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Innovation and impact honoured at Tech4Good Awards

A digital audio navigation system and a portable asthma management device are two of the winners in this year’s Tech4Good Awards, which recognises projects and individuals that are using technology to improve lives.

People honoured at the event included an IT volunteer who helped to set up a charity by establishing its ICT systems, and digital inclusion expert and campaigner Robin Christopherson.

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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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Social networking through voice rather than vision

A free communication app based on voice messages is proving popular with blind and visually impaired users, and has launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to help expand its community.

Users of the Vorail app communicate by recording questions or thoughts as short voice messages, which are available for other users to listen to and reply. Users just need to set up a basic profile, without any photos or images.

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Your assistive technology queries answered online by an expert

Anyone seeking advice on assistive technology will be able to call on the expertise of a technology professional, thanks to a community forum on the website of disability charity Scope.

The charity’s ‘Ask an assistive technologist’ service allows users to leave questions on the forum, where they will be read by a specialist, who will then leave advice for the user to pick up. Users just need to register on the site to become part of Scope’s online community, and can then post questions.

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Innovations for independent living take a step forward

A Braille tablet computer, an online tool to seek out low-cost 3D-printed prosthetics and other projects to assist independent living were showcased earlier this month at the European Parliament.

The projects on display were part of an event in Brussels, ‘Accessible technology for independent living’, organised by the European Disability Forum and Google. Featured projects were supported by $20 million from the Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities – a scheme funding non-profit ideas that utilise new technologies.
(Read more at the Google Impact Challenge website: http://eab.li/a .)

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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’.

Q & A: Euan MacDonald, Founder, Euan’s Guide

Euan’s Guide is a website and app that allows people to share reviews about the accessibility for disabled people of shops, restaurants or any community location. Its most-reviewed areas include Edinburgh; London; Glasgow; York; Sheffield; Cardiff; Birmingham; Aberdeen; Newcastle-Upon-Tyne; and Cambridge. In July, the website won the People’s Choice award in a BT Infinity Lab “Connected Society” competition seeking solutions to social issues, and celebrity supporters include J K Rowling and Professor Stephen Hawking. Here, the site’s founder Euan MacDonald speaks to E-Access Bulletin about the inspiration for his project.

- What motivated you to create Euan’s Guide?

I was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease 10 years ago, and then when I started to use a wheelchair five years ago I realised how difficult it was to find good disabled access information. It got myself and my sister Kiki thinking that we would like to share our favourite places that we had discovered had good disabled access, and learn from others about their favourite places too.

My family and I have funded the service’s development ourselves, and we have set it up as a not-for-profit organisation.

- Did you have any experience creating websites or apps?

Not really! Certainly one of our biggest challenges and one of the most interesting for me was making sure that the site and the app is accessible for everyone. For example, I use eye gaze technology with a hands-free system, which can make some websites tricky to navigate, so we have worked hard to make the navigation clear to follow and easy to use. Some areas required the creation of bespoke functions such as the buttons to move around the maps. We’ve also developed the site and app to exploit the native accessibility functionality of smartphones such as voice input and output.

- What are the main aims of Euan’s Guide?

The main aim of the website is to empower disabled people by giving them information that will give them choices and confidence for getting out and about. I call this “removing the fear of the unknown”, which is something experienced by many disabled people.

Success stories for us are getting reviews from places that we would not have thought were accessible and being told that they’re great! Edinburgh Castle, T in the Park Festival and London’s Cutty Sark are prime examples of this.

There are a whole host of related things that we hope will follow, such as businesses realising how much of a demand there is for their services to be accessible. There are more than 11 million disabled people and more than 6.5 million carers in the UK alone. We’ve already had venues that have contacted us saying that they have acted on what our reviewers have told them and made improvements. It is also worth mentioning that not all changes have to cost lots of money – there are some really simple things that some businesses can do to improve their accessibility and staff play such a huge part in this too. And of course, making your venue or service more accessible will not only help disabled people but will also aid the elderly, infirm and parents with buggies too.

