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Accessible book body to focus on developing countries

An initiative to increase production and dissemination of accessible format books for blind and print-impaired readers in developing countries has been launched by a group of international bodies.

Members of the new Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) include the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO); the World Blind Union (WBU); the DAISY talking book format; the International Publishers Association; and the International Authors Forum. It is intended as a stop-gap measure pending implementation of a WIPO treaty on access to printed works for blind and print-impaired people, signed in July last year.

The ‘Marrakech Treaty’ will eventually allow exceptions to international copyright laws permitting sharing of accessible printed materials, but must first be ratified by 20 countries, a process still being completed.

Maryanne Diamond, chair of the WBU’s ‘Right to Read’ campaign, told E-Access Bulletin the consortium will be testing some elements that need to be in place for implementation of the treaty.

“[It] provides the opportunity to trial different ways to get books in the hands of persons who are blind,” Diamond said. “It will undertake capacity building of: publishers to publish accessible [books] and organisations in developing countries to produce and distribute accessible books,” she said.

Further work will focus on will focus on boosting demand for accessible books among groups of blind and print-impaired people in developing countries, including work already underway in Bangladesh.

Other areas of work for the ABC include talking with publishers and (printed materials) rights holders, and urging them to publish their texts in accessible formats. Once the Marrakech Treaty is fully ratified, the body’s work will scale back, Diamond said.

A detailed report on the Marrakech Treaty and its background can be found in a previous issue of E-Access Bulletin.

Equality analysis vital for council websites, conference hears

Local authorities planning to redesign their websites or make any major changes to them must carry out equality analysis from day one of the project, delegates heard at this month’s ‘Building Perfect Council Websites’ conference in Birmingham.

And suppliers or contractors designing a council’s website or taking on responsibility for uploading web content to the site must be instructed to do so to the same standard local authority staff would be expected to perform, Clive Lever, diversity and equality officer at Kent County Council, told a conference discussion group.

“Make them aware of our Public Sector Equality Duty [introduced by the Equality Act 2010]”, Lever said. “When commissioning others to work on your websites, do not settle for promises of accessibility – get evidence of how they will do it or have done in the past.”

When offering website users content in accessible alternative formats, use content that is appropriate for your target audience, he said. “So ’Keeping safe’ advice specifically for people with learning difficulties needs ‘Easyread’ versions as a matter of course. But minutes of cabinet meetings may not, so you would only provide them in Easyread if asked to do so. This approach means that you may only need to show clearly how people can get alternative formats if they need them. Do this in the files and on the pages which hold them.”

When running usability tests on a website, it is vital to bring in a wide cross-section of members of the public including disabled people; people of all ages; people with low literacy skills; and both experienced computer users and novices, Lever said.

“Remember that a person who cannot reach the information they need may think they are failing. In reality they are being failed by the website. Make sure at the start of the session that testers are clear that we are not testing them. They are testing us.”

While he said it was understandable that local authorities are currently looking to save as much money as possible, he said they should still offer a small payment to members of the public who are asked to test the website. “Travelling to our sites to do test tasks costs them time and money, and the experience of carrying out the user tests may be frustrating and stressful to them.”

Another key accessibility practice is to always use everyday language and terms online, he said.

“Remember that people rarely come to our site to have a look around and find out what we do. They come because there is something specific they want to do. So, our search box could say: ‘What do you want to do?’ instead of ‘Search’”.

The conference was co-hosted by E-Access Bulletin publisher Headstar with the local public sector IT management body Socitm.

Apple urged to act on app accessibility

The US National Federation of the Blind has called on technology giant Apple to include accessibility to non-visual users as part of its process of approving apps for supply through its App Store, or when they are updated.

The call came in a resolution passed at the federation’s annual convention held this month in Orlando, Florida.

