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Free Magnifier Among First Smart Accessibility Awards

A smartphone app which allows people to magnify text and adjust fonts and background colours was among the winners of the inaugural Smart Accessibility Awards for smartphone applications aimed at supporting disabled and older people.

Zoom Plus Magnifier, developed by a UK partnership of 232 Studios, Ian Hamilton and Digital Accessibility Centre, offers functionality for free that has previously largely only been available in software and camera products costing hundreds of pounds.

Four international awards of 50,000 Euros each were presented by the Vodafone Foundation – a charitable arm of mobile communications provider Vodafone –in partnership with AGE Platform Europe, a network of organisations working with older people, and the campaign group European Disability Forum.

The other winners were Help Talk, an app developed in Portugal allowing people who are unable to speak, such as those recovering from strokes, to communicate by tapping on icons; Wheelmap, an app developed in Germany which lets users rate the accessibility for wheelchair users of public places; and BIG Launcher, an alternative customisable Android home screen for elderly or visually impaired users who often struggle to use the small keyboards on most devices, developed in the Czech Republic.

BIG Launcher uses big buttons and large fonts to represent all the basic functions of a phone such as voice calls, text messages and cameras. Jan Husak, the app’s co-developer, says a typical smartphone home screen is not very accessible for elderly and blind people, being often crowded with all sorts of icons and widgets.

“On Android, due to its openness, you can choose from dozens of launchers, but they mostly offer functions which are only appealing to geeks – even more icons, special graphical effects and so on.

“BIG Launcher makes using the phone easy, even for users who are scared of new technologies. It allows its users to use the phone quickly in any situation, without pulling out their glasses or getting lost in the menus.”

Wheelmap is an app that builds on top of Google maps, overlaying information about wheelchair accessibility of any location such as a restaurant or railway station sourced from users. In its first month 1,200 users registered for the app, posting information about 180,000 places.

Andrew Dunnett, director of the Vodafone Group Foundation, told E-Access Bulletin the type of crowdsourcing used by Wheelmap held huge promise for disabled people. “The potential for that to change people’s lives is very impressive. The maps are there, the handsets are available – the key is the user groups, and how they engage with it.”

In all some 67 applications were received by the awards, with 12 shortlisted before the four prizes were award, Dunnett said. He confirmed that the foundation would be rerunning the awards next year.

The Guru Is In: High Street Support

The basement floor of the UK’s new largest outlet for mobile phone provider O2, which opened this autumn on London’s Tottenham Court Road, is a chic modern space echoing the metal and glass technology wonderlands pioneered by Apple.

The “workshop” area with Wi-Fi, sofas and meeting booths, staffed at the entrance by a “concierge”, feels a long way from a traditional cramped high street mobile shop.

The clear, large lettering of the shop’s signs are a hint that something else is different: the store is attempting to integrate support for disabled customers including deaf people and blind people into its mainstream service. Staff have received awareness training from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and sign language agency Positive Signs.

Asad Hamir, one of the store’s directors, is a qualified optician, with direct experience of the poor level of service that people with impaired vision receive on the high street. He has been quoted as saying he would like to create the sort of environment to which opticians would feel comfortable sending their low vision patients, and this is clearly part of the motivation behind the store’s attempts to offer the best advice on the benefits that mobile devices can provide for people with sensory impairment.

It’s not just a moral stand: the directors also see inclusion as a business opportunity. “If a section of the population is not being catered for or looked after, it’s definitely a market”, says Andrew Levey, the store’s marketing manager.

Perhaps the most powerful advocate for the store’s approach is a member of its staff, Abigail Gorman. Deaf and fluent in BSL, Gorman is one of the shop’s three O2 “gurus” working through bookable appointments to offer specialist advice to both hearing and deaf customers.

One of the only people in the world currently working in an integrated high street role of this kind, she works with a sign language interpreter funded from the government’s Access to Work scheme.

Speaking to E-Access Bulletin with the help of her interpreter in a bright corner of the “workshop”, having just finished advising a hearing customer, Gorman said her work background did not have anything to do with mobiles. But thanks to text messaging and internet access they are an indispensible part of modern life for deaf people as for everyone else, and she had first-hand experience of the barriers that can be thrown up on the high street when she went with her mother – who is also deaf – visited one shop with a sign language interpreter.

“When we arrived, they said have you called customer services? If not, then we can’t help”, Gorman says. “What can you do? Deaf people can’t call customer services.”

So when she saw the job advertised she jumped at the chance, and with the selection process supported for O2 by Positive Signs, successfully won through a large number of candidates to become O2’s first deaf guru.

If a deaf person comes into the store or books an appointment with her, she says she tries to show there are ways to solve the inevitable problems and issues that they face in communicating using mainstream devices.

“It’s about problem sharing, making it normalised.”

The main ways deaf people use mobiles is for text messaging and video calls, and with more and more phones carrying a front-facing camera and the rise of apps allowing free international communication over the web, there are a wide range of solutions, Gorman says.

For Apple users, one of the most important features for deaf people is the video utility FaceTime; BlackBerry offers the BBM instant messaging app; and other multi-platform video, voice and chat clients include Skype, Tango and ooVoo.

