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: To aid navigation, all headings begin with an asterisk and end with a full stop. All items are numbered in the contents and throughout, with numbers immediately after the asterisks. Please let us know if anything else would help.

* ISSUE 35, NOVEMBER 2002.


Section one: News.

  1. Accessible cinema plan rejected - film council rejects audio description.
  2. Digital TV made easy - design initiative launches.
  3. Audio description coalition to fight on - but US campaign suffers court defeat.
  4. Text messages find a voice - mobile phone technology tested.
  5. Auditors to scrutinise e-government accessibility - report due in New Year.
  6. Counselling service hits the web - new emotional support service.
  7. US tax forms bypass access regulations - loophole in e-government.

News in brief: 8: New Deal � accessible online poker; 9: Touch Screen � tests for tactile image display; 10: Reader's Digest � online restaurant guide; 11: Access To Italy � new directory of resources.

Section two: 'The Inbox' - Readers' forum. - 12: Nominate Yourself � Bafta update; 13: Analogue Puzzle � audio described TV; 14: Shropshire Standard � accessible libraries; 15: Lima Bravo � help for Peruvian project.

16: Section three: Focus � Retailing.
High street lottery: How well served is the visually impaired customer of a high street consumer technology store? Mel Poluck investigates.

17: Section four: Analysis � The Arts.
Museums without walls: Most museums and galleries are using multimedia aids to enhance the experience of visitors, but visually impaired people are often overlooked. Jemima Kiss surveys the latest access developments.

18: Section five: Formatting - Reader Survey. Improving the service: Editor Dan Jellinek reports on readers' suggestions for improvements to the E-Access Bulletin format, and outlines a plan to draw up a new standard for email newsletters.

[Contents ends.]



The UK's Film Council has rejected a proposal to spend six million pounds on equipping cinemas with technology that would make films accessible to visually impaired people.

The plan, put forward by the Cinema Exhibitors Association, would have installed audio description and subtitling equipment in cinemas nationwide. It was one of three bids competing for a pot of money from the national lottery earmarked for the council's 'specialised exhibition and distribution strategy' (http://fastlink.headstar.com/film). The strategy aims to "develop film culture in the UK by improving access to, and education about, the moving image" and specifies that "the needs of people with disabilities must inform and be integral to any proposed developments".

However, according to the council, "the vast majority of those responding to a consultation with film distributors and cinemas felt this wasn't the best way of serving disabled people. In particular question marks were raised both over the technology proposed and the lack of expertise available to operate it in individual venues." The cash will be used instead to subsidise screenings of foreign and 'art house' films in regional cinemas.

Last month, the Film Council appointed consultants Access Matters (http://www.accessmattersltd.co.uk) to help develop its strategy on disability issues.


An initiative to make designers of digital television products more aware of the difficulties experienced by all kinds of user, including visually impaired people, has been launched by 'Easy TV', a partnership between the Independent Television Commission (ITC), the Consumers' Association and the Design Council.

As part of the initiative (http://fastlink.headstar.com/easy), the ITC and Consumers' Association are co-sponsoring an interactive digital television product design award that will be promoted in design colleges across the UK. Research for Easy TV recently discovered that marginalised groups such as disabled or aged people would be more likely to use digital television if there were fewer buttons on remote controls, quicker responses to button presses and simpler user manuals.

The new move fits in with the non-prescriptive, 'best practice' approach towards accessibility for consumer technology products set out by the government in its new Communications Bill, which is due to be introduced into Parliament by the end of the year. While it sets accessibility targets for digital television content, it leaves product issues such as the design of television sets up to manufacturers.

Disability groups feel this approach does not go far enough. A spokesperson for the RNIB said: "Easy TV helps get the message across to manufacturers and designers, but best practice is not enough, we would like to see standardisation."

Readers of E-Access Bulletin who have experienced the technology are invited to send us suggestions for design improvements to television sets, remote controls and set-top boxes. All replies should be sent to derek@headstar.com.


US access campaigners have pledged to continue their campaign to make audio description of a minimum amount of television and video programming mandatory, after an appeals court scrapped existing quotas.

