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Archive for July, 2010

New Government Forum To Drive Accessibility

The UK government’s new ‘eAccessibility Forum’ will address three key areas: improving the regulatory framework; supporting businesses; and developing an ‘e-accessibility action plan, Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, told delegates at the recent E-Access ’10 event in London. The event was hosted by E-Access Bulletin publisher Headstar with the OneVoice Coalition for Accessible ICT.

The eAccessibility Forum was announced in the Digital Britain Act and is led by officials at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). On its first area of work, regulation, Vaizey said a consultation document would be published in September on the UK’s implementation of the Regulatory Framework for Electronic Communications in the European Union, amended in November of last year, which covers electronic accessibility. The UK is required to transpose the framework by the end of 2011, he said.

The forum’s eventual ‘e-accessibility action plan’ will cover both consumer technologies and website accessibility, Vaizey said. “[This] doesn’t necessarily mean by imposing regulations on bodies. It can be through partnership and persuasiveness as well and working together,” he said.

The minister was speaking the day after UK digital champion Martha Lane Fox launched her Manifesto for a Networked Nation which included the recommendation (in paragraph 9.2) that “Government should close down publicly funded websites that consistently fail to meet its own web accessibility guidelines.”

Note: Further in-depth coverage of E-Access ’10 will be featured in our August issue.

Australian ‘e-Playground’ For Children of All Abilities

Memory-improvement games and an activity allowing children to create their own music are two of the games in a new free online play environment for children with special needs and disabilities.

The All Abilities ePlayground was created by the Australian arm of Sonokids, an international non-profit organisation developing technology for disabled people. It was commissioned by Gold Coast City Council in Queensland, Australia, with the state’s Department of Communities (Disability Services).

Access features include a ‘function for children with limited motor skills who can blow into a microphone to control games; and a ‘single switch’ control for children who are only able to use a single button on a computer.

The platform is based on the objectives behind 17 outdoor ‘All Abilities’ playgrounds built by councils across Queensland, as part of a government project.

Phia Damsma, creative director of Sonokids Australia, told E-Access Bulletin the ePlayground was designed to be as inclusive as possible. “In addition to more traditional devices like keyboards, mice and joysticks, the ePlayground is tailored for use with touch screens and low-tech assistive technologies”, Damsma said.

The ePlayground received positive feedback after being tested by special schools and special education units throughout Queensland, and it is hoped funding will be found for further development including personalising the platform to offer relevant local educational information, said Damsma.

“The current ePlayground introduces children to iconic Australian animals such as kangaroos, pelicans and crocs. We invite requests for Sonokids to localise and customise the ePlayground’s design concept to suit other countries, languages and cultures”, she said.

Council Offers Real-Time Sign Language Video

Deaf users of Sutton Council’s website in the UK will be able to contact customer services through a live, online sign language interpreter, in what the system’s owners believe to be the first service of its kind.

Sutton Council’s website features a ‘SignVideo’ link which connects deaf users to a specialist video call centre staffed by British Sign Language interpreters. The interpreters then contact the relevant council department and act as translators between the deaf website user and the hearing council staff member. This means that deaf website users can instantly discuss their queries with the council from any location with internet access and a webcam, without first having to book an appointment to ensure an interpreter is present.

The system was created by the social enterprise Significan’t. Brigitte Francois, director of interpreting services at Significan’t, told E-Access Bulletin that as well as giving deaf residents equal access to customers services within the council, the system also makes financial sense for the council.

“People are reluctant to book interpreters for a small conversation of 10-15 minutes, because most face-to-face interpreters charge for a minimum of three hours,” Francois said. “Significan’t’s director, Jeff McWhinney, decided that video interpreting would bring a solution to this. Face-to-face interpreting is very necessary – we don’t want to get rid of it – but in some circumstances it makes sense and is more cost efficient to be able to make a short call on the videophone.”

The system has already received positive feedback from residents in Sutton, a borough in which there are around 250 deaf people. Sutton is the only London borough to have been awarded accreditation for accessibility by the Shaw Trust, a charity which assists disabled people to find and prepare for employment.

Real World Approaches to Accessibility

by Brian Kelly.

The theme of the Seventh International Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility (W4A 2010), held in North Carolina in April, was ‘Developing regions: common goals, common problems?’

