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Archive for November, 2011

Disney Web Access Case Settles Before Trial

A US class action against the Walt Disney Company for the alleged inaccessibility of its websites has reached an out of court settlement ahead of a trial that had been planned for January 2012, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

On 29 June, California district judge Dolly Gee gave permission for three blind women from California and Kansas to proceed with a class action alleging Disney’s are inaccessible to screen reader programs, hampering the ability of blind users to make reservations for the company’s theme parks and download electronic tickets.

The three women are represented by Andy Dogali at Florida-based law firm Forizs & Dogali, alongside Los Angeles-based attorney Eugene Feldman. Dogali has now told E-Access Bulletin the terms of a settlement have been agreed by the parties, subject to court approval as required by US law.

“We are presently documenting the settlement, so most of the precise details remain confidential, although I expect the process to require no more than another few weeks”, he said. “The supportive documents will be publicly filed in the very near future, along with the request for approval.”

The news of a pre-trial settlement may disappoint some observers, as a January trial would have raised the issue of a need for greater corporate web accessibility worldwide. Last month Samantha Fothergill, senior legal policy officer at UK blindness charity RNIB, said the fact that a company with such a high profile was being sued was bound to have an effect on corporate behaviour and lobbying campaigns elsewhere.

Smartphone App Launches Accessible Loyalty Cards

A smartphone app offering digital versions of shop loyalty cards will open up card schemes to many disabled people for the first time, its developer has said.

The “mClub” app from print and digital directories company Yell – which is free to download –allows retailers to offer deals such as “buy nine cups of coffee, get the 10th free” without using a physical card. A pilot service – available for both the Apple iPhone and Android phones – has been launched in London, Plymouth and Reading, with a BlackBerry service due to be released in the next few weeks.

Although the service was not originally designed for use by disabled people Artur Ortega, senior accessibility developer at Yell, told E-Access Bulletin this month that when he saw the idea presented internally he immediately saw the potential benefits for disabled people, and was able to influence the design process.

“Before, it wasn’t possible for blind people to use loyalty cards,” Ortega said. “You couldn’t find the right card in your pocket, and you didn’t know how many stamps were on it. The app is also useful for someone who has reduced mobility in their hands and who might have problems getting a card out of their pocket or wallet.”

Once the app is running, loyalty points are added for each participating retailer either by swiping it near a terminal on Android phones using near field communication, or by scanning a QR code (a square bar code) using the iPhone. Although there is a beep emitted when the app is successfully swiped, the lack of near–field communication on an iPhone was a limitation for blind users unless helped by a shop assistant, Ortega acknowledged.

Running the app itself was not too hard for blind users, with iPhones coming pre-installed with VoiceOver text-to-speech functionality and Android phones able to run similar software such as the Mobile Accessibility suite from Code Factory, he said.

This kind of approach, combined with geo-location technology, is implemented in the new smartphone version of the company’s home page, which is hugely liberating for disabled people, Ortega said. “If I need a taxi, I can find one immediately and then call the taxi using the same device, I don’t have to copy telephone number – it’s two clicks away. Or I can order a table in a restaurant – it’s a huge advantage for blind people or people with reduced mobility.

“Before, you had to call someone and ask them to put you through to the restaurant. If the line was busy you had to call again and ask them to look it all up again.”

ICT Access Barriers ‘Common Across Europe’

The problems encountered in putting ICT accessibility policies into practice are common across Europe, according to early findings of a survey of policies in 30 nations (the EU countries, plus Norway, Iceland and Switzerland), E-Access Bulletin has learned.

According to research carried out in June for the EU-funded ‘i-access’ project on access to electronic information and lifelong learning, problems encountered include creating accessible content; standards compliance; problems procuring accessible systems; and a lack of awareness and understanding.

The project is run by the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education to raise awareness of the issues surrounding accessible information provision for lifelong learning. While some survey respondents said their organisations provided style guides for creating content, only about half of these addressed accessibility aspects such as considering how a screen-reader would cope.

“There are an estimated 80 million people in the EU with disabilities of varying sorts and to differing degrees, and as the age profile shifts, so too will the proportion with disabilities”, John Galloway, a consultant working on dissemination of i-access findings told E-Access Bulletin this week. “There is no one solution to the issue of ensuring that any information in an electronic format, whether a web-page, a text message, an on-screen document, or an information film, is available to all of them equally,” Galloway said.

“For each country, we need to find out – what policies do they have, and how do they put them into practice? What are the differences and similarities? The lessons learned from across Europe will be brought together for everyone to share, so this difficult issue can be addressed.”

Full details of the research and a report of a project conference co-hosted by the Danish Ministry of Education in Copenhagen this June are due to be published shortly, with the final project recommendations expected towards next summer, Galloway said.

Forced Choice: Accessibility in the Real World

The social model of disability holds that it is socially constructed barriers, rather than the impairments of disabled people, that limit their opportunities.

