Friday, December 03, 2010

Recent TV and radio appearances

Thanks to recommendations from those wonderful people at BBC Ouch! I’ve found myself in demand over the last few weeks by journalists interested in the opportunities that technology offers us disabled people.


First of all Radio 4, You and Yours asked me to join a discussion on 22nd oct about how disabled peoples’ lives have changed in the 40 years the programme has been on air, making them as old as disability rights law itself 1970 being the year that the chronically sick and disabled persons act, the first disability rights legislation made it on to the statue books.  You can listen to the show on the You and yours site The technology item is chapter 3 but the whole show is well worth your time.


Then for UN international day of persons with disabilities 2010 (3rd December BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones invited me to meet him to film a short piece for BBC news as part of their access all areas week of disability news items.  We met up on a very cold Bambury train station and talked about the independence that visually impaired people gain from mobile technology including smartphones, personal satnav, and the like before going on to Frank Wise school to find out how teachers and young people there use their on site film studio to make a Christmas movie that everyone gets to star in, and produce, and that can be seen by all parents, something that wouldn’t be possible now that, like many newer schools there is limited space for performance.  We filmed 6 and 7 year olds using the Nintendo Wii for key stage 1 maths, and one of their early years kids using an iPad to practice focus and attention.


The final 2nd December news piece picked out just a small part of our conversations but you can see it for yourself, along with Rorys’ accompanying blog posts and also listen to Rory discuss the article and play out some of the audio we recorded on Gabby Logans’ 5-live show on Friday (3rd December)s lunchtime show.  scroll to 1.52.52, or if you’re relying on keyboard access and can’t use the timeline in the BBC player use the jump to 90% button and listen for 5 minutes before you get to the technology piece.


If you’re interested in more articles about technology and the positive impact it can have on the lives of disabled people check out my regular BBC Ouch! blog or follow me on Twitter.

Monday, August 16, 2010

when is accessible not accessible enough? the death of LongDesc

The current debate in Web dev circles about the intent to scrap the longdesc
(long description) tag in html 5 comes at just the time, in over 10 years as
a visually impaired screenreader user I've I have, for the first time, been
grateful for the existence of the tag which allows website authors to link
out to a separate page containing a textual (may media rich) description of
the content or purpose of that image. Typically for using with images,
comprehension of which are essential for the understanding of the content,
and where the alt tag is not adequate either in length or in the ability to
review it word-by-word or line-by-line.

A couple of years ago I sat my project management qualification (prince 2).
Plenty of aspects of the course gave cause for concern re accessibility, not
least getting the exam in an accessible format and agreeing how a visually
impaired person would complete the answer sheet, whether diagrams should be
in alternate format, who could give a verbal description of the diagram, or
whether I should automaticly be allowed to sit the only one of the selection
of exam papers that didn't include any questions which included diagrams
(which was the eventual solution).

Pretty much the only thing in fact that was simple was the access of the
manual. It cost a little extra but a version of CD rom was available from
The Stationary Office (formerly known as "Her majestys stationary office"),
basicly, the UK Governments publisher. The electronic version was a joy to
use, I can re flow the index in a number of ways depending on circumstances,
easily jump to sections by number, and best of all, have detailed and
expertly written description of complex flowcharts and diagrams. The one
and only need for, and proper use of the html longdesc tag I have ever seen.

Fast forward 2 years and I've just signed up for the next level of
accreditation, Managing Successful Programmes. Only this time the access
seems to have taken a step backwards. No surprise that the same debate
about the exam had to be had, should I have an accessible version of the
exam paper, on wait at the training venue until everyone else had competed
their exam, and then sit my exam, with a ley scribe to read the paper aloud?
- strangely I didn't go for the idea of starting an exam at 5PM on a Friday
evening at the end of a week long course so fought my corner for the
accessible alternative format paper, and thanks to 1 very helpful contact at
APMG (the accrediting body) that all seems to be sorted out.

Disappointingly though the accessibility of Government issue manuals (those
published by TSO) has take a big step backwards. They are according to the
accessibility statement WCAG1.0 level AA, and indeed they may well be if you
take passing an automated test as your guide. For the MSP manual is keyboard
accessible, and all images do have alternative text associated. However that
alternative text is not at all appropriate for the context in which those
images are to be used.

