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Archive for January, 2014

Are airline check-in kiosks onboard with accessibility?

Readers who have travelled by air in the past few years are likely to have come across new technologies designed to enhance the convenience of travel such as automated kiosks where people can check in without queuing for hours in a barely-moving queue of bored passengers.

As so often with new technologies, however, it seems that their accessibility for people with disabilities was not always considered when they were first being developed. And now, in the US, the issue is about to hit the courts.

Earlier this month, US-based charity and campaigning organisation the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a lawsuit against the country’s Department of Transportation claiming the department’s new regulations on the accessibility of airport check-in kiosks breach discrimination legislation.

The law the NFB claims has been violated is the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), passed in 1986 to ban discrimination against air travel passengers with disabilities. As part of its duties to comply with this act, the DoT issued the new accessibility regulations which came into effect in December 2013. However, the NFB claims the new rules do not go far enough, and hence do not comply with the law.

So, what is the detail of the federation’s case?

The regulations are split into two separate sections. The first covers website accessibility, requiring airlines to make all public-facing content on their websites compliant with level ‘AA’ of the international World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 by 12 December 2016 – three years after the regulations took effect.

But although the NFB did express frustration back in November at what they called an “overly generous” time period back for website improvements, they are not challenging this timescale in the courts – in fact, their current legal action relates to the second part of the DoT regulations, regarding airline check-in kiosks.

This states that at least 25% of all existing check-in kiosks in an airport must be made accessible to disabled passengers by December 2023, including the display screen, inputs and outputs, instructions and floor space. However this is a timescale which the federation does believe is so long as to be unreasonable.

It claims that offering a compliance period as long as 10 years means that the DoT is failing to implement the ACAA as it was intended, and is therefore breaking the law.

In a statement explaining the decision to take legal action, NFB president Marc Maurer said that the technology to make airline check-in kiosks accessible to visually impaired passengers is “readily available” and is already in use in bank cash machines and other types of kiosk across the US. “The Department of Transportation violated the law by allowing continued discrimination against blind passengers based on spurious assertions by the airline industry that making kiosks accessible will cost too much and take a decade”, Maurer said.

The NFB has also published details of how it says kiosks can be more quickly made accessible in the same way as bank machines and other devices, such as: “affixing Braille labels, installing headphone jacks and adding speech software that provides audio prompts to the user.”

As yet, there has been no word on how – or if – any court action might proceed, or any response from the DoT. But this is not the first time that the NFB have pursued legal action over this issue. In 2011, the charity filed a lawsuit against Las Vegas McCarran International Airport on behalf of four blind passengers, claiming its self-service kiosks were inaccessible due to the visual-only instructions on their screens.

As in so many sectors, website accessibility is also an ongoing issue. In 2012 the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) sued low-cost airline (now no longer active), claiming that customers with sight-loss were unable to use the company’s website to search for and book flights, as it was only possible to do so using a mouse.

Several months after initiating legal action, RNIB reported that had made changes to its website which improved its accessibility, enabling visually impaired customers to book flights online, and withdrew its case.

So the new action keeps up the pressure on the airline industry: legal action may not be frequent, but it does keep coming, and organisations representing disabled travellers will continue to push for governments to fully implement their own anti-discrimination laws.

Practitioner heralds ‘new phase’ of digital learning for disabled children

New technologies such as tablet computers and techniques such as online data analysis are heralding a new age of customised learning assistance for young people who are severely disabled, a practitioner has told E-Access Bulletin.

“We’re entering into a really interesting phase where technology is starting to make massive changes in the way we teach and assess children with the most complex difficulties, allowing us to give them independence and access that we haven’t seen before”, said Sandra Thistlethwaite, specialist speech and language therapist at Oldham-based firm Inclusive Technology.

“For example, we have seen some extremely interesting results using eye gaze technologies with children with complex difficulties, and in using iPads and tablets that people now have as a mainstream device.

“With a good scientific grounding – the right content, structure and theory behind what people are doing with those devices – technology opens up massive potential for health, therapy and learning.”

