+++E-Access Bulletin.- Issue 47, November 2003.

Technology news for people with vision impairment (http://www.headstar.com/eab ). Sponsored by RNIB (http://www.rnib.org.uk ).

NOTE: Please forward this free bulletin to others (subscription details at the end). We conform to the accessible Text Email Newsletter (TEN) Standard: http://www.headstar.com/ten .

++Special Notice: Techshare: Learning, Work Andlife


This year's major UK conference on technologies for the vision- impaired, Techshare, will focus on the themes of learning, work and life. The event, hosted by the RNIB and sponsored this year by Microsoft, will cover the internet; e-learning; and making music. There will be a pre-conference workshop 'Techshare for teachers' sponsored by government agency for technology in education, Becta.

The results of a survey of blind and partially sighted people in the UK on their current use of, and attitudes towards technology will be presented to delegates. Techshare is held on 20-21 November 2003 at Jury's Inn, Birmingham and costs 180 pounds per person or 120 pounds for one day. To register visit: http://www.techshare.org.uk .

[Special notice ends].

++Section One: News.


+01: Award For Tv Voice Control Experiment

An experimental system allowing people to access digital television sets using voice commands has won a Royal Television Society award for technical innovation (http://fastlink.headstar.com/rts1 ).

The Virtual Human Interface for a Set-Top box Agent (VISTA - http://www.vista-epg.org.uk ) interacts with the viewer through voice commands rather than the handset with onscreen menu format that makes current digital TV electronic programme guides (EPGs) difficult to use for many people with disabilities.

With VISTA, a virtual person appears and speaks directly to the viewer, asking questions and responding to voice commands for services. Unlike many interactive voice response systems, VISTA is also designed to respond to a broad range of pronunciation. "As part of the project we used testers with a range of accents. One person was Glaswegian for example," said project manager Dr Jonathan Freeman. According to Freeman, the VISTA technology is designed to be compatible with set-top boxes which are already widely-used such as those issued with the Freeview and BskyB broadcast services.

It is unclear if the VISTA project team, which included the Independent Television Commision, BSkyB and City University, will develop the project further. "It has to be emphasised that the aim was to demonstrate the concept, not develop a product," said Freeman. However, Ofcom (http://www.ofcom.gov.uk ), the new regulator of digital communications, is scheduled to launch a public consultation on access to EPGs later this month.

+02: Guide To Work Experience Placements

Advice on work experience placements for students with disabilities, including those with impaired vision, is offered in a new free guide from Skill (http://www.skill.org.uk ), the national organisation for students with disabilities.

'Into work experience' (http://www.skill.org.uk/shared/into_we.asp ) includes practical advice about finding and starting a placement; disabled people's legal rights; a reference section listing helpful publications and organisations; a section for employers highlighting the benefits of taking on disabled people; and contributions from students about their varied experiences of work placements.

According to Jenny Hayden, a blind former student at the University of North London who supplied one of the case studies, a work placement may be difficult at first but can pay off in the longer term. "It was really hard going into an unfamiliar environment, to do a new job with people I didn't know," she told E-Access Bulletin. "But it's a good way of finding out the difficult things with a safety net," she said. "I now feel quite happy about looking for any kind of job."

A particular difficulty was gaining access to company IT systems during her work placement, Hayden said. "I use a Braille 'n Speak notetaker but the IT department wouldn't let me load any equipment onto their computers. So the office manager transferred data onto a disk, and onto my notetaker," she said.

The guide is available in large print, tape, disk or Braille format. To order a copy contact Sue Beckford on sue@skill.org.uk .

+03: Sentient Access To E

E-learning could become easier for vision-impaired lecturers and students with the launch of an accessible version of a web-based product that can search digital content held in university libraries.

According to developer Sentient Learning (http://www.sentientlearning.com ), its upgraded Sentient Discover software is the first of its kind to receive a 'triple A' rating when tested against the international Web Accessibility Initiative standards (http://www.w3.org/WAI ).

Sentient Discover sits between online learning environments, such as WebCT and Blackboard, and resources such as library and online journal catalogues. It enables academics and course designers to search a university's entire bank of resources and to construct online resource lists for their courses. Students can use the lists to discover if a library book is out on loan for example, or to link directly to an online journal article.

However, although Sentient Discover is designed to be accessible, colleges and universities will also need to ensure that the information retrieved by the software is also presented in accessible formats.

