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Archive for December, 2011

New Setback For Global Copyright Exception Treaty

Moves to create an international treaty to allow accessible versions of copyrighted works to be shared across borders, giving people with print disabilities wider access to books, received a setback this month following “aggressive” intervention by EU negotiators.

Between 21 November and 2 December, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) held a meeting in Geneva of its standing committee on copyright and related rights that negotiators for the World Blind Union (WBU) had hoped would clear the way for agreement on a copyright treaty.

Hopeful signs had emerged from a June session of the committee, at which WIPO member states had agreed to merge several previously separate positions into a single draft document which became known as “the chair’s text” (see E-Access Bulletin, July 2011). The new meeting, however, cast uncertainty on the plans after the chair, Manuel Guerra Zamarro from Mexico, unexpectedly invited members to submit further amendments.

Negotiators for the EU subsequently attempted to reintroduce clauses that would require rights-holders to formally authorise and pre-approve organisations to use any exception, a condition the WBU says would render the whole exercise close to pointless.

“The EU decided to submit a raft of new and aggressive amendments which moved us even further away from an agreed text”, WBU Vice Chair Dan Pescod told E-Access Bulletin. “They were trying to shoe-horn back in the idea of authorisation, but this is a no-no – the whole point of this exception is you will use it when you haven’t been given any help from rights-holders.”

The new proposed amendments have now been captured in a working document which Pescod says must be fully discussed between member states ahead of the next WIPO meeting in July 2012. “What we are now urging is for the member states to come together before the next meeting to agree the basis for a new single text, rather than have a situation where each time people throw down amendments, go away and don’t consider them until the next meeting,” he said.

Another vital issue remains, of whether the new agreement becomes a legally binding treaty – as urged by the WBU – or softer non-binding guidelines, but Pescod hopes all can be resolved in July. “I am still optimistic that we can finish this work next year, ahead of a formal diplomatic conference in 2013.”

If he is right, new ground will be broken: WIPO normally acts to reinforce protection for rights-holders, whereas this treaty would reinforce access for users. And it will not have been easy: formal negotiations on a treaty began two and a half years ago, in May 2009.

‘Fix The Web’ In Struggle For Survival

A ground-breaking project to enlist the power of volunteers to fix web access problems for disabled people is at risk of closure, after failing to secure government funding.

Fix the Web was launched in November 2010 to allow disabled internet users to complain quickly and easily about inaccessible websites using Twitter, email or online forms. Members of a pool of registered volunteers then take responsibility for contacting the website owner on the user’s behalf, following up any response and feeding back results to the user.

Since launch, the project has recruited almost 700 volunteers who between them have handled more than 1,000 website reports and helped to solve problems with several high profile sites including the Coventry Building Society, various BBC sites and the online scheduling service Doodle. A major rise in activity was triggered earlier this year after actor, writer and technology lover Stephen Fry posted a message of support for the campaign.

However, despite gaining £50,000 of initial funding from the Nominet Trust, and receiving publicity support from organisations including RNIB, the project has failed in attempts to raise further cash and has now been running for a year without any external funding.

After it emerged that a recent bid for funding from the government’s new £10 million Social Action Fund has failed, Fix The Web founder Gail Bradbrook, director of programmes at Citizens Online, told E-Access Bulletin the project would struggle to survive.

“The government asked for charities to innovate, and that’s what Citizens Online has done – we have raised multi-millions across all our projects over the years, with not a penny from central government. So we’re not a cap-in-hand charity, but equally we can’t run on fresh air.

“Fix The Web still has a huge amount of potential, but it needs some design work and some funding to oversee the work by volunteers. Come the New Year, if there isn’t a clear plan for the project, Citizens Online might have to withdraw because our brand will be associated with something that isn’t being looked after properly.”

The project could eventually be sustained by small donations from multiple sources, but in the short term needs around £150,000 over the next 18 months to help it reach a sustainable level, Bradbrook said.

Citizens Online managed to raise pledges of services worth some £270,000 to use as “in kind” match funding for its recent Social Action Fund bid. “This shows the level of support and commitment to the project. The issue is securing money, when so few funders fit to the aims of this project. Times are really hard for the voluntary sector, competition is steep,” she said.

Ironically, the project has attracted interest from organisations in other countries including Canada who would like to replicate it, Bradbrook said. The intention had always been to expand the work internationally, but this vision is now also in jeopardy.

Free Magnifier Among First Smart Accessibility Awards

A smartphone app which allows people to magnify text and adjust fonts and background colours was among the winners of the inaugural Smart Accessibility Awards for smartphone applications aimed at supporting disabled and older people.

Zoom Plus Magnifier, developed by a UK partnership of 232 Studios, Ian Hamilton and Digital Accessibility Centre, offers functionality for free that has previously largely only been available in software and camera products costing hundreds of pounds.

Four international awards of 50,000 Euros each were presented by the Vodafone Foundation – a charitable arm of mobile communications provider Vodafone –in partnership with AGE Platform Europe, a network of organisations working with older people, and the campaign group European Disability Forum.

The other winners were Help Talk, an app developed in Portugal allowing people who are unable to speak, such as those recovering from strokes, to communicate by tapping on icons; Wheelmap, an app developed in Germany which lets users rate the accessibility for wheelchair users of public places; and BIG Launcher, an alternative customisable Android home screen for elderly or visually impaired users who often struggle to use the small keyboards on most devices, developed in the Czech Republic.

