+++E-Access Bulletin.- Issue 49, January 2004.

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 .

++Section One: News.


+01: Italian Web Law 'Pulls Down Barriers'.

The Italian government has passed new legislation designed to give people with disabilities greater access to online services. The so-called 'Stanca law', which forces all Italian government agencies to make their web sites fully accessible and will develop non-compulsory access standards for private sector sites, was unanimously approved by the country's Parliament in December.

According to a statement by Lucio Stanca, the Italian Minister for Innovation and Technologies, the new requirements will "help to pull down digital barriers and create opportunities for more than three million Italian disabled people to study, work and actively participate in society." He said that lack of ICT access for Italy's disabled people caused social marginalisation and democratic and economic disadvantage.

In 1999, an Italian government circular was sent out encouraging local and central government agencies to ensure their web services were accessible. But the new law has gone much further by introducing disciplinary sanctions for public sector managers who don't comply. The law also provides for the cancellation of web site contracts if they fail to meet the Stanca requirements, in an echo of the US government web accessibility law known as 'section 508.'

Citizens groups have welcomed the law, while expressing regret that its provisions are non-mandatory for private firms. "The law represents a real turning point," said a spokeswoman for the Citizens Defence Movement (Movimento Difesa del Citadino - http://www.mdc.it ). "However, it should be followed up with economic incentives for private web sites to be made fully accessible."

The Italian government now plans to draft regulations defining the new accessibility criteria by March 2004 in co-operation with disability organisations and technology suppliers.

+02: 'Global Garden' Showcases Accessible Animation.

A ground-breaking children's web site which has been created using accessible 'Flash' web animation could set a new trend for accessible games and cartoons, according to the RNIB (http://www.rnib.org.uk ).

'Our Global Garden' is a collaboration between Eureka! (http://www.eureka.org.uk ), a children's museum in Halifax, and 'showme' (http://www.show.me.uk ), the children's section of the government's online cultural resource the 24-Hour Museum (http://www.24hourmuseum.org.uk ). The site mirrors a current exhibition at Eureka! By allowing children aged between four and seven to explore and compare six different global environments.

The game was built using a combination of HTML and accessible web animation software Flash MX 2004, developed by Macromedia (http://www.macromedia.com ). The software allows access to descriptive text within an animation file which can be interpreted by assistive devices such as screen readers.

"This is an exciting development," says Julie Howell, digital policy development officer at the RNIB. "Over the past few years, Macromedia has modified its software tools to make them more accessible [see for example E-Access Bulletin, issue 10, October 2000]. However, best practice examples of using accessible flash to create web sites are few and far between."

Howell hopes that projects such as this will help galvanise the web design community to experiment with the technology. "It is easy for web designers to think that accessibility means creating uninspiring, text-only sites. However, this project proves that this isn't the case. We need web designers to start experimenting with accessible Flash, sharing their learning experiences and creating best practice examples of accessible, interactive web development."

+03: Long-Awaited Breakthrough For Talking Tv.

Accessible digital TV in the UK took a leap forward this month with the release of an affordable set-top box that provides audio description for Freeview, the popular free-to-air digital service used by terrestrial broadcasters ITV and the BBC.

Audio description is the verbal description of scenes that occur between periods of dialogue, which can be carried as a separate sound-track on digital television or in specially adapted cinemas. Until now, it has only been commercially available through the Sky digital satellite service. It is not supported at all by cable TV and was only previously available on Freeview to just 45 households as part of a pilot project.

The Netgem i-Player product costs 125 pounds and provides access to all audio described programmes available on six BBC channels; ITV1 and ITV2; Channel 4; and Channel 5. "At last! This is very good news and something for which we've been campaigning for a long time," said Jill Whitehead, broadcasting and talking images officer at the RNIB.