Thistlethwaite was speaking after one of Inclusive’s software packages, ChooseIt! Maker 3, won the ICT Special Educational Needs Solutions category at last week’s 16th Bett Awards for education resources and companies.

The software allows teachers or parents to help students create and play personalised learning materials. It uses photographs and sounds – including those taken or recorded by the user – with symbols and text to build activities, helping learners who respond best to familiar sights and sounds including those with autism spectrum disorders, communication difficulties, language impairment, developmental disabilities, Down’s Syndrome, Aphasia and traumatic brain injury.

Desktop computers, tablets, touch screens, interactive classroom displays, switches and eye gaze devices can be used with the software, and materials created can be played online or downloaded to mobile, playable offline.

Because the system automatically records learners’ progression, and online activities can be shared between users, a new world of analysable data is being built up that could help not only to improve future products but to determine which interventions work for which children, for the good of all, Thistlethwaite said.

“We are looking at undertaking data analytics over a range of products. We are still at very early stages of looking at how teachers and children are using our software, and it will also give a chance to see how children are learning, what they are looking at, what access methods are used.

“Eventually we plan to have data research tools that would inform education, communication and health, as well as real feedback and real data to inform our practice and improve future products.”

The Bett awards are co-hosted by education suppliers’ association BESA with the organisers of education technology event Bett.

Is EPUB the most accessible format? One Voice launches debate

The EPUB electronic book format is the most accessible digital document format, according to a new paper designed to open a debate on accessibility of all mainstream document formats by people with disabilities.

The debate – intended to lead to a further paper to be published in the summer – has been launched by One Voice for Accessible ICT Coalition, an umbrella group for organisations supporting access to digital technology by people with disabilities.

“At present digital documents are sent out in a variety of formats including doc, docx, pdf, EPUB, daisy, MP3 and MP4 and it is not clear what the accessibility pros and cons of these different formats are and if one should be the preferred option”, Peter Abrahams, accessibility leader at Bloor Research and author of the paper, said this week.

According to the paper, EPUB documents can be accessed by most people including users of special access technology, with the exception of sign language readers who will need video files. EPUB documents can also be easily converted into other formats, it says. However, “The present issue is that not everyone has ePub readers installed on their device. Also not everyone has an ePub creator tool”, the paper says.

“There are a wealth of document formats: so this is an opportunity to review those and recommend what the most accessible format is, to try and increase accessibility in document publication”, Nigel Lewis, chair of One Voice, told E-Access Bulletin this week.

“The initial recommendation of the EPUB format is perhaps a surprise, since most people might consider pdf or .doc as the most accessible default formats”, Lewis said. “But we wanted a controversy – to stir a debate among our membership”.

EPUB is an open electronic book standard developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), an international publishing industry body whose UK members include Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, Open University and RNIB.

As well as looking at the overall accessibility of each format, the One Voice debate would examine the best ways of structuring documents in all major formats, Lewis said. “Most people still don’t structure common documents in an accessible way,” he said.

Alongside the new work, One Voice is launching a membership drive to expand its network of partners collaborating to improve digital accessibility, Lewis said. Membership of the group currently stands at about 50 organisations and individuals including E-Access Bulletin publisher Headstar. Full members must pay an annual fee to join, and new members include Barclays banking group.

Firm in “revolutionary” move to give away £600 Windows screenreader

In a deal described as “a huge step forward” for blind computer users, the developer of one of the world’s most sophisticated text-to-speech screenreaders has announced it is now giving away for free its previously chargeable software.

US-based software firm GW Micro has revealed it has reached a deal with Microsoft – on unspecified terms – to provide people who are blind, visually impaired or print disabled with a free licence to use its Window-Eyes screen reader.

Window-Eyes is a highly-regarded screen reader first released in 1995, enabling people with sight problems or other print disabilities to access computers running Microsoft Windows by reading text on the screen as synthesised speech. The software is also designed to help people access major programmes that run on Windows such as Microsoft Office, with versions available in more than 15 languages.

