+++E-Access Bulletin.- Issue 55, July 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 .

++Special Notice: Access Technology Sector Marketeer Wanted


The publishers of E-Access Bulletin are seeking a freelance marketing executive with experience of the disability and technology communities to help develop a new conference project later this year.

Please email CVs and details of current work/rates of pay to Dan Jellinek on dan@headstar.com .

[Special notice ends].

++Section One: News.


+01: Supermarket Web Sites Fail Basic Checks.

Only one of the UK's top five supermarkets has a web site that meets even the most basic accessibility needs of disabled consumers, a survey by the charity AbilityNet (http://www.abilitynet.org ) has found.

'State of the e-nation: online supermarkets' is an audit of web sites operated by Asda, Morrisons, Sainsburys, Somerfield and Tesco. Each site was tested for usability and accessibility using Watchfire's 'Bobby' software (http://bobby.watchfire.com ) and a range of manual checks. The sites were then ranked on a five-star scale, where one star signifies "very inaccessible" and five stars mean "very accessible."

The highest score of four stars went to Tesco's 'alternative' site - http://www.tesco.com/access - which was the only site that could be easily accessed by those with visual impairments, dyslexia or a physical disability. Asda (http://www.asda.co.uk ), Morrisons (http://www.morereasons.co.uk ) and Sainsburys (http://www.sainsburys.co.uk ) scored one star each, while Somerfield (http://www.somerfield.co.uk ) and Tesco's mainstream site (http://www.tesco.com ) fared marginally better with two stars.

Common problems encountered by AbilityNet's researchers included "hard-coded" text which could not be enlarged; a lack of text labels for images; and the use of JavaScript mini-programmes which aren't recognised by some older browsers or by some of the specialist browsers used by the visually impaired.

The report praised Somerfield for having the "most accessible of the 'mainstream' supermarket web sites." However, its site is not e- commerce enabled and so doesn't offer the convenience of online shopping for disabled users, said the report.

"We are quite pleased with our two-star ranking, which is better than some of the other supermarket sites," said Nicholas Hall, marketing controller at Somerfield. "But we don't think we should be harshly judged for not offering an e-commerce site. It is a deliberate part of our strategy not to be an e-commerce operation, because we are a local high-street retailer that encourages people to physically visit our stores. We aren't like some of the larger supermarkets who often have stores out of town and are more suited to an e-commerce offering."

Asda, Morrisons, Sainsburys and Somerfield have made pledges to improve the accessibility of their sites. The report says that by having inaccessible sites, the supermarkets are missing out on a market of over seven million people with an estimated spending power of 120 billion pounds a year.

+02: Personal Navigation System To Be Tested In Finland.

Testing of a personal navigation system for blind and vision-impaired people will begin this summer in the Finnish cities of Helsinki and Tampere.

The system, called NOPPA, has been developed by the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT - http://www.vtt.fi ), a government- owned agency. It combines mobile phone, wireless internet, global positioning system (GPS) and voice technologies to guide users around town and to help them use public transport. It is part of a 465,000 euro, three-year pilot, funded by the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications (http://www.mintc.fi/www/sivut/english/default.html ), the Arla Institute (http://www.arlainst.fi/englisht.htm ) and the Finnish Federation of the Visually Impaired (http://www.nkl.fi/english ).

The navigation system uses a 3G mobile phone with GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and Bluetooth connectivity, coupled with a GPS device. It connects to public transport information, such as timetables and municipal route plans, which can be queried using speech recognition and production software.

"Our specially designed information server acts as the interpreter between the services available and the user," says Ari Virtanen, research scientist at VTT. "It handles the speech interface and does all the hard work of relaying users' queries to the services and feeding back the response."

The result is that a blind or vision-impaired person can use the system to plan their trip with real-time access to bus, train and tram timetables, as well as up-to-date information about roadworks and possible obstacles. The system can also guide them to their relevant public transport stop, inform them when the vehicle arrives and tell them where to get off. The idea is that it acts as a complement to rather than a replacement for a guide dog or white stick.

NOPPA will be formally evaluated by blind and visually impaired users from August to September 2004. However, VTT says that the system is also suitable for guiding people with normal eyesight or people who travel a lot for their work. Although VTT isn't a commercial organisation, its research often forms the basis of marketable products and Vitanen is confident that the product has a commercial future. "I think that NOPPA will be in common usage in the next five to ten years," he says.

+03: Un Employment Programme Announced For Ethiopia.