This acknowledged that Apple has made major steps towards making its own products accessible, including integration in many of them of the screenreader programme VoiceOver. It also noted that VoiceOver can allow non-visual access to mobile apps, and praised Apple for releasing and promoting tools and guidance to make it easy for app developers to incorporate accessibility features for VoiceOver users.

However, the resolution said: “despite Apple’s efforts to encourage accessibility, too many applications are still not accessible to VoiceOver users because buttons are not properly labeled, images of text cannot be interpreted, and other display elements cannot even be detected by VoiceOver.”

Noting that Apple “is not reluctant to place requirements and prohibitions on application developers, but has not seen fit to require that applications be accessible to VoiceOver users”, it said accessibility “should be as important as any other requirement imposed on application developers.” It thus called on Apple to “create and enforce policies, standards, and procedures to ensure the accessibility of all apps… and to ensure that accessibility is not lost when an app is updated.”

In all, some 19 out of 22 resolutions passed at the Orlando convention relate to digital technology.

These include a resolution urging the Obama administration to act more quickly on its own pledge to introduce new regulations enforcing the accessibility of all US public sector websites, first proposed in 2010 but recently delayed until March 2015.

Others included resolutions urging better accessibility for Microsoft SharePoint collaboration software; apps and websites collecting data and interacting with devices to build the “internet of things”; tools and technologies helping people manage diabetes; enterprise software; electronic health records; educational tools used by science students in the laboratory; cloud storage services such as Dropbox, Box, SugarSync and Google Drive; home security systems; digital books; anti-virus software; apps made by airline companies to book and track flights; online ballot-marking systems; remote computer access tools.

All this year’s NFB resolutions can be read in Word ’97 format on the federation’s website.

Accessible video gaming: gateway to modern life

This month SpecialEffect, a charity pioneering access to video gaming by people with disabilities, won top prize in the Accessibility category at the national Technology4Good Awards. Here, the organisation’s head of communications Mark Saville talks to E-Access Bulletin editor Dan Jellinek about how it goes about bringing games to everyone – and why this matters.

- How would you summarise the work you do?

SpecialEffect is a charity that is helping people with physical disabilities to enjoy video games for fun, inclusion and rehabilitation. There is no one-size-fits-all way of doing this, so we visit people to find out exactly what they want to play, and what they need to play it. We will then match, modify or create equipment to lend to them, and give support so they can get the best out of it. It takes time, patience and expertise, but it opens the door to self-esteem, confidence and a better quality of life.

- Why is access to gaming important?

For a whole bunch of reasons, not least to level the playing field. The people we see often cannot play real, physical games with their friends and families, so virtual games offer an important opportunity for inclusion. It is also the case that, love them or loathe them, video games are here to stay and are a huge part of modern life. It is estimated that more than 50 million people in the UK have played video games at one time or another, whether that be the latest [XBox or PlayStation??] shoot-em-up or a few minutes of fun on a smartphone. And this figure is only going to rise, along with the number of potential players who cannot join in because of a disability.

- Why is it so important to customise gaming support for each individual?

In the six years that we have been around, no two people we have seen with the same disability have had exactly the same physical abilities. And that matters when you’re talking about getting to grips with a standard handheld games console controller with a couple of small joysticks and around 10 tiny buttons and triggers on the front, sides and sometimes rear of the unit. People also want to play different games, so there is a big variety (and speed!) of button and trigger combinations to factor in.

When abilities change over time – for example with muscular dystrophy – we will make several visits to adjust or change the technology if necessary, so video games can be accessible for as long as possible for that person.

Our occupational therapists play a massive role in everything. They bring a huge amount to the process, including making sure the mounting and positioning of the equipment is safe, and sometimes enabling tiny extra finger or hand movements which can make the difference between a particular individual being able to play games, or having to just sit and watch. They have a whole assortment of wonderful stuff in their boxes, from padded garden twine to heat-mouldable resin, and different types of Velcro… all useful in some way, at some time or another.

- Do you receive much recognition and support from the mainstream gaming community?

