+++E-Access Bulletin.- Issue 53, May 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: Rnib Moots 'Social Firm' For Web Testing.

The RNIB (http://www.rnib.org.uk ) is investigating the feasibility of creating an independent "social firm", staffed by blind and visually impaired people, to provide web site developers with much-needed resources for web accessibility testing.

The announcement is one of the ideas mooted by the RNIB in response to the recent Disability Rights Commission (http://www.drc-gb.org ) investigation into web accessibility (see E-Access Bulletin, issue 52, April 2004), which revealed that some 81 per cent of UK web sites fail to meet even the most basic accessibility requirements for disabled people.

"One of the most important messages that came out of the DRC findings was that companies can't just follow the Web Accessibility Initiative (http://www.w3c.org/WAI ) guidelines; they have to test accessibility among disabled users," says Richard Orme, assistant director for information and communications technology at the RNIB. "The creation of a social firm would be one way of linking visually impaired people with web designers - and providing employment opportunities at the same time."

The idea of an independent "social firm" - supported by funding or even set up as a for-profit organisation - fits with the RNIB's aim to promote employment opportunities for blind and vision-impaired people. Full-time staff would be needed to run and sell the accessibility services, while a bank of people could be employed on a flexible basis to supply testing services.

"The RNIB has been contacted by blind and deaf-blind people who are ready to get stuck in and companies looking for real users," says Orme. "We just need to link the two together."

The RNIB already hosts a social firm at its Redhill College of Further Education. Called Insight, the company specialises in transcribing information and resources into audio, large print and Braille formats.

The institute also plans to run regional seminars for businesses that want to learn more about web accessibility policy. The seminars will include practical demonstrations of the technology blind and partially sighted people use to read web sites.

+02: Culture Department Site Accessible By Phone.

Vision-impaired users can now access the entire web site of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS - http://www.culture.gov.uk ) using a touch-tone phone, following the launch of a three-month trial of new technology that is the first of its kind by a UK government agency.

Users access the service at local call rates by calling 0845 333 0850 and following spoken instructions. Navigation is achieved using the 12 keys of a standard phone layout, with right-hand keys providing a range of forward options and those on the left moving the user backwards.

The experience aims to be similar to using a text-to-speech computer screenreader, for example providing voice output from text tags to describe the purpose of links and the content of graphics. And according to technology developer PhoneAnything (http://www.phoneanything.com ), content that is often problematic to screenreader users such as tables of data and Adobe pdf documents should also be accessible to users of the service.

In general however, the user experience for this kind of service will depend heavily on how well-designed the web site is, said PhoneAnything managing director Stefan Haselwimmer. "The technology is designed to identify where the main text of a web page is, in contrast to links and menus, for example," he said. "There could be problems if the page layout is not clear."

According to the RNIB, providing web access to people who don't use computers is valuable to people with impaired vision, who tend to be more familiar with phone and TV technology than with computers. However, this also means that much of the jargon used in web sites will be unfamiliar to many. "Instructions like 'click this' won't mean much to someone who doesn't already know about computers and the web," said Digital Policy Development Officer Julie Howell. "We need to start questioning the assumption that accessible sites would be accessible to anyone on another device."

+03: E-Learning Students Search In Vain.

Students with impaired vision using web-based educational materials spend only around 30 per cent of their time actually using the materials; the rest of their time is spent searching and navigating for pages and options, according to RNIB research.

Zoe Neumann, technology development officer at the institute's Technology in Learning and Employment programme (TiLE - http://www.rnib.org.uk/technology ), revealed the statistic at last weeks' seminar 'E-Learning: the future of training in the public sector' (http://www.electronic-government.com/elearning.htm ) organised by our sister publication E-Government Bulletin.

The TiLE team recently arranged focus groups to investigate students' experience of using technology in an educational setting, with outcomes that "brought you down to earth with a bump," Neumann said.

Neumann advised delegates to contact the TiLE team for help in measuring for web accessibility in an educational context, and also recommended the use of the DAISY digital book format (http://www.daisy.org ) as an e-learning tool.

+04: Spindrift In The Moan Zone.

Hard-working volunteers who produce news tapes and audio magazines for the blind are not being given the respect they deserve, according to edition 10 of 'Site for Sore Eyes' (http://www.kenmatthews.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk ), an audio magazine for the blind and visually impaired.

