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Web Accessibility Unconference: Open For Access

Delegates at this month’s ‘Web Accessibility London Unconference 2010’ ( http://www.a11yldn.org.uk ) were treated to a run-through of the state-of-the-art for open source accessibility solutions by one of the world’s leading experts in the field.

Steve Lee, of consultancy Full Measure ( http://www.fullmeasure.co.uk ), is the driving force behind many open source accessibility projects and is also a contributor to ‘OSS Watch’ ( http://www.oss-watch.ac.uk/ ), a service advising higher and further education institutions on use or development of free and open source software. It is funded by higher education IT support agency JISC.

“There are some very strong potential benefits of open technology for users with disabilities,” said Lee. These included making it easier for developers to create new tools and innovations, by working with what is already there; the creation of shared resources; and greater user engagement in the creation of new technologies, he said. “With open standards, the users are the developers.”

Projects highlighted by Lee included:

– AccessApps
http://www.techdis.ac.uk/getaccessapps
AccessApps is an initiative supported by JISC TechDis, the accessibility advisory arm of JISC. It consists of more than 50 open source and freeware Windows applications, running from a USB stick, to support writing, reading and planning for students with sensory, cognitive and physical difficulties;

– Simon Listens
http://www.simon-listens.org
An open source speech-recognition programme, allowing users to control the computer by voice alone, bypassing mouse and keyboard;

– NVDA
http://www.nvda-project.org/
NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) is a free, open source screen reader for Windows. It supports more than 20 languages and has the ability to run entirely from a USB drive, with no installation;

– Opengazer
http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/opengazer
Opengazer is an open source eye-tracking application that uses an ordinary webcam to estimate the direction of your gaze. This information can then be passed to other applications. For example, used in conjunction with the smartphone app Dasher, Opengazer allows you to write with your eyes;

– GOK (GNOME on-screen keyboard)
http://www.gok.ca/
Free software working with GNOME, the popular GNU/Linux desktop environment, that provides text entry and graphical user interface interaction using only switches or mice;

– Caribou
http://live.gnome.org/Caribou
Another on-screen keyboard application for use with switches;

– Straight-Street
http://straight-street.com
An open symbol set known as ‘Mulberry’ – a free, scalable collection of about 800 picture symbols, and growing – 3,000 are promised by this time next year. Symbols like these are very useful for clear communication, particularly for use with solutions aimed at those with literacy issues like dyslexia or learning difficulties;

– Maavis
http://maavis.fullmeasure.co.uk
Project from Sheffield University and Barnsley NHS offering simple access to a range of tasks and games such as viewing photographs and making skype video calls, for older people including people with dementia. Applications, images and information are accessed by touching the screen and the interface is so simple and intuitive that users are not aware they are using a computer, Lee said. Buttons are also spoken aloud when pressed.

Overall, the key to developing successful open source solutions is the creation of a vibrant developer community, and the commitment of as many users as possible to helping with development, Lee said.

“A lot of people latch onto open source software and say ‘free stuff – great’. And there are some things that are just free to download and that’s it, no community.

“But where there are communities, it is always better if you engage with them, try and contribute something – it could be a graphic, it could be some help text for the online manual. And if you are a programmer, you could contribute code – or fix something – that will get you a lot of brownie points.”

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