At present, Sentient Discover is used by the universities of Leeds, Edinburgh and Middlesex, and the London School of Economics. Users of earlier versions may upgrade to the accessible version free of charge.

+04: Speech Technology Market Set To Explode

The worldwide market for speech technology products is set to leap forward over the next 18 to 24 months, according to one leading US analyst.

Donna Fluss, a principal at DMG Consulting (http://www.dmgconsult.com ), says a number of changes signal that the market is set to take off. "In the last five years, the accuracy of speech applications has reached more than 95 per cent," says Fluss. "That is a crucial threshold in terms of it gaining wider acceptance."

The cost of speech hardware has also dropped significantly, Fluss says. Vendors such as Intel have been cutting the cost of voice boards continually, while infrastructure vendors such as IBM, HP, Oracle and Intel are taking this market more seriously than ever before.

One reason for this increased activity may be the entrance of Microsoft into the market, she says. "Microsoft's involvement will move speech to the forefront and raise awareness. It will also force the hand of the other vendors to invest more widely."

Technology analysts Gartner (http://www.gartner.com ) are also predicting strong growth in the sector. Their latest reports say the global speech software license market will grow from 127.5 million dollars in 2002 to more than 258 million dollars in 2007.

NOTE: This article is based on a piece by Donna Fluss for the 'CRMXchange' site (http://www.crmxchange.com/speech_technology/oct03.html ).

++News In Brief.



Two new e-book readers conforming to the DAISY standard (http://www.daisy.org ) are due on the market by the end of this month. EaseReader software costs 30 pounds from Dolphin audio publishing (http://www.dolphinse.com/products/easereader.htm ). And the CD walkman-shaped Scholar Daisy Player from Telex, priced 195 pounds, is aimed at younger users and is the smallest player yet: http://fastlink.headstar.com/scholar1 .


The RNIB's new Learning Catalogue, its guide to products, services and publications for vision-impaired learners of all ages, was published last week. Products covered include educational software and hardware. To view the catalogue or order a copy in various formats visit: http://onlineshop.rnib.org.uk/learning .


US Democratic presidential runner Joe Lieberman has pledged dedication to support renewed funding for the Assistive Technology Act, which offers federal government funding for projects to develop and provide technology for people with disabilities. According to the candidate, President Bush's 2004 budget proposal is threatening these projects: http://fastlink.headstar.com/lieb1 .

[Section one ends].

++Special Notice: Web Accessibility Forum.


Accessify Forum is a discussion forum devoted to all topics relating to web accessibility. Topics cover everything from 'Beginners' and 'Site building and testing' through to projects such as the new accessibility testing tool WaiZilla and the accessibility of the open source forum software itself.

All you need to register is a working email address, so do come along and join in the fun at: http://www.accessifyforum.com .

[Special notice ends].

++Section Two: 'The Inbox'- Readers' Forum.


- Please email all contributions or responses to inbox@headstar.com .


Ruth Loebl, Senior technology development officer with the RNIB's Technology in Learning and Employment division, writes in with a warning against a tendency to define the term 'accessibility' too narrowly.

"Is there some creeping influence at work, whereby the word 'accessibility' is starting to mean 'web accessibility', leaving other technologies and issues out in the cold? In your October issue there was a notice which said: "Accessify Forum is a web-based discussion forum devoted to all topics relating to accessibility." It isn't, it's devoted to all topics relating to web accessibility.

"Similarly, the European Accessibility Consortium (section four, October issue) hasn't called itself the European Web Accessibility Consortium, despite the fact that that's what it is.

"There are many other types of accessibility - access to software, to fax machines and photocopiers, access to information, to kiosks and cashpoints, to telephone systems, to buildings and to services. My team has been looking in particular at the accessibility of IT systems on desktop PC interfaces, and the need to address accessibility at the very start of the procurement process rather than trying to add on access technology at some late stage.

"We are drawing together a group of organisations that share this view into an online community, the Accessible IT Procurement Framework Interest Group (IT-include). This is now available for public subscription at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/IT-include and readers of E-Access Bulletin are invited to join."


Craig Massey, principal webmaster at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, writes: "I read your article titled 'Web design body embraces accessibility' [on the British Web Design and Marketing Association accessibility working group - see E-Access Bulletin, issue 46, October 2003] and will follow the work of this organisation. As the webmaster for Barnsley (http://www.barnsley.gov.uk ) I have an obvious interest in usability and accessibility.

