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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.

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.

Practitioner heralds ‘new phase’ of digital learning for disabled children

New technologies such as tablet computers and techniques such as online data analysis are heralding a new age of customised learning assistance for young people who are severely disabled, a practitioner has told E-Access Bulletin.

“We’re entering into a really interesting phase where technology is starting to make massive changes in the way we teach and assess children with the most complex difficulties, allowing us to give them independence and access that we haven’t seen before”, said Sandra Thistlethwaite, specialist speech and language therapist at Oldham-based firm Inclusive Technology.

“For example, we have seen some extremely interesting results using eye gaze technologies with children with complex difficulties, and in using iPads and tablets that people now have as a mainstream device.

“With a good scientific grounding – the right content, structure and theory behind what people are doing with those devices – technology opens up massive potential for health, therapy and learning.”

Thistlethwaite was speaking after one of Inclusive’s software packages, ChooseIt! Maker 3, won the ICT Special Educational Needs Solutions category at last week’s 16th Bett Awards for education resources and companies.

The software allows teachers or parents to help students create and play personalised learning materials. It uses photographs and sounds – including those taken or recorded by the user – with symbols and text to build activities, helping learners who respond best to familiar sights and sounds including those with autism spectrum disorders, communication difficulties, language impairment, developmental disabilities, Down’s Syndrome, Aphasia and traumatic brain injury.

Desktop computers, tablets, touch screens, interactive classroom displays, switches and eye gaze devices can be used with the software, and materials created can be played online or downloaded to mobile, playable offline.

Because the system automatically records learners’ progression, and online activities can be shared between users, a new world of analysable data is being built up that could help not only to improve future products but to determine which interventions work for which children, for the good of all, Thistlethwaite said.

“We are looking at undertaking data analytics over a range of products. We are still at very early stages of looking at how teachers and children are using our software, and it will also give a chance to see how children are learning, what they are looking at, what access methods are used.

“Eventually we plan to have data research tools that would inform education, communication and health, as well as real feedback and real data to inform our practice and improve future products.”

The Bett awards are co-hosted by education suppliers’ association BESA with the organisers of education technology event Bett.

BBC Issues Draft Guidelines for Mobile Accessibility

A draft set of standards and guidelines to make BBC web content and apps more accessible when viewed on mobile devices has been released by the corporation following a year of testing and development.

The Draft BBC Mobile Accessibility Standards and Guidelines were announced in a blog post by Henny Swan, senior accessibility specialist at the BBC. Up to now the BBC’s existing accessibility guidelines have been used as a basis for creating accessible mobile content, Swan says, but it was felt that more specific mobile standards were now needed.

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The Story Behind the BBC Mobile Accessibility Guidelines

By Henny Swan.

The BBC has now published a set of draft Mobile Accessibility Standards and Guidelines to the wider web development community, a ground-breaking project which has been in development for a year now [see also – news, earlier in this issue of E-Access Bulletin]. While written primarily for BBC employees and suppliers to use, the corporation’s hope is that they might be useful for any individual or organisation building mobile web content and native apps.

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Digital Inclusion “About Everybody, Not Just Disabled People”

The concept of digital accessibility simply as a means of catering for disabled users is out-of-date: in the modern world, digital inclusion must be understood as the need to serve everybody, whatever their access method or device, a leading accessibility specialist has said.

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at technology access charity AbilityNet, told delegates at the recent national digital conference in London, ND13, that providers of digital content and services already need to adapt to new devices and access methods. With more people than ever accessing websites through mobile and other devices, we are in a situation where “everybody is disabled from time-to-time”, Christopherson said.

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Location Networking Aims To Help Disabled People Connect

A free smartphone app that can help disabled and other diverse communities find and connect with people from within their own and other groups, and request social support, has been launched in the UK.

MiFinder combines elements of social networking platforms with GPS satellite location, allowing users to engage and potentially meet with people nearby them who share similar interests. The app has a range of potential uses – including dating – but is unusual in promoting its use for social support, its owner says.

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UK Government Funding For Assistive App “Georgie

Up to 200 blind and visually impaired people are to be trained to use a package of smartphone apps that can help with communication and everyday tasks, with £14,000 of funding allocated by the UK government.

The training is for an app bundle for Android smartphones named “Georgie”, developed by husband and wife Roger and Margaret Wilson-Hinds through their company Screenreader.net. The apps help blind and visually impaired people operate smartphones using functions such as voice-assisted touch-screen operation, and also help people with daily tasks such as catching public transport, reading printed text aloud and navigation outdoors (see also our previous report on the apps – full link: www.headstar.com/eablive/?p=751 Short link: bit.ly/X8zS7I ).

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