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E-Access Bulletin – Issue 205, November 2018

E-Access Bulletin is produced with the support of Thomas Pocklington Trust.

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Issue 205 contents

Section One: News

01: Inaccessible retail sites continue to miss out on millions, as new survey launches.

– Second Click-Away Pound report aims to raise awareness in online businesses.

02: Gaming industry told that “tiny tweaks” equal huge accessibility boosts.

- Experts outline how game developers can build-in accessibility from the start.

03: Involve disabled people in policy-making, new global accessibility index urges.

– Report covering 121 countries reveals “significant shortcomings”.

Section Two: News in brief

04: Instant Comprehension – Instagram introduces alt text.

05: Visually Impaired Voting – Assistance app goes free to help voters.

06: Smart Specs – Captioning glasses rolled-out at National Theatre.

Section Three: Event report

07: Making machines smart by keeping things fair: EDF conference on artificial intelligence.

Speakers from major technology companies, disability organisations and high-level AI experts gathered in Vienna recently to explore the many opportunities and associated risks offered by artificial intelligence for persons with disabilities. E-Access Bulletin attended the conference to find out more about the situation posed by this unique technology and how it can be harnessed for societal good.

[Contents ends]

Section One: News

01: Inaccessible retail sites continue to miss out on millions, as new survey launches

A new version of a survey to assess the online shopping experience of people with disabilities has launched, to find out whether businesses have improved their websites.

The first Click-Away Pound (CAP) survey launched in 2016 and uncovered a range of issues. A key finding was that 70% of people with impairments simply ‘click away’ from unusable websites when shopping online. Additionally, 80% preferred to spend their money through accessible websites rather than the cheapest.

The report also estimated the ‘displaced’ spending of these customers (money not being spent on inaccessible sites) to be almost £12 billion. Using the calculations behind this figure and predicted spending data, figures accompanying the launch of the new survey estimate that £446 million of potential spending will have been lost by businesses with inaccessible websites over the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping period.

The new Click-Away Pound survey aims to find out if the picture has changed for online shoppers with impairments in the two years following the first edition. Rick Williams, the report’s lead author and Managing Director of disability consultancy Freeney Williams Ltd, told e-Access Bulletin that the new survey has been launched because “we thought that was enough time for businesses to address the issues [the first survey] raised.”

Speaking about his predictions for the results, Williams said: “If I am honest, I don’t expect major changes. However, pressure is certainly building and in the United States this is now a major legal issue. In the UK the subject is being discussed more, but we don’t know how things have changed.”

Williams said the continued use of inaccessible websites by many businesses is ‘puzzling’. He said: “No director of a major company would knowingly turn away business and annoy potential customers, but they continue to do so with inaccessible websites and apps.”

The latest Click-Away Pound Survey is open now and anyone with an impairment who shops online is encouraged to take part at the following website:

The survey will be kept open until at least the end of January and results will be published in summer. Williams said he expects that the results “will play a key role in improving businesses’ approach to this issue.”

Read e-Access Bulletin’s coverage of the 2016 Click-Away Pound survey.

Comment on the ‘Click-Away Pound 2018’ story now at e-Access Bulletin Live.

02: Gaming industry told that “tiny tweaks” equal huge accessibility boosts

Video game developers have been asked to make their products more inclusive for players with disabilities by sector experts at an event in London.

In a session on ‘Accessible games’ at TechShare Pro 2018 (a wide-ranging digital accessibility conference), three speakers explained to delegates why accessibility is so important in this area and explained what changes need to be made.

Games journalist Mark Brown – whose ‘Game Maker’s Toolkit’ YouTube channel has over half a million subscribers – started his presentation by stating that “video games are a particularly difficult topic for accessibility, because they touch on basically every category of disability.”

He then worked through a checklist of ten points for developers to consider when creating new video games. These included: controller sensitivity, clear subtitles, volume controls for separate elements, visual contrast, difficulty customisation and simulation sickness (similar to motion sickness, causing some players to feel nauseous – often in 3D or first-person perspective games). He also gave examples of good practice, highlighting games where visually impaired players can turn off background visuals (‘Street Fighter IV’) and choose their own colour palette (‘For Honor’) to assist with visual contrast and colour blindness issues.

