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‘Immersion box’ wins educational technology contest

A project to create interactive video and multi-sensory environments for people with learning disabilities has been awarded almost £80,000 in a competition to find the most innovative learning technologies.

Project Immersion, from technology and design company seeper, won the award in the ‘Learning technologies: design for impact’ competition organised by government agency Innovate UK with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Among its key elements is an ‘Immersion box’ that projects video onto walls. Learners can interact with the footage and control aspects of it using gestures or touch. Project Immersion aims to help those with learning disabilities increase their skills, work with others and adjust to new environments.

The competition, announced in 2014, sought proposals for innovative ways of using technology as an educational aid.

In total, 15 winning projects were chosen to receive funding. Other winners included SafeReads, a tool to help children aged 8-14 with dyslexia. Created by assistive technology company Dolphin Computer Access, it offers learners literacy advice and support and can be installed on a range of devices. Teachers and parents have access to an interactive web portal where best practice on using the SafeReads tool can be shared.

Mobile accessibility: moving with the times

The popularity of mobile technologies has grown tremendously over the past few years, and many of us now conduct a large proportion of our web browsing on mobile devices. Apps allow you to do pretty much anything from your smartphone these days.

For users with disabilities, the great thing is that accessibility is deeply embedded into the operating system of many mobile devices, for example with the VoiceOver screenreader on the iPhone. Many users tell us that they now rarely use their desktop machines and do most of their browsing, banking and social communication on their mobile.

One story serves to highlight the importance of mobile accessibility. My former employer AbilityNet recently moved to new offices in central London and one of the charity’s regular accessibility testers, who is blind, was dropped off at the wrong address by his taxi. He called me and told me he was lost. Thankfully, he was able to use an accessible mobile map application to send me his location. It turned out he was about a mile away so I jumped in a taxi and went to collect him. This is a great example of how accessible technology solved what could have potentially been a dangerous situation.

But it is important to remember that accessibility does not happen automatically – it is something which needs to be considered and implemented at all stages of design and development.

Two of the main sets of accessibility guidelines which can be applied to mobile devices are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) and Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP), both produced by the international Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium. However problems can arise not from the guidelines themselves, but from the level of knowledge and understanding needed to interpret and apply them. While WAI does provide supporting documentation, it is very long and, ironically, not that usable or easy to understand.

WCAG 2.0 were developed to be platform-neutral, but they are more easily applied and testable on desktop platforms as the technologies are more mature. It takes expert interpretation to determine which guidelines are relevant and appropriate to mobile platforms.

While MWBP 1.0 Statements may be directly relevant to mobile websites, many are not directly applicable to mobile applications or ‘apps’. MWBP statements are written from a technical and development perspective. There are fewer statements related to visual design or how an application behaves with user interaction. Ultimately, that is the main issue: mobile guidelines are not as user-centred as they should be.

Guidelines by definition are also quite general and broad so in some cases it takes expert knowledge and interpretation to relate an issue to a specific guideline.

In testing sessions at AbilityNet, users often report that the purpose of some icons is unclear, confirmation messages are not displayed on-screen long enough for them to read or on-screen elements such as buttons are too small or too close together, which makes activating them difficult. These are fundamental issues which could affect a wide range of users, but they are not covered by the main guidelines already mentioned.

You can find guidelines which cover these issues in other guideline sets, such as iOS or Android development guidelines, but we cannot expect designers and developers to refer to a number of different sets of guidelines – they simply do not have the time. What is needed is a comprehensive, useful point of reference for mobile accessibility and I would expect this to come from the WAI as they are part of the body which governs web standards.

One issue here is communication. If, as practitioners, we find that guidelines are not working, or we are finding issues not covered by guidelines, then we need to engage with the WAI. They cannot do anything about a problem if they don’t know it exists.

Looking to the future, mobile accessibility guidelines need to be based on empirical evidence of issues which impact users in a real situation. Some guidelines need be based on the results of testing sessions held with a diverse group of users over a period of time.