We do not charge for our help, so we are 100% reliant on the goodwill and generosity of people to keep going. We are very fortunate in that many in the gaming community do understand what we are trying to do.

We encourage game developers to get in touch if they are interested in learning more about how their games could be made more accessible to a greater number of people, and that is beginning to happen. However, because of the complexity of video games and their controllers, we took the conscious decision not to prioritise the advocacy of accessibility within video games directly. Instead we put our efforts into working with individuals with disabilities, and by demonstrating the difference in quality of life that this level of personalised support is able to bring, we hope to inspire developers to make their games more inclusive.

- Are the techniques you develop useful in other areas of digital access or communication?

We are mixing, modifying and matching hardware and software all the time, and yes, there is often overlap into other areas of digital access. To take an obvious example, if we enable someone to access a drop-down menu in a video game, then that might have implications for other areas of computer control for that individual. It is the same for eye gaze technology, and there is plenty of crossover there in terms of using the same technology for both games and everyday communication.

- What new technologies are the most exciting for future access possibilities?

We have pretty much got our hands full trying to keep pace with the constant changes and innovations in mainstream video game control technology, but we are also currently keeping tabs on development of brain control interfaces and other biosignal systems. We’re also looking at facial and other gesture recognition systems. These all offer interesting potential for future access to video gaming.

- Why is recognition from an award such as Tech4Good important?

It was an honour and a privilege to receive the Tech4Good Accessibility Award this year. I think it is a recognition of the positive impact that our work is having on individual lives, and is a real encouragement to us that we’re doing the right thing. I also think it is a recognition that video games are becoming a huge part of society.

We are not just helping people to play video games for fun, we’re increasing their quality of life by opening the door to integration into a massive digital social network. We have often heard people say: “I can’t imagine life without video games.”

One Voice launches 2015 election pledge campaign

A campaign urging all UK political parties to add digital accessibility pledges to their 2015 election manifestos has been launched by the One Voice for Accessible ICT Coalition.

The coalition is an umbrella group of organisations from all sectors including Leonard Cheshire Disability; BT; Middlesex University; Business Disability Forum and Barclays Bank.

Its new campaign has two main parts: a direct approach to the political parties and a petition on the open campaigns website ’38 Degrees’.

It is centred on a call for “all political parties to reaffirm their previously stated goals for equal opportunities and economic growth, by adding a statement to their 2015 election manifestos pledging to improve access by people with disabilities to digital public services, the digital economy and the workplace.

It is vital that action is taken in this field now, to ensure we keep on top of the rising problem of digital discrimination.”

In particular, the coalition is asking the main UK parties to pledge if elected to t review of anti-discrimination law to “see if it is fit for purpose in the digital age; and to see how existing laws, guidelines and standards on access to digital goods and services by disabled and older people can be better enforced across all sectors.”

In background information published alongside the petition, the coalition notes that the government has already published reasonable accessibility guidelines in its Government Service Design Manual for the Digital by Default Service Standard.

However, it warns: “We are concerned that such messages are still not strongly enough promoted or enforced across the whole of government. And outside central government, in local government and the NHS for example, the pattern of accessibility of digital services is even more patchy.

“It is also a concern that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was set up in 2006 with a mandate to “challenge discrimination”, has undertaken very little research, issued little guidance and carried out little enforcement work in this vital area. This is a clear indicator that review of anti-discrimination law enforcement in this field is urgently needed.”

Andy Heath, a consultant on digital accessibility and One Voice council member who is running the petition on behalf of the coalition, told E-Access Bulletin this week: “Technology can serve us all, or if we let it, it can serve only the few. Accessibility of digital information in the UK is not a done deal, its a work in progress.

“I see the support of the next government it as crucial to the progress of inclusion and accessibility in the UK and making a high level manifesto statement would show a commitment to that. We need the policy vision out there in view so all can see, not buried in a dusty filing cabinet. Whether you believe competition between people, organisations and nations, is a good way to go or not, we cannot afford to waste the talents of any of our people by excluding them – for their sakes and ours.”