Until this month, users had to pay hefty licence fees to use the software – in the UK, for example, a single licence had cost about £600. Under the new “partner” deal, however, Windows users who own a licensed version of Microsoft Office 2010 or later can download Window-Eyes for free.

Disability organisations in the UK and US have welcomed the move, while raising questions about its detail.

Steve Griffiths, digital accessibility development officer at Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), told E-Access Bulletin the move could help level the playing field between Windows and Apple computers in terms of accessibility. Until now the fact that Apple machines speak to the user “out of the box” through the built-in VoiceOver screenreader have led to many blind people favouring them over Windows devices, but this could now change, Griffiths said.

“It is a big step forwards in terms of Microsoft Office – people tout Apple as accessible but only way they did this was to drastically simplify [the Apple office software suite] iWork so it works better with VoiceOver. Because it was simplified however, it is no longer comparable with Microsoft Office.

“Maybe Apple will now start building more accessible functionality back in [to iWork] but to my mind, Microsoft has now jumped ahead. It’s a huge step forward.”

The move could also have significant repercussions in the wider market for screenreaders, which split roughly into two types: more expensive tools such as SuperNova from UK-based Dolphin Computer Access and JAWS from US firm Freedom Scientific (and formerly, Window-Eyes itself), alongside already existing free screenreaders which have tended to be less sophisticated such as NVDA from Australian firm NV Access and Thunder from UK-based, he said.

“It will be really interesting to see how it affects other commercial products like SuperNova and JAWS and other low cost or free ones, but how it will pan out depends on how many people do actually put in the work and learn how to use Window-Eyes, because it is a bit different from other products,” Griffiths said.

Although GW Micro are offering free installation support by email or phone, and the software manuals and tutorials are available online, all other technical support must now be purchased. Another small potential extra cost may come from the third-party voice synthesiser programmes that have often been packaged with Window-Eyes: the free version comes with the open source synthesiser eSpeak or Windows’ own default text-to-speech voices, but many users will prefer to use alternatives, Griffiths says.

“Most people in my experience don’t like eSpeak as it is quite robotic, while most other ones now are easy on the ear.” Some people will be happy to put up with eSpeak for free, though it does not cost much to buy a better voice separately, he says – users can pay typically between £25 and £50 for synthesisers such as Eloquence, Vocalizer or IVONA.

As to why GW Micro has struck the new partnership deal with Microsoft to give away its flagship software, and on what terms, Griffiths said no details have emerged from the US. However he said observers have speculated that either sales of Window-Eyes have been so poor recently that GW Micro are trying a new business model based on selling support and training; or that Microsoft has paid a sum of money for the benefits the deal brings to Windows.

Roger Wilson-Hinds, founder of which developed the first free screen-reader Thunder which is still available but is no longer being renewed, said the Window-Eyes announcement was “brilliant news.”

“Our business is getting free PC software to blind people worldwide. We have played a part and this is a huge step forward alongside NVDA and the Apple Mac story” Wilson-Hinds said. “Over the past seven years, we have had more than 400,000 downloads of Thunder, and Window-Eyes is superior to Thunder.

“So it is all good news, so long as GW Micro continue to invest in and update their offering to keep abreast with Windows advances. If the money from Microsoft tempts them away from their mission and vision and they stop changing and innovating, that would be sad.”

The announcement has also been welcomed by the National Federation of the Blind in the US, whose president Marc Maurer described it as “revolutionary”.

“For the first time, users of Microsoft Office 2010 or later will not have to pay hundreds of dollars… to obtain an accessibility solution,” Maurer said. However, he said the battle for computer access by screenreaders was far from over, as every other software developer must ensure their own packages are compatible with access technologies.

“The usefulness of any screen reader product, of course, is limited by the degree to which other products are compatible with it,” he said. “Developers of mainstream technology, as well as the businesses, institutions, and governmental entities that use it, must continue to do their part by making sure that screen reader users have full access to what they produce, procure, and deploy.”