+++E-Access Bulletin.- Issue 42, June 2003.

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

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

NOTE: Please forward this free bulletin to others (subscription details at the end). We conform to the accessible Text Email Newsletter (TEN) Standard. For example, all items are numbered. For details see: http://www.headstar.com/ten .

++Section One: News.


+01: Accessible Web Modules For Local Government.

From March next year, all UK local authorities will be able to use a centrally-developed set of accessible web site components, following the release of 2.9 million pounds of government funding for the Local Authority Websites National Project (LAWS - http://www.laws-project.org.uk ).

LAWS will develop web site technology that can handle public transactions in hundreds of service delivery categories, based on an architecture that encourages councils to build in usability and accessibility from the outset.

The project, which is being co-ordinated by West Sussex County Council (http://www.westsussex.gov.uk ), will produce a series of modules that are easy to distribute and install. It will also formulate and share best practice guidelines for accessible design, and identify accessibility issues where more work is needed.

"It is important for designers of online services to think through what they're trying to achieve. LAWS will provide an information architecture that should encourage this," said project director Roland Mezulis of West Sussex. "Designers should be thinking about the easiest way to navigate through a site to a given point, not just about what colour combinations to have," he said. According to Mezulis, specific challenges include designing accessible transactional services such as online payments, and how to present content stored on legacy systems in accessible formats.

The new national LAWS project builds on earlier work by the APLAWS project (http://www.aplaws.org.uk - see also E-Access Bulletin issue 29, May 2002).

+02: Wish

The ability to change the text size and colour balance of the electronic programme guides would be the most useful accessibility function to build in to interactive digital television services, according to a survey of more than 200 vision impaired people published by the RNIB last month.

Speech output for all functions was also favoured by 165 of the 204 respondents, while a similar number called for audio described programming and fewer functions.

One survey respondent said: "I'd like a screen-reading function (like JAWS for a PC) on all text-based screens so that I can use my TV similarly to the way in which I use my PC." Another said: "If this one device could have a selection of interfaces (visual or otherwise), text, sign language, audio (speech) output and variable settings then all users could customise it to their personal needs."

A third respondent looked forward to an age of technology convergence: "In the long run I'd like one machine that serves as an entertainment centre, PC and communications device, so that everything I currently do with a PC, telephone, TV, stereo, video, DVD player and so on could be housed in one bit of kit with one screen, one set of speakers and one keyboard, mouse or remote control. I've got too much to plug in right now!"

The survey was stage four of a five stage research programme conducted by Sylvie Perera of the RNIB Scientific Research Unit. The first three parts provide an overview of the issues; an assessment of the use of smart cards as a way for people to save personal viewing settings; and a usability assessment by partially sighted people. The final stage attempted to create a design specification for some of the requested functions.

To download the report see: http://www.tiresias.org/itv/intro.htm .

+03: Rnib Relaunches Web Site

The RNIB is to relaunch its main web site (http://www.rnib.org.uk ) next week, to make it more user-friendly for visitors with impaired vision.

According to website manager Margaret O'Donnell the previous site, which went live in 1995, had grown too large and as a result contained out-of-date information and had layout inconsistencies between sections. "Before, we had a big maintenance problem with 20,000 HTML files on the site and a team of only three people." To combat this, a new accessible content management system has been installed, which has also been applied to the RNIB's intranet.

The new site, which has been two years in the making, will also be easier to navigate with assistive technologies. "Better-structured documents will make it easier to read or scan with screen readers," O'Donnell said. Staff have also been trained in how to write for text- to-speech software, and other web accessibility issues including plain style and the avoidance of jargon.

The site will include information on accessing technology, with fact- sheets and resources.

+04: Further Education Guidance Published

Guidance for further education providers on how to overcome access difficulties faced by students, including access to technology, has been published by further education technology information service Ferl.

A series of 13 papers covers topics ranging from the basic legal requirements of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 to practical guidance on how to make the most of a disabled person's education (http://fastlink.headstar.com/ferl1 ).

Other papers include ways to improve online assessment; assistive technologies; learning platforms and the learning experience.

++News In Brief.



