+++E-Access Bulletin - Issue 123, March 2010.

Access To Technology For All, Regardless Of Ability

A Headstar Publication. http://www.headstar.com/eab/ .

Please forward this free bulletin to others (subscription details at the end).

++Section One: News.


+01: Exclusive:

EU Set To Ditch Rules On Accessible Goods.

The European Union looks set to backtrack on proposed legislation that would have required accessibility to disabled people of all manufactured consumer goods, from digital televisions to washing machines, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

A Brussels meeting this week is expected to confirm changes to the draft Equal Treatment Directive (ETD), first proposed by the European Commission in 2008 to ban discrimination in access to goods and services, as set out in its full title: Proposal for a Council Directive on implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation ( http://bit.ly/9IFqXc ).

In its original form, the directive would have required that all devices should be accessible, and for example could not be controlled solely by touch-screen controls or visual displays inaccessible to blind people.

Since 2008, however, member states have amended the text to remove any specific requirement. Article 4, point 3 in the latest set of amendments (available in pdf only at http://bit.ly/anrdqs ) says:"This Directive shall not apply to the design and manufacture of goods". The new version says simply that member states should take into account "measures to ensure accessibility for persons with disabilities . [and] promote the research and development of universally designed goods, promote their availability and use, and promote universal design in the development of standards and guidelines." However, details of what forms such action should take are not specified.

The new version to be discussed in Brussels is supported by a majority of EU member states including the UK. A small number of states, including Austria, have spoken out against the reduced proposals however, and for the directive to become law, unanimous agreement will have to be reached.

Carine Marzin, European campaigns officer at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), told E-Access Bulletin that continued reliance on the goodwill of manufacturers to deliver accessible manufactured goods to the market will not solve the problem. "In practice, nothing will change if member states are not willing to address this issue through legislation," Marzin said. "This is a unique opportunity to end the discrimination that many disabled people experience when trying to access goods, an opportunity that we can't afford to miss."

For its part, the European Blind Union (EBU) says failure to implement the accessibility proposals as originally drafted could jeopardise trade with areas outside of Europe which may have more stringent rules in place (see EBU response in Microsoft Word format at: http://bit.ly/bowvGU ). In the US, for example, a proposed law aims to force manufacturers to create accessible consumer technology products (see E-Access Bulletin, issue 122 - http://bit.ly/cRZVrs ).

A joint campaign to oppose the UK's position on the ETD has now been launched by a group of UK disability charities: http://bit.ly/d1EP2R ).

And you can comment on this story now, on EAB Live: http://bit.ly/aKG4es

+02: Praise For Councils' Web Accessibility Progress.

UK local authority websites are "much more accessible now than they've ever been", according to one specialist who worked on the recent 'Better Connected 2010' review of every local authority website in the UK conducted by the Society of IT Management (Socitm) ( http://bit.ly/dltkU5 ).

Bim Egan, senior web access consultant at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), told E-Access Bulletin the difference between council websites' accessibility this year compared with 2009 is "astonishing". "A much bigger proportion of [councils] are getting the message and are putting processes in place to make their websites a lot more accessible", she said.

Egan's comments come despite the fact fewer local authority websites achieved formal compliance this year with Level A of the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, version one (WCAG 1.0) - 32 compared to 36 in 2009. However, the RNIB ran its own additional assessment of "functional accessibility" which rated 187 councils (43%) as either 'satisfactory' or 'excellent' compared with only 136 councils (33%) achieving the same levels last year.

Despite the progress, Egan said that over-reliance on PDFs (files in Adobe portable document format), which are often inaccessible to screen-readers and other forms of assistive technology, is still a significant accessibility problem for local authority sites.

"It wouldn't matter as much if so many councils didn't rely so heavily on PDF format, but ... if it's not accessible, there could be situations where people can't even find out what their council tax is," Egan said.

For a full breakdown of the accessibility results of Better Connected 2010 see section three, this issue.

