Skip to the content \ accessibility

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.”

Election access at heart of Canadian disability law campaign

The removal of barriers to voting and elections is among key principles of a new Canadians With Disabilities Act which a group of Canadian disability rights advocates is urging all the country’s main political parties to pledge to pass, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

The campaign is spearheaded by a group of five leading disability campaigners led by Donna Jodhan, who in 2012 won a six-year legal battle to force the Canadian government to make its websites more accessible (see E-Access Bulletin September 2013). Other members of the “Barrier-free Canada steering committee” are Steven Christianson, advocacy manager at baby health charity March of Dimes; David Lepofsky, a law professor at University of Toronto; Jutta Treviranus, director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at Ontario College of Art & Design; and Marc Workman of the Canadian national blindness charity CNIB.

The group is urging all parties to support the principles behind passing a new law ahead of national elections set for October next year. “We believe more work is needed to ensure the rights of Canadians with disabilities remain intact”, Jodhan told E-Access Bulletin this week. “Web accessibility is just one component of our landscape and if we hope to become an equal partner in society then other rights need to be respected and preserved. We need to have equity with the mainstream world.”

The group has drawn up a list of 14 principles for the new law, which would echo the US Americans with Disabilities Act.

These include that it “should require providers… to ensure that their goods, services and facilities are fully usable by persons with disabilities”; that the government of Canada should lead other sectors in achieving the aims of the new law; and that it should provide for a “prompt, independent and effective process for enforcement”.

The law should also require the government to review all current and future federal legislation and regulations to identify possible accessibility barriers that they may impose or permit, pass new legislation to address these barriers, the principles state. “As an immediate priority under these activities, the Government of Canada should get input from voters with disabilities on accessibility barriers in election campaigns and the voting process, and should develop reforms to remove and prevent such barriers.”

The final principle says: “The Canadians with Disabilities Act must be more than mere window dressing… It must have real force, effect and teeth.”

Community Service: Q&A with Ken Saunders, AccessFirefox.org

Ken Saunders is co-owner and founder of AccessFirefox.org, a web portal of accessibility tools and resources for users of the free Firefox web browser. Here, the US-based volunteer answers questions on his work, motivations and passions.

Q: What accessibility tools do you use to facilitate your own work?

A: I am legally blind due to a congenital condition known as ocular albinism with nystagmus. My visual acuity is documented at 20/200 right eye, 20/400 left which means I do have trouble seeing objects both near and far. However my visual acuity can’t ever be accurately determined because of nystagmus, which is an involuntary eye movement that causes my eyes to move rapidly in a horizontal direction: side-to-side.

In terms of the tools I use, I get a lot done using many of the Firefox add-ons I helped develop like Big Buttons, Page Zoom and Font & Theme Size Changer (more on these later). Firefox itself is great because it is so customisable, meaning I can make it fit my needs so it is as comfortable for me to work with as possible.

There are a lot of free accessibility tools and default accessibility options I rely on like text-to-speech and magnifier applications. There are other more advanced tools out there but when you start to look beyond default accessibility features and free software, your options start to get very costly. I’ve never really understood why and I would love to see more affordable or free tools out there.

Q: When and how did you start coding?

A: I started coding in 2004. I know the basics of HTML, CSS, and some XUL (XML User Interface Language, Mozilla’s XML-based language for building user interfaces of applications like Firefox). I’d like to learn JavaScript and I’ve started to do so, but the visual impairments can get in the way. Most of what I know, I’ve learned slowly, through teaching myself, experimenting and editing other’s work.

Q: When did you get involved in helping to make Firefox more accessible?

A: Back in 2005, I downloaded Firefox and clicked on the “Get Involved” button, which was included as a default bookmark within the browser at the time. I soon started volunteering for Spread Firefox (a former website where enthusiasts helped promote Firefox) and eventually became an administrator on that site. Since 2011 when we retired that website, I’ve become involved in testing as part of Mozilla’s quality assurance community, where I’ve handled testing for Firefox across all platforms – Windows, Mac, Linux and Android).