One issue for deaf users is that tariffs are based around voice calls, which they cannot use, she says: “At the moment, you have to pay for inclusive minutes. So though deaf people only benefit from internet and texts, we pay for calls as well.” The tariff she tends to recommend is 100 mins, 500 free texts and internet access, though a deaf person would use an internet app for text in any case.

Another minor irritation for a deaf user is voicemail, Gorman says. “A message comes up and says you have voicemail – but you have to call it to delete them. I have 52, because I never get round get round to asking someone to delete them for me!”

Gorman is the first deaf guru, but she says she hopes the concept will take off at other shops to allow proper research and trials to be run into how disabled customers can be served even better.

Since the store’s opening, use by disabled people has started slowly but a marketing campaign involving word of mouth, press campaigns, promotion through charities and disability networks such as deaf clubs around London is underway to spread the word and try to prove the concept makes good business sense.

Plans are in hand to expand advice and services for people with motor and learning difficulties, and the RNIB plans to hold events at the workshop looking at the accessibility of mobiles. The disability community will be hoping that this is the future of high street retail.

Smartphone App Launches Accessible Loyalty Cards

A smartphone app offering digital versions of shop loyalty cards will open up card schemes to many disabled people for the first time, its developer has said.

The “mClub” app from print and digital directories company Yell – which is free to download –allows retailers to offer deals such as “buy nine cups of coffee, get the 10th free” without using a physical card. A pilot service – available for both the Apple iPhone and Android phones – has been launched in London, Plymouth and Reading, with a BlackBerry service due to be released in the next few weeks.

Although the service was not originally designed for use by disabled people Artur Ortega, senior accessibility developer at Yell, told E-Access Bulletin this month that when he saw the idea presented internally he immediately saw the potential benefits for disabled people, and was able to influence the design process.

“Before, it wasn’t possible for blind people to use loyalty cards,” Ortega said. “You couldn’t find the right card in your pocket, and you didn’t know how many stamps were on it. The app is also useful for someone who has reduced mobility in their hands and who might have problems getting a card out of their pocket or wallet.”

Once the app is running, loyalty points are added for each participating retailer either by swiping it near a terminal on Android phones using near field communication, or by scanning a QR code (a square bar code) using the iPhone. Although there is a beep emitted when the app is successfully swiped, the lack of near–field communication on an iPhone was a limitation for blind users unless helped by a shop assistant, Ortega acknowledged.

Running the app itself was not too hard for blind users, with iPhones coming pre-installed with VoiceOver text-to-speech functionality and Android phones able to run similar software such as the Mobile Accessibility suite from Code Factory, he said.

This kind of approach, combined with geo-location technology, is implemented in the new smartphone version of the company’s home page www.yell.com, which is hugely liberating for disabled people, Ortega said. “If I need a taxi, I can find one immediately and then call the taxi using the same device, I don’t have to copy telephone number – it’s two clicks away. Or I can order a table in a restaurant – it’s a huge advantage for blind people or people with reduced mobility.

“Before, you had to call someone and ask them to put you through to the restaurant. If the line was busy you had to call again and ask them to look it all up again.”

RNIB Team Welcomes Off-The-Shelf iPhone Accessibility

An advanced screen-reader and other accessibility features on a new version of Apple’s iPhone represent an “extremely significant development” for a previously inaccessible technology, according to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

‘Off-the-shelf’ features built into the iPhone 3GS allow blind and visually impaired users to send and receive text messages and emails, browse the internet, play music and make and receive phone calls.
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Finnish Trial For Touch-Screen Braille On Mobiles

A method for presenting Braille characters as a sequence of strong and weak pulses on the touch-screen of a mobile device has been developed by a research team at the University of Tampere in Finland.

The most successful method tested by the team involved sending sequences of pulses about a third of a second apart to a single point of the screen of a Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. Almost all participants could accurately recognise individual characters sent in this way, though faster speeds reduced the recognition rate.
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Mobile Browsing Barriers Linked To Accessibility

Two new draft documents relating to accessibility and the future of the web have been published in the past month the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C – http://www.w3.org/).

The first, ‘Shared web experiences: barriers common to mobile device users and people with disabilities’, notes that many of the barriers faced by internet browsers on mobile devices are the same as those experienced by people with disabilities. The document provides examples of the barriers of access to web content for both sets of users (http://www.w3.org/WAI/mobile/experiences). (more…)

Kurzweil Unveils Smallest Text Scanner and Converter

The smallest ever portable device allowing users to scan printed text and convert it to speech has been unveiled by KNFB Reading Technology. The KNFB Reader uses software installed on a Nokia N82 multi-function mobile phone handset weighing only 114 grams
(http://www.knfbreader.com/).
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Disability Advocates Gripe to FCC About iPhone

From PC World see: http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,137433-c,iphone/article.html

A group representing people with a hearing loss filed complaints with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last month, accusing Apple Inc. of not making its iPhone compatible with hearing aids.

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Campaign For Accessible Mobile Phones Launched In US.

A campaign has been launched to support vision impaired Americans who have problems accessing mobile phone services. The campaign, co-ordinated by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), will raise awareness of Section 255, a part of the Federal Communications Act that requires all phones to be made usable by people with disabilities.

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technology and reasonable adjustments, boundaries blur

Have just read this post on the hotels.com case and comment on what might constitute a reasonable adjustment when a company offers both a highstreet and online service. The message that lawyers are shying away from bringing Web access cases under the ADA is worrying.

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