And you can comment on this story now, on EAB Live: http://bit.ly/9N5KGG

+03: Technology Trust To Launch Online Hub For Socialgood.

A new online knowledge centre for organisations working in the field of technology and social good is to be launched in June by the charity Nominet Trust, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

The trust ( http://bit.ly/aXFbxD ), the UK's largest charitable fund for social IT projects, was set up with £8 million from the UK's internet domain name registry Nominet to fund UK-based and international internet- related initiatives in the sectors of education, research and development, safety and inclusion meeting the needs of the young, the elderly, the disabled and sick, the disadvantaged, and other vulnerable groups.

Its new online network, set to launch in June, will include a monitoring centre tracking all its investments and allowing funded bodies to submit quarterly reports online; and a 'knowledge centre' allowing groups to network. It aims to become the biggest hub for best practice sharing in its fields of funding, trust chairman Jonathan Welfare told E-Access Bulletin at last week's Digital Inclusion conference in London ( http://bit.ly/aFvYk7 ).

Nominet Trust has been investing since February 2009 with 36 grants made to date, totalling £1.9m. Its smallest grant so far has been £1,000 to a primary school in Derbyshire to help produce a pamphlet on the potential dangers of the internet designed by its pupils and disseminated to other schools throughout the county by the education authority; and the largest has been £0.5 million to the charity UnLtd ('unlimited') ( http://bit.ly/cKD3Qy ) which in turn funds smaller social IT projects across the UK.

One of the trust's first grants in April 2009 was made to the British Computer Association of the Blind (BCAB), to fund remote technical support people with impaired vision. Other funded groups include Screenreader.net, creator of free text-to- speech software 'Thunder'; ACE Centre Advisory Trust, for SpeechBubble, a comparison web site for disability communications aids; AbilityNet, for a project supporting accessible digital educational materials; and Citizens Online, for a project logging and fixing website accessibility problems.

Any group can apply for a grant at any time, with new funding decisions made quarterly.

And you can comment on this story now, on EAB Live: http://bit.ly/beZNon

++News in Brief:


+04: Mixed Messages:

Australian government websites will be required, by 2015, to conform to the latest version of the international World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, WCAG 2.0, the country's Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities has announced: http://bit.ly/cTUNu7 However, the decision will not receive legal backing unless supported by the Australian Human Rights Commission. Additionally, IT consultant Tom Worthington notes on his blog that the web page publicising the announcement itself fails to comply with basic accessibility standards: http://bit.ly/bwYWQU

+05: Free Surf:

Making a Google search and accessing the British Museum's website are some of the internet skills being taught to blind and visually impaired people at a series of 50 free 'web learning days' taking place around the country over the next four months. Organised by charity Screenreader.net with a £70,000 government grant, the sessions will use the free Thunder screen-reader software to demonstrate how computer users with impaired vision can surf the internet: http://bit.ly/cJipz4

+06: Portable Talk:

Talking books in DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) format can now be transferred directly from CD to a portable device, without the need for a computer. The Victor Reader Stream CD Edition, developed by HumanWare, allows visually impaired and blind users to copy talking books and other audio onto the device for mobile access using a single button: http://bit.ly/a2NZTC

[Section One ends].

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++Section Two: Special Report- Council Websites.


+07: Better Than They Seem?By Tristan Parker.

At first glance, the accessibility results of this year's Society of IT Management (Socitm) 'Better Connected' review of all UK council websites ( http://bit.ly/dltkU5 ) would suggest that online access to local government for disabled computer users and others using assistive technology is still not a priority.

This year, for example, fewer local authorities achieved level 'A' of the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, version one (WCAG 1.0 http://bit.ly/cmbc4g ) than last year - 32 compared with 36 - and for the second year running, no council achieved the more stringent level 'AA'.

But appearances can be deceptive, and these figures do not tell the whole picture, according to Bim Egan, senior web access consultant at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB: http://bit.ly/a5Jz3i ).