I’ve tried to help out wherever I can by testing and providing feedback for new projects too. One example is the early beginnings of the Mozilla WebMaker project (known as ‘Mozilla Drumbeat’ at the time). Webmaker is a fresh approach to teaching technology and digital literacy, the goal being to create a new generation of digital creators and webmakers.

I also spent some time as an Accessibility Steward, which saw me taking on the role of guiding and directing new and potential volunteers interested in contributing to Mozilla’s accessibility goals. I’ll be picking this responsibility up again soon as I start to help test Firefox OS devices and provide feedback from the perspective of a person with visual impairments.

Q: What is it that you like about Mozilla and Firefox?

A: I like that Mozilla fights for the rights of Internet users, especially the right to privacy on the web and user sovereignty; the idea that any data relating to an individual belongs to the individual.

What amazed me and really hit home when I first started volunteering was the sheer volume of like-minded people from all over the world who were coming together to work towards Mozilla’s mission and goals; to keep the Web open and accessible to all. The community is very diverse; anyone can contribute, regardless of ability, income, education or background.

Q: How did Access Firefox come into being?

A: I co-founded AccessFirefox.org with Otto de Voogd when we were new to Firefox and the various accessibility options that came with it. At the time, the majority of information about these tools and features was spread across several websites, so we wanted to bring them under one roof. So we set about creating the project and the specific accessibility add-ons that come with it.

Over the years there have been several different contributors to Access Firefox from the Mozilla community. Some have written or contributed to the site’s coding, some have created accessibility related add-ons, and many others have supported the site through advocacy.

Q: What are your favourite Firefox Accessibility add-ons?

A: Access Firefox accessibility add-ons are slightly different to standard Firefox add-ons. I briefly mentioned my favourites earlier, and I’m proud to have contributed to the development of all three of these: Theme Font & Size Changer, Page Zoom Button and Big Buttons.

Theme Font & Size Changer is a simple browser tool that lets people change the font size and type in Firefox. It is an especially valuable tool for visually impaired people and wide-screen users. It is different from add-ons that enlarge and reduce font size and type on web pages because it does so in all windows, menus and toolbars within Firefox itself. All font size and font family changes are instantly applied, saved permanently and maintained through sessions.

Page Zoom Button gives users control of all three page-zoom functions in Firefox from a single button. Users can click on or roll the mouse wheel over the button to zoom in, zoom out and reset a web page back to its default view. Users can also zoom in and out of local offline files such as photos, graphics, and various documents.

Big Buttons provides large and extra-large Firefox navigation toolbar buttons.

Q: How would you recommend accessibility users get started with Firefox?

A: I would recommend starting by taking a look at the features that Firefox offers its users and then download the browser. However, for more detailed information on accessibility add-ons we recommend you take a look at Access Firefox’s beginners’ guide. Then take your time getting familiar with what’s possible. Once you’ve done that, invest some time in customising Firefox so that it is as comfortable to use as you need it to be.

EU accessibility policy and standards: The slow arm of the law

For many years, the disability community in Europe has been pushing the EU to write accessibility into its trade rules for ICT goods and services, not least when it comes to ICT purchased by governments themselves.

Similar rules have long been in place in the US, perhaps surprisingly for those who like to caricature America as a champion of free trade at any social cost. Now it seems, some progress is being made in Europe. But is it fast enough?

The ‘European Standard on accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services in Europe’ (EN 301 549) was published in February by ETSI (the European Telecommunications Standards Institute) in association with international groupings of national standards bodies CEN and CENELEC. It had previously been known as Mandate 376, through a drawn-out development period of some seven years (see EAB, July 2012).

The standard aims to ensure ICT products and services – including websites, software and digital devices from computers to smartphones and ticketing machines – are made more accessible to people of all abilities, either directly or through compatibility with assistive technologies such as text-to-speech. It is accompanied by three technical reports (TR 101 550, TR 101 551 and TR 101 552), adding more detail.

