+++E-Access Bulletin - Issue 146, March 2012.

Access To Technology For All, Regardless Of Ability

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

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++Section One: News.


+01: Uk’S First Inbuilt Text-To-Speech Tvs Hit The Shelves.

Electronics manufacturer Panasonic has built text-to-speech functionality into 30 of its television models, designed specifically to help blind and visually impaired users, making them the first such TVs to become available on the UK general market.

After switching on the function during installation, text-to- speech will be present over a wide range of tasks in the televisions, including speaking the channel number and name of a programme when switching channels; the time that a programme begins and ends; and whether other accessibility features such as audio description are available for a programme.

Text-to-speech assistance is provided on connecting to a Wi-Fi network through the TV, and users can also to scroll through a TV’s electronic programme guide and listen to the list of programmes, timing information and a synopsis of each programme.

Speaking to E-Access Bulletin, Nigel Prankard, IPTV and digital TV solutions centre manager at Panasonic, said a lower implementation cost of text-to-speech in recent times had enabled the company to offer the functionality.

“If you asked us to introduce text-to-speech [into our televisions] two years ago, the extra cost would have been significant, but with the onset of activity in the IT world, the implementation costs of text-to-speech have come down, enabling us to put it into the TVs without passing on the cost to customers”, Prankard said.

Panasonic worked with the Royal National Institute of Blind People to build the text-to-speech function, undertaking user- testing with a prototype before gathering feedback and making improvements to the final design.

Prankard said he hopes to further improve the functionality and add more features if there is positive feedback from the initial models, possibly looking at how text-to-speech could work for internet-connected TVs. “The W3C [World Wide Web Consortium] are trying to make more regulatory requirements for web accessibility, so we may have to think how TVs could handle [web accessibility requirements] if we give them the full ability to go to websites”, he said.

And you can comment on this story now, on EAB Live: http://www.headstar.com/eablive/?p=693

+02: Call For Global Body To Boost Accessibilityprofessionalism.

The accessibility field needs a new international community of experts to help it become a recognised profession, Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer told a recent conference.

Speaking at the sixth European Forum on e-Accessibility in Paris ( http://bit.ly/wHNjGf ), Rob Sinclair said: “The time has come for accessibility to transcend its origin and become an internationally recognised profession.”

Specialist expertise groups have helped the security and privacy sectors become valued fields of interest over the past decade, said Sinclair, and a similar group could perform equally important functions for accessibility, such as: creating and maintaining a globally-endorsed set of educational resources; training and certifying accessibility professionals; building a global community of experts; and helping related efforts around the world co-ordinate work.

Despite significant progress in accessibility over the past two decades, we are far from achieving digital inclusion, Sinclair said. There are various reasons for this, he said, including that most design or engineering educational programmes do not incorporate accessibility into their structure; and that there is a lack of formal qualifications available to evaluate and rate accessibility experts.

The ultimate goal should be for accessibility expertise to be disseminated throughout businesses, organisations and government, to provide customers with a proper support network, he said. “These outcomes are possible, but will require broad-reaching international collaboration and dedicated resources”.

And you can comment on this story now, on EAB Live: http://www.headstar.com/eablive/?p=695

+03: Councils Still Struggling With Website Accessibility.

Almost half of local authority websites remain inaccessible to disabled users, according to the annual ‘Better Connected’ review of UK local authority sites, carried out by the Society of IT Management (Socitm).

Little has changed in the picture of council website accessibility since last year’s Better Connected, with only a 2% increase in the amount of councils achieving the assessment’s standard rating for accessibility – from 56% in 2011 to 58% (252 councils) this year. Within those 252 sites, only two (Kettering Borough Council and the London Borough of Merton) were rated as ‘Very Good’ under the scoring system, while 30% of websites (130 in total) were rated as having ‘Poor’ accessibility, and 12% (51 sites) were classed as ‘Inaccessible’.

“Accessibility should not be seen as an extra layer of usability to build into a site for a minority of users, however significant”, the report says. “Accessible websites are also easier to use for everyone.”

To rate accessibility in this year’s Better Connected, testers from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), assessed the home page and other key pages of a council’s website; and how easy it was to complete three ‘top tasks’ for users, such as finding out how to pay council tax, and applying for a council job.

When scoring these tasks, RNIB testers identified three potential website accessibility issues that would prevent them completely from carrying out the task: keyboard traps (when keyboard navigation of a webpage causes a user to become irreversibly stuck on an element of that page); auto-starting audio on a page (with no way of stopping the audio); and flashing content.

These elements are also flagged-up in the latest version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0: http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG/ ), which were used as part of the basis for assessment.

The report recommends that all councils should carry out user- testing with groups of disabled people; build accessibility checks into the website publishing process; and ensure that the entire web team understands and practices accessibility.