Since April this year the Federal Communications Commission has required television networks to broadcast at least 50 hours of audio described programming every three months. The National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable Telecommunications Association and the National Motion Picture Association of America mounted a challenge against the regulations in March, claiming they imposed 'compelled speech' and were inconsistent with the first amendment of the US Constitution (see E-Access Bulletin, March 2002). On 8 November the court ruled in their favour, meaning the continuation of audio description at these levels is now voluntary.

"It will be really interesting to see whether they continue to do what they have been doing really well since April," said Margaret Pfanstiehl, chair of the National Television and Video Access Coalition, a group of 17 organisations attempting to defend the quotas.

The coalition will now try to reinstate the rule by persuading Congress of its importance, said Pfansteihl, though this could take as long as ten years following the recent Republican majority at the US mid-term elections. "Republican control means short term success is unlikely. They are in a strong mood to deregulate everything," she said.


New technology allowing visually impaired people to listen to mobile phone text messages through conversion to natural-sounding speech is being developed by BT, the telecommunications company announced this month.

The technology, which could become commercially available within a year, can be installed on a mobile phone directly or on a palm-top computer that has an infra-red link to a phone. Users can maintain privacy by listening to their messages through earphones, and the speech output can be programmed to recognise popular text messaging shortcuts which could otherwise sound like gibberish.

According to Adam Oliver of BTexact (http://www.btexact.com), BT's advanced technology research arm, the project was initiated after visually impaired teenagers visited BT as part of a school project. "One of the visitors, Mesad, made an innocent remark about how difficult it was for him to access text messages, and it all started from there," said Oliver. BT has since tested the new technology with the help of Able2, its own internal network of disabled employees (http://fastlink.headstar.com/able2).

BT is not the only mobile service provider to be working on the speech conversion of text messages, however. About a year ago its rival Vodafone announced it was working on a similar system, though it could not offer a firm delivery date (see E-Access Bulletin, December 2001).



The National Audit Office (http://www.nao.gov.uk), the official auditor of UK government agencies, is to publish a report on the accessibility of government web and other electronic services early in the New Year, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

The report will assess how well departments conform to the international accessibility guidelines issued by the World Wide Web Consortium (http://www.w3.org/wai) as well as the government's own guidelines developed by the Office of the e-Envoy (http://fastlink.headstar.com/webg).

Jeremy Lonsdale, the NAO official who is currently drafting the report, said the audit will extend beyond web services to other electronic media. "We are also picking up on issues relating to digital television," he said. In coming to its conclusions, the audit office will draw on the input of the RNIB and Age Concern, Lonsdale said.


A new web site aimed at helping those providing emotional and psychological support services to visually impaired people, and improving access to their services, has been launched by the RNIB.

The site (http://www.unifiedlinks.com/~rnib) is being developed to provide training information for counsellors; news about the latest research; information on how to find a local counsellor; and discussion forums. Set up by the RNIB's emotional support division, it is aimed at both sighted counsellors and those who are themselves visually impaired; and at visually impaired people seeking support either for problems relating to their sight loss or on other issues.

The writer Sue Townsend, speaking at the site's launch, said: "As soon as someone gives you the diagnosis that you are losing your sight, you need a support system."

Since the site's launch last month there have been technical problems with accessing it, said Teresa Nicholls, an RNIB counsellor. However once the teething problems have been sorted out, stage two of the service's development will include an online library of case histories and articles by counsellors working with visually impaired clients.


The US tax office will not require companies offering online tax return services to comply with access requirements applying to other government services, it has emerged.

Internal Revenue Service official Terry Lutes said it will be up to companies providing online filing to decide whether or not they will comply with section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, a law requiring US government agencies to provide accessible services.

Lutes' comments came at a meeting of the Council for Electronic Revenue Communication Advancement in Arlington held shortly after the unveiling of an agreement on 30 October which allows companies to supply online filing

The revenue service plans to publish a web page providing links to the new online filing services in January next year.


