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Call For Global Body To Boost Accessibility Professionalism

The accessibility field needs a new international community of experts to help it become a recognised profession, Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer told a recent conference.

Speaking at the sixth European Forum on e-Accessibility in Paris ( http://bit.ly/wHNjGf ), Rob Sinclair said: “The time has come for accessibility to transcend its origin and become an internationally recognised profession.”

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Tesco pledges action over inaccessible app

The UK’s largest supermarket chain Tesco has said it is taking seriously concerns raised about the inaccessibility of its new smartphone app, and is to work with the RNIB to improve the situation.

The statement was issued after E-Access Bulletin raised questions with the company about the experiences of Steph Cutler, a small business adviser and personal coach who has impaired vision. Cutler approached EAB after becoming dissatisfied with the new Tesco shopping app and with the retailer’s initial response to her complaints.

“I love the iPhone – it has really changed my life, and on the whole, the apps I’ve got are pretty usable,” she said. “So when I downloaded the Tesco app I was excited to think I could use it to shop – although their website is accessible, I find it very time-consuming. But it turns out that the app is totally inaccessible with [the iPhone’s screenreader] VoiceOver. Basically, the app says the same thing whatever product you touch.”

After Cutler asked the RNIB to take a look and they had supported her assessment, she contacted Tesco to complain, but says the company’s initial response was unsatisfactory.

“I emailed them and they rang me back very quickly, but the poor lad from customer services just said ‘we know it’s inaccessible’, though he didn’t seem to know what that meant. He had obviously just been told to call, and he was trying to say he accepted it didn’t work, but that it was OK. He also categorically refused to let me talk to someone else.

“I emailed again, and another email came back saying they care about accessibility – but with no details of any remedial plan.”

Subsequently, after E-Access Bulletin had made its own enquiries into the case, Tesco did produce a fuller response. A spokesperson for Tesco said: “The software used in the iPhone application is cutting edge technology and we will be always aiming to improve the functionality of the application.

“We have taken the concerns raised seriously and recently contacted the RNIB to work with them in identifying features that will improve accessibility for the product.

“At this time, we are unable to give any timescales as to when this will be completed. Any amendments to the application will need to be built and tested, and will therefore take time to complete.”

Tesco has now also been back in touch with Cutler to relay the same message, which she welcomes. “I am hoping they will be true to their word, and I do intend to monitor this one,” she said.

However, she says she still fails to understand why such a large company in the 21st century is failing to design in accessibility from the first release of a technology offering such as their new app.

“One argument about whether accessibility can be included is often resources, and rightly sometimes – but you just can’t say that about Tesco,” Cutler says. “We are talking about a massive retailer for whom resources aren’t a problem. They understand some of it, because they do some of it. It made me, as a visually impaired shopper, feel a little bit second class.

“I do accept apps are new, and the accessibility might change in future, but as a user I’m discriminated against.

“The point I put to them is that at the start of anything, you have a choice – you can choose to put accessibility into how it will function. But this time, either they briefed a developer and they didn’t put any emphasis on accessibility, or the developer just didn’t do it. It is far harder for them now – they will have to change code, which will be a biggish job. But it wouldn’t be a big job if they thought about it as a matter of course and didn’t put anything out that most of our customers can’t access.”

Ultimately, she says, it is a question of leadership. ““The bottom line is I feel as if I’ve been treated less favourably for reasons of my disability. It doesn’t feel like it’s been taken seriously from the top down – it doesn’t feel like the decision-maker has taken an inclusive approach, so why should customer service?”

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.

Screen-Reader Problems Uncovered In Olympics Ticket Site

Some blind web users may not have been able to buy tickets for next year’s London Olympics due to the partial inaccessibility of the tickets website, testing by the charity AbilityNet has found.
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Report Highlights Major Research Gaps For Assistive Technology

Lack of awareness of the needs of users with disabilities; funding problems; user-testing problems and problems with ensuring use of open standards are all among barriers to successful transfer of new assistive technologies from the research laboratory to the real world, a new report finds.

The report was written by consultant Dr John Gill for the Cardiac project, a European initiative to identify research and development gaps in the fields of accessible and assistive ICT ( http://www.cardiac-eu.org ).
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Open Source Software: Priced Out of the Market?

By David Bates

There is now increasing emphasis on enabling more of the older and poorer members of the community to use computers to access information and to communicate with others. I see the primary need for non-computer-literate older people to be an inexpensive ‘net book’ with a very simple and easily-learned interface which will enable them to undertake basic tasks. But from where can such machines be purchased with suitable, simple software installed?

Like a new driver, learners are easily put off by technicalities – they just want to move forward by operating the controls without learning what goes on under the bonnet. This problem is especially acute for blind computer users, who have to control the machine in an unusual way: because they cannot read the text or see the cursor they must move it around the screen with the Alt, arrow and Tab keys, and then listen to the words under the cursor as they are read out with a synthetic voice. The link they require may be very visible on the screen, but it may well take the carefully listening user many keystrokes to locate it.
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Exclusive: EU Set To Ditch Rules On Accessible Goods

The European Union looks set to backtrack on proposed legislation that would have required accessibility to disabled people of all manufactured consumer goods, from digital televisions to washing machines, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

A Brussels meeting this week is expected to confirm changes to the draft Equal Treatment Directive (ETD), first proposed by the European Commission in 2008 to ban discrimination in access to goods and services, as set out in its full title: Proposal for a Council Directive on implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation
( http://bit.ly/9IFqXc ).
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Proposed US Law Would Force Product Accessibility

Manufacturers and suppliers of consumer technology devices in the US could be forced to make all their products accessible to blind consumers, if proposed legislation is passed by Congress.

Introduced by Jan Schakowsky, a Democratic House of Representatives member from Illinois, the Technology Bill of Rights for the Blind Act 2010 ( http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h4533/text ) is based around creating accessible alternatives to what it calls “increasingly complex user interfaces” found in consumer electronics.
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First Internet Web Radio Launched For Blind Users

A new internet radio set has been developed for blind and visually impaired listeners, allowing people to listen online to audio books, podcasts, talking newspapers and audio catalogues, as well as internet radio stations from around the world.

Manufactured by the charity British Wireless for the Blind Fund ( http://www.blind.org.uk ), the ‘Sonata’ radio – claimed to be the first of its kind – was launched earlier this month, and allows users to listen to any streamable, unlicensed internet audio feed.
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Access Information Absent From TV Set Maker Websites

One of the UK’s leading experts on accessible technology has called for TV set manufacturers to provide better information on their websites about access to their products by people with disabilities.

Adrian Higginbotham, manager of cutting edge research at the UK’s education technology agency Becta, made the comments after his own attempts to buy an accessible TV set which supported audio description (AD) were hampered repeatedly by poor information online.
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