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Issue 204 contents
Section One: News
01: “New technology design agenda” needed for digital inclusion, research recommends.
– Sustained training also required to boost digital skills for people with disabilities.
02: New app aims to transform rail travel for passengers with disabilities.
– Passenger Assist hopes to shake up the ‘assistance booking’ system.
03: Anticipated refreshable Braille reader launches in the UK, seeking to disrupt the market.
– Orbit Reader 20 aims to keep things affordable.
04: Product reviews website asks consumers to get vocal.
- Ratings and feedback requested to help others.
Section Two: News in brief
05: Treaty Progress – EU ratifies Marrakesh Treaty.
06: Sign of the Times – Machine to translate BSL into text.
07: TechShare Pro – Digital accessibility event returns.
Section Three: Report
08: Vital Tech: Decoding assistive tech for all.
A newly launched online platform is aiming to increase independent living for blind and visually impaired people, by simplifying what can be a complex topic for many: assistive technology around the home. Chris Jenkins from sight loss charity Thomas Pocklington Trust explains how the site is helping people get the most out of all kinds of assistive devices, software and apps.
Section One: News
01: “New technology design agenda” needed for digital inclusion, research recommends
Digital skills training from local authorities and charities, and a bold new “technology design agenda” are needed to give people with sensory impairments the full benefits of digital services and products, a new study has claimed.
Conducted by Swansea University in partnership with RNIB Cymru (the Welsh chapter of the Royal National Institute of Blind People), the research looked at digital media usage by sensory impaired users in Wales, based on questionnaire responses from 396 RNIB Cymru members. Respondents were of a variety of age ranges (73% were over 65-years-old) and recorded themselves as possessing a range of visual and hearing impairments.
Respondents were asked about digital devices and assistive technologies they use, online activities, perceived benefits and challenges of using digital media, digital skills, and training.
The study noted that the majority of respondents were keen to use various technologies, but respondents also highlighted barriers that prevented them from becoming fully engaged with a digital society.
Financial restraints were a key issue, with the price of various assistive technologies acting as a barrier for many, particularly compared to non-specialist devices. Another significant problem was availability of training, with 24% of respondents stating they did not know where to seek digital skills training or support. Only 3% were given training by their employer.
Web accessibility was also found to be a barrier. Respondents noted issues with partially or fully inaccessible websites, such as moving graphics and illegible text.
Based on these issues and individual comments, the report makes a number of recommendations. Although the study focused solely on digital media usage in Wales, one of the report’s authors, Dr Yan Wu – Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at Swansea University – told e-Access Bulletin that if applied nationwide, the recommendations would also be useful for people with sensory impairments across the UK.
She said: “With more and more products and services moving online, discrepancies in media use, attitude and behaviour affect people’s wellbeing, as well as their level of participation in social life.”
The primary recommendation of the report is for “sustained training and support” to teach or boost digital skills, including the following: 61% of respondents wanted to improve online skills; 55% wanted to communicate with family and friends; 49% wanted to know more about protecting their personal data online.
The report states that support and training are “still needed from local authorities, charities and industries from both public and private sectors, so that sensory impaired users can grasp the whole range of accessibility functions enabled by digitalisation.”
One way of aiding this is letting people know about existing accessibility functions in products and devices they already use, the report states: “Many users are simply unaware of features that can help them, embedded in the operating system of their devices. Most modern devices are designed to provide a polished ‘user experience’, so tend to disavow formal training and manuals.”
Other suggestions in the report include highlighting free assistive technology solutions to a wider range of people, ensuring that web accessibility guidance is followed (specifically, British Standard 8878, a web accessibility code of practice), and instilling a “new technology design agenda” to both public and private sector.
Speaking about this design agenda, Dr Wu said: “Instead of focusing on technological capacity and market profit … design should [focus] on users and tailor the technology capacity around the needs of the user. Ultimately, digital technologies should be used to improve the quality of life for people – disabled or non-disabled.”
Read the report in full at Swansea University’s website.
02: New app aims to transform rail travel for passengers with disabilities
A free mobile app to help improve train travel around the UK for passengers with disabilities is being tested by four rail companies, with other operators set to begin trials before a national roll-out.
