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New Resources Promote Inclusive e-Learning

Two free new learning resources have been released by JISC TechDis, a education advisory service on accessible and inclusive technology, to boost skills for learners with and without disabilities.

The first resource will help learners who use text-to-speech applications: two new voices for text-to-speech were commissioned from specialists CereProc available for free to learners and learning institutes.

The male and female voices – named “TechDis Jack” and “TechDis Jill” – are designed to be easy to understand, “youthful and modern”. TechDis Jill possesses a Northern English accent, which its creators believe is a first in text-to-speech.

According to the TechDis website, “all staff and learners over 16 in every publicly-funded learning provider in England should be eligible for the TechDis Voices, which can be downloaded after registering.

The second project to be launched was the JISC TechDis Toolbox, with information to help people use ICT and online technologies more effectively in employment.

This information is divided into five main categories: ‘using technology’, ‘planning and organisation’, ‘communicating’, ‘teamworking’, and ‘different needs?’ It includes guidance on how to carry out effective Google searches; and how to operate text-to-speech on some mobile devices.

The resources were launched at ND’12, the seventh national digital inclusion conference, held in London last month. In a launch video, Alistair McNaught of JISC TechDis said: “We spent eight years working with learning providers from the top down, helping to influence senior management teams, librarians, learning support staff, tutors, etc, and telling them about the kinds of tools and technology that could make a difference to their learners.

“But while that was fantastic in some areas, in many places it just wasn’t trickling down to the learner, so we decided to flip it over and work form the learner upwards. The whole point of the Toolbox is to take all the things you wish your tutor might have told you about but never did, and take that to learners directly.”

The work was funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

ICT Access Barriers ‘Common Across Europe’

The problems encountered in putting ICT accessibility policies into practice are common across Europe, according to early findings of a survey of policies in 30 nations (the EU countries, plus Norway, Iceland and Switzerland), E-Access Bulletin has learned.

According to research carried out in June for the EU-funded ‘i-access’ project on access to electronic information and lifelong learning, problems encountered include creating accessible content; standards compliance; problems procuring accessible systems; and a lack of awareness and understanding.

The project is run by the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education to raise awareness of the issues surrounding accessible information provision for lifelong learning. While some survey respondents said their organisations provided style guides for creating content, only about half of these addressed accessibility aspects such as considering how a screen-reader would cope.

“There are an estimated 80 million people in the EU with disabilities of varying sorts and to differing degrees, and as the age profile shifts, so too will the proportion with disabilities”, John Galloway, a consultant working on dissemination of i-access findings told E-Access Bulletin this week. “There is no one solution to the issue of ensuring that any information in an electronic format, whether a web-page, a text message, an on-screen document, or an information film, is available to all of them equally,” Galloway said.

“For each country, we need to find out – what policies do they have, and how do they put them into practice? What are the differences and similarities? The lessons learned from across Europe will be brought together for everyone to share, so this difficult issue can be addressed.”

Full details of the research and a report of a project conference co-hosted by the Danish Ministry of Education in Copenhagen this June are due to be published shortly, with the final project recommendations expected towards next summer, Galloway said.

Forced Choice: Accessibility in the Real World

The social model of disability holds that it is socially constructed barriers, rather than the impairments of disabled people, that limit their opportunities.

Disabled people are disadvantaged by the way society is organised by non-disabled people. Take any issue or area of society such as employment, education, housing, transport or poverty and you will find that disabled people are more disadvantaged than non-disabled people, and that the difference cannot be explained or excused by impairment.

The explanation of this deep rooted “structured disadvantage” lie in the social, physical and attitudinal barriers that society creates, stopping disabled people from fulfilling their potential and from achieving the same life chances as non-disabled people.

ICT is thought to hold great promise for disabled people because it has the potential to reduce or eliminate many of the disabling barriers that impair or completely prevent disabled people from working, learning, shopping, banking, being entertained, and communicating with others.

But many barriers still remain.

New technologies are constructed, tested and designed for non-disabled people. They empower people with new abilities, but also rely heavily on the existing ones. Telephones depend on the capacity to speak and to listen; computer screens on the ability to see; satellite navigation systems on the ability to see and to hear. And so on.

Any new technology brings with it a new power for those who can use it, and a new disability for those who cannot.

How ICT strategy is developed and implemented can mean for disadvantaged people the difference between dependency or autonomous living.

I’ve heard the economic argument that disabled people need to be “reconceptualised” as a potential market (18% of the population) and need to trust the market and industry to address accessibility.

However, I reject this business argument and would rather assert that the industry needs to embrace the “mind set” of the social model of disability.

The three critical building blocks of this approach are first, respect for the human rights of disabled people. For example, product developers need to employ disabled people and consult actively with the disability community to ensure that access is a fundamental part of products.