*8: NEW DEAL: An upgraded version of an accessible poker game

which can be used with Window-Eyes screen reading software was released last month by US company ZForm. Other improvements include improved sound effects, creating a Wild West saloon ambience. To sign up for a trial version see: http://www.zform.com .

*9: TOUCH SCREEN: National Federation of the Blind members are

to test a new tactile computer display that could help visually impaired people read digital images, it was announced last month. The interface, which has been developed by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, is a densely packed grid of retractable steel pins which can render content such as maps. The trials aim to develop a product to retail for around 2,000 dollars: http://fastlink.headstar.com/nist .

*10: READER'S DIGEST: A web listing service for UK restaurants

offering Braille and large print menus has received positive feedback from users, chefs and restaurant owners, according to its creator, Braille transcription service provider A2i. An email nomination facility - nominations@a2i.co.uk - allows customers to suggest a favourite restaurant they would like to have menus in Braille or large print, and the directory itself is at:
http://www.a2i.co.uk/links.html#restaurants .

* 11: ACCESS TO ITALY: An Italian language web resource on

accessibility issues has been launched by IWA Italia, the country's arm of the International Webmasters Association, which has newly merged with the HTML Writers Guild to form the world's largest association for web professionals (http://www.iwanet.org). The resource is at: http://www.webaccessibile.org .

[Section one ends.]


*12: NOMINATE YOURSELF: Julie Howell, internet campaigns

officer at the RNIB, has written to respond to Ian Lloyd's criticisms of the winners of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts accessibility awards (see E-Access Bulletin, September and October 2002). Howell, who was on the judging panel for these awards, says: "I don't dispute Ian's criticisms. Very few of the candidate sites were 100 per cent accessible and this was disappointing.

"However, judges in this situation have to select a shortlist from those sites that are submitted for the award. That's not to say that the BAFTA shortlist represented the best of a bad bunch, rather the best of a fairly limited bunch of varying quality.

"I agree that we need to raise the standard. To do this, we need more organisations that produce accessible sites to put themselves forward for nomination. The awards run by BAFTA; the British Interactive Multimedia Association (http://www.bima.co.uk); and the Government Internet Forum (http://www.internetforum.gov.uk) all now include accessibility among the essential criteria for short-listing.

"There are prizes to be won for creating accessible, usable, engaging sites. If you are responsible for a site that you feel should win a prize for attention to accessibility, don't be shy, nominate yourself!" [Further comments to inbox@headstar.com].

*13: ANALOGUE PUZZLE: Jane Fleming, a bulletin reader who likes

to watch television and is registered blind, is puzzled by our recent reporting of the first ever audio description services on ordinary analogue television from the BBC (see E-Access Bulletin, October 2002).

"Text narrative in BBC analogue? I thought we were all expected to go digital, satellite and so on, so the government could sell the analogue off. What is the point of analogue if it will expire in three years time?" she asks. Fleming also says she would like to see research into audio teletext services. [Further comments to inbox@headstar.com].

*14: SHROPSHIRE STANDARD: Susan White, equal access

librarian, Shropshire Libraries, says: "I was interested by the comment from the US reader about internet access (see 'limited access,' inbox, last issue). He made the important point that most visually impaired people are living on fixed incomes and, if they can afford a computer, most likely cannot afford internet access.

"Here in the UK, The People's Network
(http://www.peoplesnetwork.gov.uk) is providing free access to computers and the internet in public libraries. Here in Shropshire we are purchasing Supernova speech and magnifying software to help visually impaired people use the facilities." [Further comments to inbox@headstar.com].

*15: LIMA BRAVO: Many readers wrote in with offers of assistance

to our reader Gina Bardelli of Lima, Peru who appealed for help in creating an information and communications centre for the blind at a district library.

The ONCE Foundation for Latin America (FOAL) invited her to send it a project proposal, and said that if the project fitted their criteria it would be able to help. John Rae, president of the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality in Canada (http://www.nfbae.ca), suggested that Bardelli might wish to contact the Canadian Embassy in Peru, and inquire if the Canadian International Development Agency might help, because it has done some disability-related work in the past.

