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Citizen journalists find their voice on the virtual high street

A wheelchair user’s struggle to use the car park at the town hall, to attend her brother’s wedding; an elderly man’s description of how he improved his diet to help his health; and one woman’s tale of learning sign language to help others. These are all real examples of self-help and mutual support videos created by and for an inspirational project in the South West of England offering older people and people with disabilities peer support for independent living, writes Tristan Parker.

The online video project ‘ADTV’ was launched by Access Dorset, a user-led charity partnership formed in 2010 by 17 organisations across the county supporting people with disabilities, older people and carers.

The project’s website features a ‘virtual high street’, with different areas representing different aspects of independent living such as transport, safety, money matters and leisure. Clicking on each of these topics takes the user to a series of videos made by the site’s members sharing stories and experiences on that topic.

The videos are well-made, thanks to ‘citizen journalism’ skills such as writing a storyboard and producing a short video taught to some of the site’s members by Bournemouth University. Members are also taught how to train others as citizen journalists, to help the project grow.

Dave Thompson, development manager at Access Dorset, told E-Access Bulletin the idea for the virtual high street and user-centred videos arose from extensive consultation with organisations that work with older people and those with disabilities.

“We’re a small organisation without a huge amount of funding, so how do we go about making films that can actually tell those stories and produce them as cheaply as possible? That’s where we came up with the idea of looking at the broader concept of citizen journalism”, Thompson said.

Dr Einar Thorsen, senior lecturer in journalism and communication at Bournemouth University, has been taking a key role in teaching Access Dorset members the citizen journalism skills needed to produce their videos. “The project has different ways of empowering people”, Thorsen told E-Access Bulletin.

Many of those making the videos are concerned about a lack of coverage or inefficient coverage of issues associated with disability, impairments and ageing in mainstream media, Thorsen said. “The website has an empowering function to give otherwise marginalised voices an ability to be heard, and that’s quite a powerful thing”, Thorsen said.

Funding for ADTV has arrived from a diverse range of national and local funders and sponsors. The Office for Disability Issues has provided grant funding, and organisations can sponsor individual sections of the virtual high street: Bluebird Care in Dorset sponsor the ‘Our Home’ section and Castlepoint Shopping Park in Bournemouth sponsor ‘Leisure’.

In the longer term, Thompson said there is “a possibility of replicating and broadening out” the project in other parts of the UK, although the current focus is on developing it around Dorset. “We’ve already had a few conversations about the possibility of how we could take the concept and share it with others”, he said. “We need to look at different ways of funding the project, and part of that is scaling up.”

Coming soon to a virtual high street near you?

Global mobile accessibility database set for overhaul

The world’s leading database of information on the accessibility features of mobile phones and tablet computers is set to be refreshed with extensive new information, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

GARI (Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative) was launched in 2010 by the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF), an international association of mobile telecommunications equipment manufacturers.

Initially covering just a few accessibility features for mobile phones, it has since been expanded to store information on more than 100 features of phones and tablet computers of interest to users with access issues relating to dexterity; vision; hearing/speech; and cognition.

Last year it was further expanded to include ‘apps’ (applications) that help to make mobile devices more accessible such as screenreaders, or help people with disabilities to perform everyday tasks such as TapTapSee, an app which can use a phone’s camera to identify objects and speak them out loud.

The resource – which covers all global regions – was developed with international disability organisations including World Blind Union, European Disability Forum, World Federation of the Deaf. It holds information in 12 written and spoken languages plus American Sign Language with a 13th language, Japanese, to be added shortly.

It was originally set up because accessibility information on consumer devices seemed to be getting lost on the way to the user, Sabine Lobnig, communications and regulatory officer at the MMF, told E-Access Bulletin. “Manufacturers had feedback from disability organisations that even if they do provide accessibility information for devices, this information does not usually arrive with the end consumer”, Lobnig said.

“Whether it is sold through a wholesaler, on the internet or wherever, information on accessibility is lost. So consumers end up with a device that could be accessible for them but they do not have the information.”

Another purpose for GARI is to act as an official compliance reporting mechanism for mobile manufacturers in countries such as Australia, Portugal and the US where legal accessibility requirements are already in place, she said. The system pulls in data to templates designed to meet the requirements of each country’s relevant law. In Europe, no such legal requirements currently exist at EU or national level, though an EU accessibility act currently in development might introduce them in future.

