the US. There are currently 53 organisational members of the initiative.

* News in brief:

* CREDIT CHANGE: In our February issue we incorrectly stated that

Jim Fruchterman developed the 'JAWS' computer screen reader, which was in fact developed by Ted Henter, founder of Henter-Joyce and senior consultant with Freedom Scientific. Fruchterman's many achievements include the development of OpenBook, the world's leading scanning and reading software for people with vision impairments. Our apologies to both parties.

* OLYMPIC ACHIEVEMENT: The Organising Committee for the

Athens Olympic Games in 2004 has informed E-Access Bulletin that the games' official web site (http://www.athens.olympic.org ) conforms to web accessibility standards. This is welcome news following the notorious inaccessibility of the Sidney 2000 Olympics' site, which led to a successful legal challenge (see E-Access Bulletin issues 9, 10, 11, 17 and 23).

* RJ SCREENREADER: RJ Cooper and Associates, a small US assistive

technology firm, is developing a screen reader for both PC and Macintosh that will cost just 99 dollars: http://www.rjcooper.com

[Section one ends.]


* FURTHER MATHS: Following our January piece on access to

mathematical computing, John Gardner, director of the Science Access Project at the Department of Physics, Oregon State University, writes in to provide some additional insights in this field.

Of his department's research, he says: "We're not quite finished yet, but we do have methods by which blind and sighted people can now share math and science information in electronic forms that both can read and write. Ideally both sighted and blind people will soon be using web formats such as HTML/MathML.

"Until recently these weren't very useful even to sighted people but that's about to change dramatically. We're facing the challenge of catching up again by making MathML readable and writable by blind people, but I'm fairly confident that we'll have that ability within a few years. Then all barriers will be gone."

Gardner and four of his students are due to present a paper to the CSUN access conference in California next week (http://www.csun.edu/cod) that will demonstrate how the students "are able to do things that nobody even dreamed of before". The paper is online at:

And a further paper on how to teach students with print disabilities is at:

* EDUCATIONAL ENDEAVOUR: Juan Carlos Benito, a special

education teacher in Santander, Spain, says: "I think this is the appropriate forum to share concerns and seek solutions for one of my pupils who has cerebral palsy. Bruno is 18 years old and he is now in the fourth grade of secondary school. He was born with cerebral palsy and he therefore has to use constantly a wheelchair. He cannot speak and he cannot control the movement of his limbs � only his eyes.

"With all these limitations, he has reached the described learning level thanks to his high intelligence and to an education plan to integrate people with disabilities in ordinary centres. The young man needs every kind of help but, especially in the academic and relational fields, he would acquire a new world of self-sufficiency if he could have a technology that would enable him through the movement of eyes, the cerebral waves or another means not requiring to be manipulated, to use a computer.

"Unlike blind pupils this young man has useful eyes but he does not know how to take advantage of them. We would be extremely grateful if we could obtain information on experiences, technologies or organisations that could offer Bruno solutions."

* MAPPING DILEMMA: Finally, Kate Page of the government-

funded conservation body English Nature says the organisation "is all for accessible web sites but we seem to have become a bit stuck on web mapping - the software used to produce this does not allow for 'alt' tags. Does anyone have a solution?"

[Section two ends.]



by Derek Parkinson derek@headstar.com

Visually impaired people are often musically gifted: Louis Braille himself was a talented player of the cello and keyboard instruments. But curiously, at present, there is no system of music notation widely accepted as a standard that meets the needs of blind people.

While versions of Braille music have been developed, it took until 1997 to produce an internationally agreed standard and its adoption has been slow.

There are two likely reasons for this: low levels of general Braille literacy and the intrinsic limitations of Braille music itself. �Only a fairly small proportion of blind people use Braille. The RNIB has produced statistics showing that only something like two per cent of young people can read it,� says Alistair Edwards, a computer science lecturer at York University who has researched alternative notations. �Braille music is quite cumbersome: it�s a linear notation whereas conventional notation uses the two dimensions of the page,� he says.