Egan, who carried out assessments for the Better Connected report, told E-Access Bulletin that websites which failed to achieve even the basic WCAG level 'A' standard, are not necessarily completely inaccessible to people with disabilities.

WCAG is, by and large, a quantative assessment of various aspects of a site, whereas for the second year running, the RNIB also carried out additional qualitative assessments on council websites to achieve a wider picture of online accessibility. These checked for 'outcome' factors such as "whether or not users could navigate, use and communicate with the site relatively easily if they had assistive technology needs or special needs", Egan says.

These tests used their own 0-3 rating system, with 0 representing a frequent absence of accessibility and 3 representing a site that was functionally fully accessible. Based on this system, 187 councils (43%) were rated by RNIB as satisfactory or excellent, compared with 136 councils (33%) last year.

This seems encouraging, but why is this not reflected in the WCAG 1.0-based system? "We never believed that conformity tests were a real measure of accessibility", said Egan. "It's not just what you do, it's how you do it, and conformity tests basically check for things like headings being used, and not how good [the websites] are."

Overall the findings suggest that council websites have improved their functional accessibility, says Egan, while sometimes embracing new technologies and techniques in such a way that conformity levels with standards have dropped.

So what are these new techniques that have hampered conformance to standards?

Not for the first time, JavaScript - a common programming language used in website pages - is one culprit. The use of JavaScript often leads to increased difficulty in navigating a webpage when using assistive technology or a keyboard, for example providing 'hidden' content that may not be picked up by some assistive technologies. Although JavaScript can sometimes actually be used to increase accessibility - by providing additional information to the user, for example - by and large, it is a recurring problem for accessibility conformance.

"The main thing that affects conformity testing for WCAG 1.0 is that a lot more sites are putting in a lot more functionality, and a lot of that functionality is reliant on JavaScript," says Egan. "If we hadn't had JavaScript to check, we would have seen quite a considerable improvement in Level A conformance."

Egan also warns that should the Better Connected website review team adopt WCAG version 2.0 (the latest version of the guidelines) for its assessments next year, further changes will need to be made to ensure that basic standards are met. "If we're looking at WCAG 2.0, the message is that councils are going to regret putting so much information into PDFs", she says.

PDFs (files in the Adobe 'portable document format', used widely by local councils and other public bodies) are often not fully accessible for screen-readers and other assistive technologies. There are ways of creating accessible PDFs using new versions of the format that can provide text tags for pictures, for example, but councils still tend to use the older inaccessible versions.

"It wouldn't matter as much if so many councils didn't rely so heavily on PDF format," says Egan, "but ...if [the PDF is] not accessible, there could be situations where people can't even find out what their council tax is."

Despite these concerns, Egan is keen to emphasise the increase in accessibility demonstrated by the RNIB's qualitative assessments. "This is my fifth year of working on Better Connected and the difference is astonishing. Council websites are much more accessible now than they've ever been," she says.

Perhaps surprisingly, Egan also believes that stronger legislation is not the best way to achieve further improvements, preferring instead to champion those that are succeeding and encourage them to lead by example. "I don't think more legislation is going to do it" she says. "We've had some pretty horrendous threats, like losing the '.gov.uk' domain, and I don't know what else can be done to encourage sites to become more accessible other than showing by example and rewarding and applauding the ones who do it right. Let's give more airtime to them, so that the people who've got it wrong and their councils are forced to do something about it."

She urged those who have not achieved good accessibility ratings of any kind so far to rise to the challenge. "Those websites who've not achieved WCAG 1.0 or got a rating of 1 or 2 on our own [RNIB] rating system should not feel discouraged - I'd prefer that they felt challenged", says Egan. "Accessibility isn't where you're at, it's the road you're following."

And you can comment on this story now, on EAB Live: http://bit.ly/aQQNiy

[Section Two ends].

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++End Notes.


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  • Editor - Dan Jellinek.
  • Reporter: Tristan Parker.
  • Editorial advisor - Kevin Carey.

ISSN 1476-6337.

[Issue 123 ends].