The GARI dataset available for organisations to embed in their own websites (free for non-commercial use); and acts as a platform where policy makers, industry and disability organisations can exchange information and work together on improving accessibility of mobile phones, tablets and apps.

Its main data store is reviewed every 12-18 months with the most recent consultation with suppliers and disability organisations being held in November 2013, Lobnig said. The results were then considered with new features set to be agreed by the GARI management team next week, she said.

GARI is free to use and developers list apps for free, though manufacturers pay to have their hardware products included.

Only a quarter of UK council websites accessible, report finds

Only a quarter of UK local authority websites are accessible to people with disabilities, significantly fewer than last year, according to this year’s ‘Better Connected’ council website review by the public sector Society of IT Management (Socitm).

Overall, 105 councils (26%) were rated by the Socitm report as at least ‘satisfactory’, defined as having few serious and practical accessibility problems, with just one– Preston City – rated ‘very good’. Last year, 194 councils (44%) were rated at this level.

Some 311 sites (76%) this year were rated as ‘poor’, and 12 (3%) as entirely ‘inaccessible’, according to tests checks carried out for Socitm by non-profit accessibility testing firm Digital Accessibility Centre, based on the WCAG 2.0 global web access standard. The tests checked website ‘top level’ pages – the main index pages for each council service – as well as the accessibility of carrying out sample tasks such as reporting flytipping to a council using a mobile phone; or finding out about a care home for an elderly relative.

The drop in standards this year is attributed by the report to the introduction of accessibility tests on the site carried out using mobile devices, which resulted in scores on average only half as good as those recorded in tests using desktop computers.

The most common accessibility problems for council websites accessed by desktop computer were lack of clear labels for form fields and associated controls; downloadable ‘non-html’ documents such as pdf files being inaccessible; poor heading structure; and insufficient colour contrast. For access by mobile devices, common problems also included a lack of mobile alternative option for the desktop site.

The report recommends all councils should build accessibility into their criteria for web site procurement; build accessibility checks into their web publishing process; and carry out user testing with disabled people.

The figures emerged just a few days after the European Parliament voted to strengthen a proposed European Directive on the Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites, which would require EU member states to ensure all public websites are fully accessible.

The new law could come into force as early as next year, suggesting UK councils would struggle to comply, although member states would be likely to be allowed a further year to comply for new public sector web content, and three years for existing content.

New standard aims to make ‘rich’ web content accessible

A new technical standard to ensure so-called ‘rich’ web content – dynamic, interactive features of many modern web pages – can be made more accessible to people with disabilities have been published by the international World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

The Accessible Rich Internet Applications 1.0 specification (WAI-ARIA) has become a W3C ‘Recommendation’ – the body’s term for an official standard.

The new group of documents includes a technical specification and primer for developers of web technologies and developers of assistive technologies. It covers complex web navigation techniques created using technologies that can run applications inside web pages such as Ajax and JavaScript. These include ‘tree controls’ – menus that expand or collapse in a tree-like structure; ‘drag-and-drop’ functionality such as slider controls; and content that changes over time such as progress bars.

WAI-ARIA sets out ways such content can be identified, described and controlled by users of assistive technology such as screenreaders, or people who cannot use a mouse. For example it offers a framework for drag-and-drop feature properties that describe drag sources and drop targets.

The new standard is designed to help implement existing web accessibility standards such as WAI’s own Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 in a modern context, W3C WAI director Judy Brewer told E-Access Bulletin.

“WAI-ARIA is essentially one way of meeting WCAG 2.0,” Brewer said. “The principles, guidelines and success criteria from WCAG 2.0 remain remarkably stable – so the “rules,” so to speak, haven’t changed. It’s just that there are now more powerful ways to use those in websites and applications because of the availability of ARIA.”

One of the benefits of creating the new ARIA standard and implementation guidance is to ensure developers do not needlessly work in parallel creating their own accessibility solutions for each new interactive web feature, she said.

“Without the WAI-ARIA technology, developers would have to customize their accessibility solutions for different platforms and devices. With ARIA, they get cross-device, cross-platform accessibility support, and can more easily repurpose their content and applications in different settings without losing any accessibility support.”

The specification will now evolve, with a working draft of WAI-ARIA 1.1 already published for consultation ahead of an even stronger 2.0 version, as her team continues to watch how technology changes and keep ahead in the race for accessibility, Brewer said.

