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Archive for February, 2014

Escaping the mousetrap: IT support for keyboard-only users

Heard the one about the technological mousetrap?
by Clive Lever

No, not the play which has been running in the West End since the 1950s: it’s the situation that has trapped people who navigate computers using just the keyboard –not the mouse – for far too long. It’s time to solve this case.

The pace of technology change in the work place is growing ever faster, and wherever there are changes, there are inevitably teething troubles. These in turn drive up the need for people to call their technology help desks when things go wrong, or when it’s not obvious how to change software settings.

Whatever the reason for contacting them, the majority of support engineers can answer the query for mouse users in about ten seconds flat. However, when the caller says they need to perform the action using only the keyboard shortcuts, more often than not the engineer runs off to find who knows something about this, and the caller is put on hold.

When the support officer returns, his or her next gambit generally begins with the dreaded “unfortunately”, and ends with a call being logged to have the problem looked into. What happens next is someone usually emails you back the following day with the answer you would have got instantly if you had been a mouse user.

It may not be possible to consider training all IT support engineers to be experts in the detailed use of keystrokes, or in meeting the needs of people who use access technology. It would ease the frustration of those people though, if at least one member of every support team could be trained in access technology awareness and in using a computer without touching the mouse, so that we don’t risk having to wait for a day or so to get answers that would ordinarily be on hand during the first call we make.

It would also be useful if all IT support engineers setting up new software for people who do not use a mouse at least know where keyboard shortcut lists can be found on the system – by use of keystrokes.

They also need to know, at the very least, how letters are highlighted to indicate what keystrokes will perform the operation. It would even help if all IT support engineers knew that, for example, you can jump to icons on your desktop, or files in a tree structure, by typing in the first part of the names of the items. It would appear that even this is often fresh news to some technicians. So, it is so much easier to find items on your desktop named “Word”, “Excel”, “Access” “Outlook”, than it is to deal with them when all of their names have the default prefix ‘Microsoft’, because the system administrators do not know that this can be unhelpful.

One way or another, the matter of supporting non-mouse users in the workplace needs to be addressed, or we risk having a two-tier system of support, where mouse users get instant help, and non-mouse users are trapped in a slow lane of tech support.

Support query systems could even be structured so that access-related calls automatically go to the top of the queue.

Either way, IT departments need to capture and make available knowledge of the experience of working without a mouse as they acquire it,  so non-mouse users are not forced to wait unnecessarily for service while technicians go off and re-learn what should already be known.

That is the technological mousetrap: and it is time to break free.

NOTE: Clive Lever is a local government diversity and equality officer. Views stated here are his own.

Audio interaction for ‘Swype’ virtual keyboard app

The popular ‘Swype’ virtual keyboard app for Android smartphones, designed to allow users to type more quickly and effectively, has introduced audio accessibility features to its latest version in a move which will benefit users with impaired vision.

Users of the standard ‘Swype’ app type words by sliding a finger across a virtual keyboard in a continuous motion, beginning at the first letter and pausing briefly at each letter they want to include, before lifting their finger at the end of each word. The app then predicts the word, and correction features help the process.

In the latest version of Swype, users can activate it to work with Android’s ‘TalkBack’ and ‘Explore by Touch’ accessibility features so that individual letters and words are spoken out loud to users as they slide their fingers across the virtual keyboard.

Working in this ‘TalkBack’ mode also enables audio versions of the predictive text and correction features. For example, depending on what letters of a word have already been written, users can move their fingers to the top of the smartphone screen and scroll through lists of words suggested and spoken by Swype, navigated using circular finger motions.

Similarly, Swype suggests words to the user depending on what has been written, and will learn to recognise common choices. Other app navigation, such as switching to the symbols and punctuation menu, can also be managed using audio prompts.

The latest version of Swype also uses Dragon Dictation speech-recognition software to allow users to dictate text to the app rather than type. Swype can be purchased for a few pounds through the Google Play platform or Amazon Appstore.

European Parliament urges stronger public website access law

Members of the European Parliament have voted by a huge majority to beef up a proposed European Directive on the Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites.

This week MEPs backed a move by 593 votes to 40, with 13 abstentions, to require EU member states to ensure all public websites are fully accessible, not just those in 12 categories proposed by the European Commission such as social security benefits and enrolment in higher education.

The parliament also wants the new rules to apply to websites run by private firms performing public tasks, such as energy utility companies and companies providing outsourced public services such as transport or health care.

According to the Parliament’s plan, an optional exemption would be included in the private sector condition for small businesses, however. This would mean companies employing up to 12 people could be exempted from the new law if member states wish. MEPs have proposed giving member states one year to comply with the rules for new content and three years for all existing content, with a further two years for live audio content.

The vote constitutes the European Parliament’s first reading of the proposed directive. The EU Council of Ministers, made up of government ministers from all member states, may now accept, reject or adapt the recommendations, for further subsequent discussion with Parliament.

In a statement following this week’s vote the European Blind Union, an umbrella group of blidness associations from 43 countries including the RNIB in the UK, welcomed “ the strong message sent by the European Parliament to EU governments”.

However it urged rapid action – “within days” – by the current Greek Presidency of the EU to schedule meetings to discuss the directive, something it says is currently not planned other than in general terms.

“It is not enough for the Greek Presidency to have this directive on their ‘to do’ list”, EBU President Wolfgang Angermann said in the statement. “If the presidency refuses to organise a meeting to discuss the directive with member states then they are effectively blocking the legislative process.

“When 92% of MEPs are calling for action, we believe that council members should listen and engage… Failure to act will delay new rules for many months and therefore be hugely detrimental for the 30 million blind and partially sighted EU citizens who struggle to access information and services online”, Angermann said. “People with sight loss have been shut out of the online world for far too long.”

BCS to tackle ‘unconscious bias’ against disabled IT job applicants

Training to tackle “unconscious bias” against disabled job applicants by recruitment staff at IT firms has been launched by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.

The institute is to receive £18,000 of funding from Royal Academy of Engineering to support bias training after signing up to the academy’s Engineering Diversity Concordat. The training is aimed at tackling unconscious bias affecting disability, race, sexual orientation, age, obesity and gender.

About 300 BCS specialist group and branch committee members will be trained initially by the end of 2015, with the intention of ensuring those key individuals spread the learning more widely throughout the institute’s membership.

“We are hard-wired to prefer people who look like us, sound like us and share our interests”, Rebecca George, chair of the BCS policy and public affairs board, told E-Access Bulletin this week.

“Unconscious biases are simply our natural people preferences but this can lead to us making poor decisions, particularly around recruitment. It means that we are less likely to recruit people who do not look or sound like us, and this can lead to a workforce which doesn’t fully represent the demographics of society.”

Examples of action to tackle bias include removing names and photos from CVs and training interviewers in guarding against unconscious bias, George said.

“The first step is to help individuals become aware of their own unconscious bias which can be done through self-assessment”, she said. “Our aim is to raise awareness of unconscious bias through research, case studies and explanations of what it is, as well explaining the gap between explicit and implicit bias.”

To illustrate the urgency of the IT profession’s need for such traning, George quoted diversity analyst Tinu Cornish, a psychologist at consultancy Different With Difference, who has said: “At the current rate of change it will be 2080 before we elect a representative government, 2085 before we close the gender pay gap, and probably never before we close the disability employment gap”.