"I was concerned to note though, that the home page of the digital design company Nomensa (http://www.nomensa.com ), whose accessibility consultant LTonie Watson is acting chair for the working group, itself fails the basic level 'A' test using the online accessibility testing tool WebXact (http://webxact.watchfire.com ). I haven't checked the rest of the site but it seems that everyone finds it hard to get it right all the time."


Finally, our tireless correspondent Chris McMillan has some advice for Steve Richard, who wrote in last month to ask about compatibility of the Zoomtext screen magnifier with TFT flat-screen monitors. She writes: "While not a Zoomtext user (circumstances dictated otherwise), Lunar works perfectly on my TFT monitor. I've had the iiyama AS 4611 UT 18-inch screen a couple of years now.

"So far as I know Zoomtext works as well as Lunar on TFT. I have Lunar magnification for reading text and emails but I can 'disable' it and use 'OneFormat' by Dalgit Singh for reading the web. OneFormat (http://www.oneformat.com ) is a free, simple to use web browsing system which you can set to your personal preferences."

[Section two ends].

++ Section Three: Technology- Global Positioning System.


+12: EYES IN THE SKY by Mel Poluck mel@headstar.com .

The ability to know exactly where you are at any particular time by using signals sent from satellites is of clear use to people sailing boats or driving cars. But it is also of enormous value to people who are blind, potentially allowing far greater independence of movement.

Currently, the main working technology in this field is the Global Positioning System (GPS), which uses a network of 24 satellites in geostationary orbits 11,000 miles high positioned so that at least three are visible from any point on the Earth.

GPS receivers use triangulation of radio signals sent by these satellites to work out the position of a person or object to within 10 metres or so. The system is owned, operated and licensed for civilian use by the US military, which itself uses an enhanced service with an accuracy of one centimetre or less.

The main player in the application of GPS technology to location finders for blind people is Canadian firm VisuAide, with its Victor Trekker device (http://www.visuaide.com/gpssol.html ), which came on to the UK market in June this year with assistance from the RNIB. "People are exploring their locale like they've never been able to do in the past," says Mervyn Robertson, technical director of Sight and Sound Technology (http://www.sightandsound.co.uk ) which distributes the Trekker. It currently costs 1,125 UK pounds, although the price will come down, he says.

A Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) with a GPS receiver attached to a harness, the device is hooked up to an electronic voice-box that provides location data to the user using electronic maps developed by Navigation Technologies (http://www.navtech.com ).

The Trekker allows users to add to existing information by recording "points of interest" such as "I'm home now" or "I'm at the bank" which can be recorded and played back on familiar routes. Where the information is available, Robertson says, pub and restaurant names are programmed into maps.

"You can say "where am I?" and it'll say "23 South Street", but it doesn't allow you to pre-plan a route," says Robertson. However, this looks set to change this February, when the Trekker will provide a free upgrade to all users, making route-planning available for the first time.

One potential pitfall of GPS is loss of signal. If a satellite is out of range or if users are situated in built-up areas for example, navigation temporarily disappears. "In a narrow street or alley, if you don't have the satellite to view, you could potentially be in a bit of trouble," Robertson says.

Dr John Gill, chief scientist at the RNIB, says that for GPS technology to work well, navigational data needs to include temporary as well as permanent outdoor features and information such as which side of the Town Hall the front entrance is located, or whether there are roadworks.

Dr Gill says the most promising development in this field is being developed by a team at Brunel University headed by Professor Bala Balachandran. The team is developing a system which uses existing mobile phone technology linked to a control centre staffed by human operators.

"A blind person will never totally rely on technology," Balachandran says. "They like a friendly voice at the other end. If the blind person wants to go from A to B, they press a button and an operator knows exactly the location of the blind person." The operator sees a digital map with the whereabouts of the user and verbally guides them.

The beauty of the Brunel system is that users don't have to have guidance all the time and the navigated area doesn't have to be familiar territory, he says. The opportunity for two-way conversation also makes it a potentially useful tool for people with intellectual as well as visual impairments.

To avoid signal loss inside buildings or underground, the Brunel team have also devised a wearable TV camera to allow the operator to continue guiding. The system also has the potential to allow relatives or friends to navigate the vision-impaired user.

The Brunel project already has the support of mobile phone company 02 and the mapping agency Ordnance Survey, but is currently seeking further funding to develop the product for market. When ready the device should cost no more than a high specification mobile phone, Balachandran says.

