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MPs, academics condemn research funding withdrawal

A group of MPs, academics and technologists have condemned the cancellation by the UK Department of Health (DH) of a long-standing contract for an annual independent report on assistive technology research and development.

Production of an annual report on government-funded research to improve AT is a statutory requirement, set out in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970.

However after 15 years of allocating funding to the Foundation for Assistive Technology (FAST) to produce the work, the DH announced last month it is to bring production in-house to its research and development directorate, at an estimated annual saving of £68,000.

In a statement, FAST said the move was “short-sighted” and “a false economy”, as it would lead to lower quality information being made available to policy makers, funding bodies and others. Overall it “will significantly hamper efforts to support disabled and older people to become independent through the use of technology,” the foundation said, as the DH report proposal is “insubstantial” and “only minimally meets the statutory requirement.”

The withdrawal of the contract also means FAST will no longer have the resources to update a publicly-available database it has been maintaining on AT research and development, it said.

In its own statement, the DH responded that this public information is already available elsewhere online, such as Research Councils UK’s Gateway to Research, and the EU CORDIS database. However FAST says these sites do not provide a comprehensive picture.

Seven MPs and more than 30 academics and technologists have so far supported FAST’s call for continued funding including EA Draffan and Mike Wald of Southampton University; Gill Whitney of Middlesex University; and Tim Adlam of Designability.

Lib Dems are first to make digital access election pledge

A pledge to review relevant laws, guidelines and standards on access to digital goods and services to ensure fair access by disabled and older people has become the official policy of the UK’s Liberal Democrats in the run-up to next year’s general election.

The pledge came as an amendment to the party’s equalities policy paper “Expanding opportunity, unlocking potential” which was submitted to the party’s autumn conference for approval earlier this month.

The party has now promised, if elected to govern or as part of a new coalition government subject to negotiation, to conduct “a review of anti-discrimination law and of existing laws, guidelines and standards on access to digital goods and services to ensure they are fit for the modern age and so that, in particular, people with disabilities and older people have fair access to digital public services, the digital economy and the workplace”.

The amendment was moved by Mark Pack, Editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire, on behalf of One Voice for Accessible ICT Coalition, which is campaigning for all the main UK political parties to pledge similar action ahead of the 2015 elections. MPs and policymakers in the Labour and Conservative parties are currently considering making similar undertakings.

One Voice, an umbrella group of charities, businesses and other organisations pushing for better digital accessibility across society, has called for the review in light of poor legal enforcement of existing laws, rules and guidelines for accessibility of websites, mobile apps and other digital goods and services across the public and private sectors.

Technology pioneers in ‘disability power list’

Champions of digital accessibility feature prominently in the first ever “disability power list”, a round-up of Britain’s 100 most influential people with a disability or impairment selected by recruitment firm Powerful Media in partnership with non-profit disability support group the Shaw Trust.

Top of the list is scientist Stephen Hawking, perhaps the world’s best-known user of synthesised speech communication and winner of a special prize at the 2012 Technology4Good Awards from charity AbilityNet. In second place is Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson, one of Britain’s greatest Paralympians and supporter last year of Go ON Gold, a national campaign to raise awareness about barriers faced by disabled people in accessing computers and the Internet.

Fifth overall came actor, writer, broadcaster and technology early-adopter Stephen Fry, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has supported many disability technology access projects including the Fix the Web project led by Citizens Online.

Other digital pioneers in the list include entrepreneur and philanthropist Neil Barnfather, founder and director of TalkNav, a supplier of accessible mobile devices to the blind and low vision community; Gary McFarlane, managing director of Assist-Mi, a mobile app that allows people with disabilities to request assistance from service providers such as petrol stations and airports; Amar Latif, founder and director of ‘Traveleyes’, the world’s first commercial air tour operator to specialise in serving blind as well as sighted travellers; and Euan McDonald, founder of disabled access review website euansguide.com.

Also recognised are consultant Geoff Adams-Spink, who covered many technology accessibility stories in his former role as age and disability correspondent for BBC News; Caroline Waters, vice chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and former policy director at BT; and Paralympian gold medallist wheelchair sprinter Hannah Cockcroft, keynote speaker at last year’s eAccess 13 conference.