The Freeview service offers users more choice because it enables users to adjust the volume of the audio description track independently of the programme's main soundtrack, unlike the Sky system. The Netgem box also speaks the name of each channel automatically, and will soon be available with a headphone adaptor so users have the option of listening to audio description in privacy. In addition, the box provides a link to the RNIB website so that users can check programme times.

At present, the Netgem i-Player is not available in shops and must be ordered from the manufacturer by calling the freephone number 0800 015 3092.

+04: Rnib Leads On Progressive Procurement Policy.

The RNIB has drafted a policy setting out standards for organisations and companies to procure IT systems fully accessible to employees with vision impairments, and has adapted the policy for its own procurement practice, the institute announced this month.

The policy says accessibility must be taken into account when procuring corporate IT systems and emphasises the business benefit to the supplier. "The RNIB want to people to use best practise when procuring IT so employees with a disability can use it," RNIB's senior ICT development officer Ruth Loebl told E-Access Bulletin.

Under the policy, the RNIB is using International Standard Organisation ISO standard 16071 (http://fastlink.headstar.com/iso1 ) to test a corporate IT system about to be rolled out to users within theRNIB to check its accessibility, such as the ability to perform tasksfrom the keyboard. A report will then be made of problems encountered before negotiating with the supplier to ensure they act on the problems, Loebl says.

In an effort to encourage other large organisations to develop similar policies, the RNIB and several other disability organisations including AbilityNet, RNID and Scope met before Christmas with representatives of a number of government departments, including the Department of Work and Pensions and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Following this meeting, an online discussion group "IT-include" (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/IT-include/ ) was established to discuss setting up a framework for accessible IT procurement in all sectors and recommending testing and evaluation methods. Further talks have taken place this week with the government procurement agency the Office of Government Commerce.

Up until now, no standards have been in place for ensuring the accessibility of corporate IT systems, although according to Loebl, if a system needs adapting to suit a disabled employee, the Employment Service's 'Access to work' scheme pays for the work. However, an accessible IT procurement policy is important because, unlike with a web site, improving inaccessible hardware after it is purchased is often difficult and expensive.

++News In Brief:



There are 157,000 blind and partially sighted people registered with English local councils, according to the latest figures from the Department of Health. The figures represent an increase of four per cent since last year, and 100 per cent over the past 20 years: http://www.doh.gov.uk/public/blindpartiallysighted03.pdf .


A draft equality and diversity strategy for 2004-07 that aims to challenge discrimination in education and learning has been published for consultation by the Learning and Skills Council. Interested parties have until 30 March to comment: http://fastlink.headstar.com/lsc1 .


The European Parliament member and disability campaigner Liz Lynn has said too many EU countries have not yet complied with legislation protecting people with disabilities against discrimination in the workplace. She has urged the Irish government, which currently holds the European presidency, to exert pressure on laggard nations in an effort to maintain the ideals of the 2003 European Year of People with Disabilities: http://www.lizlynne.org.uk/story.php?id=175 .


The European ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros, who has independent powers to investigate alleged maladministration by European institutions, has launched an investigation into the European Commission's compliance with European disability law. The Commission must now respond by 29 February with details of actions it has taken or proposes to take: http://www.euro-ombudsman.eu.int/disabilities/en .

[Section one ends].

++Special Notice: Usability Testers Wanted


Headstar, the publishers of E-Access Bulletin, is seeking computer users who use special access or adaptive technologies such as screen readers, for paid web site testing work.

The occasional work would involve visiting web sites and filling in a simple questionnaire about your experiences (we can provide questionnaires in any preferred digital or other format).

If you might be interested in this kind of work, please email usability@headstar.com with details of the access technology or technologies that you use to browse the web, and we will contact you with further information.

[Special notice ends].

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


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


John Conway, Disability Officer at the Royal Agricultural College, has a query about the best fonts to use for readable text. "I understood that for visually impaired people one should use a sans serif font - I'm about to try and introduce that standard here, and I've got my computer set to Arial as default font, but your accessible text email newsletter (TEN) standard document (http://www.headstar.com/ten ) opened in Times New Roman." Do any of our readers have any comments on this topic? [Responses please to inbox@headstar.com].


