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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.

Apple urged to act on app accessibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accessible video gaming: gateway to modern life

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

- How would you summarise the work you do?

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

- Why is access to gaming important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Voice launches 2015 election pledge campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accessible gaming guidelines win US award

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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