+++E-Access Bulletin- Issue 95, November 2007.

A Headstar publication.

Technology news for people with vision impairment ( http://www.headstar.com/eab/ ). Sponsored by: Ford Motor Company ( http://www.ford.co.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: Techno-Footprint, 29 November 2007- ICT and Sustainability in the Public Sector - Stay Ahead of the Vital Green Agenda http://www.headstar-events.com/technofootprint/ .

Contents.

Large ICT systems form a significant part of a modern public sector body's carbon footprint.

Strategies must be drawn up to reduce ICT energy use and heat emissions; reduce and manage ICT waste; embrace flexible and mobile working to cut transport requirements; and use technology systems to reduce other emissions and waste. Headstar's major new annual conference - supported by Socitm and UK CEED, the charity hosting the UK eWell-Being awards - will offer advice and guidance to all public sector bodies in this vital field.

Attendance costs 295 pounds plus VAT for public, voluntary and charitable sector and 395 plus VAT for private sector delegates. For full details and to register see: http://www.headstar-events.com/technofootprint .

And for information about sponsoring or exhibiting at the event please email Claire Clinton on: claire@headstar.com or call her on 01273 231291.

[Special notice ends].

++Section One: News.

Contents.

+01: Concerns Over Government Web Accessibility Plan.

Technology analysts have cast doubt on the viability of draft guidelines for government websites that threaten to switch off '.gov.uk' web addresses if they failed to reach high, 'AA' levels of accessibility.

The proposals, entitled 'Delivering inclusive websites: user-centred accessibility', have been circulated for limited consultation by the Central Office of Information, the Whitehall agency which assists public bodies with communications campaigns.

If approved, they would mean that existing government sites would have until December 2008 to meet the 'AA' standard set out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by the World Wide Web Consortium. All new sites would have to confirm immediately.

"Websites which fail to meet the mandated level of conformance shall be subject to the withdrawal process for .gov.uk domain names," the draft guidelines state.

The blindness charity RNIB this week broadly welcome the document, but said it had concerns about specific areas. Henny Swan, senior web accessibility consultant at RNIB, told E-Government Bulletin: "These concerns are around the lack of clarity when referencing versions of WCAG; the viability of domain removal; and the absence of detail on the process used to assess whether sites have met that standard. How will third party content such as payment systems be assessed for example?

"We would rather see further resources put in place to support web managers and their teams in creating and maintaining user-focused accessible websites, than to penalise them."

And Martin Greenwood, of the local government Society of IT Management (Socitm), said only three or four councils currently meet 'AA' accessibility. If the COI are really serious about this it's going to be a tough call for many organisations."

Previous attempt at setting accessibility targets for public sector web managers have had no impact, Greenwood said. A lower, level 'A' target set for English council websites in 2005 as part of a set of 'priority service outcomes' failed to achieve any greater accessibility levels than had been achieved in other parts of the UK, he said.

Asked if it would be fair to remove the .gov.uk domain from public sector websites that failed to comply with 'AA' accessibility, Greenwood said: "It would be fair if they were an isolated case of non- compliance, and everybody else was complying, but it won't be an isolated case."

+02: Exclusion Fears Over Digital Tv Pilot Technology.

The RNIB has warned that blind people could be excluded from the digital TV revolution by the lack of a 'talking menu' option on the subsidised set-top boxes provided to older people and people with disabilities, as part of this month's digital TV switchover pilot scheme in Whitehaven, Cumbria.

Whitehaven residents can already only receive BBC2 with a digital signal, and next week all their channels will switch over. After assessment of the pilot, the next area to roll out will be the Borders region of Scotland, in late 2008, followed by the rest of the UK in phases.

Under a 'help scheme' funded by the Department for Culture Media and Sport with the BBC, eligible households can receive a Freeview set-top box with audio-description and other special access features for just Â40, including installation and some training (see http://www.digitaluk.co.uk/helpscheme ). For an extra charge households can receive further subsidised systems such as a satellite TV service.

Ultimately around 7 million UK households would qualify for support under the help scheme, including people aged 75 and over; people claiming disability living allowance; and people registered as blind or partially sighted. However, despite the scheme's equipment including features such as a user-friendly remote control and compatibility with audio description of programmes, the electronic programme guides do not 'speak'.

"This is our main concern," RNIB Media and Culture Department Manager Leen Petrà told E-Access Bulletin this week. "Once that help scheme person is out of the door, how will blind people know what channel they are on?"