Accessible elections in Canada: Declaration of independence

In late 2013 the Canadian national elections agency Elections Canada formed an Advisory Group on Disability Issues, and I was invited to be a member. Initiatives the agency is working on include ensuring election staff are trained to meet the needs of voters with a disability; developing a Braille template to help Blind and partially-sighted voters; ensuring that voters with a disability can vote more independently and with greater privacy; and monitoring progress and how initiatives are being implemented.

This month, citizens in Toronto tested out some of these principles as they made a trip to the polls – their third in about five months – to vote for a new mayor; their local councillor; and a school board trustee in their area.

This time however, things were quite a bit different for voters with disabilities, as we were able to use a new “voter access terminal” allowing people with a disability to vote independently.

As a Blind voter, I was extremely excited about this new development as it gave me the opportunity to take my time when voting and I was able to do it without having to depend on a returning officer to help me.

I was able to take my headphones along and plug them into the terminal’s jack. There were several well defined buttons that were easy to distinguish, enabling one to review the list of names for each category; make repeated reviews; select a candidate for each position; and confirm one’s choice.

So in short, I was able to sit in front of this new voter access machine, fetch a list of candidates, make my choice from this list and then submit my choice. I also had the choice not to vote for anyone if I so chose.

The voice on this terminal was extremely clear and distinct and the beauty about it all is that I as a blind person was able to vote in private without anyone knowing whom I have voted for and at the end of it all I was able to remove my own ballot from the terminal’s output tray and place it myself into the ballot box.

Easy as anything, and a terrific invention: now let us see if this terminal will be able to make its way up the ladder to provincial and federal elections. Some time during the course of 2015, Canada will once more be going to the polls to elect a new federal government, and Elections Canada has already indicated that we can look forward to some important changes when it comes to improved accessibility for these elections as well.

I believe that if countries are truly serious about wanting persons with disabilities to be an active part of their voting population then it is vitally important for meaningful dialogue to take place between the governmental body in charge of the running of elections and a representative segment of organisations for and of those with disabilities. We should never assume that governments would naturally know how to proceed in a matter such as this and it is up to voters with disabilities to speak up in a meaningful way.

NOTE: Donna Jodhan is an accessibility and special needs business consultant and author.

Million Dollar boost for low cost Braille display

An international project to build a low-cost refreshable braille display for computers is reaching fruition, with new plans announced for a technology retailing at less than 20% of current prices.

Refreshable braille devices are formed of plastic “cells”, small grids of holes through which rods rise and fall, triggered by an electric current using a technology known as “piezoelectric”. A line of Braille forms as a computer reads across text.

Product mark-ups are currently high among the few specialist firms who manufacture the cells mainly in the far East, with each cell costing around 100 US Dollars and full displays reaching thousands. However the new project is being supported to the tune of $1m by the Transforming Braille Group (TBG), a global consortium of organisations of and for the blind, led by RNIB in the UK. Other members are American Printing House for the Blind; National Federation of the Blind; and Perkins School for the Blind in the US; The Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted; Sightsavers, Mumbai, India; Association Valentin HAüY, France; Blind Foundation in New Zealand; Vision Australia; and The Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

The group has commissioned Orbit Research, an engineering company based in Delaware, US to develop and manufacture a stand-alone 20-cell refreshable braille display which would then retail at $300 (£200) – less than 20% of the current market price.

The display will be designed to work as a plug-in device through USB and Bluetooth connectivity with smartphones and tablets. It is intended primarily to bring e-books to a wider audience, but not to compete with more permanent, high-specification displays used in education and employment.

The investment plan was first hatched more than two years ago by Kevin Carey, chair of RNIB and TBG president, in a bid to bring refreshable braille within the reach of children in developing countries and provide libraries in all countries with a viable alternative to hard copy braille (see “Global investment plan for cheaper braille displays”, EAB issue 144, 23 January 2012).

Many groups in both the developed world and the developing world are currently spending large amounts on printed materials for Braille libraries, Carey told E-Access Bulletin this month. But if they were able to buy displays at £200 each, they could “massively reduce” the costs of bringing literature to braille readers, he said.