This is a technical manual and simply to include the name and number of an
image within alt text does not allow the visually impaired person to have
equivalent access to that content, given that, in this circumstance I can
think of only one reason for wanting such access, E.G. to use to flowchart,
process diagram etc.

The analogy I used to explain this difference in access to the publishers
was that "it's like shopping online for a pair of trousers. "Trousers" is
not a sufficient description to enable you to decide whether you want to
purchase that pair of trousers or another. Nor is "figure 2.4" sufficient
description of a digram to enable to put in to practice a professional

So, when is accessible, accessible enough?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mobile technology: is it getting more accessible?

In my recent (6 July) BBC Ouch! article I wrote about just Two of the companies who presented at RNIB TechShare Mobile (in Birmingham (UK) on 15 June, and their approach which, while radically different from the embedded accessibility technique of Apple and Google among others in my view ushers in a new era of hope for the accessibility of personal technology.

BBC age and disability correspondant Geoff Adams-Spink in his piece "Technology gets disabled friendly came to much the same conclusion. What neither of us managed however, was to offer an opinion as to why this is the case, and why it’s happening just now.

But first of all, more evidence for the defence:

As you’ll be aware if you read Geoff’s piece Linked above, Olympus were at Techshare showing off a pre release unit of their DM5 digital recorder and media player complete with talking controls. On the face of it this is exciting. A Device that has excellent accessibility features built-in right out of the box, no need to purchase additional software, or even faff around installing and configuring free add-ons yourself. However it’s not quite so groundbreaking. The features are limited to the DM5 only, and don’t work with the dynamic parts of the interface EG you can’t find out on what date and time a recording was made, or find out how far in to a recording you currently are (important if you want to make a note to return to something later). In actual fact, The DM5 has short sound clips associated with each of its static functions so while he initiative, a result of a long standing collaboration between Olympus and the Royal National Institute of Blind people (RNIB) (and a welcome initiative at that), it isn’t necessarily all that you might hope.

The other big hitter in the world of mobile alongside RIM and Vodafone present on the day was Nokia embodied by Esa Eerola, senior accessibility engineer. Nokia of course are one of the world’s largest handset manufacturers, and have found favour among the visually impaired market place in particular because of the Symbian operating system on which many of them run. Symbian has proven to offer support for access technologies (screen readers / magnifiers and the like) hence the popularity.

Nokia, and their Ovi branded mobile software (apps) marketplace (including the Ovi Maps satnav package freely available on many Nokia devices), have had considerable criticism in recent months for failing to be accessible to an audience who have come to depend upon their Nokia phones, but despite questions from the audience they were at Techshare to talk only about
the future. A future which work in Nokias innovation labs promises some advances which may be of particular benefit to disabled users. Near-field object recognition, and indoor way finding being the main ones identified. I won’t go in to detailed descriptions of these here other than to say that the usefulness to a visually impaired person of a package which can guide you to a given location within a building and then read you the sign on the door, price on the tag, or destination on the front of the bus or train when you get there is considerable. So again, we see a major corporate investing in technologies that advantage a minority audience.

But why?

So then, to return to the question I posed earlier, why is accessibility going mainstream?

There is of course no short answer but my interpretation based on the series of industrial keynotes during the afternoon at Techshare is that there is a combination of magic factors right now.


In the USA, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stipulates that only products which are adaptable to the needs of disabled people can be purchased with public money. This means that if businesses want to sell in to Government (which is of course a massive buyer of technology) they must demonstrate the accessibility of their products. Don’t believe me? Try searching online for “VPAT” (voluntary product accessibility template”), and you’ll see businesses rushing to prove in what way their products are accessible. Try finding this same information in the UK and see how far you get.

The upshot of this is that corporates are investing heavily in access solutions, take for example the sudden proliferation of accessible photocopiers. Hardly something that is high on the wish list of many of us and yet, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Adobe, Amazon and many many more are making those investments. Investments which those of us in the rest of the developed world are benefiting from.

Market share:

For those companies like Vodafone and Nokia, who are not entrenched in the US public sector the situation is somewhat different. One explanation is that for them the issue is market share. Not that attracting visually impaired and disabled customers is going to radically tip the balance and suddenly make investing in accessibility commercially viable, it isn’t. But Rather, now that those other companies named above, and others like them, have been forced to take the leap and offer support to disabled end users, there is a risk to reputation in not being seen to be at least as socially responsible. It only needs a small proportion of all the disabled people in the world to persuade their family and friends that company A is more worthy of their support than company B and suddenly it makes a very big difference indeed.