A training programme to create employment opportunities for people with visual disabilities in Ethiopia is set to be launched by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO - http://www.unesco.org ).

The programme will be delivered in partnership with the Adaptive Technology Centre for the Blind (ATCB - http://www3.sympatico.ca/tamru ), an Ethiopian organisation which conducts training with adaptive technology for the country's vision- impaired community. According to its latest census figures, Ethiopia has some 500,000 blind people, while Africa has the majority of the world's 45 million blind people, according to the International Eye Foundation (http://www.iefusa.org ).

UNESCO and ATCB have been working together since 2003, when they jointly established a computer training centre for people with impaired vision in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. This latest project will set up an employment-oriented training centre for the visually impaired, develop a training curriculum and train at least 50 people with a view to them gaining jobs using their ICT skills.

The employment project is one of UNESCO's contributions to the realisation of the action plan drawn up by the UN's recent World Summit on the Information Society (http://www.itu.int/wsis ), which highlighted the need for ensuring access to ICTs by disadvantaged groups. "ICTs offer individuals the ability to . . . access knowledge by adapting digital media to the nature of their disabilities and to enhance their social and economic integration in communities by enlarging the scope of activities available to them," said a UNESCO statement. It is hoped that these projects will act as a model for other similar initiatives in Africa.

+04: Satellite Audio Description Service To Cover All Channels.

Vision-impaired users of the UK's satellite TV service Sky will soon be able to receive audio-described programmes across all mainstream channels, after the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 announced they are to begin supporting the service from early autumn.

Until now, Britain's seven million Sky customers have only had access to audio description on Sky One, Five, and Sky's premiere Movie, Sports and Travel channels but they will now be able to receive audio described programmes on BBC1, BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, Cbeebies, CBBC, ITV1, ITV2 and Channel 4 by setting the set top box to "narrative" mode from the language menu.

However, users of the service will not be able to alter the volume of the audio description - which will be audible to everybody in the room because there is no way of isolating it - meaning it could potentially be drowned out by other noise. RNIB campaigns officer for accessible information Julianne Marriot welcomed the development but said it was "a more cheap and cheerful method" than the fully accessible Netgem set top box (see E-Access Bulletin, issue 49, January 2004 and issue 51, March 2004).

The RNIB is also continuing to campaign for an increase from 10 per cent of the government-set targets for the proportion of all programmes that are required to be audio-described. The institute is also calling for Sky to broadcast on the same system as the BBC-led digital terrestrial service Freeview in the future because it says it is technically superior, allowing users to listen to audio description using headphones and to adjust the volume. It is also trying to persuade cable platforms Telewest and ntl to provide audio-description through their set-top boxes.

Meanwhile the broadcasting regulator Ofcom (http://www.ofcom.org.uk ), has drawn up a draft code on subtitling, signing and audio description, due to be published later this month. The body has a duty under the 2003 Communications Act to encourage manufacturers to develop equipment which can be easily used by people with disabilities.

++News In Brief:



The Digital Hope 2004 programme providing cash, products and facilities to non-governmental, educational and research organisations' technology projects benefiting disabled people is being launched in seven Asian countries by electronics firm Samsung: http://fastlink.headstar.com/hope1 . Meanwhile, Microsoft has teamed up with Indonesian welfare body Yayasan Mitra Netra to set up five computer training centres for the vision-impaired as part of a 8.7 million dollar scheme to raise computer literacy in Asia: http://fastlink.headstar.com/asia1 .


The Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped is to implement an internet-enabled call centre accessible to vision-impaired workers. The system, developed with communications company Avaya Singapore and Radiance Communications, allows users to hear caller identity; determine which callers are on hold; and see how many calls are queued: http://www.savh.org.sg/news/article5.html .


An accessible handheld computer for vision-impaired users has been launched by Canadian assistive technology company VisuAide which uses text-to-speech technology and a tactile keyboard membrane over a touch screen. The 'Maestro' is said to be the first accessible handheld computer available on the mainstream and allows users to perform text and vocal note taking and Braille input among others: http://www.visuaide.com/news_maestro_en.html .

[Section one ends].

++Special Notice: Techshare 2004 Call For Papers- 18-19 November 2004, Jury'S Inn, Birmingham, Uk


The RNIB's Techshare 2004 conference is an important event for professionals who are interested in technology and the role it plays in learning, work and society for people with sight problems.

