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The European e-Accessibility Forum: opening up digital culture

Just as digital accessibility picks up more and more mainstream interest, certain topics within the accessibility field also begin gathering momentum. One such topic is accessible culture. Clearly, this can mean many things, but in this case it refers to cultural spaces (such as museums and art galleries), projects and resources being made more inclusive through digital technology.

For some people, this has already been a focal point for years, perhaps through employment, personal interest or just frustration at the lack of accessibility within these areas.

Earlier this month, the eleventh European e-Accessibility Forum sought to explore this vast subject with its theme of ‘e-accessible culture’. Held in Paris at the Cité des sciences et de l’Industrie, the event was organised by French non-profit BrailleNet, an organisation that works towards improving digital accessibility.

BrailleNet’s director Alex Bernier was one of the speakers, alongside a host of other accessibility professionals and representatives from various cultural institutions.

Here is e-Access Bulletin’s report from the Forum, covering talks and workshops from across the event.

In a session entitled ‘Building inclusive cultural services from the bottom up’, Sandrine Sophys-Veret from the French Ministry of Culture and Communication spoke about the Ministry’s efforts to increase cultural access through technology.

One example given was a robotic device being trialled. These devices help visitors with a mobility impairment view exhibits on inaccessible floors in museums or galleries. Visitors control the robot remotely from a different floor and view a video feed from a camera attached to the robot.

Future projects from the Ministry include an ‘accessibility barometer’ to measure the online accessibility levels of arts and culture websites, and a ‘hackathon’ to inspire new cultural projects.

Sophys-Veret explained that in the Ministry’s efforts to help create a “universal and inclusive” society, “no single tool can be the response.” She also spoke about accessible books, stating that “access to [these] books is a colossal issue.”

Exploring this theme in more depth were Jesper Klein (from the Swedish Agency for Accessible Media and the DAISY Consortium) and Alex Bernier, Director of BrailleNet.

Klein spoke about ‘Producing and distributing accessible e-books: the Swedish model’. He began by talking about the ‘book famine’, referring to the severe lack of accessible format books for people with print disabilities. Although reading is still an important and popular cultural activity, over 90% of all printed materials are not available in accessible formats, Klein said.

The DAISY Consortium has been working to end the book famine, and after exploring some of the Consortium’s work, Klein spoke about Legimus, a Swedish digital library and app that serves people with print disabilities. Legimus has 120,000 accessible books and 75,000 active users in Sweden.

He said that although the core principles behind accessible reading (people with a print disability should be able to read the same titles as anyone else, at the same time, through the same distribution channels and at the same costs) have not been achieved yet, new technologies are making a lot of progress.

Klein said: “The tide is turning. Inclusion of people with print disabilities and accessible reading are moving into the mainstream, fast.” He finished by predicting that libraries serving people with print disabilities will offer more specialised services and titles in future, as mainstream outlets will begin offering well-known and popular books in accessible formats.

Alex Bernier spoke about the emergence of accessible publishing, including OPALINe, a project that aims to drive forward the production of accessible format books. He also presented some of the issues facing the industry.

Bernier said: “The industry receives very little financial support and it is fragmented. We have to find new ways to cooperate.” Replication of labour is also a problem, he said: “In France, a lot of the same books are being adapted [for accessible formats], especially schoolbooks.” Bernier claimed that a new collaborative publishing platform is being developed to tackle this issue. The tool will help divide up and record work, to avoid repetition.

Elsewhere, a session on ‘celebrating diversity and driving creativity through digital technologies’ unearthed some fantastic innovations. Gawain Hewitt of Drake Music spoke about the organisation’s experimental musical instrument design with disabled musicians, using the example of the Mi.Mu Gloves, a wearable musical technology that offers the wearer a range of control and production tools.

The Mi.Mu Gloves proved invaluable to Kris Halpin, a disabled musician that Hewitt and Drake Music had been working with, giving Halpin “a new lease of performing life,” Hewitt said.

Similarly, Hewitt helped James Rose – a conductor with limited mobility who conducts primarily by moving his head – with a new design for his conducting baton, by ‘hacking’ a pair Rose’s glasses and attaching a baton and electrical fitting to the side of the glasses.

“Good design can remove the barriers faced by disabled musicians and allow them to succeed on their own terms,” Hewitt said.

An afternoon session titled ‘From the visual to the textual – describing the arts in a digital world’ featured Lauren Trimble from ITHAKA, a non-profit platform that hosts digital academic databases. Trimble explained how some of these databases have been building accessibility into their digital archives.

One example used was JSTOR, a cloud-based library hosting journals, books, images and other content. Trimble explained that improving JSTOR’s accessibility meant meeting WCAG (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 requirements – a process which Trimble had long understood the benefits of, and helped steer JSTOR towards achieving. JSTOR is now rated at level ‘AA’ for WCAG compliance and has developed a process for fixing archived content that was previously inaccessible for visually impaired users.

Trimble concluded with the following observations: “We should be making decisions from the user’s perspective, as opposed to what we think the user should want or need. If it turns out that anything we try is not best serving the intended community, we’ll go where that community is and make our products better from their perspective.”

Following on was Matthew Cock, CEO of the VocalEyes charity, which provides audio description services in theatres, museums and galleries. He discussed a VocalEyes project that audited 1,700 UK museum websites, to examine the online access information provided on these sites.

Cock explained that the study was based on the theory that a lack of access information for disabled visitors will mean lower attendance at that museum. He said: “Using a website is a vital step in the decision-making process for many people. Without answers to key access questions beforehand, people are less likely to visit.”

The study found that 27% of UK museums have no access information on their website, and a further 43% have some access information, but make no mention of visually impaired people. “That’s 70% of museums that are not catering for blind or partially sighted people,” Cock said.

Reflecting on the forum after a day of thought-provoking talks, it seems that e-accessible culture is finally being pushed, gradually, into the spotlight. Though some sessions uncovered a worrying lack of accessible cultural practices, suggestions and solutions were also offered to attempt to fix the situation.

Sometimes these solutions were based around innovative new technologies, sometimes simply through better use of existing technologies. Either way, let’s hope these solutions are taken on board, fully opening up cultural spaces, projects and resources to a far wider audience.

Read more about the European e-Accessibility Forum at the event website:

http://eab.li/6x .

Find out more about BrailleNet (French language website):
http://eab.li/71 .

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