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++Section One: News.
+01: Hollywood-Voiced Avatar Solves Citizens’ Accessibility Queries.
An online avatar voiced by an Oscar-winning actor has been created to give disabled Australian citizens information on the country’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
The virtual assistant ‘Nadia’ is voiced by Australian actor Cate Blanchett and is able to answer common questions about the NDIS – a support scheme for Australian citizens under 65 with a permanent disability, replacing a previous national disability scheme. Users interact with Nadia through their computer’s webcam and microphone. This gives the process a human element and means that only minimal keyboard or mouse navigation is needed.
Nadia was developed by Soul Machines, a New Zealand-based company specialising in avatars and artificial intelligence projects. The company was launched by Mark Sagar, a university professor and Oscar-winner for his work on digital visual effects.
To provide Nadia’s voice, Blanchett (who has starred in films including ‘Blue Jasmine’, ‘The Aviator’ and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy) recorded thousands of sentences, which will be cut and combined to form completely new sentences to different questions. Soul Machines say that Nadia’s database of knowledge will increase as she ‘learns’ from more users asking more questions. Visually, Nadia is represented by a lifelike human face, which displays emotions.
Nadia’s design was informed by the NDIS Digital Innovation Reference Group, a collaboration between Australian citizens with disabilities, members of the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), and figures from the technology industries.
In a video about the project, posted by Soul Machines on YouTube, Maryanne Diamond from the NDIS explains that Nadia was created to help overcome the challenges faced by disabled citizens in communicating with the NDIA, such as inaccessible web forms or letters containing lots of “government language”.
For example, one of Nadia’s pre-recorded sentences (heard in the Soul Machines YouTube video) is: “One of the many reasons I have been created is to get rid of tens of thousands of government forms that often take hours of people’s time to complete.”
Writing on the Soul Machines blog, Louise Glanville – Deputy CEO of the NDIA – said that Nadia will be accessible “24/7” at the NDIS ‘myplace’ portal (for Australian citizens with sign-in credentials) and is designed to meet international accessibility guidelines.
Glanville writes: “She can already understand thousands of questions put to her, and will answer with clear and simple responses. The more interactions she has with people, the more her knowledge bank will grow.”
Read more about the Nadia avatar at the Soul Machines website: http://eab.li/50 .
Comment on this story now at e-Access Bulletin Live: http://eab.li/57 .
+02: Online Shopping ‘Not As Inclusive As It Should Be,’ New Researchfinds.
The websites of six popular UK retailers would not achieve the basic standard of online content accessibility, according to new research by a usability consultancy.
After a series of ‘mini-accessibility audits,’ accessibility design consultancy User Vision found that some online shoppers with impairments would have difficulty purchasing items from each of the websites examined, due to a number of common barriers.
The retailers chosen for the study were selected “to cover as many segments of the market as possible,” Marie Moyles, a UX (user experience) analyst at User Vision, told e-Access Bulletin. The six stores were as follows, in order of the accessibility score awarded in the research: House of Fraser (scoring 3/5); Boots (3/5); Tesco (2.5/5); Mothercare (2.5/5); Not on the High Street (1/5); and Joules (1/5).
“We wanted to select a range of stores which were well known, trusted and provided a variety of products for differing budgets and tastes,” Moyles said.
User Vision claims that, “in their present state”, all of the sites would fail testing for Level AA of WCAG (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 – widely seen as the benchmark for online accessibility.
The accessibility audits focused on the experience of blind screen-reader users and sighted keyboard-only users – specifically on the ‘user journeys’ when browsing and purchasing products through the six sites. Aspects of WCAG 2.0 were then used as an indicator of the websites’ accessibility levels.
Common accessibility barriers found during the testing included a lack of consistent visible focus (which helps sighted keyboard-only users track their place on a webpage) and a lack of ‘skip to’ links (especially important for screen-reader users to quickly navigate to relevant content).
Moyles told e-Access Bulletin that the main barrier uncovered in the testing was a difficulty in providing context for screen-reader users. “It is important to remember that those who rely on screen-readers are unable to visually group information together or understand meaning through visible presentation,” she said.
Speaking about the key findings from the audits, Moyles said: “The main message was that, unfortunately, shopping online is not as inclusive as it could and should be. There is still some way to go in improving the accessibility of online stores.”
Although User Vision says that none of the sites achieved WCAG 2.0 Level AA standard from the mini-audits, Moyles said that the majority of the sites were “aware of accessibility” and had attempted to implement some accessible features. “The most important thing to consider is that the issues we came across are actually quite easy to correct,” said Moyles.