Currently, however, its use is not mandated either by EU law or national law in any individual country, a fact which is likely to delay its take-up in most parts of Europe for some time, Matthias Schneider, chairman of the ETSI technical committee on human factors, told E-Access Bulletin.

“The EU has not yet ruled that the standard has to be used for procurement at European level, and unless a state regulates that the standard has to be applied by public procurers, I wouldn’t expect many organisations will switch over to using it”, Schneider said.

In 2011, the European Commission did announce it was developing a European Accessibility Act covering the accessibility requirements of all goods and services bought and sold in the EU, which would be likely to use the new standard. However despite several false dawns – including a promise last year that the act would finally be drafted in the first quarter of 2014 – it has since been delayed again.

“So far it has still not been drafted, and there is no clear insight why the commission has delayed for so long”, Schneider said. “My personal opinion is that it will not appear prior to the instalment of the next European Commission in July or August, so I don’t see anything happening before October.”

As and when an accessibility act is passed it will cover both public and private sector procurement, and it will then be possible for member states to apply the new accessibility standard across all sectors, after a late change to it at the urging of the European Commission, Schneider said.

“The original purpose of the standard was very clearly public procurement, but during its development the commission realised it could be used for many more purposes”, he said. “The problem was, to change its purpose halfway through development would have meant asking new groups of interested parties to comment, which was no longer possible. So in the end, we came up with something which didn’t go all the way to what the commission wanted but still could also be used in other tasks such as in the private sector, provided someone mandates it.”

The compromise reached can be seen in a small but key change in the standard’s title, from the previous ‘Accessibility requirements for public procurement’ to the final ‘Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement’, with the new wording leaving its use open in other fields, Schneider said.

In a bizarre quirk of the European standards system – that could cause unnecessary expense to the unwary – the new European Standard EN 301 549 is available free of charge from the ETSI website but costs a significant fee to buy from some national standards bodies. The latter group includes the British Standards Institution (BSI), which is charging members £134 and non-members £264 to buy the same standard (its website does not specify how much it charges for membership, which depends on how many standards an organisation uses).

It is usual for all national European standards bodies to publish their own copies of European standards, numbered within their own systems – the new standard is published by BSI as BS EN 301549:2014. However because different standards bodies have different business models, some charge for their products, while others do not. ETSI, funded by more than 700 members worldwide including technology companies, does not charge for its standards.

The situation is made even stranger by the fact that the British and other national ‘versions’ of a standard such as this one do not differ in any way from the pan-European version, Schneider said.

“It might have a different cover page, but the content is identical because they cannot change it. It is one of the puzzles that the European standards situation creates every once in a while.”

The new standard does not create its own technical specifications from scratch in most areas, since this groundwork has already been carried out for existing hardware and software standards in Europe, the US and elsewhere, he said.

For example there are already standards specifying the range over which speech volume should be adjustable; and for web accessibility the new standard refers to level ‘AA’ of WCAG 2.0, the web content accessibility guidelines produced by the international World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Likewise for software that runs on desktop computers or other devices and for documents, the requirements are harmonised with work by the W3C’s WCAG2ICT Task Force. This means that the requirements for the web, documents and software all follow the same principles.

The work on this standard is seen as crucial for global trade and so ETSI and its partners have worked hard to ensure the accessibility requirements contained in the new standard are consistent with the revision of Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act, a US law requiring ICT purchased by public bodies to be accessible, Schneider said.

However, this work has been complicated by the fact that Section 508 has been undergoing its own review process which is lasting longer than policymakers originally expected, he said.

“We have tried to synchronise with the newest version of Section 508, but unfortunately the newest version is not finalised, so we don’t know what its contents will be yet. It could be that in half a year from now, when the US comes out with the newest version of Section 508, we might have to change ours again so it is compatible. We hope that this will not be the case.