Second, respect for personal choice. ICT options must not be imposed on disabled people – often choices for accommodating impairments are made by a technical “expert”—someone who knows the technology options and assesses what they believe is best for the user. If only certain ICTs are accessible, then disabled people can only choose the accessible option – it is a forced choice. Forced choices carry with them the message that non-disabled people warrant a full range of affordable options, while disabled people only deserve the few, often specialised and expensive, options that are made available to them.

And the third building block is development of universal design and disability-related supports. Often the solutions developed in accordance with the social model of disability help not only disabled people but also non-disabled people.

Additionally, there are differences in how disabled and non-disabled can access and use ICTs that may be beyond the reach of universal design. These differences create the need for disability-related supports, as well as information, training, and local support services in order to become successfully connected to the digital world. The social model perspective holds that society should make necessary supports available to people. In this way, disabled people can both enjoy the benefits of society and be productive citizens.

In summary, ICT isn’t the powerful agent of change – it is the strategy that is adopted that will be the change agent.

My personal experience of using ICT during higher education – I am a post graduate student studying for a masters in disability at Leeds University – has, on balance, been a positive one. However, there are a few issues it will be useful to highlight.

Disability Student Allowance (DSA) funding is supposed to help meet the extra course costs students can face as a direct result of a disability.

I am a wheelchair user and have a neuromuscular condition associated with muscle weakness from the neck down. When I went to have my assessment for DSA I requested several types of equipment that were appropriate for my type of impairment.

The first item I requested was a computer multi-monitor application. Typically, a student works surrounded by numerous text books to read and reference. In my case I am unable to lift, hold or turn the page of book. So I requested this piece of kit – three monitors and some software – to flip from monitor to monitor to access written material or documents. The total cost was about £700. Instead I was given a non-mainstream mechanical page turner. It takes up about all the available desk space, has limited functionality, costs about £2,500, is totally inappropriate and was a “forced choice” as described earlier. In the end I had to go out and buy the multi-monitors myself.

Second item was a laptop – I need a laptop that is ergonomically suited to my impairment, and requested a model that I considered functionally appropriate for my access needs. Again, I was given the “forced choice” and subsequently had to go out and buy myself a laptop that I was able to access.

Similarly, I wanted a Kindle so I could access reading material while lying on the bed. I spend 14 hours a day sitting in my wheelchair and sometimes I would like to study lying down. I requested the Kindle because it was lighter and ergonomically suited to my impairment. They gave me the heavier Sony Reader with the buttons at the top which I couldn’t access.

I went out and bought a Kindle.

This illustrates that it is not the ICT that is the problem but has more to do with the strategy and the prescriptive approach of the “gatekeepers” of the service. Thus the “technical expert” knows what’s best for the user.

Then there was the set book list. All the course material was electronically accessible, but most of the set books were not accessible, so I was faced with paying somebody to scan my purchased books and format them into PDFs. This cost me three times the price of each book.

The point I want to make is that I am not on “equal basis with other students”. And many disabled students may well have given up the course because of issues of affordability.

ICT has to be affordable; available; accessible – and applicable.

© Copyright Miro Griffiths 2011. Miro Griffiths is a disability equality consultant. This article is an edited version of a talk given at this year’s e-Access ’11 conference, hosted by E-Access Bulletin’s publisher Headstar.

Digital Inclusion Course Closure ‘Sets Dangerous Precedent’

The closure by Middlesex University of the first ever European MSc course in digital inclusion after just one year of operation sets a “dangerous precedent” for those trying to establish a business case for accessibility, the academic leading the course has told E-Access Bulletin.

The unique two-year part-time course was launched by Middlesex last year. Its curriculum included the social, ethical and business case for accessibility; regulations and standardisation; web accessibility; and inclusive user experience. The course’s overall goal was to improve participation in the digital society by older and disabled people as well as people at social disadvantage such as unemployed people, people on low incomes and those with low literacy.

However after just eight people joined the programme the university has decided that no more will now be taken on and the course will close when the current set of students – who include four public sector workers – have graduated. To make the course financially sustainable a minimum of 20 students a year would have been needed.

Gill Whitney, digital inclusion programme leader at Middlesex, told E-Access Bulletin the lack of demand for the course signalled a serious problem for the development of accessible digital services in the UK and beyond.

“Losing the MSc programme due to low student numbers sets a dangerous precedent – if there is truly no demand, then there is no business case for offering similar specialist programmes elsewhere”, Whitney said.

“Designing and developing more accessible systems depends on having suitable training or education courses in place for those involved in all aspects of the development process”, she said. “The essential element is to convince students of the value of taking such courses, for example better job opportunities for both students and disabled people.

“There is now recognition of e-accessibility at a political level, with the government setting up an e-accessibility forum, but we also need industry, not-for-profits and government bodies to demonstrate there is a market demand and that there will be better jobs for professionals who genuinely understand the complexities of delivering accessible ICT, systems and services.”