Last issue Scott Rae of the Highland Society for Blind wrote in to ask about technology that would help young people with impaired vision read sheet music.

Our tireless correspondent Chris McMillan has three further suggestions for useful resources. The first is the Netherlands-based Talking Music project, which runs the excellent Accessible Music Newsletter: http://projects.fnb.nl/Talking%20Music/ .

The second is the Visually Impaired Musicians Association (VIMA), an organisation of blind and partially sighted musicians and music lovers - in the UK telephone 0208 3666019 or see: http://fastlink.headstar.com/vima1 .

And the third is Share Music, an organisation which arranges residential and non-residential courses in music, theatre and dance for people with physical disabilities or sensory impairments aged 16 or over: http://www.sharemusic.org.uk .

Bill McCann, Founder and President of Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology, further responded: "Of course, Louis Braille himself invented his code for music as well as literary and mathematics Braille (try getting all of that done by the time you're 20 years old!).

"In 1997 Dancing Dots published the world's first Braille music translator software, GOODFEEL, which has numerous transcription options including a set of UK formatting options that apply UK variations to the Braille output. We publish a few courses on Braille music reading and our UK distributor, Techno-Vision Systems, is to release a new Braille music course for UK readers.

"Our Sibelius Speaking product gives the JAWS user premium access to the Sibelius music notation software, allowing a blind person to navigate through the score and hear musical and verbal descriptions of score elements or create a new score. Students might also be interested to create their own sound recordings with our access solution for Cakewalk SONAR which we call CakeTalking.

"For further information on all these products see http://www.dancingdots.com and to contact Techno-Vision email info@techno-vision.co.uk ."

Another reader, Chris Towers, adds: "Have you tried using the software Cubase from Steinberg (http://www.steinberg.net/en/start )? I used it when doing my degree and it was excellent. I am partially- sighted and it enabled me to enlarge music, and read off screen or print it out."


Rebecca Redmile, a daily living skills instructor and community access facilitator at the non-profit organisation BALANCE in Toronto (http://www.balancetoronto.org ), has a question following from our article last month on new synthetic speech technology allowing access to magazines and newspapers (see 'Revolutionary speech technology to launch', story 01, E-Access Bulletin issue 48, December 2003).

She writes: "I certainly applaud the British reading services. North America is a little behind in this area. [However] I have a very specific question which you may be able to answer. "I have been looking for software, or an external screen reader which will read Welsh properly. Would you know who might be able to recommend some?" [Responses to inbox@headstar.com].


Clare Page writes in to ask for more information on talking mobile phones: "Within the past few months I have noticed that the new Talx software, which brings speech output to mobile phones, has been mentioned in the bulletin more than once. I live in France, and have bought a mobile phone here, but of course with modern mobile phones there are some features visually impaired people like me cannot use without some adaptation. So I was wondering - is Talx compatible with all mobile phones, or only with certain models? And if it can be used with any phone, might it be possible to obtain it outside the UK?

"I have only recently bought a new mobile phone, a Sagem (http://www.sagem.com/en ) with a lot of modern features but without some means of adding speech to the phone I cannot use them all. In France I have only heard of one program that seems to be similar to Talx, called Mobile Accessibility, but it is only compatible with certain Siemens and Nokia phones." Please send advice or information to inbox@headstar.com .


In our last issue we reported that Chris McMillan had used ZoomText with the TFT iiyama AS 4611 UT 18- inch flat computer screen without encountering problems; in fact we should have said it was Lunar, not ZoomText, that she has used without difficulty with this screen. She has not tried using ZoomText with it.

[Section two ends].

++ Section Three: Interview- Janina Sajka.