AbilityNet will continue to monitor the results of its user testing sessions, collate the issues found and publish its work for the benefit of the wider accessibility community. It has also started work on producing its own evidence-based mobile accessibility heuristics, and have spoken with the W3C about engaging directly with the WAI working groups to influence the guidelines of the future.

If we work together, we will solve the problem, but due to the length of time it takes to produce a stable set of guidelines, this will not happen overnight.

NOTE: Chris Bailey is accessibility lead user experience, customer experience at Vodafone Group Services and former accessibility and usability consultant at technology access charity AbilityNet. Last year the charity won an international award for its research paper ‘Investigating the appropriateness and relevance of mobile web accessibility guidelines’.

Bristol accessibility group ‘could be national model’

A cross-sector group of technology developers, academics and public sector workers, formed in the UK city of Bristol to exchange knowledge about digital accessibility, could be a model for similar initiatives across the country, one of the group’s founders has told E-Access Bulletin.

Léonie Watson, an accessibility consultant who advises the Government Digital Service, said the idea for Accessible Bristol was first sown about three years ago when she was working at digital agency Nomensa. Alongside colleagues from her work, Watson joined forces with developers from Bristol City Council and University of Bristol.

“We realised there was a thriving tech scene in Bristol, and quite a concentration of accessibility and usability companies and accessibility and usability departments within bigger companies such as Nokia and Orange”, Watson said. “So we thought – why don’t we create something to bring people together?”

After a year of activity, the group petered out in 2013 as some of its core people moved away or changed jobs, she said. Then a few months ago, a conversation on Twitter started by someone looking for accessibility experts in Bristol led to Watson pointing out the group was still there, but dormant. “We had an overwhelming response.” The group has now been restarted with monthly speaker sessions followed by open discussion and networking. January speaker was Steve Faulkner, technical director for web accessibility at the Paciello Group and co-editor of the HTML5 specification. Its February speaker is set to be Ian Pouncey, senior accessibility specialist at the BBC.

The idea behind the events is to give developers and designers in the city, the chance to hear some excellent speakers and to get to know each other in the hope they can share information and solutions, Watson said. “There are umpteen developers in different teams across the city all going through the same problems, so there is a good chance someone, somewhere has found a solution.” The group can also start bringing practitioners together with people with disabilities, allowing developers to talk to people using a range of different devices or assistive technologies, she said.

Watson said she is not aware of such a diverse accessibility practitioner group meeting elsewhere in the UK, though the model should translate well to other areas. “If it works, it would be brilliant if other places took it up.”

“Embedded outreach” key to digital inclusion, conference hears

Digital inclusion projects must work with community and voluntary sector bodies if the UK is to ensure people with disabilities engage with the digital world, a national conference has heard.

The call was made by Jude Palmer, managing director of Digital Outreach, a social enterprise formed in 2007 by three organisations – Community Service Volunteers, Age UK and CEL Group – to run outreach work for the UK’s digital TV switchover.

Research at the time from lead TV switchover body Digital UK found there was a group of about 20% of the population who would not naturally engage with a major mainstream publicity campaign, Palmer told delegates at November’s digital inclusion conference hosted by non-profit Tinder Foundation.

These included older people, people with a disability and those for whom English is not their first language, all of whom can be socially isolated, she said.

“A lot of people found the switchover daunting, because TV for a lot of people is their main connection out into society”, Palmer said. “They were putting their head in the sand, saying ‘it’s technical, it’s not for me, why do I need to change? I’m perfectly OK as I am’. So a lot of this resonates with why people have not got online yet.”

The key to developing a successful strategy to reaching people in these groups was to work with and through voluntary and community groups who are already interacting with and trusted by them, she said.

Palmer said the nature of “embedded outreach” was “about people hearing messages from the person they see every week, every day: finding that one person and that one organisation that they do trust and interact with.

“We often describe it as ‘knitting’ – we were able to knit organisations together so you can cut across geographical barriers, social groups. You need to ask – how can you develop relationships with local voluntary and community groups?”