Other offers of help came from Estela Landeros-Dugourd, senior manager, programs for people with disabilities, Organization of American States and Robert Langford, president of International Services for the Physically Challenged in Texas. Thanks to everyone for their offers of assistance.

[Section two ends].


by Mel Poluck mel@headstar.com

The process of buying a new computer or mobile phone on the high street can be difficult at the best of times, as you struggle to work out which is the best tariff or simply try to attract the attention of one of the overworked sales staff.

For visually impaired people, there are added difficulties and these are sometimes made worse by a lack of awareness among store employees of what different people's needs might be.

The majority of visually impaired computer users rely on a small number of specialist services to install special applications after they have bought the machine, often with guidance from the RNIB � but they still have to buy the computer in the first place, and that will usually mean a trip to the high street.

"I can't remember when I had previously felt so alienated and marginalised when trying to buy something on the high street," said one E-Access Bulletin reader of his experience of buying a home computer from a branch of Dixons.

"The shop assistants could spout on with great enthusiasm, once I said I wanted to make music using the computer. They said: 'I've got this fantastic programme, you can do A, B, C . . . X, Y, Z with it. But it's visual I'm afraid, so you would probably have problems if you tried to use it.'

"By contrast, he didn't even know the difference between voice activation and speech output! In other words, he could tell me everything about the parts of the PC I'd be unable to use, and nothing about the parts of the software that were essential to me as a blind user. I dared not ask him about the keyboard. I think I bought the PC in spite of, rather than because of the information I received at the shop. I got the impression he thought that 'The Blind' would have provided me with a 'special' computer."

Not everyone's experiences are negative. Another blind reader was pleased with her experience at The Link mobile phone shop, part of the same retail group as Dixons.

"The assistant was extremely helpful from the outset and showed me a variety of phones, paying particular attention to their layout and the usability of the keys. Once I had made my choice, the assistant not only spent some considerable time setting up the phone, she showed me how to use it and allowed me to ring the store's land line to get the feel of it. I left the store feeling that I had received an excellent service and felt confident enough to use the phone."

The variation in service is likely to be caused by gaps in staff training from one outlet to another. The Dixons Group (http://www.dixonsgroup -plc.co.uk), whose subsidiaries also include Currys and PC World, does have a programme of staff training on new products but this does not appear to include training on disability.

However, the group does have a disability working group cutting across all access issues. The group is currently working on a best practice audit, in association with the Disability Rights Commission, and recently carried out a 'mystery shopper' exercise in association with the disability advocacy group POhWER, to see how accessible their shops are.

The 'shoppers' made a range of enquiries and purchases, before reporting back to the company with their experiences. Among 56 volunteers with disabilities who took part in this exercise, just one was visually impaired, but Dixons acknowledged that the experiences of this blind person had uncovered some key shortfalls.

The project's co-ordinator Jane Dellow said the visually impaired participant "had the most traumatic experience". He was left for a long time unattended by staff and in some shops led by the hand and told to "look" at products.

These findings would feed into improvements in future working practices, Dellow said, in particular their staff training system.

Guidance from the Disability Rights Commission suggests adjustments retailers should consider include providing appropriate or additional training for staff; modifying or adapting equipment potentially used by disabled people in stores; and making service literature and instructions more accessible, by for example making Braille versions available.

According to a spokesperson at the British Retail Consortium, every major retailer is looking at current policy to keep up to date with the Disability Discrimination Act, which will shortly require that visually impaired people should receive the same level of customer service as sighted people. It may not be possible to train every member of staff, he says, but the requirement to made 'reasonable adjustments' is spurring training in this area.

The availability of product literature in Braille is inconsistent across outlets. While it is available from Dixons group retailers, and the mobile phone operator and retail chain T-Mobile (formerly One2One), the Time company � manufacturers of Tiny computers, Time computers and owners of the high street chain Computer World � do not produce any.

Time does say, however, that its stores' aisles are kept clear and staff are encouraged to show customers large fonts, large screens and "help blind people around the shop". In future it may take a little more than this from retailers everywhere if they are to keep one step ahead of the law.