Group action to invest in a new solution was needed because of long-term market failure in the sector, Carey said. “My single aim has always been to destroy the floor price of refreshable Braille”, he said. “At the moment, almost all people buy Braille cells from a small number of suppliers at a fixed price, and mostly get their equipment funded by the public sector. The major suppliers have had their own way for the last 40 years, since piezoelectric cells were introduced in the 1970s. The market was just stuck.”

The move could also stimulate innovation by other major suppliers, leading to greater competition and even lower prices, Carey said. “It is immensely exciting for Western libraries but even more exciting for third world kids, who are currently using smartphones – having something read out or spelled word by word is not genuine literacy: it is much better to have kids read symbols than hearing them spoken.”

The group plans to launch the new product in 2016.

Mapping mobility access across Europe

An open source map that plots information on accessibility of public spaces is being enhanced by a European Commission-funded research project.

The CAP4Access project aims to improve the Wheelmap platform, an interactive website that allows users to input mobility information about an area using editable mapping platform OpenStreetMap. Information might cover issues such as how accessible an area is to those with mobility impairments, such as wheelchair users and those with walking aids.

Users visit the Wheelmap website and ‘tag’ areas with category symbols, such as ‘leisure’, ‘shopping’, ‘food’ and ‘accommodation’, before choosing a colour for the symbol to indicate partial, full or no wheelchair accessibility, or ‘unknown’ status.

CAP4Access aims to develop more advanced tools for the collection of accessibility data such as route planning and navigation for users with limited mobility. New accessibility data will be submitted through Wheelmap, as well as other OpenStreetMap platforms such as Mapping For Change, using a smartphone, tablet or desktop computer. Other accessibility information from existing sources, such as public sector open data, will also be added.

Partially funded under the European Commission’s ICT Policy Support Programme, CAP4Access is currently in a three-year test phase and is being piloted in four cities: Vienna, Austria; Elche, Spain; Heidelberg, Germany; and London. UK project partners include University College London.

Karsten Gareis, project manager of CAP4Access, told E-Access Bulletin one longer-term aim is to establish Wheelmap in countries that don’t currently use the platform. Another is to “firmly establish online routing and navigation for people in wheelchairs and other people with limited mobility – make it available in the same way that navigation and routing have become common tools for non-disabled travellers”, Gareis said.

Lack of skills and awareness fuel web inaccessibility, survey finds

Lack of skills or knowledge and lack of awareness of web accessibility are responsible for the great majority of website accessibility problems, according to a US survey of web accessibility practitioners.

Almost four in 10 respondents (36.6%) rated lack of skills and knowledge as the primary reason behind web site accessibility; and only slightly fewer (36.2%) lack of awareness. Other factors cited were Fear that accessibility will hinder the look, feel, or functionality of a website (13.2%); and lack of budget or resources to make it accessible (13.9%).

The research was conducted by WebAIM, a non-profit accessibility research, software and services body based at the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. The body surveyed 900 web accessibility practitioners from North and Central America (58%); Europe (28%) and worldwide, working in all sectors.

Most of the web accessibility practitioners responding only work in their roles part-time, the research found. While 51.3% indicate that web accessibility is their official role or a significant part of their job assignment, only 29.3% spend more than 30 hours per week in this area. Meanwhile just under a third of respondents (31%) said accessibility work represents “a small part of my work or assignments”; and nearly one in five (17.7%) carry out accessibility work on their own initiative, or as a volunteer.

Asked which was the main factor behind their organisation’s motivation for implementing accessibility, just under a third (31.4%) said Compliance with guidelines and/or best practices. About one quarter (25.7%) said Moral motivation (it’s the right thing to do); a similar number (25.6%) said Legal, contractual, or structured negotiation requirements; other factors included Fear of a lawsuit or complaint (10.9%).

Within an organisation, management support was cited as the most critical factor to ensuring a successful web accessibility effort (36.7%); followed by Staff that are proficient in accessibility (24.8%); A clearly defined policy and/or guidelines (22.3%); Sufficient budget or time support (13.9%); and Legal mandates and requirements (8.7%).

The survey also found that people working in the web accessibility field are generally older, better paid, and better educated than their peers in the wider field of web development, and that the accessibility field has a larger proportion of women and people with disabilities than other technology fields.

However, a significant pay disparity exists for people with disabilities, who earn an average of at least $12,400 less than those without disabilities despite having very similar education level and years of experience, it found.