Once the right groups have been found, it is important for digital inclusion groups to strike the right balance between passing them consistent materials to fit their own messages, and allowing the trusted intermediaries to remain in control, she said.

“It is about making sure you work consistently with every organisation so key messaging is cascaded down, and people are signposted consistently for where they can get further help.

But at the same time once you hand over the framework, [you must] leave it to the organisation to deliver that. What we find with embedded outreach is there needs to be an investment from those organisations as well, and that is a really big ask.”

In the course of its work, Digital Outreach was asked to run a trial project in the North West of England to see how its embedded outreach model for digital TV might work for broader digital inclusion, and the results strongly supported the concept, Palmer said.

Overall, research found that some 77% of people reacted positively to online training if it was led by someone they knew, compared with only 17% reacting positively to a session led by someone they did not know.

Low-cost eye gaze tech shortlisted for education award

A low-cost eye gaze computer controller for schoolchildren is among technologies shortlisted for the 2015 Bett Awards for educational ICT. The shortlist was announced this month by i2i Events, organisers of the annual London Bett conference, with the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA).

Inclusive EyeGaze Foundations combines myGaze eye tracker hardware from German firm Visual Interaction with Eye Gaze Attention & Looking software from accessible early learning software specialists Inclusive Technology. It is portable, and works with any Windows computer.

Students can learn to track, fix their gaze and interact with images on screen. The system also allows real-time recording of students’ progress, so teachers can review where they looked and for how long using line trace, video and heat maps.

Sandra Thistlethwaite, specialist speech and language therapist at Inclusive Technology, told E-Access Bulletin the system’s cost of just under £1,000 was less than a tenth of the average previous cost of similar technologies, opening up new possibilities for eye gaze ICT in schools.

“Traditionally, devices have cost more than £10,000 so they have not been in the reaches of most schools, and you had to go through individual funding streams”, Thistlethwaite said. “So we have been working hard to get units up at a reasonable price that can be afforded by a much wider range of schools and pupils.

“We had already identified those with a physical need for eye gaze but this is now giving us the insight into how we interact with and teach pupils with more profound and complex needs, where we are not sure about their cognitive skills, or what they can understand from what they see on screen.”

It is possible that as much as 10%-20% of the UK special school population could experience some benefit from using eye-gaze technology, she said. “I was talking to a special school in the North East this morning with 120 pupils which has 20 pupils now using eye gaze and possibly more in the pipeline.”

Plans for future developments include more sophisticated learning analytics, with systems that can help users through a learning progression and return more detailed data on their work to teachers and therapists, Thistlethwaite said.

The seven other finalists in the Bett Awards special educational needs category are the Clicker Books literacy app for primary school children, from Crick Software; ReadingWise English literacy software from IdeasWise; the Dynamo Profiler online dyscalculia assessor from JellyJames Publishing; Forbrain, an auditory feedback headset for speech improvement, from Sound For Life; Read&Write literacy support software from Texthelp; Predictable, a text-based augmentative communication app, from Therapy Box; and Exam Pen, a scanner and assistive reader to help students with reading difficulties such as dyslexia take exams independently, from WizCom Tech.

Winners will be announced in January 2015.

Online resource to boost access to elections and politics

An online resource to boost access to elections and politics by people with disabilities is to be launched next month by the International Foundation For Electoral Systems (IFES), a non-profit based in Washington DC, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

IFES works internationally to promote access to democracy by all groups including people with disabilities, with funding largely from government agencies in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Its work is aimed at many groups including governments, election management agencies, civil society groups, academics, lawyers, disability groups and people with disabilities.

The new online resource will be based on an overhaul of the foundation’s website, IFES access and inclusion specialist Virginia Atkinson told E-Access Bulletin.

It will include an introduction to disability rights aimed at election management bodies and observer groups, giving examples of inclusive practice such as accessible voter education

“In many countries they don’t think at all about access to elections for people for disabilities”, Atkinson said. “Or maybe they build a wheelchair ramp, but they don’t think about other issues such as accessible voter education, websites or voting machines.”

