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Archive for the 'Smartphones' Category

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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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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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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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’.

Global mobile accessibility database set for overhaul

The world’s leading database of information on the accessibility features of mobile phones and tablet computers is set to be refreshed with extensive new information, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

GARI (Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative) was launched in 2010 by the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF), an international association of mobile telecommunications equipment manufacturers.

Initially covering just a few accessibility features for mobile phones, it has since been expanded to store information on more than 100 features of phones and tablet computers of interest to users with access issues relating to dexterity; vision; hearing/speech; and cognition.

Last year it was further expanded to include ‘apps’ (applications) that help to make mobile devices more accessible such as screenreaders, or help people with disabilities to perform everyday tasks such as TapTapSee, an app which can use a phone’s camera to identify objects and speak them out loud.

The resource – which covers all global regions – was developed with international disability organisations including World Blind Union, European Disability Forum, World Federation of the Deaf. It holds information in 12 written and spoken languages plus American Sign Language with a 13th language, Japanese, to be added shortly.

It was originally set up because accessibility information on consumer devices seemed to be getting lost on the way to the user, Sabine Lobnig, communications and regulatory officer at the MMF, told E-Access Bulletin. “Manufacturers had feedback from disability organisations that even if they do provide accessibility information for devices, this information does not usually arrive with the end consumer”, Lobnig said.

“Whether it is sold through a wholesaler, on the internet or wherever, information on accessibility is lost. So consumers end up with a device that could be accessible for them but they do not have the information.”

Another purpose for GARI is to act as an official compliance reporting mechanism for mobile manufacturers in countries such as Australia, Portugal and the US where legal accessibility requirements are already in place, she said. The system pulls in data to templates designed to meet the requirements of each country’s relevant law. In Europe, no such legal requirements currently exist at EU or national level, though an EU accessibility act currently in development might introduce them in future.

The GARI dataset available for organisations to embed in their own websites (free for non-commercial use); and acts as a platform where policy makers, industry and disability organisations can exchange information and work together on improving accessibility of mobile phones, tablets and apps.

Its main data store is reviewed every 12-18 months with the most recent consultation with suppliers and disability organisations being held in November 2013, Lobnig said. The results were then considered with new features set to be agreed by the GARI management team next week, she said.

GARI is free to use and developers list apps for free, though manufacturers pay to have their hardware products included.

Audio interaction for ‘Swype’ virtual keyboard app

The popular ‘Swype’ virtual keyboard app for Android smartphones, designed to allow users to type more quickly and effectively, has introduced audio accessibility features to its latest version in a move which will benefit users with impaired vision.

Users of the standard ‘Swype’ app type words by sliding a finger across a virtual keyboard in a continuous motion, beginning at the first letter and pausing briefly at each letter they want to include, before lifting their finger at the end of each word. The app then predicts the word, and correction features help the process.

In the latest version of Swype, users can activate it to work with Android’s ‘TalkBack’ and ‘Explore by Touch’ accessibility features so that individual letters and words are spoken out loud to users as they slide their fingers across the virtual keyboard.

Working in this ‘TalkBack’ mode also enables audio versions of the predictive text and correction features. For example, depending on what letters of a word have already been written, users can move their fingers to the top of the smartphone screen and scroll through lists of words suggested and spoken by Swype, navigated using circular finger motions.

Similarly, Swype suggests words to the user depending on what has been written, and will learn to recognise common choices. Other app navigation, such as switching to the symbols and punctuation menu, can also be managed using audio prompts.

The latest version of Swype also uses Dragon Dictation speech-recognition software to allow users to dictate text to the app rather than type. Swype can be purchased for a few pounds through the Google Play platform or Amazon Appstore.