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Archive for February, 2012

Graphics Formats Holding Back Blind People in Workplace

Lack of access to information graphics in tactile form is holding back blind people in the workplace, when the problem could be tackled by relatively simple software to adapt Braille printers to produce graphics, according to a report published this week.

The independent research report, “Touching the world”, is the product of a two-year specialist fellowship with the Clore Social Leadership Programme funded by RNIB. Based on interviews with 12 blind people, the study was carried out by accessible technology specialist John Ramm, with support from University of Sussex research fellow Frances Aldrich.

Blind people often come across data at work set in tables, graphics, charts and other graphical formats but it is extremely rare to receive such information in tactile form, the report finds. This means most often they rely on descriptions of graphics from colleagues or support workers, which creates a sense of dependency and inequality and are much harder to use.

“The de facto standard at the minute for anything graphical seems to be to write a description of it, which to me is a really feeble attempt at best, because the whole reason for putting it into a graphic in the first place is it makes it easier for people to grasp the big picture,” Ramm told E-Access Bulletin. “Then I have to reconstruct in my head, I can’t just read off information.”

Ironically, in the days before widespread computing when Braille materials were produced manually from steel embossing sheet, the situation for graphics was better because they could be embossed onto the same sheets, he said. More recently Braille production has become automated, with machines outputting it directly from software, but the issue of graphics appears to have been overlooked.

The answer is to develop new software and standards which use automated Braille dots in freer formats to build graphics alongside character cells, Ramm said. “If you have a pie chart and it is only a rudimentary circle shape, that’s fine. For the purposes of a pie chart, it doesn’t really matter, all your want to know is how things split up.”

He said tables could be produced more easily in Braille if there were better ways to abbreviate numbers and put the data into columns. “What most of these bits of software they don’t even try to do anything graphical with tables – they make each row as a new paragraph, with no attempt to recreate columns at all. It’s pointless.”

The study finds some blind people may currently be deterred from applying for some jobs altogether because of the difficulty in accessing tables and charts. One participant said: “I am very put off jobs where I think the content is going to be quite graphical… That would actually make a decision for me, probably, because I think it adds another layer of need for assistance.”

Ultimately however, blind employees may have to resort to legal action to force through equal provision, the study says.

“It is quite possible that some test discrimination cases could be brought to show employers, universities, training institutions and others that the vague verbal descriptions are just not sufficient alternative provision when those who can see have a diagram in front of them,” it says.

“There is a serious disconnect between the colourful, varied, eye-catching, multimedia world of printed material and the bland, text-based, serial Braille material which blind people receive – if they get anything at all.”

The Clore Social Leadership Programme aims to develop aspiring leaders in the social sector through fellowships of up to two years.

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New trial in Spain for accessible medicines app

A major new trial in Spain using mobile devices to make prescription medicine information more accessible has been approved by the project’s partners including charities, pharmaceutical industry representatives and government bodies.

The “Accessible Medicine” project will use two-dimensional Data Matrix square barcodes placed on medicine boxes and packaging allowing people to use an application or “app” running on a smartphone or other mobile device with a camera to link to detailed medicine information online. The information can then be spoken aloud or conveyed in other formats on the mobile device according to user needs and preferences.

The project is being led by Vodafone Spain Foundation with a range of partners including Technosite, the trading and research arm of Spanish national blindness charity ONCE; and the Spanish Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (FARMAINDUSTRIA).

The partners say beneficiaries of the system will include not only blind people and people with impaired vision but also people who have difficulties handling the small folded leaflets currently issued with medicines.

The new trial has been approved following successful phase one trials ending last year. Developments for phase two include expansion of the online drug database from five to the 30 most commonly-used medicines; and improvements to the design interface.

Alongside the trials, ONCE is working with the Spanish Agency of Medicine and Health Products to create a database with accessible information on all available medicines.

According to the phase one report, the system has possible applications in other fields such as information about food and clothing. More information can be found in Spanish only at the project’s website.

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Video Game Communities Could Boost Social Inclusion

Online communities built around popular video games could help build social inclusion for disadvantaged groups including disabled people, a digital games expert involved in a new European research project told E-Access Bulletin.

The Digital Games for Empowerment and Inclusion (DGEI) research project, funded by the European Commission, held its first meeting in Seville last month. The project aims to examine uses of digital games for social purposes such as health, training, education, social inclusion and other public services – so-called “serious games”. After the researching the current state of play it aims to develop an action plan to help realise games’ social potential.

However the use of games for social benefit is wider than simply the use of gaming techniques to create “serious games” with a social or educational purpose, says Scott Colfer, project manager of internet channel Young Dads TV and participant in the Seville event.

He told E-Access Bulletin there was big untapped potential in building support communities around existing popular games, which already feature online player communities.

“The big computer games have a budget bigger than a large motion picture,” Colfer said. “It’s hard to match that, so it might be better to see how communities around games can be used.” One model might be the UK-based group GamerDads, a group of young fathers who set up their own online community to play games online ( ), Colfer said.

“They were tired of playing in normal gamer groups where if you leave during a game, it’s frowned on. But they may have to leave the game because they are looking after their kids.” From coming together as gamers, the group had developed into one of the largest online communities of fathers, and members were offering each other informal support outside the gaming sphere, he said.

“Now they work on other things together, they support a particular charity, and they do it all themselves, there’s no government input.” Similar communities could work well for disabled gamers, Colfer said.

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Access technology – Is It Best To Go Mainstream?

The topic of which is better – special access technology designed specifically for use by disabled people, or mainstream technology that is made accessible and used by everyone – is very near and dear to my heart.

To put things into perspective: access technology is generally much more expensive than its mainstream counterpart and much less available on the market. It can also be extremely challenging to have access technology repaired, compared with mainstream technology.

There are far fewer manufacturers of access technology hardware and far fewer developers of access technology software, than of mainstream products.

The profit to be made for those who develop and sell access technology is much less than for those who do the same for mainstream technology.

Access technology has to be developed in such a way as to adapt to the mainstream world.

Those are the key issues. Now, where do we go from here?

About 18 months ago, I bought a PDA (personal digital assistant) that was developed for blind people; a real find for me and one that I found to be really forward thinking because of its features. A few weeks ago, I was told that this PDA will no longer be manufactured and as of June 2012, no more hardware maintenance agreements would be available. Accessories will still be available as long as supplies last. That was quite a shock and now we are all left holding the bag, so to speak.

I am not going to identify the manufacturers of this wonderful product but suffice it to say that it has made me rethink how I go about choosing my mobile devices. Do I continue to buy access technology that is extremely expensive and one that I am not sure will be around for too long? Or do I move towards the mainstream world?

Do I expose myself to heartbreak if I continue to buy these pieces of access technology only to learn that in a short space of time they are off the market and no more supplies of accessories or support is no longer available? Should we as blind people continue to put up with such factors as unaffordability, unavailability, and inadequate support? Or is it time for us to start embracing the world of Apple and thank the late Steve Jobs for having taken that big step to make all of his devices like the iPad and iPhone accessible to us?

Android devices are also out there for the exploring, and of course there are other tablets and mobile devices out there that are becoming more accessible to us. There are ever more choices to help us join the mainstream technology world.

The landscape is rapidly changing and who knows for how long the manufacturers of JAWS Screen Reader, Window-Eyes and other types of access technology be able to hold on to their respective turfs? Only time will tell.

NOTE: Donna Jodhan is an accessibility consultant who is involved in an ongoing legal battle with the Canadian government over accessibility of its websites.

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