“The constant emergence of new technologies requires a lot of vigilance on the part of accessibility experts and advocates”, she said.

“There’s still a tendency for developers of new technologies to forget that people using the web have varied physical, sensory and cognitive capabilities – and that the digital medium provides such an excellent platform for accommodating all of these variations in human functioning if one just remembers to plan for it at the design stage.”

Escaping the mousetrap: IT support for keyboard-only users

Heard the one about the technological mousetrap?
by Clive Lever

No, not the play which has been running in the West End since the 1950s: it’s the situation that has trapped people who navigate computers using just the keyboard –not the mouse – for far too long. It’s time to solve this case.

The pace of technology change in the work place is growing ever faster, and wherever there are changes, there are inevitably teething troubles. These in turn drive up the need for people to call their technology help desks when things go wrong, or when it’s not obvious how to change software settings.

Whatever the reason for contacting them, the majority of support engineers can answer the query for mouse users in about ten seconds flat. However, when the caller says they need to perform the action using only the keyboard shortcuts, more often than not the engineer runs off to find who knows something about this, and the caller is put on hold.

When the support officer returns, his or her next gambit generally begins with the dreaded “unfortunately”, and ends with a call being logged to have the problem looked into. What happens next is someone usually emails you back the following day with the answer you would have got instantly if you had been a mouse user.

It may not be possible to consider training all IT support engineers to be experts in the detailed use of keystrokes, or in meeting the needs of people who use access technology. It would ease the frustration of those people though, if at least one member of every support team could be trained in access technology awareness and in using a computer without touching the mouse, so that we don’t risk having to wait for a day or so to get answers that would ordinarily be on hand during the first call we make.

It would also be useful if all IT support engineers setting up new software for people who do not use a mouse at least know where keyboard shortcut lists can be found on the system – by use of keystrokes.

They also need to know, at the very least, how letters are highlighted to indicate what keystrokes will perform the operation. It would even help if all IT support engineers knew that, for example, you can jump to icons on your desktop, or files in a tree structure, by typing in the first part of the names of the items. It would appear that even this is often fresh news to some technicians. So, it is so much easier to find items on your desktop named “Word”, “Excel”, “Access” “Outlook”, than it is to deal with them when all of their names have the default prefix ‘Microsoft’, because the system administrators do not know that this can be unhelpful.

One way or another, the matter of supporting non-mouse users in the workplace needs to be addressed, or we risk having a two-tier system of support, where mouse users get instant help, and non-mouse users are trapped in a slow lane of tech support.

Support query systems could even be structured so that access-related calls automatically go to the top of the queue.

Either way, IT departments need to capture and make available knowledge of the experience of working without a mouse as they acquire it,  so non-mouse users are not forced to wait unnecessarily for service while technicians go off and re-learn what should already be known.

That is the technological mousetrap: and it is time to break free.

NOTE: Clive Lever is a local government diversity and equality officer. Views stated here are his own.

Audio interaction for ‘Swype’ virtual keyboard app

The popular ‘Swype’ virtual keyboard app for Android smartphones, designed to allow users to type more quickly and effectively, has introduced audio accessibility features to its latest version in a move which will benefit users with impaired vision.

Users of the standard ‘Swype’ app type words by sliding a finger across a virtual keyboard in a continuous motion, beginning at the first letter and pausing briefly at each letter they want to include, before lifting their finger at the end of each word. The app then predicts the word, and correction features help the process.

In the latest version of Swype, users can activate it to work with Android’s ‘TalkBack’ and ‘Explore by Touch’ accessibility features so that individual letters and words are spoken out loud to users as they slide their fingers across the virtual keyboard.

Working in this ‘TalkBack’ mode also enables audio versions of the predictive text and correction features. For example, depending on what letters of a word have already been written, users can move their fingers to the top of the smartphone screen and scroll through lists of words suggested and spoken by Swype, navigated using circular finger motions.

Similarly, Swype suggests words to the user depending on what has been written, and will learn to recognise common choices. Other app navigation, such as switching to the symbols and punctuation menu, can also be managed using audio prompts.

The latest version of Swype also uses Dragon Dictation speech-recognition software to allow users to dictate text to the app rather than type. Swype can be purchased for a few pounds through the Google Play platform or Amazon Appstore.

European Parliament urges stronger public website access law

Members of the European Parliament have voted by a huge majority to beef up a proposed European Directive on the Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites.