"I have attended various meetings about the impact of audio technology on the visually impaired," says Ken Matthews, the site's founder and vice-chairman of the Mid-Fife Newstape, a talking newspaper and audio magazine service for the visually impaired in Glenrothes and Kircaldy. "Generally there are other production volunteers from other news tapes, people who have devoted decades to their visually impaired friends, and who have intimate knowledge of their high-tech equipment, digital, as well as cassette tape. However, because we are volunteers and unpaid, we seem to rank lower than other people who are paid a handsome wage for their efforts."

Matthews says that the chairpeople presiding over such meetings tend to pay homage to the paid professionals in the industry, while talking down to volunteers, despite their considerable expertise.

'Site for Sore Eyes' was founded in 1997 and is written by Matthews under the editorial pseudonym of 'Spindrift'. His aim is to "unspin the spin", giving his take on events that hit the headlines.

++News In Brief:



A new software package that allows users to create DAISY digital 'talking books' from simple text files, 'EasePublisher', has been launched by Dolphin Audio Publishing: http://www.dolphinuk.co.uk/audio/news/ep_launch.htm .


A website dedicated to music library services for people with disabilities has been launched by the UK and Ireland branch of the International Association of Music Librarians. It includes information on music technology and courses. Follow the link marked 'resources' at: http://pages.britishlibrary.net/iaml.uk.irl/accessibility/ .


An overview of existing guidelines and experimental data on accessible technology was published last week by RNIB chief scientist Dr John Gill. 'Access-ability: making technology more usable by people with disabilities' covers the gamut of technologies from ticket machines to smart homes and is aimed at managers, policy-makers and designers: http://www.tiresias.org/guidelines/access-ability/ .

[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 .


Ana Cristina Souto of the Brazilian social inclusion body Rede SACI (http://www.saci.org.br ) writes in on behalf of a nurse, Lana, whose 13-year-old son Rafail is blind, and relies on Braille for his reading.

"I promised him to buy him a computer for his birthday and I did," says Lana. "Now the problem: he is not able to use it without special program called Jaws. I checked on the price for it and was almost shocked. It's 1,030 dollars. I cannot afford it with all my and Rafail's medical bills, mortgage payments and divorce! So the new computer now just stands at the table like a piece of furniture and poor Rafail going around it all upset.

"I was wondering if you know any organisation that can assist people on buying technology products for blind children. Rafail wants to go on internet and news sites to help him with projects and homework, but cannot see the screen." [Responses please to inbox@headstar.com].

+09: BRIDGE GAME: Brenda Nichol writes in to say:

"I have a friend who has recently lost her sight owing to a brain tumour. She is a highly intelligent lady in her seventies and loves doing crosswords. Is there an accessible bridge game she could use? Currently she has never played bridge but I am sure could pick it up. Is there a computer game?" [Responses please to inbox@headstar.com].


Last month Harish Kotian from India wrote in to ask if any of our readers had information about blind people working in the UK civil service, which might help a friend with impaired vision who had been denied a civil service job in India.

Paul McKee of HM Customs and Excise responded: "There are many blind and partially sighted workers in the UK civil service, including myself. Indeed the recruiting policy of the UK civil service encourages diversity and rejects discrimination on the grounds of gender, disability ethnic origin and so on. People are appointed to jobs based on their ability to do the job, if necessary with reasonable adjustments made to what work is done and how it's done.

"If for example assistive technology would enable a blind or partially sighted person to do a job, the equipment is provided by the government. This is regardless of whether it's for a clerk or a senior administrator.

"Having said all of the above and believing that the civil service is probably the best and most forward thinking employer of disabled people, there is a word of caution. We in the UK enjoy the protection of the Disability Discrimination Act which protects our right to employment."

Steve Bingham, who works at the Inland Revenue, adds: "I have not been able to find any figures that show how many vision impaired people work in the British Civil Service. It is likely to be in the hundreds. The vast majority are in the lower grades as typists or telephonists. A few, mainly professional people like solicitors do make the higher grades.

"At present many departments are having great difficulty integrating their typists and telephonists into the mainstream of Civil Service jobs. The typing and telephony jobs are being overtaken by technology and there are not many jobs that can be completed entirely by a vision- impaired person. Even the route I took to get from being a typist to being a relatively senior civil servant seems to have been overtaken by technology and is no longer open to youngsters - I was a computer programmer and am now an adviser on disability issues and technology."

