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Research uncovers ‘the real digital divide’ facing millions in the UK

Fresh data has shown further evidence of the digital gulf in the UK facing millions of people with disabilities and older people.

A report by digital inclusion charity Good Things Foundation and Professor Simeon Yates, titled ‘The real digital divide?’, examines the demographics of people in the UK who never or rarely use the internet. The report is based on (and builds on) a 2015 report from telecommunications regulatory body Ofcom on ‘Adults’ media use and attitudes’

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Closure threat for digital inclusion charity seeking £20,000 to survive

A UK charity offering digital skills training to hundreds of people with disabilities will be forced to shut unless £20,000 of running costs are provided urgently.

Cambridge Online provides 4,000 one-to-one tutorials by ‘digital champions’ for over 300 disabled, disadvantaged and older people each year from around Cambridgeshire and beyond. The charity teaches learners a wide range of digital literacy skills, including beginners’ online courses, online shopping, services and job-hunting, Facebook and social media, and individual training requested by learners.

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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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Million Dollar boost for low cost Braille display

An international project to build a low-cost refreshable braille display for computers is reaching fruition, with new plans announced for a technology retailing at less than 20% of current prices.

Refreshable braille devices are formed of plastic “cells”, small grids of holes through which rods rise and fall, triggered by an electric current using a technology known as “piezoelectric”. A line of Braille forms as a computer reads across text.

Product mark-ups are currently high among the few specialist firms who manufacture the cells mainly in the far East, with each cell costing around 100 US Dollars and full displays reaching thousands. However the new project is being supported to the tune of $1m by the Transforming Braille Group (TBG), a global consortium of organisations of and for the blind, led by RNIB in the UK. Other members are American Printing House for the Blind; National Federation of the Blind; and Perkins School for the Blind in the US; The Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted; Sightsavers, Mumbai, India; Association Valentin HAüY, France; Blind Foundation in New Zealand; Vision Australia; and The Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

The group has commissioned Orbit Research, an engineering company based in Delaware, US to develop and manufacture a stand-alone 20-cell refreshable braille display which would then retail at $300 (£200) – less than 20% of the current market price.

The display will be designed to work as a plug-in device through USB and Bluetooth connectivity with smartphones and tablets. It is intended primarily to bring e-books to a wider audience, but not to compete with more permanent, high-specification displays used in education and employment.

The investment plan was first hatched more than two years ago by Kevin Carey, chair of RNIB and TBG president, in a bid to bring refreshable braille within the reach of children in developing countries and provide libraries in all countries with a viable alternative to hard copy braille (see “Global investment plan for cheaper braille displays”, EAB issue 144, 23 January 2012).

Many groups in both the developed world and the developing world are currently spending large amounts on printed materials for Braille libraries, Carey told E-Access Bulletin this month. But if they were able to buy displays at £200 each, they could “massively reduce” the costs of bringing literature to braille readers, he said.

Group action to invest in a new solution was needed because of long-term market failure in the sector, Carey said. “My single aim has always been to destroy the floor price of refreshable Braille”, he said. “At the moment, almost all people buy Braille cells from a small number of suppliers at a fixed price, and mostly get their equipment funded by the public sector. The major suppliers have had their own way for the last 40 years, since piezoelectric cells were introduced in the 1970s. The market was just stuck.”

The move could also stimulate innovation by other major suppliers, leading to greater competition and even lower prices, Carey said. “It is immensely exciting for Western libraries but even more exciting for third world kids, who are currently using smartphones – having something read out or spelled word by word is not genuine literacy: it is much better to have kids read symbols than hearing them spoken.”

The group plans to launch the new product in 2016.

One Voice launches 2015 election pledge campaign

A campaign urging all UK political parties to add digital accessibility pledges to their 2015 election manifestos has been launched by the One Voice for Accessible ICT Coalition.

The coalition is an umbrella group of organisations from all sectors including Leonard Cheshire Disability; BT; Middlesex University; Business Disability Forum and Barclays Bank.

Its new campaign has two main parts: a direct approach to the political parties and a petition on the open campaigns website ’38 Degrees’.

It is centred on a call for “all political parties to reaffirm their previously stated goals for equal opportunities and economic growth, by adding a statement to their 2015 election manifestos pledging to improve access by people with disabilities to digital public services, the digital economy and the workplace.

It is vital that action is taken in this field now, to ensure we keep on top of the rising problem of digital discrimination.”

In particular, the coalition is asking the main UK parties to pledge if elected to t review of anti-discrimination law to “see if it is fit for purpose in the digital age; and to see how existing laws, guidelines and standards on access to digital goods and services by disabled and older people can be better enforced across all sectors.”

In background information published alongside the petition, the coalition notes that the government has already published reasonable accessibility guidelines in its Government Service Design Manual for the Digital by Default Service Standard.

However, it warns: “We are concerned that such messages are still not strongly enough promoted or enforced across the whole of government. And outside central government, in local government and the NHS for example, the pattern of accessibility of digital services is even more patchy.

“It is also a concern that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was set up in 2006 with a mandate to “challenge discrimination”, has undertaken very little research, issued little guidance and carried out little enforcement work in this vital area. This is a clear indicator that review of anti-discrimination law enforcement in this field is urgently needed.”

Andy Heath, a consultant on digital accessibility and One Voice council member who is running the petition on behalf of the coalition, told E-Access Bulletin this week: “Technology can serve us all, or if we let it, it can serve only the few. Accessibility of digital information in the UK is not a done deal, its a work in progress.