We are currently looking for people to give presentations in the following areas: Practical applications of technology; Innovation in education; Accessible web authoring; IT training; Broadcasting and digital information delivery; Mobile technology; Producing alternative formats; Technology in the workplace; Access to operating systems.

If you are interested in presenting, please email techshare@rnib.org.uk for more information on the format of submissions. The closing date for submissions is 2 August.

Speakers will be entitled to a reduced rate when registering for the conference of 130 pounds (or 95 pounds for one day). Speakers and delegates will also have the opportunity to have an informal exhibit at a 'Delegate's showcase' table in the conference coffee area at a cost of 40 pounds per table per day.

For further information including standard attendance prices, email techshare@rnib.org.uk or visit: http://www.rnib.org.uk/techshare .

[Special notice ends].

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


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


DPM Weerakkody, Professor of Western Classics at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, writes in with advice for our recent correspondent who wrote asking for advice on affordable access products on behalf of a nurse whose 13-year-old son Rafail is blind.

"The sad plight of Rafail is, unfortunately, the same plight of all vision-impaired people in the so-called 'Third World'," he says. "We are doubly handicapped by being blind as well as by being born in the Third World. We very much wish to be computer-literate, and there is no doubt that computers can contribute to our education and employment prospects. But we cannot afford the colossal sums required to buy the access software. I have a few suggestions for Rafail, but these may not be all that satisfactory.

"First, obtain a demonstration version of [the screenreader] JAWS, or Window-Eyes, or HAL, which will allow him to use the computer for 30 or so minutes at one time. Second, install Windows 3.1 and download JAWS 2.0 free of charge. Finally, there are some less expensive screen readers, such as Lookout, but I have not tried them, so I do not know how useful they are. There are also some Indian programmes which are either free or cost little. Obviously, all these suggestions have their drawbacks, and none of them may be totally satisfying."

NOTE: For a feature by Professor Weerakkody on access to technology in the developing world see 'Divided we stand', E-Access Bulletin, issue 34, October 2002.


Further to our recent piece on accessibility issues with the new 'Chip and PIN' credit card system and many banks' failure to explain the alternatives, Clare Page writes: "I have just read [your] article about the problems with the alternative to typing in a PIN number when using a UK credit card. I am curious as to why there should be a problem with typing in a PIN number, or the need for an alternative.

"Ever since I have lived in France, anyone here with a credit card has had a PIN number, which can be used in any place where the card is accepted. I use a French credit card myself, and when I type in my PIN number, the only problem I sometimes have is knowing where the button to validate it is: although the numbers on the keypads here are usually in the same order on every pad, the pads themselves are not standardised, so the "validate" button is not always in the same position.

"So I am curious to know what prevents visually impaired British credit card holders from using their PIN numbers to make purchases as the French do?"

And Amar Latif, Senior Financial Analyst at BT Global Services, has another query about accessible banking, as well as some valuable tips about how to make the banks do your bidding: "I am registered blind, and do not use Braille. The banks have said they can send out an audio cassette with my statement. However, I have told them that this is such an inconvenient medium.

"Now that blind people use computers, it would be so simple to receive your statement on email. This way, it would be easy to analyse. However, they say this would be insecure. My answer to that has been that we don't need our account number on the email, just a list of transactions. They then say this is not technically possible, which I find very hard to believe. I have been chasing banks to provide this service for the past two years. I am getting very frustrated and wonder if something can be done collectively.

"I receive my credit card statements on email. Even they had given me the same reasons as the banks, however, they do now provide the statement less the account details. I achieved this by running a 3,000 pound balance on my credit cards, and then demanding that I needed a suitable medium to read my statement before paying them off. Now I receive this and it is wonderful.

"Many banks mention that you can access their statements online. However, as we all know, it takes time logging onto the site, working out what you need to download and so on. If sighted people still receive their statements through their letterbox, then it is unfair that we have to go online; we need ours in our inbox.

"Your views on how this can be taken forward would be very much appreciated. In addition, are you able to ask your readers if they would prefer this medium, to judge how many people may be in the same boat as me?" [Responses please to inbox@headstar.com].


In a recent issue a reader asked for information on an accessible computer game version of the card game Bridge, and our regular correspondent Chris McMillan writes: "I don't play bridge, sighted or otherwise, but I did a quick search [which] revealed an upgrade for a game called 3D Bridge Deluxe (see http://news.freeverse.com/archives/000417.php )."