Following on was Mark Friend, a senior user researcher and accessibility specialist for Sony Interactive Entertainment, the company behind the PlayStation brand. Friend discussed his visits to numerous game studios to explain to development teams what steps could be taken to improve the accessibility of their games at the beginning of the process, flagging up common “unintentional barriers” that are often created.

An accessibility consultant and blind gamer known as Sightless Kombat was the final speaker in the session, discussing audio gaming and different approaches used by players with sight loss for various game genres. “It’s important for sighted gamers to engage with audio gaming experiences, because they are so integral to culture and social interaction,” he said.

He then highlighted the importance of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), a piece of legislation from the United States which will require game developers to make communication interfaces and navigation elements in their games accessible for users with disabilities. The Act comes into force in the US on January 1, 2019, and is expected to have a significant impact on game development in the country.

Sightless Kombat pointed out the increasing popularity of accessibility functions with a wider audience, noting that “although these features were initially targeted at those with disabilities, they’ve expanded [to a larger audience] due to convenience.” He ended with a final request to game developers: “Tiny tweaks can make such a big difference, even small things – like audio cues – which may not be noticed by most people.”

Read more about visually impaired gaming at the Sightless Kombat website.

Find out more about Mark Brown’s work at the Game Maker’s Toolkit YouTube channel.

Read more about TechShare Pro at the AbilityNet website. Presentations on digital accessibility topics discussed on the day are available for some sessions.

Comment on the ‘Accessible game development’ story now at e-Access Bulletin Live.

03: Involve disabled people in policy-making, new global accessibility index urges

Less than one quarter of countries in a large-scale global assessment involve persons with disabilities in digital accessibility policy-making and monitoring, acting against the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), a new report claims.

Developed by G3ict – the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs – the Digital Accessibility Rights Evaluation (DARE) Index measured the progress and implementation of digital accessibility for persons with disabilities in 121 countries, based on criteria set out in the CRPD. G3ict notes that the DARE Index “builds on eight years of data collection and analysis experience” from previous accessibility progress reports.

Despite “positive advances” in legislation supporting ICT accessibility, the results showed “significant gaps” when it came to actually implementing such policies, resulting in what DARE describes as “significant shortcomings in making digital products and services accessible to persons with disabilities.”

The index also features a table of the top ten countries in terms of overall performance. Oman scored highest, followed by Brazil, France, South Africa, Qatar, United States, Italy, Russian Federation, UK, Kenya and Spain. Grouped into wider regions, North America and Europe scored significantly higher than other areas.

A report based on the data cites lack of involvement of persons with disabilities in policy-making as the most pressing issue holding back digital accessibility, but other issues are also highlighted.

These include lack of involvement with international standards (such as WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) and lack of ICT accessibility courses offered at “major universities”, which were available in only 37% of countries. The report claims that students in the remaining countries “continue to graduate in computer sciences or any other related discipline without having ever heard of ICT accessibility.”

Good practice and positive outcomes are also highlighted in the DARE Index. This includes a substantial increase in legislation protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, recorded in 84% of the countries, compared to a minority before 2006. The report claims that this “remarkable progress” shows the impact of the CRPD.

However, the big picture outlined in the DARE Index is that many countries are still lacking when it comes to implementing digital accessibility measures. An overview statement on the DARE website notes the following:

Success stories from most advanced countries suggest that closing gaps requires more than governments’ advocacy and resources. It requires a long-term partnership between the public sector, industry, DPOs and NGOs. The participation and continuous involvement of persons with disabilities in policy-making, development and monitoring processes is vital to build a fully accessible information society that ensures the right to communicate and the use of knowledge for all.”

Read more about the DARE Index at the G3ict website.

Comment on the ‘Global index’ story at e-Access Bulletin Live.

[Section One ends]

Section Two: News in brief

04: Instant Comprehension

Instagram has introduced automatic and manual alt text features to make its photos more accessible for people with visual impairments. When uploading photos, users will be able to add their own descriptions for others to hear when using a screen-reader. Object recognition technology will also be used to identify what items are in a photo, to generate automatic alt text descriptions for screen-readers.