Q & A: Euan MacDonald, Founder, Euan’s Guide

Euan’s Guide is a website and app that allows people to share reviews about the accessibility for disabled people of shops, restaurants or any community location. Its most-reviewed areas include Edinburgh; London; Glasgow; York; Sheffield; Cardiff; Birmingham; Aberdeen; Newcastle-Upon-Tyne; and Cambridge. In July, the website won the People’s Choice award in a BT Infinity Lab “Connected Society” competition seeking solutions to social issues, and celebrity supporters include J K Rowling and Professor Stephen Hawking. Here, the site’s founder Euan MacDonald speaks to E-Access Bulletin about the inspiration for his project.

- What motivated you to create Euan’s Guide?

I was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease 10 years ago, and then when I started to use a wheelchair five years ago I realised how difficult it was to find good disabled access information. It got myself and my sister Kiki thinking that we would like to share our favourite places that we had discovered had good disabled access, and learn from others about their favourite places too.

My family and I have funded the service’s development ourselves, and we have set it up as a not-for-profit organisation.

- Did you have any experience creating websites or apps?

Not really! Certainly one of our biggest challenges and one of the most interesting for me was making sure that the site and the app is accessible for everyone. For example, I use eye gaze technology with a hands-free system, which can make some websites tricky to navigate, so we have worked hard to make the navigation clear to follow and easy to use. Some areas required the creation of bespoke functions such as the buttons to move around the maps. We’ve also developed the site and app to exploit the native accessibility functionality of smartphones such as voice input and output.

- What are the main aims of Euan’s Guide?

The main aim of the website is to empower disabled people by giving them information that will give them choices and confidence for getting out and about. I call this “removing the fear of the unknown”, which is something experienced by many disabled people.

Success stories for us are getting reviews from places that we would not have thought were accessible and being told that they’re great! Edinburgh Castle, T in the Park Festival and London’s Cutty Sark are prime examples of this.

There are a whole host of related things that we hope will follow, such as businesses realising how much of a demand there is for their services to be accessible. There are more than 11 million disabled people and more than 6.5 million carers in the UK alone. We’ve already had venues that have contacted us saying that they have acted on what our reviewers have told them and made improvements. It is also worth mentioning that not all changes have to cost lots of money – there are some really simple things that some businesses can do to improve their accessibility and staff play such a huge part in this too. And of course, making your venue or service more accessible will not only help disabled people but will also aid the elderly, infirm and parents with buggies too.

We also hope that Euan’s Guide may encourage more disabled people online. There are stats to suggest that in the UK, disabled people are a third less likely to have used the internet than non disabled people.

- Do you think new technologies such as smartphones, apps, GPS and mobile social networking have a liberating potential for people with disabilities?

The combination of accessibility, portability and mobile data have created fantastic opportunities when out and about. It is now possible to ask your phone verbally where you are, have your location read aloud to you, receive directions and find places of places of interest that are near to you, all combining to give people spontaneity in their daily lives.

As for the future – who knows? From turning your phone into a magnifying glass to becoming a telecare tool, a portable health monitor and AAC device, there are apps that can already do so much to help people live an independent life… and these are just apps that we’ve heard about in the last couple of weeks!

We’re starting to see emergence of disabled people working with talented technically minded people to identify problems and create the solutions.

- How important is digital accessibility?

Digital accessibility is critical as it may be the only means a disabled person has of independently engaging in a timely fashion with service providers.

A classic example of this is a friend of mine who is registered blind. Digital accessibility allows him to read his post and check his bank statements, and therefore to run his business and earn a living. Just 10 years ago much of this was not possible and he had to employ a PA to manage these tasks, which often took much longer and encroached on his privacy.

However, one of my pet hates at the moment is where organisations have attempted digital inclusion but have not ‘connected the dots’. Regularly I come up against this when trying to buy tickets for events and accessible tickets are not available to buy online. There is inevitably a phone number to ring and as I can’t use the phone I have to get other people to do this on my behalf – frustrating is an understatement!

- What does the future hold for Euan’s Guide?

Of particular interest to me is what people think of the site and how we can improve it and we regularly make changes to the site based on their suggestions. And we would always like more reviews, by more reviewers!

Euan’s Guide

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.

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