Chris also suggested that our reader contact Tom Lorimer of Whitestick, who "probably knows more about accessible games than anyone else in the UK. He certainly has written lots over the years himself. He also has links on his web site (http://www.whitestick.co.uk ) to lots of other games sites and magazines."


Bart Simons, Web Accessibility Specialist at the Belgian e-government solutions firm ASCii, writes in to defend the World Wide Web Consortium's HTML Validator (http://validator.w3.org/ ) which our reader Karina Gregory found "incredibly difficult to use" (see inbox, previous issue).

He says: "I really don't see the problem here. I use that validator daily. I am blind and use JAWS. If a page is valid you know this by pressing 'h' twice and you'll land on the message "this page is valid". If there are errors you just press 'l' to access the list of errors. The page can't be called inaccessible. I would point to the W3C WAI interest group (http://www.w3.org/WAI/IG/ ) if Karina likes to discuss this issue."


John Loader of DotSix Brailling Services writes in for information about audio versions of leaflets available on demand over the web. "I run a not-for-profit Braille, audio, large print and tactile diagram company and, with the advent of broadband, I feel that there is scope for organisations like councils, rather than get me to produce umpteen tapes for leaflets, newsletters and so on, to have a recording on their website for either audio streaming or straight file download. Is anyone doing this that I can consult on what is necessary? [Responses please to inbox@headstar.com].

[Section two 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 come along and join in the fun at: http://www.accessifyforum.com .

[Special notice ends].

++Section Three: Interview- Paul Blenkhorn.


+12: Life On The Front Lineby Mel Poluck.

Paul Blenkhorn, professor of assistive technology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), is no out- of-touch academic. His work at UMIST is practical and focused on the real world, like all his work in a 20-year career which has seen him create some of the most widely-used assistive technology tools in the world.

Blenkhorn started his career in the early 1980s working with vision- impaired children as a research fellow at the Research Centre for the Visually Handicapped in Birmingham, now the Visual Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research (VICTAR - http://www.education.bham.ac.uk/research/victar ). Together with a colleague Eamonn Fetton, now RNIB's director of education and employment, he drove a minibus to every school for blind children in the country, demonstrating software; gleaning ideas from teachers and pupils and helping to produce a termly newsletter for communication aids for disabled children.

"In those days, there were two BBC Micros [a type of early desktop computer made by Acorn] per school: but it's not those sort of pioneer years any more," he says.

Then in 1986, after leaving the Birmingham research centre, Blenkhorn created a piece of access technology history: "I started a company with a friend called Dolphin (http://www.dolphinuk.co.uk/ )." He went on to design what have become some of the household names in the world of assistive technologies including the Apollo speech synthesiser and the screen-reader packages HAL and Narrator (http://fastlink.headstar.com/narrator1 ), of which the latter is now used in every Windows 2000 and Windows XP package, and is the invention of which Blenkhorn says he is most proud.

On leaving Dolphin in 1991, he went back to academia and took up a post at UMIST, where he was made professor of assistive technology three years ago. During this time, he has worked mainly on assistive technology for people with a print impairment which covers those with dyslexia as well as those with a vision impairment.

Blenkholrn's work spreads beyond the UK. Alva, the Braille devices company based in the Netherlands uses a Braille translation tool developed by Blenkhorn for their mobile phone. And he is currently working through UMIST with Spanish blindness organisation ONCE on a partnership project beginning in January called 'Red de solidaridad con los ciegos de América Latina (Red Social - 'solidarity network for blind organisations of South America') in Columbia; Cuba; Guatemala; Mexico; and Peru. The scheme is designed to encourage people in those countries to use screen readers and other assistive technologies and to campaign to make them affordable. Software will be translated into Spanish and indigenous languages such as Maya.

Last week, Blenkhorn met with representatives of the Association of the Blind of Prizren, Kosovo after the body received government funding for a project starting in August. He is planning the building of an Albanian screen reader.

Having been in the business of assistive technology for two decades that have seen a particularly rapid rate of development, what does Blenkhorn see as the biggest changes in the field? "The biggest change reflects society and charities. For me, most of what I see out there is about business, not users: the focus has shifted. Everything now has a cost and not necessarily a value."