Better Connected 2012 can be purchased from Socitm: http://bit.ly/HmnwiN

And you can comment on this story now, on EAB Live: http://www.headstar.com/eablive/?p=697

++News in Brief:


+04: Campaigning Coalition:

A new national campaign group aiming to unite businesses, charities and government departments and other public bodies in a quest for accessible ICT products and services has been launched. The OneVoice for Accessible ICT Coalition, chaired by Nigel Lewis, chief executive officer of technology access charity AbilityNet, has already begun work to develop guidance to assist organisations in producing accessible websites and accessible mobile apps, including a ‘Seven Steps’ initial accessibility plan, available for free on the OneVoice website. Membership to the coalition is also free.

Short link: http://www.onevoiceict.org/

+05: Suggestive Solutions:

New software which suggests potential accessibility solutions to users while they work on a computer was demonstrated by staff from Loughborough and Dundee universities at a workshop by the Sus-IT project – a research initiative addressing ICT barriers faced by the elderly. The software – which is still in development – aims to help people who experience age-related changes in vision, dexterity and memory, and works by monitoring users’ computer behaviour and habits, and picking up on problems encountered. Solutions to these problems are then suggested to the user, either from pre-existing assistance in the computer’s operating system, or separate assistive technology.

Short link: http://sus-it.lboro.ac.uk/

+06: Rewarding Accessibility:

Nominations are now open for the 2012 Technology4Good Awards, an event celebrating the work of charities, individuals, businesses and public bodies in using technology to help improve people’s lives. The event – organised by accessibility charity AbilityNet and BT – includes an Accessibility Award recognising efforts to “help an individual or groups of people to overcome their disabilities”. 2011’s Accessibility Award was won by children’s hospice technology charity Lifelites. Nominations close on 18 May, with the award ceremony in July:

http://www.technology4goodawards.org.uk/ Short link: http://bit.ly/fKLUxh

+07: More Gongs:

Socially excluded individuals whose lives have benefited from using digital technology are being asked to share their stories in the e-Inclusion Awards 2012, which a new category, “I am Part of IT”. The event, established by the European Commission in 2008, celebrates best practice in digital inclusion across Europe, and features a further digital inclusion award for individuals and organisations. Submissions close on 4 May, with the gongs handed out at the Digital Agenda Assembly Conference in Brussels in June:

http://www.e-inclusionawards.eu/ Short link: http://bit.ly/PPrnA

[Section One ends].

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


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

+08: Petitions Continued:

Reader John Sexton writes in to contribute to our ongoing debate on how the government’s electronic petitions website ( http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/ ) is hard for some people to use because a “captcha” audio anti- spam test can be hard to hear clearly.

“The use of so called CAPTCHAs is both not accessible and not effective!” says John. “They not only prevent most people who rely on assistive technology [from accessing petitions] but also many other people!

“The reason for such systems is to identify if it is a person or bot accessing the online resource. The fact is with advancements in OCR and Voice Recognition, many bots can get past these tests, making it non-effective. There are much better methods of determining if a person is accessing an online resource, such as email verification, timed response rates and server-side spam filters.”

Overall, CAPTCHAs are now a dated technology, like mouse- driven menu systems, which are inaccessible to a wide range of people, not just disabled people, he says.

“If the government can’t get it right online then they should offer alternative methods of petitioning. Otherwise they are failing their own Equality Act 2010 and it should be taken up with the EU and UN!”

[Further responses please to inbox@headstar.com].

+09: Graphic Debate:

Last issue’s news story on a report which found that a lack of access to information graphics in tactile form is holding back blind people in the workplace, when the problem could be tackled by software adapting Braille printers to produce graphics, has generated lively debate on our blog.

John Gardner said his own company’s ViewPlus software and embossers can reproduce a wide range of charts and tables in Braille. “The Tiger Software Suite, bundled with every ViewPlus embosser can transform and emboss an Excel spread sheet or chart in Braille with one click”, he said. “More complex graphics, such as flow charts, can be made audio/touch accessible. These products have been on the market for years.”

However, the report’s author, John Ramm, replied: “Putting aside the abilities or otherwise of particular embossers to produce graphics, what my research shows is that blind people are not getting them. It surely doesn’t matter how much hardware and software is available if transcribers are taking a de facto position that when they come across a graphic in something they are transcribing they produce a verbal description, not an equivalent graphic.

“The blind people I interviewed should not need to know or care about how transcribed material is produced. All they want, overwhelmingly, is transcribed material which puts them on a par with their sighted colleagues.”

Further contributions can be found online – join in at: http://www.headstar.com/eablive/?p=688 .