This week MEPs backed a move by 593 votes to 40, with 13 abstentions, to require EU member states to ensure all public websites are fully accessible, not just those in 12 categories proposed by the European Commission such as social security benefits and enrolment in higher education.

The parliament also wants the new rules to apply to websites run by private firms performing public tasks, such as energy utility companies and companies providing outsourced public services such as transport or health care.

According to the Parliament’s plan, an optional exemption would be included in the private sector condition for small businesses, however. This would mean companies employing up to 12 people could be exempted from the new law if member states wish. MEPs have proposed giving member states one year to comply with the rules for new content and three years for all existing content, with a further two years for live audio content.

The vote constitutes the European Parliament’s first reading of the proposed directive. The EU Council of Ministers, made up of government ministers from all member states, may now accept, reject or adapt the recommendations, for further subsequent discussion with Parliament.

In a statement following this week’s vote the European Blind Union, an umbrella group of blidness associations from 43 countries including the RNIB in the UK, welcomed “ the strong message sent by the European Parliament to EU governments”.

However it urged rapid action – “within days” – by the current Greek Presidency of the EU to schedule meetings to discuss the directive, something it says is currently not planned other than in general terms.

“It is not enough for the Greek Presidency to have this directive on their ‘to do’ list”, EBU President Wolfgang Angermann said in the statement. “If the presidency refuses to organise a meeting to discuss the directive with member states then they are effectively blocking the legislative process.

“When 92% of MEPs are calling for action, we believe that council members should listen and engage… Failure to act will delay new rules for many months and therefore be hugely detrimental for the 30 million blind and partially sighted EU citizens who struggle to access information and services online”, Angermann said. “People with sight loss have been shut out of the online world for far too long.”

BCS to tackle ‘unconscious bias’ against disabled IT job applicants

Training to tackle “unconscious bias” against disabled job applicants by recruitment staff at IT firms has been launched by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.

The institute is to receive £18,000 of funding from Royal Academy of Engineering to support bias training after signing up to the academy’s Engineering Diversity Concordat. The training is aimed at tackling unconscious bias affecting disability, race, sexual orientation, age, obesity and gender.

About 300 BCS specialist group and branch committee members will be trained initially by the end of 2015, with the intention of ensuring those key individuals spread the learning more widely throughout the institute’s membership.

“We are hard-wired to prefer people who look like us, sound like us and share our interests”, Rebecca George, chair of the BCS policy and public affairs board, told E-Access Bulletin this week.

“Unconscious biases are simply our natural people preferences but this can lead to us making poor decisions, particularly around recruitment. It means that we are less likely to recruit people who do not look or sound like us, and this can lead to a workforce which doesn’t fully represent the demographics of society.”

Examples of action to tackle bias include removing names and photos from CVs and training interviewers in guarding against unconscious bias, George said.

“The first step is to help individuals become aware of their own unconscious bias which can be done through self-assessment”, she said. “Our aim is to raise awareness of unconscious bias through research, case studies and explanations of what it is, as well explaining the gap between explicit and implicit bias.”

To illustrate the urgency of the IT profession’s need for such traning, George quoted diversity analyst Tinu Cornish, a psychologist at consultancy Different With Difference, who has said: “At the current rate of change it will be 2080 before we elect a representative government, 2085 before we close the gender pay gap, and probably never before we close the disability employment gap”.

Are airline check-in kiosks onboard with accessibility?

Readers who have travelled by air in the past few years are likely to have come across new technologies designed to enhance the convenience of travel such as automated kiosks where people can check in without queuing for hours in a barely-moving queue of bored passengers.

As so often with new technologies, however, it seems that their accessibility for people with disabilities was not always considered when they were first being developed. And now, in the US, the issue is about to hit the courts.

Earlier this month, US-based charity and campaigning organisation the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a lawsuit against the country’s Department of Transportation claiming the department’s new regulations on the accessibility of airport check-in kiosks breach discrimination legislation.

The law the NFB claims has been violated is the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), passed in 1986 to ban discrimination against air travel passengers with disabilities. As part of its duties to comply with this act, the DoT issued the new accessibility regulations which came into effect in December 2013. However, the NFB claims the new rules do not go far enough, and hence do not comply with the law.

So, what is the detail of the federation’s case?