It’s not easy building a reputation around something that presently doesn’t matter much to most people, but as the developed world market becomes more or less saturated, and growth shifts to developing countries the opportunity cost of brand awareness is increasingly significant. If organisations are to raise awareness of their corporate and social responsibility, not to mention protect themselves against possible legislation similar to that which exists in the USA then there’s only one way to do that and that is get the access in to each and every device, either by embedding it within the operating platform, or by making it easy and low-cost to access locally, on a global scale.

As I wrote in the BBC Ouch! piece I mentioned at the beginning of this post, that is exactly what Vodafone are currently piloting. Integrating Vodafone Speak, currently in use by around 900 users in Spain, in to their global E-billing system wouldn’t make sense on a commercial basis alone. Vodafone will make no operating profit from the service even when it is more widely available.

Intel too told a similar story. Their Intel Reader product is a so-called “portable” electronic reader. Several times larger than even the chunkiest mobile phone and with an eye-watering £1k plus price tag it takes a digital photo of an object or document, then carries out real time optical character recognition on the image before reading the resulting text out loud. It was truly impressive at launch in late 2008 / early 2009 and to some degree still is although as you can now buy software to run on a standard Smartphone for considerably less money, see for example digit-eyes for the iPhone, costing $30.

Tristan Wilkinson, Intel director for public sector told us though, that sometimes it’s about blinking first, you have to get out there and do something even though you know that others will follow you and probably do the thing better and cheaper. The Intel Reader it’s maker it would seem then accepts doesn’t have longevity as a standalone product, but it shows what can be done and sets the whole industry off on a cycle of innovation. By getting the Ball rolling Intel hopes to be well placed to offer the technology to partners or clients in a package that can easily be incorporated in to other devices in the future.


You may remember the media fuss about US president Barack Obama becoming the first president to use Email after he suggested that someone would have to prise his Blackberry out of his hand before he would give it up – see for instance this Guardian article Well the upshot of this was that in the end all Whitehouse staffers ended up with secure Government issue devices. It just so happens that that includes a visually impaired member of the legal team. As Greg Fields, RIM head of accessibility told the Techshare audience, there’s nothing like a high profile customer to give some impetus to a development programme.


So then, accessible technology is going mainstream and here’s why. As the baby boom generation hit 65 years of age their health goes in to serious decline and Governments get concerned about the costs of employment and health care.

Legislation protects aging westerners access to technology, which is in an age of economic austerity seen as a way of delivering public services cost effectively

Simultaneously growth in the uptake of mobile phones and computing in the developing world escalates massively

Businesses recognise both of these situations as ones in which they can only prosper commercially, and ethically if they can provide personal access solutions direct to customers. Some choose to embed the access within their own products and services, while others partner with 3rd-parties to meet the need.

the result? Well it’s too soon to say for sure but hopefully a healthy mixed economy in which customer needs are met and specialist businesses can continue to innovate and flourish.

Fact panel:

Techshare is a bi-annual pan-disability technology access conference hosted by RNIB

Techshare Mobile 2010, was a departure from the schedule and traditional format and was a 1 day, closed programme largely of presentations from the hosts and invited industry speakers.

The event programme, podcasts and some sessions, and a promise of all presentations “soon” can be accessed from the Techshare Website.
Adrian Higginbotham writes a regular technology and disability column for Ouch! the BBC disability website, view and comment on my previous articles

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Facts about the internet and using ICT for learning

There  are some amazing facts about the internet and it's growth over the last year - many of them come from Royal Pingdoms Internet 2009 in numbers such as number of people using the internet grew by 18% over the year.  Many of them confirm things we already know such as that it’s mainly women who like to use the internet for communicating – 84% of social networking sites have more female members than male.  While some are just outright shocking – 81% of the 90 trillion emails sent were spam.  In fact 90 billion emails sent in a year sounds like a hell of a lot but if you ignore the spam and divide up the rest between the number of Email users then it comes out at just 33.4 per day, or 234 per week.  Not all that many when you look at most office workers in-boxes. Then there’s the less interesting bits you pick up here and there – if you print out Twitter it would reach 2 and a half times around the world – rather less if you only printed the bits you would want to read.  Don’t get me wrong Twitter is great but not in the main populated with anything you’d want to keep for any longer than until you get around to reading the article on the end of the Link.