Asked what retailers should be doing to improve online accessibility, Moyles said: “Retailers should be investing in usability testing with disabled people to ascertain that the site is usable as much as it is compliant to WCAG standards.”
Read more about the study at the User Vision website: http://eab.li/52 .
Comment on this story now at e-Access Bulletin Live: http://eab.li/55 .
+03: Ai App Learns As It Provides A Window To The World.
An image recognition app that identifies objects and colours for blind and visually impaired people through AI (artificial intelligence) technology can ‘learn’ about its surroundings as users teach it.
The free version of the Aipoly Vision app comes pre-loaded with information and is able to identify around 1,000 ‘essential’ items (such as coffee cups, headphones and flowers) immediately after being downloaded.
Users simply point their phone at an item and Aipoly then speaks the name of the item out loud. The app was designed to help users with sight loss or low vision identify more of the world around them without the assistance of a sighted person.
Aipoly runs and identifies constantly without an internet connection, and users don’t need to take photos of individual items in order for the app to recognise them. Aipoly’s developers claim that it can identify items at a rate of three per second.
Users can switch between different modes to recognise different groups of things, such as foods, text, currency, plants and colours. The Aipoly recognition system works through what the company calls a “real-time deep learning SDK” (software development kit).
A paid-for version of the app, costing $4.99 per month, features a much larger pre-installed database of objects. But users can also help build Aipoly’s database manually, by inputting descriptions of new objects or objects that the app identifies incorrectly.
These descriptions are stored on the app for future recognition – to help the individual user – but also get uploaded to the Aipoly servers. This information is then used by Aipoly’s development team when updating the app, therefore benefitting other users too.
So far, reviews and feedback have generally been positive, with users (including blind and visually impaired users) impressed by the app’s ease of use and wide recognition abilities. However, many also report at least some errors when the app is identifying objects.
Aiploy Vision is currently only available for the iPhone and iPad, via the iTunes app store, but a version for Android devices is scheduled for April 15. In January, the app was given a ‘2017 Innovation Award’ by the Consumer Technology Association at its annual CES (Consumer Electronics Show) event.
Read more at the Aipoly website: http://eab.li/53 .
Comment on this story now at e-Access Bulletin Live: http://eab.li/54 .
++News in Brief:
+04: Chrome Building:
A new version of Google Chrome’s ChromeVox screen-reader has been introduced on Chromebook computers to improve accessibility for visually impaired users. New features include simplified keyboard controls for keyboard-only users; menus listing screen-reader speech options; improved navigation for USB Braille display users; a text/Braille tracking panel designed for teachers working with visually impaired students; and ‘earcon’ auditory features to give contextual information.
Read more about the ChromeVox screen-reader at the Google Blog: http://eab.li/4y .
+05: Streaming Advice:
The Royal National Institute of Blind People’s (RNIB) Northern Ireland branch will host a live video talk about the accessibility of Apple products for people with sight loss on its Facebook page. The discussion takes place on Wednesday March 1 at 1pm GMT using the Facebook Live video streaming tool. Topics covered will include Apple’s VoiceOver screen-reader and the zoom function.
Visit the RNIB Northern Ireland Facebook page at the link below to access the talk: http://eab.li/4z .
+06: Shaping a City:
New York City (NYC) has appointed its first ‘Digital Accessibility Coordinator’ to help make the city’s digital services and products more accessible for citizens with disabilities. Walei Sabry is part of the NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, and his work includes creating web accessibility standards, testing NYC government websites for accessibility, and training developers to produce accessible digital content.
Read an article written by New York City’s Digital Accessibility Coordinator on publishing website Medium: http://eab.li/4- .
[Section One ends].
++ Notice: Thomas Pocklington Trust.E-Access Bulletin is brought to you with the kind support of Thomas Pocklington Trust, a national charity delivering positive change for people with sight loss. Find out more about the work of Thomas Pocklington Trust by visiting their website: http://www.pocklington-trust.org.uk .
++Section Two: 'The Inbox'- Readers' Forum.
Please email all questions, comments and responses to: email@example.com .
+07: Retail Reply:
Last week, regular Bulletin correspondent Carine Marzin got in touch to ask if other readers knew of any research on the accessibility of online retail sites – particularly any studies that showed companies prioritising digital accessibility.
Another regular reader, Rick Williams, replies to Carine’s comment this month:
“Hi, Carine. I was one of the joint authors of the Click-Away Pound report, which researched the commercial issues regarding website and app accessibility.
“One of the many interesting things that came out of the research was that one person’s accessible site was someone else’s inaccessible one. We asked people to nominate their best and worst sites in terms of their access needs, and many sites appeared on both lists from different users. Clearly, the issue was the effect of their disability and their associated access needs.