“I see the support of the next government it as crucial to the progress of inclusion and accessibility in the UK and making a high level manifesto statement would show a commitment to that. We need the policy vision out there in view so all can see, not buried in a dusty filing cabinet. Whether you believe competition between people, organisations and nations, is a good way to go or not, we cannot afford to waste the talents of any of our people by excluding them – for their sakes and ours.”

Heath urged all readers of E-Access Bulletin to sign the petition, Building an Inclusive Society, and promote it on social media and through other channels, as the parties enter the final stages of their manifesto-setting processes this summer.

Escaping the mousetrap: IT support for keyboard-only users

Heard the one about the technological mousetrap?
by Clive Lever

No, not the play which has been running in the West End since the 1950s: it’s the situation that has trapped people who navigate computers using just the keyboard –not the mouse – for far too long. It’s time to solve this case.

The pace of technology change in the work place is growing ever faster, and wherever there are changes, there are inevitably teething troubles. These in turn drive up the need for people to call their technology help desks when things go wrong, or when it’s not obvious how to change software settings.

Whatever the reason for contacting them, the majority of support engineers can answer the query for mouse users in about ten seconds flat. However, when the caller says they need to perform the action using only the keyboard shortcuts, more often than not the engineer runs off to find who knows something about this, and the caller is put on hold.

When the support officer returns, his or her next gambit generally begins with the dreaded “unfortunately”, and ends with a call being logged to have the problem looked into. What happens next is someone usually emails you back the following day with the answer you would have got instantly if you had been a mouse user.

It may not be possible to consider training all IT support engineers to be experts in the detailed use of keystrokes, or in meeting the needs of people who use access technology. It would ease the frustration of those people though, if at least one member of every support team could be trained in access technology awareness and in using a computer without touching the mouse, so that we don’t risk having to wait for a day or so to get answers that would ordinarily be on hand during the first call we make.

It would also be useful if all IT support engineers setting up new software for people who do not use a mouse at least know where keyboard shortcut lists can be found on the system – by use of keystrokes.

They also need to know, at the very least, how letters are highlighted to indicate what keystrokes will perform the operation. It would even help if all IT support engineers knew that, for example, you can jump to icons on your desktop, or files in a tree structure, by typing in the first part of the names of the items. It would appear that even this is often fresh news to some technicians. So, it is so much easier to find items on your desktop named “Word”, “Excel”, “Access” “Outlook”, than it is to deal with them when all of their names have the default prefix ‘Microsoft’, because the system administrators do not know that this can be unhelpful.

One way or another, the matter of supporting non-mouse users in the workplace needs to be addressed, or we risk having a two-tier system of support, where mouse users get instant help, and non-mouse users are trapped in a slow lane of tech support.

Support query systems could even be structured so that access-related calls automatically go to the top of the queue.

Either way, IT departments need to capture and make available knowledge of the experience of working without a mouse as they acquire it,  so non-mouse users are not forced to wait unnecessarily for service while technicians go off and re-learn what should already be known.

That is the technological mousetrap: and it is time to break free.

NOTE: Clive Lever is a local government diversity and equality officer. Views stated here are his own.

Care Home Workers ‘Lack Digital Confidence and Skills’

Many people who work with older people and disabled people in care homes lack digital skills and are poorly placed to help residents use the internet and other vital tools, eAccess 13 delegates heard.

“We often find that the people who work with those in care are not particularly confident or skilled in their use of digital,” said Miles Maier, ICT champion at LASA, an organisation which helps charities and voluntary groups use technology.

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Web Accessibility: One Million Steps: Boosting Access Awareness, One Website at a Time.

By Robin Christopherson

Recent research shows that the great majority of websites are still failing consistently to comply with even the lowest priority checkpoints of the accessibility guidelines set out by the international web standards body the World Wide Web Consortium. Despite a plethora of initiatives to raise awareness of this issue, from Citizens Online’s ‘Fix the Web’ campaign to Global Accessibility Awareness Day, the situation does not seem to be improving at a significant rate.

Little wonder, therefore, that one in six of us is still reluctant to venture into the online world and not surprising either that around half of those on the wrong side of the digital divide are disabled, and a similar number are aged 65 or over. The scope for mainstream technologies to transform the lives of this sizeable minority seems largely untapped.

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Guidelines Cover Accessibility For Smart Homes Of The Future

The latest version of a set of guidelines for accessible design in ICT systems, including information on making technology-enabled ‘smart homes’ accessible to disabled and elderly people, has been released by a leading consultant.

The guidelines are produced by John Gill OBE, consultant in technology for persons with disabilities and former chief scientist at the Royal National Institute of Blind People. Gill has compiled the guidance over a number of years, as an introduction to building accessible systems in a wide range of areas. A checklist, showing how different accessibility considerations in types of ICT equipment can aid different types of impairment, is also included.
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Personalisation Is Key To Draft E-Learning Standard

Public comment is being invited on a newly updated accessibility standard for students and learners, which focuses on personalising digital learning resources as a method of maximising accessibility for each learner.

The standard, Access for All version 3.0 (AfA v3.0), is produced by IMS Global Learning Consortium, a non-profit body whose members include more than 180 leading universities, educational organisations and technology companies worldwide. It aims to give a personalised experience for learners through use of a “common language” which describes a learner’s needs and preferences.
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