Disabled people are disadvantaged by the way society is organised by non-disabled people. Take any issue or area of society such as employment, education, housing, transport or poverty and you will find that disabled people are more disadvantaged than non-disabled people, and that the difference cannot be explained or excused by impairment.

The explanation of this deep rooted “structured disadvantage” lie in the social, physical and attitudinal barriers that society creates, stopping disabled people from fulfilling their potential and from achieving the same life chances as non-disabled people.

ICT is thought to hold great promise for disabled people because it has the potential to reduce or eliminate many of the disabling barriers that impair or completely prevent disabled people from working, learning, shopping, banking, being entertained, and communicating with others.

But many barriers still remain.

New technologies are constructed, tested and designed for non-disabled people. They empower people with new abilities, but also rely heavily on the existing ones. Telephones depend on the capacity to speak and to listen; computer screens on the ability to see; satellite navigation systems on the ability to see and to hear. And so on.

Any new technology brings with it a new power for those who can use it, and a new disability for those who cannot.

How ICT strategy is developed and implemented can mean for disadvantaged people the difference between dependency or autonomous living.

I’ve heard the economic argument that disabled people need to be “reconceptualised” as a potential market (18% of the population) and need to trust the market and industry to address accessibility.

However, I reject this business argument and would rather assert that the industry needs to embrace the “mind set” of the social model of disability.

The three critical building blocks of this approach are first, respect for the human rights of disabled people. For example, product developers need to employ disabled people and consult actively with the disability community to ensure that access is a fundamental part of products.

Second, respect for personal choice. ICT options must not be imposed on disabled people – often choices for accommodating impairments are made by a technical “expert”—someone who knows the technology options and assesses what they believe is best for the user. If only certain ICTs are accessible, then disabled people can only choose the accessible option – it is a forced choice. Forced choices carry with them the message that non-disabled people warrant a full range of affordable options, while disabled people only deserve the few, often specialised and expensive, options that are made available to them.

And the third building block is development of universal design and disability-related supports. Often the solutions developed in accordance with the social model of disability help not only disabled people but also non-disabled people.

Additionally, there are differences in how disabled and non-disabled can access and use ICTs that may be beyond the reach of universal design. These differences create the need for disability-related supports, as well as information, training, and local support services in order to become successfully connected to the digital world. The social model perspective holds that society should make necessary supports available to people. In this way, disabled people can both enjoy the benefits of society and be productive citizens.

In summary, ICT isn’t the powerful agent of change – it is the strategy that is adopted that will be the change agent.

My personal experience of using ICT during higher education – I am a post graduate student studying for a masters in disability at Leeds University – has, on balance, been a positive one. However, there are a few issues it will be useful to highlight.

Disability Student Allowance (DSA) funding is supposed to help meet the extra course costs students can face as a direct result of a disability.

I am a wheelchair user and have a neuromuscular condition associated with muscle weakness from the neck down. When I went to have my assessment for DSA I requested several types of equipment that were appropriate for my type of impairment.

The first item I requested was a computer multi-monitor application. Typically, a student works surrounded by numerous text books to read and reference. In my case I am unable to lift, hold or turn the page of book. So I requested this piece of kit – three monitors and some software – to flip from monitor to monitor to access written material or documents. The total cost was about £700. Instead I was given a non-mainstream mechanical page turner. It takes up about all the available desk space, has limited functionality, costs about £2,500, is totally inappropriate and was a “forced choice” as described earlier. In the end I had to go out and buy the multi-monitors myself.

Second item was a laptop – I need a laptop that is ergonomically suited to my impairment, and requested a model that I considered functionally appropriate for my access needs. Again, I was given the “forced choice” and subsequently had to go out and buy myself a laptop that I was able to access.

Similarly, I wanted a Kindle so I could access reading material while lying on the bed. I spend 14 hours a day sitting in my wheelchair and sometimes I would like to study lying down. I requested the Kindle because it was lighter and ergonomically suited to my impairment. They gave me the heavier Sony Reader with the buttons at the top which I couldn’t access.

I went out and bought a Kindle.

This illustrates that it is not the ICT that is the problem but has more to do with the strategy and the prescriptive approach of the “gatekeepers” of the service. Thus the “technical expert” knows what’s best for the user.

Then there was the set book list. All the course material was electronically accessible, but most of the set books were not accessible, so I was faced with paying somebody to scan my purchased books and format them into PDFs. This cost me three times the price of each book.

The point I want to make is that I am not on “equal basis with other students”. And many disabled students may well have given up the course because of issues of affordability.

ICT has to be affordable; available; accessible – and applicable.

© Copyright Miro Griffiths 2011. Miro Griffiths is a disability equality consultant. This article is an edited version of a talk given at this year’s e-Access ’11 conference, hosted by E-Access Bulletin’s publisher Headstar.