Read more about the new alt text functionality at the Instagram website

05: Visually Impaired Voting

Visual assistance app Aira, a paid-for service which connects people with sight loss to sighted volunteers, offered people in the United States free use of its service for voting-related activities in the country’s midterm elections earlier this month. The company told e-Access Bulletin that 2,000 free minutes were used, over half of which used on Election Day, November 6. Brittany Carambio from Aira said: “People called in from all over the country to get assistance with locating and navigating their polling station, reading voter guides and more.”

Find out more at the Aira website.

06: Smart Specs

London’s National Theatre has announced that its ‘smart caption’ glasses – which provide live captions during a show for people with hearing loss – will be available for all performances in each of its three theatres from February 2019. Speaking at the TechShare Pro 2018 event in London, Jonathan Suffolk, Technical Director at the National Theatre, explained that the theatre is also working on a version of the system for use in cinemas, as well as audio description and BSL versions. Another aim is for the glasses to be used in London’s West End theatre district and internationally.

Read more about the smart caption glasses at the National Theatre website.

[Section Two ends]

Notice: Thomas Pocklington Trust

E-Access Bulletin is brought to you with the kind support of Thomas Pocklington Trust, a national charity delivering positive change for people with sight loss. Find out more about their work at the Thomas Pocklington Trust website.

[Notice ends]

Notice: RNIB Connect Radio and e-Access Bulletin

E-Access Bulletin will be appearing on RNIB Connect Radio each month on The Early Edition programme. Hear more about the Bulletin and upcoming content appearing in each issue, as we discuss the latest accessible technology news and readers’ questions with Allan Russell.

Episodes will be available after broadcast as podcasts from the RNIB Connect Radio site. Listen to RNIB Connect Radio online or via television, smartphone or radio. Find more information about the Early Edition at the RNIB Connect Radio website.

[Notice ends]

Section Three: Event report

07: Making machines smart by keeping things fair: EDF conference on artificial intelligence

For better or worse, the term ‘artificial intelligence’, or simply AI, still conjures up science-fiction-like images of dangerously powerful computers or malevolent robots overthrowing the human race. It seems like something that belongs in the future, even though it’s been around for a long time and is being used by countless numbers of people on a daily basis, many without even realising.

Online retail websites, social media platforms, film and music streaming services, email filtering systems and ‘virtual assistants’ like Siri and Alexa all use AI, to name just a few. And as many e-Access Bulletin readers will know, those virtual assistants also have a wide range of benefits for people with disabilities. So, how can artificial intelligence be harnessed to provide as much assistance as possible for people with impairments? And how can the technology be developed in the future to be of even more use in this area?

These were two of the topics discussed at an event in Vienna organised by the European Disability Forum (EDF), titled ‘Using artificial intelligence to enhance accessibility – opportunities and risks of emerging technologies for persons with disabilities’.

Specialists from major technology companies were present to talk about products and services that use AI, alongside various field experts from disability and AI-focused organisations.

Moderated by Michael Fembek from the Zero Project (an organisation which shares and supports innovative disability-focused projects), the first session, titled ‘Setting the scene’, featured representatives from three tech giants. However, as Fembek noted in his introduction, “the relationship of disability, accessibility and inclusion to AI is not straightforward. There are incredible opportunities … but there are also dangers – the danger of widening the digital gap instead of closing it.”

The first speaker was Adina Braha-Honciuc, Government Affairs Manager for Accessibility and Sustainability at Microsoft, who began by addressing a question that would be returned to throughout the event: what is AI? “It is about computers understanding the world,” was her core definition. “It’s not about ‘human versus machine’,” she added later, perhaps trying to banish any remaining sci-fi images.

Braha-Honciuc claimed that “AI makes diversity even more important than it already is,” citing the need for diverse teams to work with the technology in order for it to reflect diverse thinking.

“People with disabilities need to have a seat at the table in the development of AI, to make sure that AI systems are not biased and are reflective of our entire society,” she said, highlighting what would become a key message of the conference.

Anna-Verena Naether, Public Policy Senior Analyst at Google, defined AI slightly differently: “It’s the science of making machines smart, or making them appear smart.”