The regulations are split into two separate sections. The first covers website accessibility, requiring airlines to make all public-facing content on their websites compliant with level ‘AA’ of the international World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 by 12 December 2016 – three years after the regulations took effect.

But although the NFB did express frustration back in November at what they called an “overly generous” time period back for website improvements, they are not challenging this timescale in the courts – in fact, their current legal action relates to the second part of the DoT regulations, regarding airline check-in kiosks.

This states that at least 25% of all existing check-in kiosks in an airport must be made accessible to disabled passengers by December 2023, including the display screen, inputs and outputs, instructions and floor space. However this is a timescale which the federation does believe is so long as to be unreasonable.

It claims that offering a compliance period as long as 10 years means that the DoT is failing to implement the ACAA as it was intended, and is therefore breaking the law.

In a statement explaining the decision to take legal action, NFB president Marc Maurer said that the technology to make airline check-in kiosks accessible to visually impaired passengers is “readily available” and is already in use in bank cash machines and other types of kiosk across the US. “The Department of Transportation violated the law by allowing continued discrimination against blind passengers based on spurious assertions by the airline industry that making kiosks accessible will cost too much and take a decade”, Maurer said.

The NFB has also published details of how it says kiosks can be more quickly made accessible in the same way as bank machines and other devices, such as: “affixing Braille labels, installing headphone jacks and adding speech software that provides audio prompts to the user.”

As yet, there has been no word on how – or if – any court action might proceed, or any response from the DoT. But this is not the first time that the NFB have pursued legal action over this issue. In 2011, the charity filed a lawsuit against Las Vegas McCarran International Airport on behalf of four blind passengers, claiming its self-service kiosks were inaccessible due to the visual-only instructions on their screens.

As in so many sectors, website accessibility is also an ongoing issue. In 2012 the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) sued low-cost airline bmibaby.com (now no longer active), claiming that customers with sight-loss were unable to use the company’s website to search for and book flights, as it was only possible to do so using a mouse.

Several months after initiating legal action, RNIB reported that bmibaby.com had made changes to its website which improved its accessibility, enabling visually impaired customers to book flights online, and withdrew its case.

So the new action keeps up the pressure on the airline industry: legal action may not be frequent, but it does keep coming, and organisations representing disabled travellers will continue to push for governments to fully implement their own anti-discrimination laws.

Practitioner heralds ‘new phase’ of digital learning for disabled children

New technologies such as tablet computers and techniques such as online data analysis are heralding a new age of customised learning assistance for young people who are severely disabled, a practitioner has told E-Access Bulletin.

“We’re entering into a really interesting phase where technology is starting to make massive changes in the way we teach and assess children with the most complex difficulties, allowing us to give them independence and access that we haven’t seen before”, said Sandra Thistlethwaite, specialist speech and language therapist at Oldham-based firm Inclusive Technology.

“For example, we have seen some extremely interesting results using eye gaze technologies with children with complex difficulties, and in using iPads and tablets that people now have as a mainstream device.

“With a good scientific grounding – the right content, structure and theory behind what people are doing with those devices – technology opens up massive potential for health, therapy and learning.”

Thistlethwaite was speaking after one of Inclusive’s software packages, ChooseIt! Maker 3, won the ICT Special Educational Needs Solutions category at last week’s 16th Bett Awards for education resources and companies.

The software allows teachers or parents to help students create and play personalised learning materials. It uses photographs and sounds – including those taken or recorded by the user – with symbols and text to build activities, helping learners who respond best to familiar sights and sounds including those with autism spectrum disorders, communication difficulties, language impairment, developmental disabilities, Down’s Syndrome, Aphasia and traumatic brain injury.

Desktop computers, tablets, touch screens, interactive classroom displays, switches and eye gaze devices can be used with the software, and materials created can be played online or downloaded to mobile, playable offline.

Because the system automatically records learners’ progression, and online activities can be shared between users, a new world of analysable data is being built up that could help not only to improve future products but to determine which interventions work for which children, for the good of all, Thistlethwaite said.

“We are looking at undertaking data analytics over a range of products. We are still at very early stages of looking at how teachers and children are using our software, and it will also give a chance to see how children are learning, what they are looking at, what access methods are used.

“Eventually we plan to have data research tools that would inform education, communication and health, as well as real feedback and real data to inform our practice and improve future products.”

The Bett awards are co-hosted by education suppliers’ association BESA with the organisers of education technology event Bett.

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