“One site which came out consistently well was the Ocado shopping site and app.”
Read the full Click-Away Pound report at the following link: http://eab.li/51 .
Please send any further research examples or insights on good practice to: firstname.lastname@example.org .
[Section Two ends].
++ Notice: RNIB Connect Radio and e-Access Bulletin.e-Access Bulletin will be appearing on RNIB Connect Radio each month on The Early Edition programme. Hear more about the bulletin and upcoming content appearing in each issue, as we discuss the latest accessible technology news and readers’ questions with Allan Russell.
Episodes will be available after broadcast as podcasts from the RNIB Connect Radio site. Listen to RNIB Connect Radio online, or via television, smartphone or radio. Listening details at the following link: http://eab.li/3e .
Find out more at the RNIB Connect Radio website: http://eab.li/1h .
Section Three: Interview. - Sonya Huber, Disability March.
+08: Impactful Online Activism.
On January 21 2017, around half a million people took part in the Women's March in Washington D. C. Symbolically scheduled for the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th President of the United States, the aim of the Women’s March was to support and stand up for women’s rights and equality around the world, with millions more marching across the globe in related events. But what about those people who wanted to support the cause but couldn’t attend a march in person?
This was the dilemma facing many people with a disability or health issues. To address this widespread problem, an online virtual march was set up. The Disability March platform enabled anyone to show their support for the cause without having to physically march – a task that would have been dangerous for some and impossible for others.
Supporters signed-up to the online Disability March and shared their messages through the project’s blog and Twitter account. Thousands took part and others were able to see their stories unfold online.
Sonya Huber, an author and creative writing professor from Connecticut, was one of the organisers of the Disability March. e-Access Bulletin spoke to Huber to find out more.
- Please explain the concept of the Disability March:
“The Disability March is, in the simplest form, a blog. Each ‘marcher’ was an entry on the blog, and each entry was a photo of an individual along with his or her story of disability and message about marching in solidarity with the Women’s Marches. Most stories were explicit about the disability, the inability to physically march, and/or the ways in which the marcher would be impacted by proposed policies of the Trump administration.
“The blog was also linked to a Twitter account, @DisabilityMarch, so that as the marchers were put online by the volunteer team, the effect for viewers of the blog, and on Twitter, was of a parade slowly rolling by. Many people watched or engaged with these pieces when they were published and in the weeks after publication, and shared their own profiles as well as the profiles of others who moved them.”
- What was the background to the project?
“I came up with the idea for the Disability March in early December 2016, as plans for the January 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C. were being hatched, and as I realised I wouldn’t be able to attend due to my rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions. I shared the idea of a blog with a few friends, as a space for telling stories of those who are disabled and couldn’t march. We had our first ‘marcher’, Karrie Higgins, on December 21, and my goal was to get to 50 postings on the blog.”
- What was the overall goal of the Disability March?
“Our main idea was to be visible as members of the disability community who are going to be heavily impacted by the Trump administration’s proposed policy changes to the ACA [Affordable Care Act] and proposed cuts to Medicaid. So our goal was to put the stories of disabled people front and centre, giving them space to say what they feared about the Trump agenda and what we need as a community.”
- How did the online march go on the day?
“A week before the Women’s March, we started to get hundreds of entries. I recruited about 20 volunteers to help with uploading the entries by hand into the blog. During the day of the march I didn’t go to a local physical march; I was on the computer for about 12 hours a day, uploading and responding to inquiries.”
- How many people took part in the online Disability March?
“Our final number was 3,021 entries. I was completely surprised by the success of it.”
- What do you think it shows about the power of technology for persons with disabilities?
“I think it shows that people who aren’t able to attend marches are nevertheless hungering for participation, connection, and visibility.”
- What has been the reaction since the online march?
“We have a Facebook group of about 1,800 people and we are in touch with other disability rights organisations to talk about how to move forward.”
- Are any online marches planned for the future?
“We are talking about possibilities!”
- What else do you have planned for the project now the Women’s March has finished?
“The blog from the march will stay up, and we are using the website and Twitter to share resources about disability and action in politics.”
- I see you’re also encouraging people to arrange their own online disability marches. Tell us about that:
“I want to get the wider political organising community to take on doing these visibility actions, in order to include those people in their communities. This is an organising tool that any organisation can use.”
For more information, visit the Disability March website: http://eab.li/4x .
Comment on this story now at e-Access Bulletin Live: http://eab.li/58 .
[Section Three ends].
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- Editor: Tristan Parker
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[Issue 187 ends].