+10: Standard Reference:

Finally, a correction to some terminology about standards used in our last issue, as pointed out by Dave Sawdon: we mentioned PAS78 as “the first British Standards Specification for web design” – in fact, as Dave points out, PAS78 was a “guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites”, and was written by a team of volunteer experts, including himself and led by Julie Howell.

“The point is important because of the need for readers to understand that just about everyone has agreed to harmonise on the W3C web content accessibility guidelines as the specification for technical web accessibility, and that unique national requirements are not helpful or appropriate. This was recognised in PAS78, and in BS8878 which superseded it”, he says.

[Further responses please online, or to inbox@headstar.com].

[Section Two ends].

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++Section Three: Special ReportDigital books in Italy.


+11: Reading Without Barriersby Michele Smargiassi.

They can’t see their books: but maybe this is why blind people read with such an extraordinary passion. On average, a blind person in Italy reads 9.2 books a year, while among sighted Italians only two in ten people read so many. Six blind people out of ten read a few pages of a book at least once a week, while 53.2% of Italians never, ever, read. In other words, blind people read significantly more than sighted people.

“The thirst for knowledge is strongest where there is a barrier,” says Orlando Paladino, president of the Unione Italiana Ciechi (Italian Union of the Blind). Or perhaps, where a barrier falls. The data outlined above from a new survey by the Italian Publishers’ Association (Associazione Italiana Editori – AIE: http://www.aie.it ) would probably have been very different 15 years ago, when it was impossible to read books on a computer, or to have them translated into Braille on a tactile display.

In the recent past, books readable by blind people were very few in number and not very often updated. These were books printed in Braille, the characters formed out of dots that turned even the slim Italian Constitution into a kilo of paper that could only be crammed into an ordinary bag with difficulty. The digital age has radically changed the lives of enthusiastic blind readers. In the era of e-books, their library finally seems to be the same as everyone else’s, including new publications.

Has the problem been solved, then? Can blind people now read what they want? And what do they read?

“I have no preferences,” is the surprising response of some 46.7% of respondents to a new survey, but this apparent indifference can be interpreted as: “There is so little stuff for us to read, I must content myself with what I find.” Clearly, the revolution of books without barriers remains unfinished.

“Most e-books on the market still can’t be read by speech- synthesis software or by Braille translators; some can be read only with enormous obstacles and difficulties, as they have no indexes and hypertext notes, no paratexts, catalogues or directories”, explains Cristina Mussinelli, coordinator of the LIA project (Libri Italiani Accessibili, Italian Accessible Books), which, with the cooperation of the major publishers, will produce and make available to blind and partially sighted people an initial package of three thousand titles within a year, designed to be easily readable by the special access software and hardware used by blind people.

Literature, essays, and handbooks: in fact, blind people do have specific preferences, and they are generally much more demanding than the average reader. AIE launched its survey, which yielded such astonishing results, to find the best way to compose its first specialist catalogue for blind readers.

Since then, much water has passed under the bridge. In 2000, three of the major Italian publishers threatened a legal action for copyright infringement against two pioneering institutions for the blind, the Istituto Cavazza of Bologna and the Galiano Foundation of Catanzaro. Tired of their empty shelves, these organisations had dared to fill them themselves, scanning and putting on the internet a thousand titles in electronic text format, to make them available to blind readers. This was a service that commercial publishing had not provided to what they considered “a small niche” of customers, though, in fact, it is not so small: in Italy, there are 362,000 blind people and one million visually impaired people, and on the whole they love to read, as we have seen.

The ensuing clamor and indignation eventually obliged the publishers to withdraw the complaint. So, eleven years ago it was already possible to fill the gap of access to the texts. Yet blind people had to wait a long time before anyone thought of them as normal readers, or even more devoted than normal. In 2005 the Ministry for Cultural Heritage funded a project aimed at building a digital library for the blind, but in 2011 that project was assigned to UIC and AIE. “There have been incomprehensible bureaucratic delays, against which I raised my voice a year ago, at the Frankfurt exhibition”, says Mark Polillo, President of the publishers.

The trouble now is that due to the enormous delay, the project (conceived when the e-book did not exist) must quickly be updated; it can no longer replace digital publishing, if anything it must stimulate it. “The real goal is to force publishers to consider accessibility for the blind as a requirement of their normal e-books”, Polillo says. “Only then, at last, will the blind will be customers of a library, like everyone else”.

Article reproduced with permission from La Repubblica, where it first appeared on 9 December 2011. Written by Michele Smargiassi and translated for E-Access Bulletin by Margherita Giordano. Our thanks to Margherita.

And you can comment on this story now, on EAB Live: http://www.headstar.com/eablive/?p=702

[Section Three ends].

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++End Notes.


+How to Receive the Bulletin.

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

ISSN 1476-6337.

[Issue 146 ends].