A joint government and BBC emerging technologies committee will review the findings of the pilot in February and make a recommendation about changes to the set-top boxes, including speaking menu options, Petrà said. A decision would then have to be taken on inclusion of any new features; and also on how these would be funded, whether by the help scheme partners or by TV users. "We would hope it doesn't affect the price which users have to pay," Petrà said.

Last month the charity Age Concern welcomed the help scheme, but said their own research had shown that many older people in Whitehaven had not been ready for the change. "The experience of Whitehaven residents signals that such support needs to be given earlier," the charity said.

+03: Nz Student Exposes Inaccessibility Of Government Sites.

A New Zealand university student has won a research award for exposing the accessibility shortcomings of government websites, in work that could have widespread application elsewhere in the world.

Ben Bradshaw, a fourth-year IT student at Victoria University of Wellington, won the 1,000 NZ Dollars first prize in the NZ Computer Society's annual student research contest. Bradshaw used a panel of testers with impaired vision alongside the open source automated testing program 'OpenWolf' ( http://openwolf.sf.net/ ).

According to a report on the website Computerworld, Bradshaw found a failure of sites to indicate in advance what type of document the user is accessing through a link, causing potential confusion for blind readers using assistive technology ( http://fastlink.headstar.com/nz2 ).

To read more about Bradshaw's achievements in his own words, see his personal blog, or 'blag': http://fastlink.headstar.com/nz3 .

++News in Brief:

Contents.

+04: SharePoint Kit:

Microsoft has announced the launch of an accessibility kit for websites and applications based on its 'SharePoint' software package, designed to help organisations share, manage and work on documents and information through a central point. The kit, known as AKS, was developed with HiSoftware and will be provided released through the 'shared source' Microsoft Permissive License later this year: http://aks.hisoftware.com .

+05: Easy Mobile:

A new handset in the 'Easy' range of accessible mobile phones has been launched in the UK by distributor Communic8. The EasyUse handset has an anti-glare screen, large characters, large number keypad and other accessibility features. It is available through the RNIB shop or from Communic8 Ltd on a Vodafone Pay as you Talk package at Â139.99: http://www.silverphone.co.uk

+06: Bookshare Correction:

We incorrectly stated last issue that the entire collection of the electronic book site 'Bookshare.org' had been made accessible to subscribers outside the US. In fact, only a proportion of these books - between 2,000 and 3,000 copyright books - have been made available globally. Permission is being sought from more publishers to allow a wider selection to be made available. We would like to apologise for this error. For more information see a report on the DAISY Consortium website: http://fastlink.headstar.com/daisy1 .

[Section One ends].

++Special notice:- Building Comfortable and Liveable Environments for All - Call for Papers.

Contents.

CIB, the international council for research and innovation in building and construction, is pleased to announce a call for papers for the US conference 'Building Comfortable and Liveable Environments for All', to be held May 15-16, 2008, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, US. The event's co-hosts are CNR (National Research Council, Italy) and The Georgia Institute of Technology.

The aim of the conference is to explore and discuss challenges, issues and priorities that concern creating a built environment for all. Topic areas include costs of accessibility; harmonisation of legislation and standards; sports, recreation and accessible environments; technological tools supporting the accessible environment; and challenges in developing countries.

The deadline for submission of abstracts is 15 December.

For more information see the 'Conferences' section at: http://www.cibworld.nl or email: l.biocca@itc.cnr.it or jon.sanford@coa.gatech.edu .

[Special notice ends].

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

Contents.

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

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

Contents.

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

+07: Ubuntu Praise:

Jeff Seager, Communications Specialist at the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services in the US and a long-time reader of our newsletter, writes in with a tip about the accessibility of one brand of Linux operating system.

He says: "I do some web design and accessibility testing for our website and others. At home, I've installed Ubuntu Linux on a couple of computers. I've been happy with the results for several years, so on Thursday (Oct. 18) I opted to upgrade to the latest Ubuntu release 7.10. Yesterday I had a little time to examine some of the changes, and was pleased to see that the Orca screen reader was installed by default.

"I tried it, and found it functions very well for me on a Dell Optiplex GX-150. This is by no means a high-end computer. I thought you might want to pass this along to your readers. It's nice to know that you can get good accessibility to many useful applications in a stable and free operating system. Until now, I don't think that's been true. Perhaps this will help to level the playing field for people with disabilities."

[Please send responses to inbox@headstar.com] .

+08: Government Vapourware:

Gustaw Kon, a reader living in Germany, writes to comment with some scepticism on last issue's report on the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which focuses on access to technology and is due to be passed into law by more than 100 signatory governments.