In practice, this means that Braille notation forces the reader to absorb all the information in a score or none at all. There is no flexibility allowing a reader to switch between scanning for general features and concentrating on particular details. �There are problems with grouping notes, for example,� says Edwards. �In printed form this is done with phrase marks � which are easy to pick out � but in Braille, you get something like �phrase begins here�, and �phrase ends here� further along, and without any warning.�

For all the difficulties, notation is essential if visually impaired people are to study music beyond school, or find a career composing scores for film and television, for example. �If you want to go to the Royal College of Music or study as an undergraduate, the level of detail you need can only be provided by Braille music or some kind of notation,� says Jacqueline Clifton, founder of Musicians In Focus (http://www.musiciansinfocus.org ), an organisation that provides training and support for visually impaired musicians.

�We are concerned to promote the use of Braille music, but there is a problem of availability: because it�s difficult to get hold of, there�s a reluctance to learn it, particularly among young people,� she says.

Despite this difficulty, Musicians In Focus has around 10 students between the ages of 8 and 16 attending Saturday classes at the Royal College of Music. �If you start them young it�s much easier,� Clifton says. One of her 10 year-old students has become fluent in Braille music after studying for one year, while a further 10 are studying at colleges of higher education and two students are enrolled on undergraduate courses.

Musicians In Focus aims to achieve recognition as a National Training Organisation for arts, but in the meantime Clifton is concentrating on launching an apprenticeship scheme in September next year. The plan is to allow suitable students to become trainers themselves, offering tuition in Braille music and helping new entrants master the technology.

Blind musicians are highly dependent on technology for creating scores, whether fluent in Braille music or not. At present, this is achieved by recording a piece in a digital file format such as MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) and editing it on a PC using sequencing software and a screen reader.

�This can produce very accurate scores, but has the drawback that it reproduces everything from the MIDI file, so any inaccuracies or traits are carried through and have to be edited,� says Clifton. Another drawback to this approach is that it squeezes all the information from a piece of music into very long lists of symbols � exactly the same kind of problem that afflicts Braille music.

At York University, Edwards is keen to rethink the approach to notation. He recently supervised 'Weasel'
(http://www.benchallis.com/research.htm#Weasel), a research project to develop an interface made up of a tactile surface overlaid on a touchsensitive pad. Using the pad blind musicians are able to scan a piece for general structure and then pick out aspects such as pitch or rhythm either singly or in combination, or look at specific markings like fingering or performance instructions.

Instead of Braille music output, Weasel can produce either music or an audio description of the passage selected. At present the Weasel interface is used for reading music rather than writing it, although Edwards is confident that it will be adaptable for writing.

But while the technology might not be a problem, funding further projects may well be. Edwards is keen to build a kit version of Weasel for music teachers but has found that projects of this sort often fall outside the remit of funding bodies. �There�s no state funding so we have to approach it like any other research project. The original Weasel project was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, but we tend to fall between two stools. We�re seen as working on something that�s more education than engineering or vice-versa.�

But if, with enough badgering, the team does manage to ferret out the funds, the weasel will live again.

[Section three ends.]



by Saqib Shaikh ss@saqibshaikh.com

With an exemption to allow blind people to send and receive copyrighted digital material looking likely to become UK law (see news this issue), the age of the accessible e-book could be just around the corner. But will the software and hardware available to read the books be serviceable enough to inspire this renaissance in reading?

The DAISY (http://www.daisy.org ) consortium is likely to be the main format the new breed of books will be distributed in, but we can expect a multitude of specialised reading devices.

Those who already own computers may opt for software players because no extra equipment will be required. But those who cannot use computers, or computer users who wish to listen to talking books on the move, may opt for a hardware player.

Each player will offer different ways of navigating such as skipping to particular sections or pages, searching for keywords and ignoring certain elements such as pictures, footnotes or side-bars.

E-Access Bulletin has tested three prototype DAISY e-book readers: two pieces of software and one hardware reader. They were LPPlayer software from Dolphin Computer Access subsidiary Labyrinten Data AB (http://www.labyrinten.se ); Victor Reader Soft software from Visuaide (http://www.visuaide.com ) of Canada; and Victor Reader Pro, Visuaide's latest portable machine for reading e-books on CD.