This provided an ideal opportunity to highlight the limitations of approach taken by the international World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to web accessibility, which is enshrined in legislation in many developed countries, and to argue that developing countries are in a position to avoid repeating mistakes made in the Western world.

One key issue is the importance of understanding the context of the use of web resources. The approaches taken to accessibility in a teaching and learning or cultural appreciation context may be very different from those taken to access to informational resources, for example. The resource costs associated with the provision of accessible web resources also need to be considered, and policies which endorse a view that all resources must be universally accessible to everyone, no matter what the cost implications may be, is naive and, in any case, is in conflict with legal requirements to take “reasonable measures”.

The question of the costs of providing accessible services is becoming even more important in the UK in light of the new government’s budget in which we can expect to see significant cutbacks in funding for the public sector. The economic concerns which we are currently facing will also be shared by those in developing countries.

Two examples from disability studies illustrate the value of applying critical theories to support more holistic approaches to web accessibility: ‘Aversive disablism’, and ‘Hierarchies of impairment’. Aversive disablism is illustrated using a comparison with race theory: aversive racists are not anti-black, but pro-white. There is a need to understand how approaches to accessibility might be based on pro-non-disabled assumptions. Such considerations should be understood from the context of ‘Hierarchies of impairment’.

The City University academic Mark Deal argued the need to be “focusing attention on impairment groups that face the most discrimination in society (i.e. those ranked lowest in the hierarchy of impairments), rather than viewing disabled people as a homogenous group”. In the context of web accessibility, the focus of attention is often the needs of the visually-impaired, with the needs of users with learning difficulties having been seemingly marginalised in the development of accessibility guidelines. We conclude that “Critical research into accessibility for such groups is therefore recommended before standards can be invested”.

In light of such concerns, should we simply shrug our shoulders and abandon any commitment to addressing the challenges of enhancing access to web resources? On the contrary, rather than ignoring WAI’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) altogether, we should treat them as just that – guidelines, which are useful in many instances but can be disregarded if they are ineffective.

And rather than looking for an answer in a set of guidelines, which, in the case of WCAG 2.0 are relatively new, we should be looking for patterns of emerging best practices.

One example is the use of networked technologies in ‘amplified events’, in which Twitter ‘back channels’, access to speaker slides on SlideShare and video or audio streaming can enhance access to people not physically present at an event. We should regard this as providing many accessibility (and environmental) benefits – indeed it might be argued that a failure to use such affordable technologies to provide event amplification could be regarded as discriminatory.

So rather than regarding WCAG conformance as a mandatory requirement, WCAG should be regarded as guidelines, which may be ignored if their use conflicts with other requirements, so long as steps are taken to address the potential exclusion that may result. It should be noted that UK legislation that requires use of ‘reasonable measures’ to ensure that users with disabilities are not discriminated against unfairly, provides a legislative context for this approach. A policy based on ‘seeking to make use of WCAG’ will provide the flexibility needed. This would not be possible with a policy which states that all resources must conform to WCAG.

‘Reasonable measures’ should also include identification of costs of conforming with accessibility guidelines. There should be consideration of the trade-off between financial savings and usability issues.

If it is too costly or difficult to conform with accessibility guidelines, the provision of alternatives that are equivalent may be an appropriate solution. It should also be noted that the alternative need not be web-based: for e-learning resources, equivalent real world learning alternatives may be used.

A requirement that all resources conform to WCAG is a ‘just-in-case’ solution. This may be an appropriate resource for widely accessed informational resources, but may be inappropriate if resources are expected to be little used. There may be advantages in delaying provision of accessibility solutions to allow development of technologies which can enable more cost-effective solutions to be devised.

The need to ensure that disabled people are included in the design and development of web solutions must also be emphasised. And finally, there needs to be a focus on ‘accessibility’, rather than ‘web accessibility’: the benefits of web or IT solutions to real world accessibility difficulties needs to be considered. As described above, amplified events can address difficulties in travel and access, even though the technologies used may not conform with accessibility guidelines.

NOTE: Brian Kelly is UK Web Focus at UKOLN, a digital information management research centre at the University of Bath. This article outlines the ideas presented in an award-winning paper for W4A 2010 by Kelly with Sarah Lewthwaite and David Sloan: ‘Developing countries; developing experiences: approaches to accessibility for the real world’.