We also hope that Euan’s Guide may encourage more disabled people online. There are stats to suggest that in the UK, disabled people are a third less likely to have used the internet than non disabled people.

- Do you think new technologies such as smartphones, apps, GPS and mobile social networking have a liberating potential for people with disabilities?

The combination of accessibility, portability and mobile data have created fantastic opportunities when out and about. It is now possible to ask your phone verbally where you are, have your location read aloud to you, receive directions and find places of places of interest that are near to you, all combining to give people spontaneity in their daily lives.

As for the future – who knows? From turning your phone into a magnifying glass to becoming a telecare tool, a portable health monitor and AAC device, there are apps that can already do so much to help people live an independent life… and these are just apps that we’ve heard about in the last couple of weeks!

We’re starting to see emergence of disabled people working with talented technically minded people to identify problems and create the solutions.

- How important is digital accessibility?

Digital accessibility is critical as it may be the only means a disabled person has of independently engaging in a timely fashion with service providers.

A classic example of this is a friend of mine who is registered blind. Digital accessibility allows him to read his post and check his bank statements, and therefore to run his business and earn a living. Just 10 years ago much of this was not possible and he had to employ a PA to manage these tasks, which often took much longer and encroached on his privacy.

However, one of my pet hates at the moment is where organisations have attempted digital inclusion but have not ‘connected the dots’. Regularly I come up against this when trying to buy tickets for events and accessible tickets are not available to buy online. There is inevitably a phone number to ring and as I can’t use the phone I have to get other people to do this on my behalf – frustrating is an understatement!

- What does the future hold for Euan’s Guide?

Of particular interest to me is what people think of the site and how we can improve it and we regularly make changes to the site based on their suggestions. And we would always like more reviews, by more reviewers!

Euan’s Guide

Apple urged to act on app accessibility

The US National Federation of the Blind has called on technology giant Apple to include accessibility to non-visual users as part of its process of approving apps for supply through its App Store, or when they are updated.

The call came in a resolution passed at the federation’s annual convention held this month in Orlando, Florida.

This acknowledged that Apple has made major steps towards making its own products accessible, including integration in many of them of the screenreader programme VoiceOver. It also noted that VoiceOver can allow non-visual access to mobile apps, and praised Apple for releasing and promoting tools and guidance to make it easy for app developers to incorporate accessibility features for VoiceOver users.

However, the resolution said: “despite Apple’s efforts to encourage accessibility, too many applications are still not accessible to VoiceOver users because buttons are not properly labeled, images of text cannot be interpreted, and other display elements cannot even be detected by VoiceOver.”

Noting that Apple “is not reluctant to place requirements and prohibitions on application developers, but has not seen fit to require that applications be accessible to VoiceOver users”, it said accessibility “should be as important as any other requirement imposed on application developers.” It thus called on Apple to “create and enforce policies, standards, and procedures to ensure the accessibility of all apps… and to ensure that accessibility is not lost when an app is updated.”

In all, some 19 out of 22 resolutions passed at the Orlando convention relate to digital technology.

These include a resolution urging the Obama administration to act more quickly on its own pledge to introduce new regulations enforcing the accessibility of all US public sector websites, first proposed in 2010 but recently delayed until March 2015.

Others included resolutions urging better accessibility for Microsoft SharePoint collaboration software; apps and websites collecting data and interacting with devices to build the “internet of things”; tools and technologies helping people manage diabetes; enterprise software; electronic health records; educational tools used by science students in the laboratory; cloud storage services such as Dropbox, Box, SugarSync and Google Drive; home security systems; digital books; anti-virus software; apps made by airline companies to book and track flights; online ballot-marking systems; remote computer access tools.

All this year’s NFB resolutions can be read in Word ’97 format on the federation’s website.

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.

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.

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