Our reader and regular correspondent Chris McMillan says: "As far back as the late 1960s when I left school, the Civil Service was a very acceptable way for the registered partially sighted to be employed. One or two of my friends went straight into it from school: one has just taken redundancy from the British Library. He was a clerk. Another friend went into the Tax Office as an audio typist, also in the early 1970s.

"Many blind and partially sighted people were able to get jobs then as typists or telephonists in big organisations in general. Today, with the use of the personal (human) reader and our accessible technology equipment, I see no reason why a visually impaired person shouldn't do these jobs."

The story has a happy ending for Harish's friend in India as well: he has written in again himself to thank everyone for their encouraging responses and to say: "Good news from this side, as well. The supreme court has made a favourable judgement and subsequently the blind person has now joined the civil service."


Steve Bingham of the Inland Revenue (see previous item) also has a response to last issue's report on the newly-published Disability Rights Commission (DRC) research into web accessibility which has been a major talking point in the accessibility community.

"I read with interest the reports on the DRC's research. I found myself wondering if there was a difference in what WAI [the international Web Accessibility Initiative] and the DRC were talking about. The WAI standards are about accessibility while it sounded to me as if the DRC research was more about usability.

"There is a difference. For example I recently reviewed a set of screens for use by people working in a government call centre. The screens were reasonably accessible. All the links had alternative texts and all the fields had title texts but the screens were still largely unusable by a sight-impaired person using a screen reader because most of them had over 100 fields on them. It would be too long a process to find appropriate fields and complete them while trying to deal with a member of the public on a telephone.

"This is an extreme example, but I have come across many sites that are reasonably accessible but they become unusable because of the order in which information is given or requested or because there are just too many links for the relevant data to be found easily."


Sylvie Perera of the RNIB Scientific Research Unit has a little more information on Tiresias LPfont which has been the subject of recent discussion about accessible typefaces. "Tiresias LPfont is part of the family of typefaces that have been designed for legibility. LPfont is specifically designed for text in a large print publication for people with low vision. For other applications such as computer displays, PCfont is more appropriate. The research that went into developing these typefaces is also available. For more information or to order the typefaces, see: http://www.tiresias.org/fonts .

[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].


+13: Radio Presenters Have More Funby Kevin Carey .

The more I think about it, the more I cannot help concluding that the most important finding of the recently-published Disability Rights Commission research on web accessibility (http://www.drc-gb.org/publicationsandreports/report.asp ), as it affects blind people, is the finding that they only completed 55 per cent of set tasks as opposed to the disability average of 76 per cent. Even on well-designed, accessible sites, blind users were three times as slow as sighted peers.

There is bound to be some argument about the extent to which this poor performance can be improved by better applications and better user interface design but as pigs will fly before the technology will be sufficiently improved, such arguments are academic niceties.

What this means is that although blind people will need IT skills for education, employment and leisure - as means to an end - they will rarely be good enough in overcoming systems design problems to secure employment in IT per se. The days when the words 'blind' and 'computer programmer' went together like Morecambe and Wise were brief and are long gone. Furthermore, two areas where blind people of modest talent have performed reasonably well are fast disappearing: the presence of a graceful and efficient personal assistant is giving way to the horrible sight of company chief executives typing their own memos with two fingers; and machine processing is replacing a host of jobs, largely text-based, which used to require simple IT skills.

Conversely, however, the explosion in all forms of broadcasting and multimedia publishing opens up vast new areas of opportunity for production and presentation by people with impaired vision. VIP ON AIR (http://www.viponair.com ), the community radio station operated from Glasgow by blind trainees, has grown into a self confident, professional outfit in a matter of months and I have no doubt that some of them will be welcomed by mainstream broadcasters in due course. Community radio might also allow us to experiment with employment models such as the social firm.

If we are going to take advantage of this new set of opportunities we need to rid ourselves of two stereotypes. The first is that all half-bright blind people are computer wizards; they are not. Just because you have a rucksack full of the latest gadgets doesn't mean you are much good compared with your sighted peers. The second is that broadcasting can only be successfully carried out by major organisations like the BBC and that you need a university degree in Classics to gain employment at such places. Radio can and should be cheap and cheerful and not over-cooked.