The British Computer Society is to create an online noticeboard for issues relating to the accessibility of the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL), a standard training course for basic computer skills (see E-Access Bulletin issue 40, April 2003, story 02). From September the service will offer advice and information on ECDL participation by people with disabilities, including different levels of vision impairment: http://www.ecdl.co.uk .


This year's British Interactive Media Association awards for technology innovation have added a new accessibility and usability category in association with the RNIB, to coincide with the European Year of People with Disabilities. The closing date for entries by companies and individuals is 30 June: http://fastlink.headstar.com/bima1 .


The British Computer Association of the Blind is holding a special seminar alongside this year's annual 'Sight Village' exhibition at Queen Alexandra College for vision impaired people in Birmingham from 15 to 17 July (http://www.qac.ac.uk/sightvillage ). 'Sight village plus' on 18 July will cover computer security and measures that can be taken to protect personal data: http://www.bcab.org.uk .

[Section one ends].

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


+08: Bfor The State Of Maine In Canada, Wrote In With Some Concerns About The National Library For The Blind'S New 'A-Sites' Accessible Web Sites Portal (See E-Access Bulletin, May 2003, Story 03).

"I was really excited when I saw the listing of accessible sites and couldn't wait to pass it on to other State of Maine workers as an example. But the first site I visited, 'Cats Online' in the 'Animals and wildlife' category (http://www.cats.org.uk ), was lacking the alt text for the navigation buttons and for most of the images on the pages.

"Close but not quite . . . keep trying. We really need a resource like that but someone has to maintain quality control. I will check out some of the other sites that are listed. Maybe this one was just a fluke." [further responses to inbox@headstar.com].


Jenny van Tinteren, currently head of accessibility solutions with the government's jobs service JobCentre Plus (http://www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk ), is about to embark on a UK civil service Fulbright scholarship in the US (see http://www.fulbright.co.uk ).

She will be researching the impact of section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act, which requires public sector bodies to purchase accessible systems, including whether improved on-line access has increased the take up of government services.

By the end of the scholarship period Jenny aims to produce an accessibility handbook for project managers, including tips on how to involve users in system building and a best practice report containing case studies that could be applied to UK's Department of Work and Pensions.

She is keen to hear from any E-Access Bulletin readers who may have suggestions or useful contacts for her to follow up in the US. Please email them to her directly at jvantinteren@yahoo.co.uk or telephone: 0114 291 1766 .

[Section two ends].

++Section Three: Analysis- Access Checkers.


+10: THE HUMAN FACTOR by Derek Parkinson derek@headstar.com .

A growing number of web sites proudly demonstrate their commitment to accessibility by displaying logos for automated accessibility checkers such as Bobby (http://bobby.watchfire.com ), WAVE (http://wave.webaim.org ) or A-Prompt (http://aprompt.snow.utoronto.ca ).

Jostling together at the foot of home pages, these banners can give the impression that sites are as accessible as any reasonable person could expect. But an automated checker is no panacea. Broadly speaking, they tell a site designer where changes may be needed, and more advanced products will offer some options for solving the problems, but they don't assess the overall coherence of a site, and some aspect of accessibility simply cannot be mechanically assessed.

This is partly because most checkers base their site analysis on recognised standards such as the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI - http://www.w3.org/WAI ), and the standards themselves don't offer a simple recipe for accessibility. "It's important to remember that WAI is only a set of guidelines, not rules, and not a checklist," says Julie Howell of the RNIB. "For example the guidelines will recommend that images on a site are linked to text descriptions, but that doesn't guarantee that the descriptions will be clear or useful," she says. "I think most people would agree that checkers are never good enough on their own."

To be effective, checkers must form part of a wider process that includes an informed person acting on their recommendations. "Checking for accessibility is a bit like spell-checking a document. The spell-checker can make best guesses of misspelled words based on patterns that it knows. However, it takes a human to make the final decision," says Wendy Chisholm, head of the evaluation tools working group at WAI.

Does this mean that a capable web designer using a checker will always produce a more accessible site? Well not necessarily, according to recent research from Stanford University in the US (http://fastlink.headstar.com/stanf1 ). In one of the first studies of its kind, the team gave experienced web designers two groups of sites to work on, making changes to the first using only their own knowledge; and to the second using only prompts from three widely used checkers, Bobby, LIFT (http://www.usablenet.com ), and Validator (http://jigsaw.w3.org/css-validator ).