The Passenger Assist app aims to overhaul the assistance booking process, solving problems faced by some passengers that use the system. Currently, passengers can request assistance online or over the phone before travelling. Types of assistance could include requesting help in boarding a train or moving around the station due to a visual or mobility impairment, requesting assistance with luggage, or booking a wheelchair ramp or on-board wheelchair area.
This information is passed on to staff at the relevant stations, but there is currently no quick way to alert staff if this information suddenly changes – for example, if a passenger will be arriving late or requires extra assistance.
The idea behind Passenger Assist is for both staff and passengers to use the app, giving a more instant form of two-way communication. Passengers can easily book assistance through the app and can also change the request at short notice.
Staff can view booking information in real-time, allowing them to accommodate passengers’ access needs and changes more effectively.
Customers can also set up a user profile on the app with details of relevant conditions or impairments and their specific access needs when travelling. This makes it easier to book repeat journeys without having to repeatedly input the same information – something which the current system requires.
Passenger Assist has been developed by technology company Transreport in partnership with Disability Rights UK, with further input from user groups within RNIB, Scope, Blind Veterans UK and Anxiety UK.
The app is currently being trialled by West Midlands Railway, London Northwestern Railway, Greater Anglia and South Western Railway. Some of the trials began in March, but recent media attention has brought the app and the testing to a wider audience.
Ara Shikhalislami, Transreport’s project manager for Passenger Assist, told e-Access Bulletin that trials with other train companies are scheduled, as “other rail operators are seeing the benefit” of the current trials. The list of other operators has not yet been made public.
Transreport, in partnership with the Rail delivery Group (RDG), will begin making the app available nationally to rail companies later this year for staff to familiarise themselves with the system before the public begins using it. Passenger Assist will then be launched publicly in summer 2019. The app will be free and available on iOS and Android devices.
Asked which rail companies will use the app once launched, Shikhalislami said: “This will be determined by the RDG and the industry itself. As Transreport, we will ensure the app is ready for use by all train operators. However, each train operator will have their own plans to ensure staff and technology will successfully support the roll-out.”
Greater Anglia have published a call-out on their website asking for passengers to test the app on specific routes. Transreport is also requesting for members of the public to help test the system with other train companies. Anyone interested in taking part can email firstname.lastname@example.org with details of where they are based. Transreport will then send their details to relevant rail operators.
Find out more about Passenger Assist at the Transreport website.
03: Anticipated refreshable Braille reader launches, seeking to disrupt the market
The Orbit Reader 20 refreshable Braille device has been released in the UK, aiming to transform the current market by offering the technology to blind and visually impaired people at a low cost.
The device features 20 refreshable eight-dot Braille cells and can connect to Apple, Windows, Android and Kindle devices. Books and other texts (such as sheet music or magazines) in any language can be read from an SD card (the device also comes with a range of books and a dictionary pre-installed on an SD card). The Reader also offers basic note-taking, USB and Bluetooth connectivity, and is compatible with widely used screen-readers, including Jaws, NVDA and VoiceOver.
The device is now available for UK audiences to buy and is being sold exclusively through RNIB. Along with other sight loss charities, RNIB is a member of the Transforming Braille Group (TBG), who helped develop the Orbit Reader. TBG was formed in 2014 to help produce an affordable refreshable Braille device and increase global access to the technology.
Claire Maxwell, Senior Product Developer at RNIB, spoke to e-Access Bulletin about the Orbit Reader 20 and explained what makes refreshable Braille devices appealing to users. She said: “Only 7% of books are available in hard copy Braille. Refreshable Braille devices offer the user the possibility of accessing a much wider range of information, from novels to music. Refreshable Braille can also be easier to read. The quality of the Braille dots does not fade over time, as can occur with paper Braille, and typical refreshable devices only have one line of Braille, making it easier for beginners.”
A key part of the Orbit Reader’s appeal for many will be its price: £449 excluding VAT (which applies to blind and partially sighted people or someone buying on their behalf) or £538.80 including VAT. This is considerably lower than most other refreshable Braille devices on the market, with many costing over £1,500 and upwards.
Maxwell said that its lower cost is due to “a new type of Braille cell technology” and its lack of internal translation, which means that users “must either access prepared content on an SD card or connect to an external device that uses a Braille translation package,” she said.