+14: ONE-WOMAN ARMY TARGETS 'ADD-ON' ACCESS CULTURE.by Mel Poluck mel@headstar.com .

Janina Sajka, director of research and development at the American Foundation of the Blind, is dismayed by the culture of "add-on" accessibility which prevails among technology companies that develop products that later have to be adapted for vision-impaired users.

"I firmly believe they have it backwards. By working with people with disabilities at the outset, they would end up making better products for themselves", she says. "I am increasingly concerned about how much further there is to go, how much accessibility is still ghettoised, how much it is not integrated into the mainstream flow of how services are supplied."

Sajka's work involves providing consultative support to and developing accessible technology standards for industry and governments worldwide, in the fields of emerging information systems and access technologies.

One of the projects she is currently undertaking, is the development of a strategy for vision-impaired people in the US to be able to access medical information from mobile phones using technology from the DAISY talking books consortium (http://www.daisy.org ), for whom Sajka also works.

The new medical information service would provide content similar to free pamphlets available in doctors' surgeries, such as how to obtain medicines or how to get more information, and uses existing technology - something Sajka feels passionately about. The concept has been proven she says, and all that remains is for her team to meet with the relevant government department to discuss implementation.

According to Sajka, there are some serious usability issues inherent in audio cassette recordings, the current method for vision-impaired patients to access this kind of information. With DAISY style recordings however, users can go directly to the relevant place without having to use the rewind and fast-forward buttons or listen to the lists and "shrieking beeps" that denote sections of an audio cassette, often requiring the user to remember multiple options. "Why have lists at all?" Sajka says. "Why not do it on a cellphone? It's snappy. It's a way to get the information you need now, comfortably and effectively".

Sajka has fingers in many other pies. As well as advising the US government on accessibility law and helping it to develop a digital talking book standard (http://www.loc.gov/nls/z3986/ ), she also works for the world wide web consortium's web accessibility initiative (WAI - http://www.w3.org/WAI/ ).

And as if these projects were not enough, Sajka says for the next few years, she will be focusing her energy on chairing the Free Standards Group (FSG - http://www.freestandards.org ) access work group, which aims to help develop accessibility standards for open source software. The group is set to be launched at the LinuxWorld conference on 27 January in New York (http://www.linuxworldexpo.com/linuxworldny ).

The potential of the open source movement to make the internet a more accessible place is one of Sajka's real passions. In a past interview with E-Access Bulletin (see issue 24, December 2001), Sajka said that thanks to the open source movement people with disabilities now "don't need advocates, we need engineers."

She still feels the same way: "With traditional proprietary systems, if the computer isn't working, you ask who manufactured it, call them and then sort out the problem," she says. "But open source invites the community in. Everything you need to change it is already there - you can scratch your own itch. And if someone wants to submit a standard or a patch and it works, it is likely that will be included in a future version of a piece of software."

Overall however, it is not access to computers which concerns her in trying to improve the daily lives of people with impaired vision but more basic, established technologies such as thermostats or security systems. "I'm not too worried about computers, but common devices are just not accessible."

Typically, Sajka has a solution brewing. In the pipeline as part of her work with the International Committee for Information Technology Standards is the 'V2 Spec' (http://www.v2access.org ). This is the specification for a universal device to be carried by disabled people to discover what other devices are in an area.

The 'Universal remote console', will detect and "negotiate" with a wide range of objects in the user's vicinity to return information about what is nearby, from TV and radio to lifts, roads or coffee pots. In future, the device may even be able to determine distance of other devices away from its user. To succeed, Sajka says, it will need to be attractive to mainstream industry. A specification is due to be released for public consultation in around a month.

Overall, Sajka says that what is needed to build a better technological environment for people with disabilities is simple: "A smarter way to use things we share with everybody else. We've made wheelchair ramps - we can do the same in e-space".

[Section three ends].

++Section Four: Conference Report- Techshare 2003.