Heath urged all readers of E-Access Bulletin to sign the petition, Building an Inclusive Society, and promote it on social media and through other channels, as the parties enter the final stages of their manifesto-setting processes this summer.

Accessible gaming guidelines win US award

A set of international guidelines to make computer games more accessible to gamers with disabilities has won an award from the US-based Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The Game Accessibility Guidelines won the intellectual and developmental disabilities category of the annual FCC Chairman’s Awards for Advancements in Accessibility.

Launched in 2012, the guidelines were created by an international group of game developers, accessibility specialists and academics and cover six categories of impairment: general, motor, cognitive, vision, hearing and speech, and are divided into three levels of complexity: basic, intermediate and advanced.

Examples of guidelines at different levels of complexity include basic: to provide details of accessibility features on game packaging or website; intermediate: to allow difficulty level to be altered during gameplay; and advanced: to allow settings to be saved to different profiles, at either game or platform level.

Ian Hamilton, an independent user experience designer and consultant from the UK who contributed to the guidelines’ development, told E-Access Bulletin: “Having a US government body make such a public statement about the importance of accessible recreation is a great milestone.

“It is recognition that other people are actually listening and paying attention, and they do value the work that various groups of advocates for game accessibility are doing to advance the field.”

Since launching in 2012, the guidelines have been constantly developed and updated as a “living document” following feedback from gamers and developers. There is a continual open call to contact the authors, to keep the guidelines as inclusive as possible.

Hamilton said he hopes the FCC award will help bring to prominence what remains a niche area in the field of digital accessibility.

“We’ve seen some pretty rapid development in the past couple of years, but the industry is still way, way behind others”, he said. “Despite the progress that is being made, by far the biggest barrier to accessibility in gaming is just a simple lack of awareness amongst developers. So anything at all that results in more conversation about it is always a fantastic thing.”

In an article on the guidelines written in a previous issue of E-Access Bulletin, Hamilton wrote that research commissioned in 2008 by US video game developer PopCap found a higher proportion of people with disabilities among gamers than in the general population.

“Games can be a huge contributor to quality of life for people who have limited recreation options, but they also enable access to culture and socialising, and can have therapeutic benefits”, the article found. “In multiplayer games and virtual worlds, everyone is able to participate on a level playing field, with players’ first impressions of someone being based on how they play the game and what they say, not on any disability they may have.”

Customisable digital tube train map wins design award

A customisable version of the London Underground map for people with impaired vision has won best transport app in this month’s UK Mobile and App Design Awards, hosted by design100.

“Colourblind tube map” was created by digital agency 232 Studios – which also won best small studio – working with accessibility specialist Ian Hamilton, also known for his work on accessible video game guidelines (see previous story, this issue).

The app is based on the official tube map – “it took some tough licensing negotiations to allow that”, Hamilton says – and offers combinations of colours and patterns which are easier to read by users with different forms of colourblindness.

Other versions are designed to cater for other vision impairments such as cataracts, loss of contrast sensitivity and myopia, with features including increased contrast; reduced glare; large detailed high-zoom maps; customisable text size; and simple interfaces with no fiddly gestures

The app previously won a Judges’ Award in last December’s Transport for London (TfL) accessible app awards, with the prize money from this helping ensure it could be made available to both Apple and Android users free of charge, Hamilton told E-Access Bulletin.

“The iconic London underground map is relied on by millions of travellers every day, but its white background, small text and low contrast differences in colour can cause problems for people with many different types of impaired vision”, the app’s developers say.

“There is a black and white pattern-based map available, but only as a PDF… [but this] is actually left over from the time before colour printing became cheaply available, it isn’t actually designed for colour-blindness, so the first enhancement was to produce something that was actually tailored to that audience, that combined colour with pattern to create something ideally suited to people who see in a restricted palette.

