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Archive for January, 2012

Tesco pledges action over inaccessible app

The UK’s largest supermarket chain Tesco has said it is taking seriously concerns raised about the inaccessibility of its new smartphone app, and is to work with the RNIB to improve the situation.

The statement was issued after E-Access Bulletin raised questions with the company about the experiences of Steph Cutler, a small business adviser and personal coach who has impaired vision. Cutler approached EAB after becoming dissatisfied with the new Tesco shopping app and with the retailer’s initial response to her complaints.

“I love the iPhone – it has really changed my life, and on the whole, the apps I’ve got are pretty usable,” she said. “So when I downloaded the Tesco app I was excited to think I could use it to shop – although their website is accessible, I find it very time-consuming. But it turns out that the app is totally inaccessible with [the iPhone’s screenreader] VoiceOver. Basically, the app says the same thing whatever product you touch.”

After Cutler asked the RNIB to take a look and they had supported her assessment, she contacted Tesco to complain, but says the company’s initial response was unsatisfactory.

“I emailed them and they rang me back very quickly, but the poor lad from customer services just said ‘we know it’s inaccessible’, though he didn’t seem to know what that meant. He had obviously just been told to call, and he was trying to say he accepted it didn’t work, but that it was OK. He also categorically refused to let me talk to someone else.

“I emailed again, and another email came back saying they care about accessibility – but with no details of any remedial plan.”

Subsequently, after E-Access Bulletin had made its own enquiries into the case, Tesco did produce a fuller response. A spokesperson for Tesco said: “The software used in the iPhone application is cutting edge technology and we will be always aiming to improve the functionality of the application.

“We have taken the concerns raised seriously and recently contacted the RNIB to work with them in identifying features that will improve accessibility for the product.

“At this time, we are unable to give any timescales as to when this will be completed. Any amendments to the application will need to be built and tested, and will therefore take time to complete.”

Tesco has now also been back in touch with Cutler to relay the same message, which she welcomes. “I am hoping they will be true to their word, and I do intend to monitor this one,” she said.

However, she says she still fails to understand why such a large company in the 21st century is failing to design in accessibility from the first release of a technology offering such as their new app.

“One argument about whether accessibility can be included is often resources, and rightly sometimes – but you just can’t say that about Tesco,” Cutler says. “We are talking about a massive retailer for whom resources aren’t a problem. They understand some of it, because they do some of it. It made me, as a visually impaired shopper, feel a little bit second class.

“I do accept apps are new, and the accessibility might change in future, but as a user I’m discriminated against.

“The point I put to them is that at the start of anything, you have a choice – you can choose to put accessibility into how it will function. But this time, either they briefed a developer and they didn’t put any emphasis on accessibility, or the developer just didn’t do it. It is far harder for them now – they will have to change code, which will be a biggish job. But it wouldn’t be a big job if they thought about it as a matter of course and didn’t put anything out that most of our customers can’t access.”

Ultimately, she says, it is a question of leadership. ““The bottom line is I feel as if I’ve been treated less favourably for reasons of my disability. It doesn’t feel like it’s been taken seriously from the top down – it doesn’t feel like the decision-maker has taken an inclusive approach, so why should customer service?”

Global investment plan for cheaper Braille displays

An international plan for disability organisations and others to invest in producing a refreshable Braille device hugely cheaper than current systems on sale has obtained initial approval from the international DAISY consortium for information standards, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

The project is being led by the RNIB, which now has until the next DAISY board meeting in June to flesh out the plan. If this “charter” is passed, investors will be sought to identify and back a new device.

Refreshable Braille devices are made up of individual plastic “cells” with a grid of tiny holes through which a small rod rises and falls, triggered by an electronic current. A line of cells forms into a line of Braille as a computer reads across text.

As their production process is complex, cells currently cost around 100 US Dollars each, and mark-ups are high among the few firms which manufacture displays. With typical displays carrying 32, 40 and even 80 cells, overall costs soon spiral into thousands of dollars.

Kevin Carey, chair of RNIB, said this month there are already currently as many as 34 technical ideas in outline or prototype format at universities worldwide, any of which might lead to the desired goal of a cheap Braille display roughly the size of a stick of rock that could plug into the side of an e-book player.

“We need to narrow these 34 down to two or three – and ideally go down to one – and get massive investment in to bring prices down below 25 US Dollars per cell”, Carey said. At the moment, no business model had been ruled in or out for investment, production and sales, including models requiring mass pre-ordering and the involvement of existing major incumbent players in the Braille display market.

Carey first floated the plan in an address to last year’s “Braille21” congress hosted by the World Blind Union in Leipzig, Germany.

He told the congress a cheap display would “save massive amounts from hard copy Braille production which can be ploughed back into expanding the range of files on offer and into providing displays cheap or free to individuals.”

Anticipating complaints about market interference, Carey told the Leipzig conference the high prices operated in a similar way to a cartel, requiring intervention. “There are some who say that organisations of and for the blind should not become involved in the access technology market but the current cartel does not have an automatic right to exist. For the last 30 years of its operations the price of Braille displays has fallen slowly when most other consumer electronics prices have plunged.”

Ultimately, the very survival of Braille as a language could be at stake, he warned. “If Braille is to survive into the 21st Century, it will have to re-invent itself as a mass medium, simpler, cheaper and easier to render… unless we face up to these challenges, Braille will die”.