“Harmonising our approach with US was extremely difficult and very time-consuming, but we want it to be harmonised because international companies such as Nokia, Motorola or Microsoft have no wish to develop products designed for accessibility requirements in Europe which are different to the US.”

Progress in some areas is happening a bit faster, however. While Europe continues to wait for a general accessibility directive, one area where the new standard may be put to use more quickly could be public sector websites. There is a proposal to use it as part of accessibility guidelines for a new public sector website accessibility directive already passing through the EU law-making system (see E-Access Bulletin, February 2014).

It would also be possible for European nations to pick up on the new standard individually and embed it in their own policies, Schneider says. “Member states can act individually, so I would expect that some – probably Nordic countries and Germany first – will mandate it in their state procurement rules.”

As well as creating major potential social benefits, European policymakers also hope the standard, and European Directives or state laws mandating its use, will help boost the market for technology companies and companies working in the accessible and assistive technology sectors.

As Elena Santiago Cid, director general of CEN and CENELEC, said in a statement: “We believe that including accessibility requirements in European standards will deliver both societal and economic benefits, by helping to expand the market for accessible products and services.”

While the workings of European law move slowly, the new standard is the latest piece in a jigsaw puzzle which does seem to be finally coming together.

Despite the long delay in its development, and the new further wait for a law mandating it to be widely used, the standard’s publication – following on from the directive on public sector websites – marks the beginning of a breakthrough.

In the US, Section 508 law is credited with driving the biggest technology companies including Apple and Microsoft to pay far more attention to the accessibility of their mainstream products. Step by step, Europe seems to be catching up.

E-book access debate continues in US following legal waiver

The debate over whether all e-book readers should be made accessible – including the addition of sound capabilities – is set to continue in the US, after the country’s Federal Communications Commission granted reader manufacturers a temporary waiver to one accessibility regulation.

The FCC has granted a one-year waiver exempting single-purpose e-book readers from a requirement in the US 21st Century Video and Communications and Video Accessibility Act that equipment used for advanced communication services (ACS) be accessible to people with disabilities.

The move came in response to a petition filed last year by a coalition of e-reader manufacturers –Amazon, Kobo and Sony – who said that because e-readers are used almost exclusively for reading, they do not provide ACS (see http://bit.ly/16gW53i ). The firms also argued that to make such readers fully accessible would increase their cost and weight and decrease battery life, essentially turning them into different devices more similar to tablet computers.

In granting the waiver, the FCC said: “Although capable of accessing ACS (such as email), we conclude that this narrow class of e-readers is designed primarily for reading text-based digital works, not for ACS.”

However, the commission limited the waiver to one year, despite the coalition’s request for an indefinite waiver, saying: “given the swift pace at which technologies are evolving and the expanding role of ACS in electronic devices, the waiver will expire on January 28, 2015.”

It also limited the waiver to “a distinct, narrow class of e-readers” with limited features, namely those with no LCD screen; no camera; and no built-in email, instant messaging or similar ACS applications. Most e-book manufacturers already also make more sophisticated, tablet PC-style readers which do comply with accessibility rules, and the new waiver in effect separates these categories of products from each other for legal purposes – for one year, at least.

Nate Hoffelder, editor of the e-books blog “Digital reader“, told E-Access Bulletin he expected the waiver to be extended again next year, since its removal would be likely to result in the simpler class of e-book readers being withdrawn from the market.

“By the time the new regulation was written in 2011, Amazon, Kobo… and other device makers all had one or more e-readers on the market which did not have sound, and thus could not comply with the regulation”, Hoffelder said. “That put the device makers in the position of filing for a waiver or simply pulling the e-readers from the market.”

However the American Library Association, which has campaigned against any waiver, said in a statement it was “pleased that e-reader manufacturers must file for a waiver next year and re-argue their case, or make their e-reader ACS features accessible to people with print and other disabilities.”

« Previous Entries