Whitney said options other than the MSc course could also play a role in the educational mix, such as better integration of accessibility issues into mainstream technology courses or offering short professional development courses or diplomas that enhance existing skills. But whatever the solutions, action was needed to ensure student demand, she said.

“There is a strong need for this sort of training to make accessibility happen.”

One of the course’s students, Big Lottery Fund head of new media Claudio Concha, said the course had already proven valuable in his work.

“Inclusive design is pretty much taken for granted in architecture and product design, yet online content and digital channels still suffer from a lack of user-centred development and there is a complete lack of consideration for disabled and older people,” Concha said.

“This course has helped me understand the gulf that exists between content producers and organisations on one side and the reality of customers with differing needs on the other. It has allowed me to influence design and development projects with an authority that comes with real experience.”

Open University Media Player Passes Accessibility Test

An online video and audio player being developed by the Open University (OU) for its students and the wider learning community has successfully passed through a round of accessibility testing including testing with deaf and dyslexic users, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

The generic media player, currently viewable as a ‘work in progress’ in alpha or prototype format, is being developed to allow the distance-learning university greater control over the technology used to access it extensive bank of podcast material.

The OU’s 200,000 students are likely to begin using the player on the university’s virtual learning environment by the end of this year or the start of next, according to Nick Freear, a web developer in the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology. It will also feature on ‘OpenLearn’, an open educational resources portal where anyone can access hundreds of online learning materials for free.

Accessibility features of the media player including the ability to add captions for video, and developers will be able to change the look and feel for use on their own websites, Freear said. The player is built on Flowplayer, an open source flash player which works on both desktop and tablet computers such as the Apple iPad, with HTML and Javascript additions, he said.

Eventually the source code for the accessible player might be opened up, Freear said. “but that’s down the line.”

Diane Mulligan OBE – Podcast Pioneer

By Dan Jellinek.

This has been a busy year for Diane Mulligan.

At the start of 2010 Mulligan was awarded an OBE for services to disabled people and equal opportunities. Last week, she was back at Buckingham Palace for a reception held by the Queen for the Diplomatic Corps. In-between, she has been spearheading a campaign to improve the rights of disabled people in developing countries, in her role as Global Disability Advisor for international charity Sightsavers.

The Decline of Braille: Doomsday For The Dots?

By Alessandra Retico

They are letters you can touch: six little dots you brush with your fingers, 64 combinations to encode the world. But now Braille, the blind person’s Esperanto, is set to become a dead language.

New technologies mean the tactile alphabet is being used less and less, as sound takes its place: technologies such as telephone services with synthetic voices to read newspapers; talking computers and audio-books. Many young blind people no longer learn the physical grammar that would allow them to communicate with any other user in any language, preferring to put on their headphones. These days, only 25% of Italian people who are blind (362,000) and 10% of blind Americans (1,300,000) know Braille (compared with a figure in the US of more than half of all blind children in the 1950s, according to a recent issue of the New York Times). Invented in 1829 by Louis Braille, who became blind at the age of six and inspired by a military code for the transmission of messages at night, the system still survives, but faces strong competition from information technology.

Braille Struggles Under Threat From Audio Technologies

The future of Braille is being threatened by the rise of digital audio technologies, but it continues to hold valuable potential to enhance the lives of blind people, according to an article in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica translated exclusively for this month’s E-Access Bulletin by Margherita Giordano.

Braille could become a “dead language” as new technologies such as telephone services with synthetic voices to read newspapers; talking computers and audio-books mean the tactile alphabet is being used less and less, the article says. These days, only 25% of Italian people who are blind (362,000) and 10% of blind Americans (1,300,000) know Braille, compared with a figure in the US of more than half of all blind children in the 1950s, according to a recent issue of the New York Times.

The Biggest IT Help Scheme In The World

A government scheme to ensure all school pupils in England have access to computers and the internet at home could have a huge impact on the assistive technology sector.

Earlier this month, the government announced the launch of its ‘Home Access’ scheme to improve technology access for school pupils from lower-income families. Backed by some £300 million, the scheme is expected to provide computers and internet access for home use to around 270,000 families by March 2011.

Amazon Bows To Pressure On Kindle Accessibility

The online retailer is to incorporate extra accessibility features into its Kindle DX electronic book reader or ‘e-reader’, after several American universities rejected the device as a potential teaching-aid, citing inaccessibility to blind students (see E-Access Bulletin, issue 119: ).

Audible menus and an extra-large font size will be added to the new version of the Kindle DX on its release this summer. The menu feature addresses claims by Syracuse and Wisconsin-Madison universities that although the Kindle features a text-to-speech function valuable for blind users, inaccessible menus meant that such users would not be able to activate the function.

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