Age alliance plans digital inclusion knowledge base

A plan to create an online “knowledge base” of resources relating to digital inclusion for older people is being drawn up by Age Action Alliance, an umbrella group of companies and charities led by the Department for Work and Pensions.

The alliance, whose members include the BBC, Microsoft, mobile network Three, Age UK and the digital inclusion charity for older people Digital Unite, has tasked a working group with drawing up a “starter strategy” for the knowledge base covering its potential usefulness, purpose and viability. It will then make a final decision on whether to go ahead with the project at the next meeting of its digital inclusion group in February.

“The aim of the knowledge base is to gather in one place the mass of extensive and varied research, analysis and evaluation data on activities and projects that have, and still are, delivering and facilitating digital literacy for older people”, Emma Solomon, managing director of Digital Unite and the groups’ chair, said this month. “The aim is also to gather – or at least signpost – practitioners to a variety of tools and resources that can help them deliver or facilitate digital inclusion for older people.”

The knowledge base will be aimed at all practitioners and promoters of digital inclusion for older people, Solomon said. “These may be formal intermediaries, informal intermediaries and individuals as well as organisations and businesses from third, private and public sectors.”

As a separate project, the group also hopes to help co-ordinate the promotion of all actions, events and activities that promote digital inclusion to older people by creating a searchable national database of all campaigns, outreach projects, learning and engagement activities in which older people are being encouraged and supported to embrace digital technologies, she said.

Ticked Off: Special Focus – Looking for work

On the face of it, Dr Norman Waddington – the holder of not just one, but two PhDs – should have what it takes to be offered a job interview. But like many disabled people – he is blind – this is not proving to be the case.

Early last year the government launched a programme of Incapacity Benefit reassessment, under which recipients of the benefit as well – as well as those in receipt of Severe Disablement Allowance or Income Support paid on the grounds of incapacity – were required to have their eligibility reassessed by undergoing a new “Work Capability Assessment”.

Anyone assessed as capable of working were moved on to Job Seekers’ Allowance or – for those with limited capability for work – Employment Support Allowance.

While Waddington accepts this is fair, he says the way the system has worked for disabled people is in danger of swinging from one extreme to another – from a situation where people were left isolated on benefits with no options, to one where they are being moved off benefits when the work may not be there.

“When I was pushed onto it at the age of 34, it was a bitter pill to swallow to be told you weren’t fit to work, when you knew you were. Now the tables have turned – they want people off incapacity benefit and back onto Employment Support Allowance and back into work. If you look at the small print in the DWP stuff, it seems you are likely to get benefit cuts after six months, but it’s not clear. The Jobcentre people don’t know what’s going on.”

Waddington has not worked since 1993, when he was made redundant from a white collar post at the Sellafield nuclear plant. Since then he has done some voluntary work, and looked for other jobs sporadically but since the benefit changes in Easter has been searching intensively.

“I must receive 1,000 job list emails a week now, people don’t realise the time it takes to plough through them with a screen reader,” he says. But despite having applied for some 800 jobs in that time, and despite his PHDs – in biodiversity science and clinical animal behaviour – he is yet to be shortlisted for any post.

“You get a bog-standard letter, saying you’re not successful on this occasion – they don’t say why. It’s soul-destroying. These email lists with jobs – sighted people can scan down them quickly, but we’ve got to go down it and read it all – people have no knowledge of the time it takes. And the time it takes to do an application, to use a screen-reader, cutting and pasting – for someone who didn’t have the computer knowledge I do it would be impossible.

“It’s as if they’re not aware of the time and effort it takes. They don’t want to know or they don’t want to know. And if you put it all in a covering letter, explaining about Access to Work, it’s as if they just throw your application out – though I can’t prove that’s the case.”

It is now up to the government to work out how to make the system fairer, he said.”They need to close the loopholes. The classic is the two-tick system, by which if an applicant meets the job criteria and is disabled, they are bound by law to give you an interview. So they just don’t shortlist you, they say you don’t meet criteria. Something needs to be done.”

The problems don’t stop there –applying for jobs in the first place can be made all but impossible by inaccessible online forms for job applications, he says. Recently he encountered a problem with an online application form on a local authority site, for example, which featured a visual icon to call up an interactive calendar for applicants to select dates such as start dates and end dates of previous jobs.

“Using JAWS for windows, you can’t access it. They very grudgingly sent me a word copy of an application form, but how accessible that will be, I’m not sure. They say they can’t accept a CV and a covering letter for application, even though under the Disability Discrimination Act you have an obligation to find an alternative method. The Jobcentre people say this is wrong, but I think half the forms I send are not getting to the people they should be. If they’re not meeting the admin criteria, they’re just scrapped.”

The Jobcentre itself is not providing enough information in accessible formats either, Waddington says. “People could possibly lose benefit, because it says in the small print you can lose £26 a week after six months. I went on it in September, so after March I could lose benefit if I don’t turn up for the Jobcentre interviews, or take up any placements they offer. But you don’t get this information in a format you can read.

“After my last Jobcentre interview, they said do I want a typed transcript – I said I couldn’t see it, can you email it to me? They said no, their computer system doesn’t talk to the internet. Then they gave me a whole load of leaflets I can’t see – I had asked for Braille, but it’s not available.”

Undeterred, Waddington says he will carry on trying to find work. “Obviously if I can get back into work I will get back into work. You can’t let it get to you – you’ve just got to keep on trying.”