AI is crucial for many Google products, including search engine technology, Google Translate, Gmail and Google Photos. She then discussed Google Lookout, an upcoming mobile app that uses machine learning to help people with sight loss understand their environment. The app captures images of a scene and detects objects and people in the image, before ‘judging’ which are the most relevant items in the photo and speaking these items aloud to the user.

There are still challenges to overcome with the app, said Naether, including issues with image quality and the potential for misrecognition. She went on to talk about Google’s work with voice-access systems. This technology could be used to control wheelchairs or tilt beds for people with mobility issues, she said.

Monica Desai, Facebook’s Director of Global Public Policy, went a step further, stating “We strongly believe that artificial intelligence is the future of improving accessible experiences at scale.”

She cited Facebook’s automatic alt text and facial recognition tools as examples of how the company is leveraging AI in accessible technology. Both features make Facebook easier to use for people with sight loss and were developed through extensive user-testing with screen-reader users, Desai said.

She ended by talking about adding captions to videos on Facebook, a much-discussed accessibility issue. Users are not obliged to add captions when uploading video content, but the company has added features to make the process easier, in the hope of encouraging more captions, Desai said, including “investing in real-time captioning capability” for Facebook Live.

In a separate session on ‘Showcasing solutions’, Hector Minto, Technical Evangelist for Accessibility at Microsoft, talked about new developments from the company, including a potential Hearing AI app – a version of the popular Seeing AI app, which recognises text, objects and faces to help visually impaired users. Currently undergoing research, Hearing AI would learn to recognise sounds to assist people with hearing impairments – such as a doorbell, alarm and specific voices – and describe those sounds to the user.

Minto also flagged up a new accessibility checker for the Office 365 package which gives live accessibility feedback as a user works on a document.

Following on, Wilfried Kainz from the Zero Project highlighted the Inclov app as an innovative example of AI being used for social good. Inclov is a matchmaking app for people in India with disabilities, using machine learning to create potential matches.

Kainz also highlighted an important point around practical access to the kinds of technologies being discussed at the conference: “We believe that AI is definitely a driving force for assistive technologies, but how can customers and services come together?” One positive example, he said, is Tech Able, an assistive technology showroom in Singapore that anyone can visit to test equipment (in soundproof and lightproof rooms, if required), to see what suits their individual needs before purchasing.

Over the course of the day, other AI projects were showcased and discussed (including a demonstration of the Amazon Echo voice-operated virtual assistant) and deeper issues were raised. Klaus Hockner, from the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence, stated that one of the key issues around AI is a lack of early education on the subject: “AI skills are not taught at schools or kindergartens. It needs to be implemented from the beginning.”

Later on, Carine Marzin – a member of the European Disability Forum’s ICT Expert Group – previewed findings from an upcoming EDF report on emerging technologies. The report “aims to support the disability movement in engaging with industry and policy-makers to ensure that emerging technologies are inclusive,” Marzin said.

The report explores benefits of these technologies for persons with disabilities, alongside risks and practical recommendations aimed at ensuring inclusivity.

Marzin then discussed risks and concerns highlighted by respondents to a survey in the report. The biggest concern (from 88% of people) was around potential lack of accessibility of emerging technologies, followed by concerns about lack of standardisation, interoperability with current assistive technologies, discrimination and security, among other areas.

The findings demonstrated that despite the many applications – current and potential – that artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies offer to persons with disabilities, there are still substantial real-world concerns around their implementation, from those that may benefit the most from their use.

Education on the topic will help address some concerns, but it appears the most crucial element by far relates to the message consistently repeated throughout the event: persons with disabilities need to be involved with this technology at every stage, from initial discussions to design and development. Only then, it seems, does AI stand a fighting chance of being truly inclusive and truly useful for persons with disabilities on a widespread and sustainable scale.

Read more about the European Disability Forum’s work at the EDF website.

Comment on the ‘Artificial intelligence event’ story at e-Access Bulletin Live.

[Section Three ends]

End Notes

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Editor: Tristan Parker

Technical Director: Jake Jellinek

Accessibility Advisor: Dr. Nick Freear

ISSN 1476-6337.

ISSUE 205 ends.


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