+15: Technology - Help Or Hindrance?By Derek Parkinson

Most of us have pinned great hopes on technology at some time or another. It's easy to dream of gadgets that will dispatch boring tasks with the ruthless efficiency of The Terminator and be as user-friendly as a well-worn pair of shoes. Happily, sometimes things do turn out this way, but all too often the reality disappoints.

The topic of whether technology has helped or hindered people with impaired vision was therefore an excellent subject for the RNIB's November Techshare conference (http://www.rnib.org.uk/techshare ) to have chosen for an open debate. According to keynote speaker Brian Charlson of the American Council of the Blind (ACB - http://www.acb.org ), adaptive technology is often designed and built in a way that ignores the practical demands of everyday life.

The effect of this is that adaptive technology often makes unreasonable demands of the user. "We're just regular schmoes like everyone else, but we have no choice but to master all this technology," he said. "It's well-known that many telephone operators were blind people, because this was one of the few jobs open to them. But what these people had to do was actually very difficult, operating a Braille output with one hand, a Braille input with the other, while listening to audio over the headphones at the same time," he said.

It is difficult enough for many people to meet the cost of adaptive products, upgrades and maintenance, Charlson said, yet they also have to meet the cost and demands of training, not to mention finding decent training in the first place. "The cognitive load of adaptive technology is unreasonable," he said.

The thought that technology only benefits a minority of people resurfaced during a lively debate chaired by Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman. "Many of us agree that we have benefited from technology, but who is this 'we'? This room is full of well-educated caucasian people," said Janina Sajka, Director of Technology Research and Development at the American Foundation for the Blind (see also section three, this issue for an interview with Sajka).

According to Peter White, presenter of the BBC Radio 4 blindness issue programme 'In Touch', we often forget that technology is a means to an end. "People don't want technology, they want answers to problems," he said. White also argued that the momentum behind the implementation of new technology often has more to do with saving money than the needs of users. "It has been used to get rid of costs, in other words face-to-face contact between people," he said.

Charlson said that training for adaptive technology must be more affordable, useable and available, not only at the time of its original purchase but over the entire time it is in use. In his view, we have been slow to encourage development of alternatives to the face-to-face training model. "We have to ask whether online learning is part of the answer," he said. This is not to say that face-to-face training should be scrapped, rather that teaching resources could be targeted more wisely.

Training materials would also reach more end users if they were distributed to a broader cross-section of teachers, he said. "We need more training materials for teachers who aren't assistive technology specialists."

The theme of partnership featured strongly in a keynote presentation from Rob Lees, technology executive for Vodafone Global Products and Services. Lees was keen to highlight the mutual benefits to Vodafone and the RNIB of partnering to share expertise, and to illustrate how the organisations could pursue common aims in practice. He was quick to acknowledge that market share and profits are the main drivers for the mobile phone giant, but suggested that the community of people with impaired vision has much to gain too.

According to Lees this comes about because of the way markets tend to get split up by retailers. For Vodafone, all people aged over 45 are lumped together as "mature users", a segment that remains under- exploited yet tends to have a high disposable income. In addition, a high proportion of this age group have some kind of vision impairment. "So there is a strong demand for voice-enabled services, the sort of phone that can be customised to individual needs," said Lees. Consequently, Vodafone has consulted the RNIB for evaluation and feedback on such services, and is keen to use its power in the marketplace to ensure that handsets support them. "With 125 million customers we can put pressure on handset manufacturers," he said.

Such practical suggestions were typical of the Techshare meeting, which seems to gain strength each year and has already become far more than a showcase for new products and a rallying point for campaigners.

[Section four ends].

++End Notes.


+How To Receive This Bulletin

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  • Editor - Dan Jellinek
  • Deputy editor - Derek Parkinson
  • Senior reporter - Mel Poluck
  • News reporter - Julie Hill
  • Editorial advisor - Kevin Carey.

ISSN 1476-6337 .

[Issue ends].