The modified sites were tested by vision impaired volunteers and the results compared. Perhaps surprisingly, this particular study found that in many cases, sites modified using a checker were no more accessible than unmodified sites or sites modified using only the designer's knowledge. "Results suggest that the three automated evaluation tools were not very effective in helping designers to improve web site usability and accessibility," the study concludes.

There are , however, several ways to improve on this disappointing performance according to the experts. "More research needs to be done to make the guidelines and the tools themselves more usable," the Stanford report says. "Guidelines are often too long or too vague for designers without a human-factors background to understand. Thus, designers experienced difficulties interpreting them, which in turn interfered with their ability to implement appropriate changes". According to Wendy Chisholm several international groupings are now working to harmonise test criteria. "In the next year, expect more agreement on the tests that are needed to evaluate content and more agreement between tools," she says.

There are further advantages to be gained by integrating accessibility testing more tightly into the content production process. "I wasn't surprised by the results of this study. There's a big gap between identifying what's wrong and understanding what changes need to be made," says Helen Petrie, Professor of Human Computer Interaction at City University in London. "If a designer coding web pages is the only person responsible for making changes, there are difficulties. This is a job more suitable for the author. The author has a better understanding of what the content should mean," she says.

Perhaps the greatest danger ahead is the lazy assumption that automated tools can somehow replace human involvement in improving accessibility. "By all means use these tools, but remember they are only one part of the toolkit," says Julie Howell. "Use people with disabilities in the testing cycle, and if you can, consult with people before you start." Where accessibility is concerned, the human factor is key.

[Section three ends].

++Section Four: Opinion- E-Democracy.


+11: KARL MARX AND THE TECHNOLOGY GAP by Kevin Carey humanity@atlas.co.uk .

The Office of the e-Envoy (OeE) has begun to show an admirable interest in the subject of e-democracy, defined as the use of information and communications technologies to enhance citizen participation, as opposed to e-government which is supposed to enhance the government's services to citizens.

Now although Marxism is an almost completely discredited political theory, some of its social theories still hold good and are based on historical analysis rather than malicious cynicism. Two such observations are: that in periods of change, the rich benefit more than the poor so that the gap between the two groups widens; and that the faster the change, the wider the gap.

These truisms apply to economic and technological development. In economics, for example, they are demonstrated in the fact that although the government has had a serious and sustained anti-poverty strategy since 1997, the gap between the rich and the poor in the late 1990s actually widened because of the rate of economic growth.

There is no reason to believe that technological development will be any different, and if the government wants to use technology as the basis for citizen participation in democracy then we are on very shaky ground.

For a start, as the government uses on-line consultation instead of the tedious face-to-face method, it shortens consultative periods. This, in turn, cuts out trusted intermediaries for consumers, such as the RNIB or Action for Blind People. Instead of consultative documents being passed from officers to elected trustees and from them to their constituencies, with a reverse flow back up to officials, officers of interest groups might have to take snap decisions on behalf of citizens in order for an organisation's views to be included. The whole system of civil society we built up in the 20th century is in danger of crumbling in less than a decade.

Second, the use of the home computer for local referenda and other kinds of votes will bias the results in favour of computer owners - in other words, the rich and powerful. If a council wants to know people's thoughts about a planning proposal to build a chemical factory, for example, who is going to be most effective in the lobbying and where do you suppose the factory will be built?

Third, most people make their views known through the ballot box. They may not vote in such great numbers as we would all like, but collectively we lay down a democratic mandate for a council or the government. How will the poor and the disabled figure when mass straw polling can be conducted through the broadband PC, digital television and the text message?

As if these concerns were not enough, there is still considerable reluctance on the part of the government to guarantee access by blind and vision impaired people to digital broadcasting through the Communications Bill currently working its way through the House of Lords (see http://www.communicationsbill.gov.uk ). It is only after ferocious campaigning by the RNIB that the matter has even grudgingly been put on the agenda.

At the very least we should insist that all democratic processes should use every available channel, including land line phones. We should also remember that although home computer-based technology is important, access to broadcasting has never been more crucial for all of us in an age of technology convergence and e-democracy.

[Section four ends].

++End Notes.


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  • 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].