LPPlayer has some built-in speech feedback, using an English voice with a noticeable Scandanavian accent, as one might expect from a Swedish company. While all dialogues are spoken, other parts of the program, such as the menus, are not and you will need a screen reader to access these. However, the non-talking parts are not crucial to the program's operation.

As well as playing the book, LPPlayer has the ability to show the text and images as it is being read. The user can change the font and size of text.

LPPlayer offers a variety of methods of navigating a book. You can either move through section by section; move one page or paragraph at a time; or move through the book page by page, or jump to a particular page. It is also possible to search the book for a particular word or phrase. There is no method for manually fast forwarding or rewinding the book however - you will need to navigate by paragraph instead.

The program also allows you to set up to nine bookmarks, which you can jump back to at a later time. Also, you can make audio notes (up to 60 seconds) or text notes (up to 80 characters) to record thoughts on particular passages.

Victor Reader Soft (VRS) contains all of the features of LPPlayer except the ability to record audio notes, and many extra features as well.

One of the major differences between VRS and LPPlayer is that the former is almost completely self-voicing, using a male Canadian voice. For those users who prefer to use their existing screen reader, VRS provides scripts for some readers, including JAWS.

VRS also provides a much more comprehensive set of navigation features. It is easy to move by various amounts, skip in and out of sections, and even get an overall outline of the document. VRS also has full fast-forward and rewind features, as well as the ability to skip forwards and backwards a specified amount of time. A history feature keeps a record of the past five places in which you were listening to this book, and you can skip back and forth through the history.

VRS also provides many more features than LPPlayer for annotating a book, including more bookmark facilities. It also provides more information about the book, and allows the user to build up a 'bookshelf' on their hard disk. There are many other extra features, such as greater control over the reading voice and the display. Users may even create their own user profiles to store their own personal preferences.

Finally, one of the nicest features about VRS is its comprehensive help system. The software includes a 'key describer' mode which is useful to learn all the controls. There is also a getting started guide, a reference guide and a quick reference guide. All three are provided in DAISY format, allowing you to practice using the software as you read them.

Finally, Victor Reader Pro, Visuaide's hardware DAISY e-book reader, is similar to its software stablemate, but also has some extra features. The unit itself is approximately 20 centimetres by 15 centimetres, and weighs around a kilogram. It can either be used with a mains power supply or a built-in rechargeable battery.

The controls for Victor Pro are on the top of the unit. In the centre there is a numeric keypad. The majority of the reading features are executed from this keypad. Below the keypad there are play/stop and fastforward /rewind keys. Running vertically down the right-hand-side, there are a number of buttons for changing the way in which the unit reads, while down the left there are more navigation and bookmark-related keys. Like Victor Reader Soft it also has a key describer feature. This is even more useful on this hardware unit for learning what the various buttons do.

The feature set is very similar to that of VRS. The unit uses a British female voice to speak all prompts and messages. In addition to volume and speed controls, Victor Pro also has a tone control. The other main extra feature is the ability to play audio CDs. In fact, since you can use many of Victor's e-book reading features with audio CDs, it makes for a rather powerful CD player!

On the other hand, Victor Pro does not have a display, and you cannot make text notes with it since there is no keyboard, but you can still set bookmarks and make other annotations. Other features absent in the hardware device include support for multiple users and screen readers.

My personal preference is for the Victor software and hardware. While LPPlayer certainly had a wide set of features, I found Victor's interface more intuitive, I liked the fact it was fully self-voicing, and the help feature is excellent � one can never have too much help with technology!

[Section four ends.]



by Derek Parkinson derek@headstar.com

This week, legislation was enacted that lays the foundations for Ofcom, a new regulatory body for the entire communications sector that will have an enormous impact on the lives of disabled people. Ofcom will be tasked with ensuring that new communications technologies are accessible to all. But recent experience in the US has shown that even a forward-thinking regulator may not be enough to get disabled people the services they deserve.