The device works through mechanical Braille, generated by computer-driven pins to translate digital text, and makes a slight sound when the Braille refreshes.
The Orbit Reader 20 was first announced by then-Chair of RNIB Kevin Carey at the CSUN technology conference in the United States in March 2016, and has been the subject of much anticipation and speculation since then (read E-Access Bulletin’s previous coverage of the Orbit Reader, featuring an interview with Kevin Carey).
Speaking about the long-term aims for the device, Maxwell said: “The Orbit Reader has already achieved part of its goal – to lower the cost of refreshable Braille technology. It has also disrupted the wider market and we are now seeing different suppliers following suit with other low-cost devices.
“The other goal is to offer refreshable Braille technology to those in the developing world. RNIB is committed to achieving this and has already allocated 500 units to be distributed to countries where access to Braille is limited by cost implications.”
Find out more about the Orbit Reader 20 at the RNIB website.
04: Product reviews website asks consumers to get vocal
A consumer reviews website for people with disabilities and older people has put a call-out for users to give their opinions on all kinds of devices and products, helping inform other consumers before they buy.
The ‘Rate it!’ site features reviews of a wide range of products that can assist people with disabilities and older people.
Products include anything from mobility aids (such as wheelchairs and walking bikes) to kitchen and garden appliances (including adapted cutlery and a robotic lawnmower that cuts grass by itself), to clothing and footwear (such as easy-tie shoelaces), to computing and communication devices, including tablet computers and voice-controlled systems.
Users can search for products or select by category. Each product features an overview of basic information, but the key focus is the user reviews section, where feedback can be left.
Crucially, product reviews can be left by anyone and are not written by specialists. The feedback lets others know how the product works and how it helps someone with an impairment complete specific tasks.
Rate it! is now keen to build a larger community of readers and reviewers, and the team have put a public call-out to ask for visitors to the site to leave feedback – positive and negative – about products and devices they have used. No technical knowledge is needed to leave a review, and the team are keen to hear from any consumers with disabilities and older consumers.
Reviews can be left through the site directly (after a simple registration process) or by phone, by calling 020 7427 2460.
Rate it! has been developed through a collaboration between the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC), Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living (LCiL) and Enabled by Design. The project is being supported by Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL).
Chris Lofthouse, Outreach Manager at RiDC, spoke to e-Access Bulletin about Rate it!: “From initial research, it was found that there wasn’t web space for disabled people to post meaningful product reviews. Rate it! provides a high-quality online space where people can research, review and share knowledge about specialist and mainstream products in one place.”
Find out more and read or leave product reviews at the Rate it! website.
[Section One ends]
Section Two: News in brief
05: Treaty Progress
The Marrakesh Treaty, which aims to increase global access to alternative format books for blind and visually impaired people, has been ratified by the European Union (EU), marking an important step forward for the Treaty. Individual EU member states now need to transpose the directive and implement conditions in order for the sharing of accessible books to begin on January 1, 2019. The United States also took another step towards ratification in October, with the President signing the Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act. The US now needs to deposit the instrument of ratification with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) in Geneva.
Read more about the Marrakesh Treaty at the European Blind Union’s website.
06: Sign of the Times
The world’s first machine that can translate British Sign Language (BSL) into written English is being developed at the University of Surrey. The machine will assess how the signer’s hand shapes, motion, facial expression and posture work together, to form phrases that can then be turned into written English. The university’s Centre for Vision, Speech and Signal Processing is leading the project, furthering previous work on visual understanding of sign language.
Read more about the BSL translation project at the University of Surrey’s website.
07: TechShare Pro
Inclusive arts and accessible gaming will both be on the agenda at next month’s TechShare Pro conference in London, alongside talks and workshops from Apple, Google and other accessibility professionals. Organised by technology access charity AbilityNet and RNIB, the event takes place on November 29 and explores digital accessibility and inclusive design. E-Access Bulletin readers can get a 15% discount on the entry price by entering the code eAccess15 when purchasing tickets online.
Find out more about TechShare Pro 2018 at the AbilityNet 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: 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.