In starting off by broadcasting over the internet VIP ON AIR is giving itself the chance to iron out presentation wrinkles and find its own voice before graduating to other broadcasting media. It should also soon be flattered by the creation of countless imitations and variants. As I have worked in both fields I can personally attest that radio is much more fun than computing which, in our sector, might just be a bit of a drawback!

[Section three ends].

++Section Four: Seminar Report- Accessible E-Government.


+14: Culture Of Accessibilityby Julie Hill.

Cultural change is one of the biggest challenges facing public sector bodies as they strive to make their e-government services accessible to people with disabilities, according to many of the speakers and delegates at E-Government Bulletin's March seminar 'E-Government for all: planning for accessibility' (http://www.electronic-government.com/access.htm ).

Despite legal and moral requirements for public service providers to make web sites accessible to all regardless of ability, many organisations are still struggling to instil the importance of accessible services among management and staff, according to one local authority delegate.

"My authority has produced clear content and communications standards for accessibility, but it can be difficult to get staff buy-in," the delegate told an interactive question-and-answer session. "With the day-to-day pressures of work and the practical issues around getting web content up quickly, things sometimes fall apart."

It is crucial for public bodies to obtain buy-in for accessibility from the highest level of the organisation, she said. But this can be difficult when managers think that technical staff can "wave a magic wand" to make services accessible, as a second delegate put it, without a real understanding of what accessibility involves and the need for training across the organisation. Training is becoming even more important as public bodies increasingly move towards multiple content contributors for their web sites, he said.

Laura van Weyenbergh, e-communications officer at Rushcliffe Borough Council (http://www.rushcliffe.gov.uk ), agreed that communication with staff was the key. "It is crucial to do the groundwork to ensure that web site contributors understand their role in accessibility," she said. "We have tried to encourage staff to view accessibility as the norm rather than extra work, but admittedly this has been difficult."

Access to the right skills and knowledge about accessibility is another problem for government bodies. Often they don't have the requisite skills in-house, but equally they can't always rely on the expertise of their IT suppliers or the web developer community, delegates heard.

One problem is that a confusing array of so-called accessibility 'standards' can be difficult for non-specialist organisations to evaluate, said Tom Adams, senior digital media consultant at the Office of the e- Envoy (OeE - http://www.e-envoy.gov.uk ). "Although the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines [http://www.w3.org/WAI] have become the de facto international standard for accessibility, they were only ever intended as guidelines and as such are open to interpretation," he said. While the OeE has produced its own guidelines on accessibility (http://www.e-envoy.gov.uk/webguidelines.htm ), based on standards such as e-GIF and the WAI guidelines, he admitted that "we, like everyone else, are slow in adopting and adhering to the guidelines."

Automated software tools that check web accessibility, such as the well-known Watchfire Bobby (http://bobby.watchfire.com ), can provide some guidance for government bodies, but are of limited value, according to one delegate. In particular, it is only by testing sites with users that government bodies can guarantee that their services are not only technically accessible - capable of being used with assistive technologies, such as screen readers - but usable.

However, delegates highlighted the difficulties of engaging with user communities to get help in testing. "Although we advertised to get input from web users, it was difficult to get their response," said van Weyenbergh. "In the end, we didn't get much input from the local community."

Even if they do manage to get feedback from the public, how can government bodies and their suppliers measure the outcomes of user testing, asked Ian Franklin, human factors consultant for technology supplier EDS. Are there metrics available to help with this?

This question sparked a debate among experts about the nature of usability. Guido Gybels, director of new technologies at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (http://www.rnid.org.uk ), and the OeE's Adams agreed that usability was a largely subjective issue, dependent on the user's skills, experience and background. However, Helen Petrie, professor of human computer interaction design at City University (http://www.city.ac.uk ), said that her research has shown that there will always be a common core of key outcomes across all tests by all user groups, however diverse.

The question for service providers, said Petrie, is at which point they are happy that their accessibility efforts are sufficient. Is it once 90 or 95 per cent of people can access their site, for example? Adams agreed that 100 per cent accessibility is an unachievable goal, because there will always be someone who cannot access your site because they are using a very unusual web browser, for example. The important thing for local authorities, he said, is to be able to show that they have taken all reasonable steps possible to make their site as accessible as possible.

This work will pay off for all users, said Petrie. "If your organisation conducts testing with people with print disabilities, it will pick up problems that are common to all users. The result will be an exemplary site for everyone," she said.

[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 .

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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].