In an attempt to redress the balance, and return control to the hands of users, Blenkhorn has set up a new company called Sensory Software (http://sonantsoft.com/sensory ) whose 'LookOUT' screenreader sells in the UK for around 80 pounds compared with more usual screenreader costs of between 400 and 900 pounds. This and the company's other products are designed to be extremely simple, he says, since 95 per cent of people with low vision don't need very much in terms of different functions. In fact, the goal for him in designing a screen reader was to make the user interface straightforward. "There's a real need for simple, straightforward [products] for ordinary people to use. It's not about ivory tower research, it's about getting it out there."

[Section three ends].

++Special Notice: Test Your Site'S Accessibility.


Headstar, the publishers of E-Access Bulletin, is offering a range of independent, expert assessment packages to ensure your web services comply with best practice and the law. We can provide you with a clear, detailed report on the current access status of your site, and a list of tasks you will need to carry out to ensure compliance with government requirements.

Reports also include results from general quality assurance tests such as link-checking. Taking accessibility action benefits all users, will make your site easier to maintain, and can improve your search-engine rating! Please note the service is tailored in particular to larger organisations with major web sites or services.

For more information please email: access-consult@headstar.com .

[Special notice ends].

++Section Four: Opinion- Access To Knowledge.


+14: The Weight Of Evidenceby Kevin Carey.

Recent research by Zoe Neumann of the RNIB showed that people with impaired vision using web-based educational materials spend 70 per cent of their time faffing about (my term, not hers) and only 30 per cent of their time directly using the resources (see E-Access Bulletin, issue 53, May 2004). This finding fits grimly with separate Disability Rights Commission research which found that of all disability groups, blind people show the lowest rates of task completion on the web at 53 per cent, compared with an average for all disabilities of 76 per cent.

Both these findings also fit with a third lot of research undertaken by Forrester for Microsoft which ranks 'Likelihood to benefit from the use of accessible technology by type of difficulty/impairment among computer users' (http://fastlink.headstar.com/forrester1 ). In the table for mild disabilities, people with impaired vision are ranked third behind manual dexterity and hearing but in the rankings for severe disability, vision-impaired people come top with 11.1 million people likely to benefit, with manual dexterity in second (6.8 million).

I want to add only one piece of objective but unpublished data to this sorry tale: when I worked on research into the typographical reading preferences of vision-impaired teenagers (published in the article headed 'Size counts' in the British Journal of Visual Impairment, volume 17, 1999), of the group I observed in a further education college only one student read anything outside the set curriculum.

So we can readily conclude from all this data that gathering information from the internet poses severe problems for people with impaired vision, and that these are compounded by difficulties with handling enlarged print. As for tape and Braille users, they may have all the facility in the world with their medium but the quantity of material available to them is pathetically low. I have just finished a part-time course which required the study of classic texts and modern interpretations; the former were all available, but the latter non- existent. The RNIB provided a brilliant service but the Braille and even tape resources available were paltry.

In a society of conflicting needs and limited resources you have to ask whether the struggle is worth the effort. The answer has to be positive but, not for the first time, we should be discussing voluntary sector capacity rather than rights. There is not much point, other than the symbolic, in international organisations and national governments legislating ends but ignoring means.

The one key conclusion I draw from all this data is that the government must at last begin to take seriously the task of facilitating information. As Vice Chair of RNIB I am reluctant to specify that we should be the agent of government funding for this purpose but there is now an overwhelming case for the voluntary sector as a whole in the field of vision impairment to work in partnership to provide appropriate and timely information.

In the age of classic text, blind people could, with enormous effort and ingenuity, hope to compete with sighted peers in such areas as classics, literature, law, theology, philosophy and even some branches of theoretical science. At work they could hope to succeed in jobs where the frameworks and practices were stable over decades. But now all that has changed, and there have not been consequently radical changes in provision of support for them.

Of course we will all continue to campaign for more accessible web sites, more inclusive e-learning and more market sensitive operating systems and software, but in parallel we need to campaign for in-sector facilitation. Without it, the gap between people with impaired vision and the rest of society will widen still further.

NOTE: Kevin Carey is Director of HumanITy (http://www.humanity.org.uk ).

[Section four ends].

++End Notes.


+How To Receive This Bulletin

To subscribe to this free monthly bulletin, email 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! To unsubscribe at any time, put 'unsubscribe eab' in the subject header.

Please send comments on coverage or leads to Dan Jellinek at: dan@headstar.com .

Copyright 2004 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
  • Deputy editor - Derek Parkinson
  • Senior reporter - Mel Poluck
  • News reporter - Julie Hill
  • Editorial advisor - Kevin Carey.

ISSN 1476-6337 .

[Issue ends].