"Yet again government produces vapourware," he writes. "Standards are adopted to ensure accessibility of government sites. My guess is that these are probably imports from abroad. But as section three of the latest bulletin rather wordily pointed out, standards are useless if they are not implemented.

"Smoke and mirrors, a nod to the variously impaired, a jewel in the crown of politicians headed to whatever future awaits them, are no substitute for producing the goods. I loathe the political window- dressing which masquerades as interest in or concern for various disabled groups."

[Please send responses to inbox@headstar.com] .

+09: Tricky Job:

Our reader Norman Waddington writes in to let us know about problems he has had in obtaining accessible formats for applying for a job online with a local authority.

"I have just done battle with Leeds City Council. I have applied for a job with them but had great difficulty with regard to accessibility.

"I asked them to send me the necessary documentation on Word format so I could access it. I was promptly sent two pdf files and a document supposedly in Word. This was not at all accessible. I informed them it was no good and asked them to try again. They sent three more attempts which were equally useless.

"It is as if they have no idea of the basics of accessibility for the visually impaired. I did explain to the gentleman at Leeds in their Human Resources Department that pdf files are no good to people using speech software and he [had] no idea whatsoever.

"The gentleman at the council at Leeds was extremely apologetic. He did speak to their Communications Department who informed him that they had created a Word document. I suspect they had just changed the file name to '.doc' and had not changed the text in the document. He had no knowledge that there are many ways to create pdf files.

"In my experience I have only had problems with regard to web forms with councils. Any organisations particularly in the visually impaired sector are far more organised. I know nothing is perfect or ever will be."

[Please send responses to inbox@headstar.com] .

+10: Thunder Offer:

Further to our September feature and October 'Inbox' contribution from Kevin Chow in Hong Kong on affordable screen-reader access in China, Roger Wilson-Hinds of Screenreader.net writes:

"I read the 'Chinese Picture' piece in the October Inbox with great interest, and some admiration for what is going on in China for visually impaired people. I am glad they have got the low priced options right from the start.

"Any blind person anywhere in the world is welcome to use our free Thunder screenreader talking software for their personal home use. Obviously this includes Chinese people.

"We currently only offer English and some EU languages but would want to make a free screenreader available in China too with agreed language options. Even so, Thunder as it is might get users going, especially as English is so prominent amongst the PC fraternity and remembering that many might like to learn English as they learn to use their computers.

"So we welcome an approach from across the world and will do our best to respond very positively. Thunder is there for the taking at: www.screenreader.net. "

[Please send responses to inbox@headstar.com] .

[Inbox ends].

++Section Three: Interview- T.V. Raman, Research Scientist, Google.

Contents.

+11: Cracking The Code Of Accessible Searchby Dan Jellinek.

It was revealed this month that Google has become the fifth biggest company in the US, bigger even than McDonalds and Disney: a reflection of the fact that the way we search the internet has become one of the most important parts of our lives.

As no-one with a disability or who works with or is close to someone with a disability needs reminding, the desires and needs of people with disabilities are precisely the same as those of everybody else, which means that searching the internet is high on their list, too.

Google was always a highly usable site, one of the secrets of its success: simple and functional and text-based, which means it is fairly accessible already to people navigating the internet using text-to- speech converters or other special access technologies. But in recent years the company has realised that it is not just access to the search interface, but browsing the results; and even the accessibility of the sites returned as results that dictates how accessible the whole search experience has become.

The man charged with looking at these issues for Google is research scientist T.V. Raman. Based at Google HQ in Mountain View, California, Raman is responsible for developing Google Accessible Search ( http://labs.google.com/accessible/ ), a trial version of the Google search interface that is designed to be easier to use by people with impaired vision or other disabilities, including a system of ranking search results according to the accessibility of the site.

"My job is to look at what Google technology can do for users with disabilities: to make sure it works with assistive technology, and also to look at what we can build to help in new ways," he told E-Access Bulletin in an exclusive interview recorded during a UK trip last month.

"Search is very useful for people with impaired vision, but one of the things I had observed over the years is that websites returned on the third, fourth or fifth page of results were often the most easy to read.

"I built accessible search last year to address this. It is not a different one: it is Google, the same index, the same magic. But it swaps the order of search results depending on whether they are easy to read."

To make this assessment, the software looks at a group of 'design patterns' such as whether the HTML code is clearly structured; whether the page makes sense with images turned off; how the page uses colour; and whether the page can be used without a mouse.