Materials will include good practice examples such as YouTube videos, images or brochures and posters from other countries, as well as excerpts from relevant laws on election access.

“We are hoping the website will be used as an advocacy tool to create peer pressure, and help change discriminatory laws”, she said. “It will be the only site where all this information is collected in one place.”

Other aspects of the foundation’s current disability rights work includes a major project in South East Asia working with international teams of election observers, Atkinson said. “Many observer teams do not include people with disabilities, and then don’t include questions relating to disability access in their work”, she said.

Web accessibility: embedding inclusion

Most organizations are either oblivious to, or terrified about, web accessibility.

They are probably aware that up to 20% of their customers – people with disabilities – could be clicking away from their websites, or leaving their mobile apps every day without having bought anything or found the information or service they wished to find.

They may have even heard from one of this 20%, complaining about problems they can’t reproduce, talking about ‘assistive technologies’ they don’t understand, and asking for what seem like impossible fixes.

They know there is the possibility of being sued if they don’t do the right thing, but they don’t know how far they need to go to prevent that. So if they do make something ‘accessible’, it’s usually only for one product, or one version of a product.

If this sounds anything like the place where you work, I have some comforting news: you are not alone.

I learned directly where I believe most organizations want to be from the heads of diversity and inclusion of the top blue-chip corporations in Europe at a meeting of the Vanguard Network in 2011. Here, the event’s chairwoman spent a whole hour asking each of the delegates what one thing would really make a difference to their organization’s inclusion practices, if they could achieve it. When delegates were asked to vote for which contribution they felt was the most important, the following was the unanimous choice: “What I want is to strategically embed inclusion into my organization’s culture and business-as-usual processes, rather than just doing another inclusion project.

I spent much of my time subsequently conveying the following to the people in the room:

That they could implement a strategy that would allow them to attract and keep that 20% of their audience who are disabled, while not detracting from the user experience of those who aren’t.

That there was a way they could sleep soundly, knowing that they’d done enough to cover their ‘accessibility risk’, but without costing the earth.

That, through following a simple, strategic business-aligned framework, they could embed the best practice necessary to consistently achieve these aims throughout their organization.

And that all of this work could also benefit their organization in their bottom line, as benchmarked analytics show how disabled people’s increased use of their sites increases their turnover and profits.

What did I have that could take them from their position of pain to the place they all wanted to be? The answer is British Standard BS 8878:2010, Web Accessibility – Code of Practice.

It’s not the catchiest title in the world, but BS 8878 opens up in detail the strategies, policies and processes that award-winning, best-of-breed organizations like the BBC, IBM, Vodafone, Opera, BT and Lloyds Banking Group have used to become ‘accessibility competent and confident’, so that they can be used by any organization, no matter how big or small.

It does this at a time when the legal imperatives behind accessibility are being strengthened internationally, and when tablet and smartphone vendors are racing to promote accessibility as a key selling point of their handsets. It also does this as we start to enter the massive demographic change that will result in the number of people who need accessibility rocketing up, and the ‘missing 20%’ become 50%.

There has never been a better time to get into web accessibility, and people who have implemented BS 8878 are increasingly telling me that incorporating its user-centred inclusive design thinking into their production processes has resulted in not only more accessible websites and apps for disabled people, but better websites and apps for everyone.

NOTE: Professor Jonathan Hassell has more than 14 years’ experience of embedding accessibility within digital production teams in leading companies worldwide, and he wrote the British Standard BS 8878. This article is based on an edited extract of his new book “Including your missing 20% by embedding web and mobile accessibility”, reproduced with permission from BSI.

More information on the book and to access free accompanying case-study videos.

British Standards can be obtained in PDF or hard copy formats from: or by contacting BSI Customer Services on 020 8996 9001 or email:

MPs, academics condemn research funding withdrawal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lib Dems are first to make digital access election pledge

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

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

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

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

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

Technology pioneers in ‘disability power list’

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

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

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

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

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

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