One final concern remains. Because GPS is US military-owned, in times of war or crisis the system could theoretically be cut off or restricted. "You're at the beck and call of the American military," Robertson says. This could soon change with the launch of GALILEO, a complementary European navigation system due to launch its first satellite next year (http://fastlink.headstar.com/galileo1 ). The future for Europe could be pinpoint accurate.

[Section three ends].

++Section Four: Interview- Fayyaz Afzal.


+12: COURT LIFE by Phil Cain phil@vitalpublishing.com .

"My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky - or a murder in the offing," said Horace Rumpole, the iconic lawyer created by novelist John Mortimer. But 26-year-old Fayyaz Afzal, one of only three barristers currently practising in the UK who are registered as blind, shows little enthusiasm for murder trials.

The reason for this is not his blindness. One might think that an inability to see would be an insurmountable handicap in a murder trial, with the presentation of bloodstained instruments and other pieces of evidence in plastic bags to examine and hand round. In fact however, "with exhibits there has always got to be a written statement with it, otherwise it is not a piece of evidence," Afzal says.

The real reason for his disinclination to work on such cases is that, "murders are the most boring cases because they are all to do with forensic science, with experts spending a whole day telling you how eminent they are." Afzal's low boredom threshold means that a fast- moving robbery trial lasting three to four weeks is much more to his liking.

A love of law films and an urge to help other people led Afzal to his profession, and since qualifying as a barrister in 1999 he has been involved in a wide range of cases on immigration, family law, road traffic and crime, working from Leicester's New Walk chambers (http://www.newwalkchambers.co.uk ). "You don't really have control of cases that come in, it's a case of supply and demand. Robbery, burglary, theft, assault, public order - I do anything that comes up in the magistrate or crown court," he says.

Although he still has a very small amount of sight, closed circuit television magnifiers can only give him the gist of what is on a page. "I still walk around with reams of paper under my arm, but just for effect," he jokes. But the paper documents are useful to him as well because he carries a portable scanner and a speech-enabled laptop. Although he learned Braille at primary school, he doesn't use it a great deal. "If I had all the papers I needed in printed out in Braille I would need a wheelbarrow," he says.

Judges who ask if he can manage soon realise they need not worry, he says. While in court he makes and refers to notes using his laptop and an earphone and has the knack of touch-typing while standing to cross-examine witnesses. When giving a complex closing speech to summarise his argument he uses a set of around 25 bullet point prompts spoken through his earphone. "Anyone will tell you that the best speeches are never written down verbatim," he says.

With a typical workload of five or six hours of preparation for a court appearance the following morning, and a wife and three children at home, learning to surf the internet has had to wait.

"I don't use the internet myself, but I need it all the time," Afzal says. It is particularly useful when researching immigration cases when, for example, someone says they might be stoned to death for committing adultery if sent back to Iran. To find out how true such a statement is he sits with one of his assistants as they summarise pages from the Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International web sites. If it sounds relevant he will ask them to cut and paste the text into a document which he can read from his laptop.

With faxes remaining the most common way for legal documents to be sent, either he or an assistant has to scan them into his machine. But email is becoming more popular, and the arrival of fax machines able to send faxes to email addresses means there is likely to be more in his inbox and less under his arm in future.

Afzal is also excited about the ease of getting online with his new laptop which contains a wireless internet card, providing broadband connections to the internet in wireless "hot spots". His biggest technology bugbear, he says, is not being able to read text messages. Instead he uses his Nokia 3310 to send and receive voice messages.

Overall, Afzal finds life around the courts to be more friendly and less formal than is often supposed. "It's a very embracing profession. There are some very nice people," he says. Of those who succumb to stereotypical stuffiness, he says: "It is not them, it is the job. If you don't keep your social life alive then you end up like them."

[Section four 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 2003 Headstar Ltd http://www.headstar.com . The Bulletin may be reproduced as long as all parts including this copyright notice are included, and as long as people are always encouraged to subscribe with us individually by email. Please also inform the editor when you are reproducing our content. 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.headstar.com/eab is also cited.


  • Editor - Dan Jellinek dan@headstar.com
  • Deputy editor - Derek Parkinson derek@headstar.com
  • Reporter - Mel Poluck mel@headstar.com
  • Correspondent - Phil Cain phil@vitalpublishing.com
  • Editorial advisor - Kevin Carey humanity@atlas.co.uk .

ISSN 1476-6337 .

[Issue ends].