"It looks at a whole bunch of things, some positive, some negative. And it gets trained: using user feedback on the results, it is trained to learn over time about which sites are the most useful."

The accessible search tool is still in development, though it is publicly available through the Google testbed area 'labs.google.com'. While still primarily marketed by word of mouth, the ultimate goal is to make it a choice on the main Google home page, T.V. said.

As befits a multi-billion pound technology company, these days Google's activities extend far beyond its initial core offering of an internet search engine, and T.V.'s work also includes looking at the wider range of Google's work such as web-based software and desktop tools to try to ensure that these, too, are as accessible as possible.

"I am looking at the whole range of Google products that have rich value to people with impaired vision. Blind users for example want simple ways to add events to a calendar." To help people gain access, Google has released the source code to its API (application programming interface)", he said, "and we are also looking for how we can make highly interactive web applications work better with assistive technologies."

T.V.'s background is an unusual one for a Silicon Valley high flyer. His initials are a clue: they stand for Tiruvilwamalai Venkatraman, being respectively his ancestral village and his father's name, as is the tradition in Southern India, where he was born, in 1965. Blind since childhood, he had a tough fight on his hands in a society where the barriers to achievement for people with disabilities are far higher than in many more developed countries in the West - barriers of both cost and social attitude.

Nevertheless he managed to shine as a student with particular gifts in maths, obtaining a place at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. From there he successfully applied for a place at Cornell University, an Ivy League institution among the best colleges in America, travelling there in 1989 to take a PhD in mathematics.

"Taking exams like the GRE [graduate record examination, a test required by many US educational institutions] in the 1980s with the help of a writer was 'interesting' in India - there was a communication gap between [the non-profit educational testing service] ETS in the US that administers the tests (and is well-set up for handling students with special needs) and their counterparts in India who run the tests on behalf of ETS," said T.V. "But things got sorted out eventually."

He completed his thesis in 1994, gaining an Association of Computing Machinery Doctoral Dissertation Award in the process.

But although his doctorate was in maths, by the time he had completed, an interesting metamorphosis had taken place. "I was a mathematician, but I built all the computer systems to access what I needed, and by the time I had finished I was a computer scientist, not a mathematician any more."

Following his graduation, one of his best known projects has been the invention and continued development of Emacspeak, a speech interface to the complete PC desktop including web and email access (the name is derived from the term 'Emacs', a powerful type of text editor and interface often used by computer programmers).

His subsequent path to Google was a highly successful career in programming and systems development followed at some of the world's biggest names in innovation including Xerox, Digital Equipment Corporation, Adobe Systems and IBM Research.

At IBM he worked on developing a speech interface for mobile web applications such as online shopping. The solution was developed as a mainstream application, he says, though it would be useful for blind people.

Despite his switch to IT, his heart has remained with maths: his favourite pastime is solving puzzles which require an intuitive feel for numbers and mathematical patterns. He can solve a Braille version of the Rubik's Cube, for example, in just 30 seconds (for a video of this remarkable feat, see: http://fastlink.headstar.com/rubik1 ).

And so to Google in August 2005, where he has become one of the key modern players in access to information by people with impaired vision. If anyone can solve the puzzle of full accessibility, it is surely T.V. Raman.

[Section Three ends].

++Section Four: Technology- Access to 'Web 2.0'.

Contents.

+12: Frustration 2.0?By Dan Jellinek.

Is the phenomenon of 'Web 2.0' - websites where users can share their own content, such as social network Facebook or video-sharing site YouTube - destined to create a whole bleak new world of information that is inaccessible to people with disabilities?

Such was the depressing question posed by Kath Moonan, Senior Accessibility and Usability Consultant at computer access charity AbilityNet, to delegates at last month's Techshare 2007 conference hosted by the RNIB and other disability charities in London ( http://www.rnib.org.uk/techshare ).

"Web 2.0 describes a move from static, content-driven sites to collaborative sites. They are more like a desktop application might work," Moonan said.

Not only are such sites gaining in popularity and in their range of uses, Moonan said, but increasingly they are also linking up together into one huge 'ecosystem' of sites. For example, you can easily link to a video on YouTube from your page in the music sharing and social networking site MySpace.

But unless accessibility is taken seriously by the makers of these sites, entire categories of web user could end up being excluded from this interdependent world, Moonan said. "One of the problems is we're in danger of creating a whole inaccessible ecosystem because the major players don't take accessibility seriously," she said. "And if the big ones don't do it, nobody bothers. So if you're building for example a Facebook application [a small software tool that any develop can build to add extra functions tot he social network], and Facebook doesn't require any accessibility from you, you say why should I? It builds a culture of complacency."