BIG Launcher uses big buttons and large fonts to represent all the basic functions of a phone such as voice calls, text messages and cameras. Jan Husak, the app’s co-developer, says a typical smartphone home screen is not very accessible for elderly and blind people, being often crowded with all sorts of icons and widgets.

“On Android, due to its openness, you can choose from dozens of launchers, but they mostly offer functions which are only appealing to geeks – even more icons, special graphical effects and so on.

“BIG Launcher makes using the phone easy, even for users who are scared of new technologies. It allows its users to use the phone quickly in any situation, without pulling out their glasses or getting lost in the menus.”

Wheelmap is an app that builds on top of Google maps, overlaying information about wheelchair accessibility of any location such as a restaurant or railway station sourced from users. In its first month 1,200 users registered for the app, posting information about 180,000 places.

Andrew Dunnett, director of the Vodafone Group Foundation, told E-Access Bulletin the type of crowdsourcing used by Wheelmap held huge promise for disabled people. “The potential for that to change people’s lives is very impressive. The maps are there, the handsets are available – the key is the user groups, and how they engage with it.”

In all some 67 applications were received by the awards, with 12 shortlisted before the four prizes were award, Dunnett said. He confirmed that the foundation would be rerunning the awards next year.

The Guru Is In: High Street Support

The basement floor of the UK’s new largest outlet for mobile phone provider O2, which opened this autumn on London’s Tottenham Court Road, is a chic modern space echoing the metal and glass technology wonderlands pioneered by Apple.

The “workshop” area with Wi-Fi, sofas and meeting booths, staffed at the entrance by a “concierge”, feels a long way from a traditional cramped high street mobile shop.

The clear, large lettering of the shop’s signs are a hint that something else is different: the store is attempting to integrate support for disabled customers including deaf people and blind people into its mainstream service. Staff have received awareness training from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and sign language agency Positive Signs.

Asad Hamir, one of the store’s directors, is a qualified optician, with direct experience of the poor level of service that people with impaired vision receive on the high street. He has been quoted as saying he would like to create the sort of environment to which opticians would feel comfortable sending their low vision patients, and this is clearly part of the motivation behind the store’s attempts to offer the best advice on the benefits that mobile devices can provide for people with sensory impairment.

It’s not just a moral stand: the directors also see inclusion as a business opportunity. “If a section of the population is not being catered for or looked after, it’s definitely a market”, says Andrew Levey, the store’s marketing manager.

Perhaps the most powerful advocate for the store’s approach is a member of its staff, Abigail Gorman. Deaf and fluent in BSL, Gorman is one of the shop’s three O2 “gurus” working through bookable appointments to offer specialist advice to both hearing and deaf customers.

One of the only people in the world currently working in an integrated high street role of this kind, she works with a sign language interpreter funded from the government’s Access to Work scheme.

Speaking to E-Access Bulletin with the help of her interpreter in a bright corner of the “workshop”, having just finished advising a hearing customer, Gorman said her work background did not have anything to do with mobiles. But thanks to text messaging and internet access they are an indispensible part of modern life for deaf people as for everyone else, and she had first-hand experience of the barriers that can be thrown up on the high street when she went with her mother – who is also deaf – visited one shop with a sign language interpreter.

“When we arrived, they said have you called customer services? If not, then we can’t help”, Gorman says. “What can you do? Deaf people can’t call customer services.”

So when she saw the job advertised she jumped at the chance, and with the selection process supported for O2 by Positive Signs, successfully won through a large number of candidates to become O2’s first deaf guru.

If a deaf person comes into the store or books an appointment with her, she says she tries to show there are ways to solve the inevitable problems and issues that they face in communicating using mainstream devices.

“It’s about problem sharing, making it normalised.”

The main ways deaf people use mobiles is for text messaging and video calls, and with more and more phones carrying a front-facing camera and the rise of apps allowing free international communication over the web, there are a wide range of solutions, Gorman says.

For Apple users, one of the most important features for deaf people is the video utility FaceTime; BlackBerry offers the BBM instant messaging app; and other multi-platform video, voice and chat clients include Skype, Tango and ooVoo.

One issue for deaf users is that tariffs are based around voice calls, which they cannot use, she says: “At the moment, you have to pay for inclusive minutes. So though deaf people only benefit from internet and texts, we pay for calls as well.” The tariff she tends to recommend is 100 mins, 500 free texts and internet access, though a deaf person would use an internet app for text in any case.

Another minor irritation for a deaf user is voicemail, Gorman says. “A message comes up and says you have voicemail – but you have to call it to delete them. I have 52, because I never get round get round to asking someone to delete them for me!”

Gorman is the first deaf guru, but she says she hopes the concept will take off at other shops to allow proper research and trials to be run into how disabled customers can be served even better.

Since the store’s opening, use by disabled people has started slowly but a marketing campaign involving word of mouth, press campaigns, promotion through charities and disability networks such as deaf clubs around London is underway to spread the word and try to prove the concept makes good business sense.

Plans are in hand to expand advice and services for people with motor and learning difficulties, and the RNIB plans to hold events at the workshop looking at the accessibility of mobiles. The disability community will be hoping that this is the future of high street retail.