[Section three ends.]


by Jemima Kiss jemimakiss@hotmail.com

The hosting this month of a seminar at the Tate Modern for museum and art gallery managers on improving access for visually impaired people � 'challenging ocularcentricity', as the blurb has it � is a welcome development (see story 4, E-Access Bulletin, October 2002).

The UK's museum sector is making slow progress in adapting its exhibits for visually impaired visitors, despite the requirements of the 1998 Disability Discrimination Act to improve access for disabled people to all organisations and services open to the public. Although most of the requirements of this legislation will not be compulsory until 2004, there currently appears to be a substantial gap between provision and demand which makes the deadline seem unrealistic.

Geof Armstrong, director of the National Disability Arts Forum (http://www.ndaf.org) which aims to create equality of opportunity in all aspects of the arts, says the task is daunting. With some 1.7 million blind or partially sighted people in the UK, institutions "are so awed by the implications that they put off serious action", he says.

Even where serious money is being spent on accessibility, the visually impaired are often overlooked. The Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, for example, recently underwent a ten million pound renovation, providing improved access for visitors in wheelchairs and updating exhibits with interactive features including touch screen displays and listening posts. But despite these new facilities, the 'full disabled access' advertised by the museum makes no provision for visuallyimpaired visitors.

The museum presents a typical example of problems faced by blind or partially-sighted visitors. Most galleries have necessarily low lighting to protect exhibits, prohibit visitors from touching items on display and provide audio guides based on the assumption that the visitor has full vision. Touch screen displays use small fonts on low contrast screens which are unreadable for most visually-impaired visitors, and listening posts assume that the visitor has read introductory text on nearby exhibits. Although staff at the Brighton museum are very willing to help, and will escort people with disabilities around the museum, many blind visitors feel happier when good facilities allow them to visit independently.

Standard audio guides for able-bodied visitors give background information on the artist and explanations of the symbolism and ideas expressed in the work. Visually impaired visitors need a more practical description to allow them to build their own image of the layout and techniques used in the piece, but also need a delicate and understanding description of the more subtle elements of a work to express the mood and atmosphere.

Some organisations are working to address these issues. VocalEyes (http://www.vocaleyes.co.uk) is a UK audio description company working mainly with theatrical performance and live productions, which uses specially trained actors to concisely describe sight-based details such as visual jokes and set changes during shows. Keen to expand their services to other arts events, VocalEyes recently worked with the Kettle's Yard Gallery in Cambridge and then the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester to produce an audio guide accompaniment for an exhibition of paintings and reliefs by the British artist Ben Nicholson. Alongside the descriptions, delivered through a handset, tactile images are used to give visually impaired people a more complete understanding of each work. The exhibition is on until 15 December in Manchester (for further information, telephone 0161 2757450).

Some of the UK's larger national cultural institutions have also been making progress. The British Museum
(http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk), for example, offer not only a high contrast text-only website and large print guides, but a touch tour for the Roman and Egyptian sculpture galleries, which allows visually impaired visitors direct contact with the exhibits. It has also developed a sound-guide system for the Parthenon Galleries accompanied by a touch-section using 'Tiresias' software (http://www.cs.unc.edu/~hedlund/comp145/homes/blind3) that translates ancient Greek and Latin texts into Braille.

The Tate group of galleries is also innovating. As well as touch tours, audio guides, large print guides and reading aids such as magnifying cameras, its iMap website (http://www.tate.org.uk/imap) contains visually enhanced images and data which can be used with a Braille printer to create raised images, derived from drawings by Picasso and Matisse. Last month the site won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts' first award for web site accessibility (see E-Access Bulletin, October 2002). In the six weeks since iMap was launched more than 2,000 people downloaded the site's line drawings for use as raised images, compared to the few hundred visually impaired people who might visit the gallery each year.

Caro Howell, special projects curator at Tate Modern, says the most valuable element of access programmes is to encourage a personal engagement with the artwork. "There is little critical thinking about gallery education and visual impairment and a lack of developed methods. There needs to be greater emphasis on intellectual access. The web offers an exciting opportunity for delivering tailor-made and in-depth explorations of artworks that visually impaired people can explore independently."

