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New app helps to combat poor customer service faced by people with disabilities

A new app-based system has been launched that aims to “shake up” the customer service industry across shops, banks and other venues.

The Welcome app lets people with disabilities tell shops and venues of their arrival, so that staff can provide tailored assistance suited to their condition.

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New accessible ATM app points users in the right direction

A new app that helps blind and visually impaired users track down accessible ATMs has been launched.

The free LINK ATM Locator lets users search for cash machines that have a range of usability features, including: audio assistance; wheelchair access; free-to-use ATMs; £5 note dispensing; mobile phone top-up facilities; and PIN number management.

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Countdown to the UK release of the first Braille smartwatch

The first Braille smartwatch for visually impaired people is planned to be shipped out to customers in May, after initially taking around 140,000 orders from customers around the world.

The Dot Watch lets users read messages through four Braille characters on the watch face. It connects to a user’s phone via Bluetooth and can then receive messages and notifications from services and apps on the phone, such as WhatsApp, Google Maps or traditional SMS texts.

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AI app learns as it provides a window to the world

An image recognition app that identifies objects and colours for blind and visually impaired people through AI (artificial intelligence) technology can ‘learn’ about its surroundings as users teach it.

The free version of the Aipoly Vision app comes pre-loaded with information and is able to identify around 1,000 ‘essential’ items (such as coffee cups, headphones and flowers) immediately after being downloaded.

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Hacking for good: the Hackaday Assistive Technology Prize winners in their own words

In July, e-Access Bulletin reported on the Hackaday Prize, a competition that asks designers, developers and hardware enthusiasts to “build something that matters” – something that can help people or change the world for the better.

Of particular interest for readers of the Bulletin is the Assistive Technology category. Earlier this month, 20 winning assistive technology projects were selected from hundreds of entries.

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Accessibility without the excessive price: affordable tech site launched

A new online resource has been launched to help people make informed choices about low-cost accessible technology.

The Affordable Access project (found at the following link:
http://eab.li/2o )
provides easy-to-understand information on a wide range of products and devices, all for under 250 Australian Dollars (equivalent to around £150 / 190 US Dollars). Technology covered on the site includes: tablet computers, smartphones, apps, desktop computers and TV streaming devices.

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Steering digital inclusion from the driving seat: Q&A with Robin Christopherson, AbilityNet

When he helped co-found UK technology access charity AbilityNet in 1998, Robin Christopherson was already on his way to helping drive forward digital accessibility, and since then his work has continued to change people’s lives. He is now AbilityNet’s head of digital inclusion, after helping to grow the charity’s services. These services include website and mobile accessibility consultancy, which AbilityNet now delivers to companies including Microsoft, the BBC, HSBC and Sainsbury’s.

Christopherson has also led and worked on all manner of projects and campaigns to increase digital accessibility, particularly for blind and visually impaired people. This has included providing expert commentary for news sources such as The Guardian, and presenting on and testing new technology, whether that’s a driverless car or the latest smartwatch.

In recognition of his valuable contributions, he was surprised with a special award at the annual Tech4Good Awards earlier this month. e-Access Bulletin caught up with Christopherson to find out more about his work and get his thoughts on the evolution of accessibility.

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Navigating life’s obstacles: Wayfindr Q&A

Audio navigation systems can be a useful tool to help blind and visually impaired people become more independent and mobile, particularly when used in an app.

The Wayfindr project has just unveiled a valuable contribution to the field by releasing the first ‘open standard’ for audio navigation. The standard features detailed guidelines to help developers, transport services and building owners create digital navigation systems that can be used by blind and visually impaired people.

Last year, Wayfindr organised a trial in London’s Eutson Tube Station, featuring blind and visually impaired participants navigating the station through a demo mobile app. The app spoke directions out loud to the users, triggered by Bluetooth ‘beacons’ around the station. With the trial successful and the open standard released, it seems like there’s big potential for Wayfindr to make a real difference.

E-Access Bulletin spoke to one of the Wayfindr team, Katherine Payne, to find out more.

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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’.

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.

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