“Additionally, due to our past experience working on video magnifier software, another use soon became apparent. A pattern based map is free from being constrained by colour choice, meaning those colours can be altered to suit the preferences of people with a wide range of different vision impairments.”

The approach taken to develop the app is an example of the benefits digital technology can bring to all kinds of impairments, the developers say. “The tube map in the station is a physical object that has to compromise to work for as many people as possible, but digital products do not have the same constraints. Interfaces can be customised, the best solution tailored to each individual’s need.”

The same basic principles are also applicable to all map design, they say, and there has been interest in the project from across the cartography community. “Using symbols and pattern as well as colour, or providing high detail imagery that can in turn support a high level of zoom; these are things that are applicable to all maps.”

Other winners of December’s TfL accessible app competition included London’s Nearest Bus, which helps people find what bus stop they are at and when the next bus will arrive; Station Master, which offers detailed train and station access information for tube and overground lines; and Tube Tracker, an app that uses text-to-speech and high colour contrast to ease access to live journey information.

Shifting barriers for older people: Time for a change

Why do older people make less use of computers and digital services than younger people? writes Ann Bajina.

Of course, there is the perception that they don’t want to simply because the digital world is new, but I don’t think that is always the reason. There are some real problems with access for older people.

Let’s look first at the positives, as an older person myself – recognising that I couldn’t do without my laptop now, having resisted buying one for a few years! It’s great to be able to stay in touch with relatives and friends without needing to know if they are available to take a phone call, and without the feeling that a letter needs to contain important news. I have had health problems and have needed to report in to my daughter every morning and evening just to reassure her that I am OK. By email it is easy – I don’t even need to know if she is up yet! And it’s free, whether we are countries apart or next door.

Then mobile phones – what would we do without them now? I take issue with those friends who say they only use them in emergencies and switch them off otherwise – so my question is: so it’s only an emergency you have that matters, not one someone else might have?

I understand they do not want to be fiddling with answering the phone in the middle of doing something else, and that’s if they can actually find it – which leads to one of the difficulties for older people – hearing it ring in the first place! I think many older people find mobile phones intrusive, not helped by (mostly) younger people chatting at full volume on trains and buses! I haven’t any experience yet with smart phones, for reasons I will describe shortly.

Other major positives for older people include remotely controlled burglar alarm systems, alarm systems on a phone to alert someone of health issues, and even for some people, games!

However, there are problems which get worse the older you get. Here are my main gripes.

Touch screens are a nice idea but almost impossible to use if you have shaky hands, and most of us do eventually.

Small devices are a problem as well, as we often can’t read the screens. Even this Notebook computer I am using is difficult. It is rarely intuitive finding out how to increase the text size, and then there’s no room on the screen without lots of scrolling. I’ve just found how to do it for this article!

Passwords and PIN numbers – another problem. We’re told not to write them down but to have different ones for each application. I couldn’t have remembered them if I’d obeyed this rule years ago, now it is impossible. Quite apart from issues such as failing memory, we now have so many.

Then there are constantly changing computer operating systems. I read a letter in the Saga magazine just this morning pleading for fewer of these. It nearly always depends on having some younger techie to explain and implement changes, and not all of us have access to such people. Even after a full career in IT I am seriously out of date and have no confidence in being able to deal with this problem. Associated with this is the cost of getting new hardware and software – many older people can’t afford to change even if they wanted to.

Anti-virus systems are an even more complicated example of the above. And a particular irritation is being offered extra features on a trial basis and then not being able to say you don’t want them.

Finally, spam is a nuisance for everyone, but it is counter-intuitive to expect older people to avoid putting details say of their email address on a form when asked to do so. We’re much less likely to realise when this is risky. This leads to the issue of scare stories and hoaxes – I always advise my friends to check with Snopes.com before opening anything they don’t recognise, and never to download anything they don’t know about – but they don’t know about software upgrades they need either!