All this is doubly galling because, just as the original information- based web opened up new possibilities for people with disabilities in accessing information independently, so online social networking has the potential to allow new types of social interaction to take place between people with disabilities and everybody else. But only if the systems are accessible to all, Moonan said.

She illustrated Web 2.0's potential by playing a video interview with Damon Rose, editor of the BBC disability magazine website 'Ouch'. Rose, who is blind, said that tools like Facebook could be extremely useful for networking with people you might come across at a business conference, because if you are blind, it might be hard to pick them out when you are at the conference itself, for example if you have just heard somebody give a talk that you liked, but you can't see where they are. With Facebook, you can network afterwards without physical mobility being an issue.

Other examples of useful Web 2.0 content include videos on the young people's online network Bebo with British Sign Language content, Moonan said.

AbilityNet is carrying out an online survey of web users with disabilities to assess their experiences of Web 2.0, she said. "We are keeping it going because so far we have had a small number of respondents. But a lot of people have emailed us and said 'Hi, I'm glad you're doing a survey, but I can't access any of the Web 2.0 sites to answer the questions. Can you let me know when they are accessible and I can go and find out about them?" said Moonan. "Does this sound familiar from Web 1.0?"

So what are the features of Web 2.0 sites that present the biggest access problems for people using screen-readers or other special access technologies?

Perhaps the biggest single problem is caused by 'captcha' tools, Moonan said. These are graphical panels displaying a visually distorted sequence of letters or numbers that people must enter to proceed. The tests are designed to weed out the automated 'spambot' programmes that try to take over interactive websites for advertising, and which cannot recognise visually distorted characters; but they have the side- effect of also excluding people using non-visual ways of accessing the web.

"Captcha tools can be incredibly difficult if you have low vision or dyslexia, and they shut out blind users altogether," Moonan said. On one site we saw, you can't even contact customer support because of a captcha file.

Another problem with many of the new Web 2.0 sites is that, in the rush to break new ground and be the first to innovate, developers often put incomplete or test versions of a site up before they fully ready, and look to iron out any problems such as accessibility problems in future phases or 'iterations', she said.

"They say we'll put it up broken and fix it later. And so you end up with sites like MySpace - 'table soup' for screen-reader users. Has Web 2.0 created a culture of inaccessibility as in the early days of the web, from which we are still picking up the pieces? Are we developing a new generation of cowboy developers?"

If the answers to such questions are to be positive, there are a number of basic steps all developers must start to take, Moonan said. These include that:

- All captcha graphics should have an audio alternative;

- In the longer term, non-visual alternatives to captcha must be used such as email verification or mobile phone verification;

- Help pages and navigational signposting throughout the site should be developed and improved;

- If multimedia is used, it should be easy to turn audio and video feeds on and off;

- There should always be alternative ways of interacting with the same information.

Ultimately the goal is equality of access, Moonan said - whatever the sites are used for. "One description of social networking sites is sites that allow people to waste time at work. And because I believe in equality, I believe everyone should be able to waste time at work."

NOTE: The AbilityNet survey on access to social networking websites is available for completion on the web until 10 December. Fill it out at: http://www.abilitynet.org.uk/socialnetworking .

[Section Four ends].

++Special Notice: Web Accessibility Forum.

Contents.

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].

++Special Notice: Braille Translations.

Contents.

Braille Translations provides a fast, cost-effective, high quality service of translating any document into Braille. We are able to provide Braille menus, public leaflets and business cards in Braille and help make you compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act. We can translate from large print, audio tape or audio CD.

We can also help with premises accessibility including Braille Tactile Signs for toilets and other doors.

All work is proof-read before dispatch and we are able to provide an express 24-hour service. Please call our offices for an immediate quotation or for further information on Freephone number 08000 190 946; Mobile: 07903 996533; email ghow@brailletranslations.co.uk or see: http://www.brailletranslations.co.uk .

++End Notes.

Contents.

+H

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 2007 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 bulletin 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.

+Personnel:

  • Editor - Dan Jellinek
  • Editorial advisors - Kevin Carey, Derek Parkinson, Mel Poluck
  • Marketing Executive - Claire Clinton
  • Sales and Marketing - Jo Knell, Will Knox.

ISSN 1476-6337 .

[Issue 95 ends].