[Section four ends.]


by Dan Jellinek dan@headstar.com

Our recent reader consultation on the formatting of E-Access Bulletin produced lots of valuable feedback. Our existing format met with strong approval overall, but we do now propose to incorporate a few improvements suggested by readers, from our next issue. We also propose to move on to develop a draft 'email newsletter access standard' that may be used by others � more of this at the end of the article.

The formatting survey was initially triggered by a suggestion from one reader, Peter Link, that web addresses should be moved from within the text of stories to a list at the end of each article.

It seems that this is not a suggestion favoured by the majority of readers, however. Of the responses, 47 per cent were in favour of retaining the addresses as they are, compared with 24 per cent who would favour them placed at the end of stories. A further 6 per cent said the addresses should be both within the copy and at the end of stories, and 4 per cent said there should be an additional list at the end of the newsletter of all the links in the entire issue. The other 19 per cent had no preference.

There is therefore no strong mandate for changing where we present the web links, although if we have the resources in future we propose to experiment with offering multiple formats so people will be able to choose their favourite. We cannot predict exactly when we will be able to do this.

Moving on to whether or not we need to include full web addresses, including 'http://www' at the beginning for example, there was a strong majority in favour of retaining the longer formats. Two thirds of respondents (67 per cent) were in favour of this, mainly because some email packages such as Lotus Notes seem to only recognise the full versions as links.

The other third (33 per cent) of respondents did think it would be fine to do without 'http://' or 'http://www' unless the full address was different from the usual formulations, but on balance we have decided to stick with the full addresses to ensure accessibility by all forms of software.

Some 15 respondents suggested we produce a simple HTML version of the newsletter alongside the plain text version, allowing live links plus internal links from the contents to relevant stories. We think this is a good idea, and as with the alternative web address placings will strive to introduce such a version as an opt-in alternative as and when resources allow. We will also consider subsequently producing a Microsoft Word version as well, as this may apparently work even better with some access technologies.

Most respondents like our use of an asterisk to mark the beginnings of stories and sections, but there were two suggestions for adaptations to this device that seem like good improvements.

The first is a suggestion to change from using asterisks to the # (or 'hash') symbol. The reason for this suggestion, as explained by reader John Gardner in the US, is that the asterisk character is often used as a 'wild card' character in searches, so sometimes if you search for say

'*1' which we might be using to mark a story, a search may take the

asterisk to be a wild card and just find any place where a character was next to a '1'.

"My guess is that everybody could search and find #1 but that many

search engines wouldn't find *1", Gardner says. So unless any reader

contacts us with strong reasons why we should not do this, we propose to make that change from our next issue.

A further refinement is suggested by Gerry Chevalier of Canada. He

says: "I do indeed appreciate the '*' special character as it allows me to

use the FIND-NEXT search of my email client. However, I might

suggest that you could use '***' to tag a main section and '**' to tag a

section and '*' to tag an individual item. That way, I could search say,

for '***' if I wished to skip an entire section."

We think that this idea, using the new # characters rather than the *, is

a good one, and so will from the next time use ### at the beginning of the issue and the beginning of the notes at the very end of the issue; ## for a section beginning; and # for a headline beginning an individual article.

There are four other points of formatting or style for increased accessibility we propose to adopt in addition to our existing rules, as follows:

So that's about it. Thanks very much to everyone who provided feedback. And as well as incorporating the improvements from our next issue where indicated above, we also now propose to draft an 'email newsletter access standard' which could be continually improved according to an ongoing process of consultation, and adopted by other organisations who find it useful. Headstar, the publishers of EAccess Bulletin, will be happy to maintain the standard in partnership with any interested bodies � if you are interested in supporting the project, please contact the bulletin's editor Dan Jellinek on dan@headstar.com. The first draft standard will be published on the web next month, with full details provided in our next issue.

[Section five ends.]


To subscribe to this free monthly bulletin, e-mail eab-subs@headstar.com with 'subscribe eab' in the subject header. You can list other email addresses to subscribe in the body of the message. Please encourage all your colleagues to sign up!

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

[Issue ends.]