Where things do start to get interesting is looking at the latest reports from the Pew internet and American life project found that 55% of 18 to 29 year olds are accessing the internet from their mobile phones, as are 27% of 12 to 17 year olds.  I don’t have UK data for the UK at my fingertips but I’m certainly that’s it’s significantly lower than 27% for that age group over here.


Then there’s the obvious.  In this BBC article the author seems surprised that young people are more likely to use computers for learning at home than at School.  Why wouldn’t they, they are at School for only about 25% of the day for 5 out of 7 days in a week and generally have better access to technology at home in term of person / computer ratio.  Mind you that’s not to say that the learning done at home is all that exciting.  This report for Becta found that young people generally use their home ICT for checking with friends what the homework is, and using word processors and presentation packages.  This report also suggests that contributing to social media – e.g. blogging, is pretty low among the under 17s in line with the Pew findings that it stands at around 14% in the  US although that reports suggest this is around half 2006 levels. Again I doubt if it were ever so high in the UK.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Skills for public voice & participation alongside skills for social media

Just picked this up from Tim Davies blog
Note to self to return to read properly in the context of the work we're currently doing looking at technology in the learning trajectories of young people and how it impacts upon their learning choices and careers in later life.

Eszter Hargittai <> was in the Oxford Internet Institute <> earlier today sharing her research findings on the role of skills and socio-demographic factors in influencing levels of use of the Internet <> – and particularly web 2.0 spaces.

Implicit in Eszter's argument was a relationship between the diversity of Web 2.0 use and democratisation. The presentation highlighted how socio-demographic factors, and particularly gender, can have an impact on the extent to which different groups contribute to public online spaces such as YouTube and Wikipedia. It's not enough to give access to the web, and to web 2.0 for the imbalances in who is speaking and expressing their views through these online platforms to be challenged. Skills matter in addressing the imbalance.

However, as discussion at the presentation explored, if our concerns are of democratisation, social justice and equality, then the the skills that need to be promoted are far wider than technology skills, or skills to work with social media.

Skills to exercise public voice <> and to participate in community (online and offline) are arguably prior to the skills to use technology for public expression.

Both as we measure engagement online, and as we work to promote online engagement – keeping in mind a focus not only on digital skills, but also on general skills of public expression, interaction and dialogue is key.

For those working with young people and communities then that perhaps adds up to encouragement to address digital skills as part of wider civic skill-building programmes such as 'Act by Right <> (now online as a free resource BTW)' rather than to address digital skills and social media in isolation.

Amazon offers publishers better deal on E-books but with strings

Amazon goes head to head with Apple over the percentage that publishers get
from E-book sales. The 70% deal, doubling what publishers and authors
currently split on Kindle book sales, comes with strings that look good for
us the reader. E-book and printe editions published at the same time,
E-book at a lower price, and best of all to get the bigger cut authors must
agree to enable text to speech meaning the Kindle can read aloud. This
might go some way to overturning the situation that arose when authors,
concerned about protecting their audio book rights, collectively forced
Amazon to disable by default the text to speech on all titles. Thumbs up to
Amazon for including this as part of the improved offer. The improved terms
only apply in the US at present but all the same, Just maybe some good news
for E-book accessibility at long last.

Brits left cold by mobile internet

Having one of those "so what" moments in reaction to the

following story:

Brits left cold by mobile internet

"Apart from iPhone owners More than three-quarters of Britons don't use their phones to access the internet, a study has found. Worse, almost 40 per cent of smartphone owners - the very folk you'd expect would want to surf the web on the move - have never done so, or gave it a go once but won't do so again."


What's the story then? Not everyone uses everything that technology puts at their fingertips?  So all those 4-by-4 owners spend their weekends thrashing up and down mountain sides do they?Personally I find the mobile Web invaluable in the same way that having a wok and a spice rack is invaluable when I want to cook up a stir fry.  Doesn't mean that I don't use the local take-away  though. I do, and because they do it better.  As for the Iphone users angle – maybe it's because you can't do anything on the IPhone without being forced to pay for an add-on that you have to go find and install yourself.  I'll stick with the Smartphone afterall thanks.