In the UK, a new Communications Act has received its final reading in the Commons and is in line for Royal Assent. The first part of the act lays down the responsibilities of the new �uber-regulator� Ofcom, which draws together the duties previously discharged by the telecoms regulator Oftel, the Radiocommunications Agency, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Independent Television Commission, the Advertising Standards Commission, the Advertising Standards Authority and the BBC Board of Governors. The second part of the act, which formalises Ofcom�s aims, scope and powers, is not expected to become law before the second half of 2003.

The new regulator aims to reflect the growing convergence between communications technologies and will operate within an extremely broad rubric, combining the licensing and consumer protection role of its predecessor bodies with enhanced powers to enforce competition legislation.

The responsibilities of communications service providers have been sketched out in a separate government white paper (http://www.communicationswhitepaper.gov.uk ) but these have not given campaigners for disabled access much to cheer about. The government commits itself �to ensure everybody has easy access to communications services, either free at the point of delivery - in the case of public service broadcasting - or at an affordable price - in the case of other communications services�; but this commitment will have to be balanced against its role to encourage competition, which led to controversial results in the case of the old telecoms watchdog Oftel.

Oftel was proud of its so-called �regulation with a light touch�, which loosely translated as intervening only when market forces were seen to fail. Oftel�s critics often accused the regulator of a �do nothing� approach, or of doing too little, too late.

It is too soon to tell how well Ofcom will balance its various responsibilities. But there are already signs that forcing broadcasters to make content available to the visually impaired by including audio descriptions, for example, is only half the battle.

Peter Wilkins of the National Federation of the Blind of the UK (http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~nfbuk) expresses concern that even if broadcasters provide audio descriptions of content, many blind users in the UK will be unable to use them: �By our estimates, only 45 people in the whole of South East England have the necessary technology. Audio descriptions are now available for digital terrestrial services, but you need a set-top box to access them. The question is � who pays for or subsidises them? The RNIB can�t really afford to, which leaves the manufacturers or the government."

In fact, there are other funding candidates: service providers such as Sky have received state subsidies to promote low-cost set-top boxes as part of the government drive to stimulate the take-up of digital TV. Wilkins is unimpressed by their efforts, however: �Their electronic guides have menus that list programmes with audio descriptions, but a blind person can�t access the guide!� he says.

Wilkins� concerns were echoed by the RNIB: �We estimate it will cost about 3 million pounds to produce 20,000 audio modules. [Government minister] Kim Howell has said that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is determined to increase the take-up of these things, but how? � the DCMS doesn�t have a spare 3 million pounds, so it will have to be extracted from the Treasury,� says a spokesman.

If the US is any indicator of what the UK can expect to experience further down the line, Ofcom may have its work cut out ensuring that broadcasters stick to their obligations in providing even a statutory minimum level of access. Last month the American Council of the Blind (ACB) reacted angrily after a group of US television, video and cable companies tried to stall Federal Communications Commission regulations that would make audio captions compulsory for a small proportion of TV content in the US.

ACB president Christopher Gray called on the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable Telecommunications Association and the National Motion Picture Association of America to "stop this senseless attack on the needs and rights of blind people". Gray�s reaction followed a move by the broadcasters to block regulations that require top commercial networks to provide 50 hours per quarter of prime time and/or children�s programming with video description.

The US regulations, which also set requirements on emergency broadcast information, have been available for consultation since the end of 2000. However, one month before they were due to come into effect the broadcasters jointly filed a petition to the District of Columbia Appeal Court, claiming the regulations are inconsistent with the Communications Act of 1934, impose a scheme of �compelled speech� on the petitioner's members, and are inconsistent with the first amendment of the US Constitution. Surprisingly, they were joined by the National Federation of the Blind, which claimed in a separate filing that the rule is arbitrary, capricious and not in accordance with the law.

It is worth noting that this debate is about more than access to entertainment. In April 2000, FCC chairman William Kennard supported the amendments to the 1996 Communications Act by citing the case of Sharon McLawhorn, a deaf woman who missed a flood warning broadcast on local networks because it was not captioned properly, and was stranded for 24 hours before rescue arrived.

[Section five ends.]


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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.eaccessibility. com is also cited.

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

[Issue ends.]