In conclusion, there’s quite a lot of education needed for my generation who mostly had almost no experience of computers in their working lives. But they are not going to do it – they don’t see why they should and in any case, it just makes them recognise how little they know and how much can go wrong! And cost again is a factor.

So, what do we need? Fewer changes; cheaper support networks; clearer instructions on how to increase volume and text size and swap between mouse and touch screen systems; and older people serving in computer shops! And how about bringing back paper copies of manuals– if you don’t know how to use your computer, how do you find the help system?

NOTE: Ann Bajina worked for more than 50 years in IT, and is now gratefully retired.

EU elections ‘inaccessible for many disabled citizens’

“Inaccessible and cumbersome administrative processes” including inaccessible websites are preventing people with disabilities in Europe from voting in elections, according to a new report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), an EU advisory research body.

The report, published this month, examined how well the political rights of persons with disabilities are being upheld across Europe, and found significant barriers exist to the exercise of these rights. “Gaps between the promise of law and policy and their actual implementation – for example in the form of inaccessible polling stations or websites – persist”, it says.

Information on elections remains largely inaccessible to persons with disabilities, the report says, and official voting information websites in most EU member states do not appear to meet the minimum accepted standard for website accessibility, the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

In a move linked to publication of the FRA report, the European Disability Forum (EDF) urged EU member states to remove restrictions that were preventing persons with disabilities from voting in the run-up to the recent European Parliament elections.

The forum, an independent international campaign group, also called on those European citizens with disabilities that were able to vote to do so, and exert their influence. The group published its own policy manifesto, “The key priorities of the disability movement”, aimed at political parties across Europe. These include making goods and services accessible for all, through implementing the proposed EU directive on the accessibility of public websites.

Joysticks and 3-D printing among accessible election prototypes

Voting with joysticks and 3-D printed accessible cases for tablet computers housing voting systems are among innovations presented in a new report on making elections more accessible for people with disabilities published this month by the US Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

“Innovations for accessible elections” assesses several years of ITIF research and development projects.

US elections make use of a range of electronic voting systems including touch-screen devices and although US law requires accessible alternatives to be offered such as audio, and tactile keys, many voters with disabilities still experience problems using these systems and with voting in general, the report finds.

As many as 47 million US citizens (almost one in four of the voting age population) face barriers to voting in person due to inaccessible devices, it says. Problems include a lack of accessible information about polling place locations; poll workers who do not recognise the needs of people with disabilities; electronic voting systems not set up for audio ballots; and keypads with confusing or unusual layouts and keys that are hard to identify by feel.

Recent innovation projects by ITIF with partners including the US Election Assistance Commission and the social innovation collaboration platform OpenIDEO have led to a range of ideas and prototypes to try to solve these problems.

They include a ballot designed for use on any device, codenamed the “Anywhere Ballot”, presenting information in a clear reading order, at the place on the page or screen where the voter is already focused. Other work investigated use of a “smart joystick” as a universal voting control, after testing found the device can help individuals with a wide range of dexterity impairments.

Following these projects Los Angeles County, the most populous voting area in the US with almost 10 million residents, is using the Anywhere Ballot as the basis of its ballot redesign and is considering including a joystick as the tactile controller, the report says.

A voting system designed to be navigated using only two buttons with audio prompts, codenamed the “EZ Ballot”, was another winner in an OpenIDEO voting challenge; as was an iPad case with additional accessibility features designed to enhance voting applications, such as tactile switches and a built-in stand to adjust the angle of the screen. The design for the accessible iPad case is now available online (download here as compressed Zip file ) and can be built with a 3D printer, the report says.

Ideas such as these have shown promising results but with technology and election processes always changing, access work will always need to continue alongside, the report finds.

“While most elections are more accessible today than in years past, more progress is needed… [but] unfortunately, there is no simple solution”, it says. “Creating accessible elections will require sustained research and funding to continue designing new technologies and processes, evaluating them in the field, and training election officials to use them.”

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