Section Three: Report
08: Vital Tech: Decoding assistive tech for all
It’s easy to take technology for granted. New devices and apps are being designed and built faster than most people’s appetite and understanding can keep up with, particularly in the rapidly evolving world of assistive tech (AT).
Despite this, there are surprisingly few resources available to help people navigate the sometimes-overwhelming world of AT. Vital Tech, a newly launched online platform, aims to change this by helping blind and visually impaired people get the most out of a range of assistive technologies.
The concept is simple: the Vital Tech site provides comprehensive information for visually impaired users on how to use all kinds of AT around the home, with the goal of increasing independent living. This advice is divided into themes (including health and wellbeing, jobs around the house, reading and magnifying, staying in touch, and computing), with different devices and solutions highlighted and explained within each category through easy-to-understand text, videos and audio.
The site has been designed and developed by staff at sight loss charity Thomas Pocklington Trust, with input from other charities and partners. Crucially, products are never sold or pushed, as a key principle behind the platform was that it should be remain impartial, giving users an objective view of what technology is available to suit their needs.
Although the overall concept may be simple, the task at hand is still huge. Vital Tech already covers a lot of ground, but there’s much more to come, as Chris Jenkins – Technology Innovation Lead at Thomas Pocklington Trust – explained when e-Access Bulletin spoke to him to find out more.
- E-Access Bulletin: What are the aims behind Vital Tech and what do you want it to achieve?
Chris Jenkins: “Vital Tech is a website guiding UK consumers through the world of assistive tech. We provide information and advice on simple and hi-tech solutions for blind and partially sighted people.
“We would ultimately like our site to demystify tech and give people the confidence to make decisions that work for them. We want to allow blind and partially sighted people to become more independent and confident in their daily lives, by using AT.”
- What is the background to the project?
“Vital Tech expands on the Assistive and Inclusive Home Technology guide published by Thomas Pocklington Trust (TPT) in 2016, which informs blind and partially sighted people and their support networks about smart and simple tech solutions in the home. The guide generated a lot of interest and enquiries about products and services, so rather than updating a brochure, we wanted to develop an interactive self-help web platform.”
- Was it important to ensure that Vital Tech was run by staff who are blind and partially sighted?
“Yes. Darren Paskell, who is Tech Information Champion, and myself are both screen-reader users at TPT, and we are responsible for content and accessibility on the site. We also had valuable help from our sighted colleagues. Authenticity and our insight are important factors when establishing something new on this scale.”
- Why was ‘technology around the home’ decided on for the focus?
“TPT has a history of research and a great knowledge base regarding accessibility in the home. In future, we want to cover more than just the home, including navigation and employment. Home is where we should feel the most comfortable and secure, but there are still lots of blind and partially sighted people who struggle to find their possessions, do household chores and manage their finances, to name a few issues.”
- Even by itself, ‘technology around the home’ is still a huge topic. How did you decide what to include?
“The 2016 home technology guide I mentioned was a starting point. The hardest and most time-consuming part was ensuring our content is jargon-free and keeping everything as straightforward and simple as possible for our entire audience.”
- Is Vital Tech directly linked to Thomas Pocklington Trust?
“Our team are TPT employees and we see this project as part of the great work we do to help blind and partially sighted people. Vital Tech is a brand-neutral project that won’t sell products and services. We were advised by a focus group of blind and partially sighted people and professionals that they would value an impartial point of reference and no direct selling.
“Vital Tech is a signpost to other services and providers, and we provide our own advice and guidance in collaboration with other sight loss organisations. We really want to foster cross-sector collaboration and partnership, to allow us to reach more people in the future.”
- How will the platform evolve?
“Now Vital Tech has launched, we would love to hear feedback from users. It’s a flexible platform and the sky is the limit, but we can only grow with users’ help. We look forward to working with people and other organisations to provide an invaluable service – by blind and partially sighted people, for blind and partially sighted people. This is only the first chapter and the story is just beginning.”
Find out more and start using the platform at the Vital Tech site. The Vital Tech team are keen to receive comments or suggestions about the site. Please email any feedback to: email@example.com.
Find out more about the work of Thomas Pocklington Trust at the charity’s website.
[Section Three ends]
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Editor: Tristan Parker
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ISSUE 204 ends.