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[Fwd: Fwd: Another Approach to Blind Web Access]

From: David Poehlman <poehlman@clark.net>
Date: Sat, 24 Jul 1999 19:55:44 -0400
Message-ID: <379A5280.F0C154C@clark.net>
To: WAI Interest Group <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>
for thought?

From: Dan Shearer <dan@shearer.org>
To: BLIND-DEV-request@MAELSTROM.STJOHNS.EDU

G'day listowners,

I'm not on your list, neither am I able to justify the time to join
it.
You or your subscribers may however be interested in this. Feel free
to
use it for anything you wish, including forwarding anywhere.

Following something I sent to the directors of societies for the blind
in
South Australia, New South Wales and London, all of whom have got
research
budgets and some kind of strategy for blind people and computers. I
plan
to send the same thing to equivalent people in France, Switzerland,
Belgium and the US and then give up. (I may give up before I get that
far
even :-)

I fully expect this to come to absolutely nothing, nevertheless I have
enough technical experience in the field to know that it is relatively
straightforward to implement. In general blind people are very poorly
catered for in this area even though it isn't that hard.

Regards,

Dan Shearer
dan@shearer.org

From: Dan Shearer <dan@shearer.org>
To: 101317.1015@compuserve.com <Director, Royal London Society for the
Blind>

Dear Peter,

My name is Dan Shearer. I'm an IT specialist with a strong interest in
adaptive technologies for people with vision problems, including the
completely blind. (I should say here that I do not consult in this
area at
all, my field is large-scale networking, intranet design and
middleware
glue.) I have become aware of your organisation as one which is quite
forward-looking and engaged in various research activities, and
thought I
would put something to you. I live in Adelaide, Australia although I
regularly visit the UK and France.

I have recently been doing considerable work with a software product
which
has I believe has strong potential for helping adapt the World Wide
Web
for use by the vision-impaired. This product is free, and the
extension I
propose would be very useful to fully sighted people as well, thus
making
the resulting product attractive to many more people.

If you think what I say has some promise, I would like to know who I
could
talk to within your organisation about my idea. A very short and
somewhat
technical summary follows this message.

Regards,

Dan Shearer
dan@shearer.org
+61 8 8369 2001

Development Project Suggestion      Thursday 1 July 1999
 -----------------------------

This is a very brief outline only, and should not be taken as any kind
of
formal proposal, technically exact - or even checked for spelling!
Think
of it as a concept sketch, a precursor to a specification for a
working
model should there be sufficient interest.

Preamble
--------

  The World Wide Web is built around the exchange of documents -
  frequently HTML documents - over HTTP connnections. The difficulty
  of automatically extracting text from HTML and processing it for
blind
  users continues to increase. This is because the search for
excellence
  in presentation has resulted in closer coupling of the content and
the
  presentation description. It has not been helped by the tangle of
  competing interests that have developed many different ways to solve
  presentation problems, resulting in a very large team being required
  to keep a parser up to date. (XML is designed to help change that,
but
  more of that later.)

  As has been observed by many, however, there is a large class of
  informative documents that are not at all well served by the
  window-dressing that web publishing software puts on them. There
  is a large number of document description languages that have been
  developed to address this. This problem is a major one for content
  developers who have little interest in the media employed to
  make their information accessible and who prefer to use simplified
  logical descriptions of their content.

  The reason that none of these have become at all popular is because
  they are all very complicated to use. SGML (the parent of HTML) is
an
  example, and XML (the sucessor to HTML) is expected to take a long
time
  to become noticeably used, let alone dominant. Therefore ornate
  HTML has continued to be the Internet publishing choice even for
  documents whose structure can be very simply expressed and whose
main
  purpose is to impart densely-packed information. Yet these are the
very
  documents that vision-impaired people could have access to most
simply!

  There is therefore a potential triple benefit to developing a robust
  and simple scheme for universal presentation of simply-structured
  information:

        * to general developers of dense and/or plain content, from
          product manuals to white papers, reference documentation,
          academic-style publications and the equivalents through to
plain
          books. This also covers those who have a simple message to
          impart (such as a terse description of a project) and
          no interest in fancy presentation

        * to sight-impaired web users, since their web interface is
able
          to take a simple logical description and present it in
whatever
          way the individual has chosen

        * to sight-impaired web content developers, for whom anything
          other than logical document description is largely
irrelevant.

  (Note that such a scheme does not preclude the use of multimedia or
  other technologies at the final stage of generating the information.
  It merely encourages a single source for production of all
documentation
  formats. Much more could be said on this topic.)

Simple Document Format
----------------------

  The Simple Document Format (SDF) has been developed within a large
  company over the last five years or so to solve their internal
  documentation problems. The resulting specification and software
  has been made freely available, and as is usual in such cases a
  worldwide community of users has sprung up around the Internet.
  SDF represents formally structured text in a bare
  minimum of description. It is designed to be handled by a single
  process that calls drivers depending on the output format desired.
  From SDF a very large number of outputs are available even
currently,
  including at least ps, html, rtf, mif, pdf, sgml, txt. Styles for
  structured documents from books to memos are available. Its
programming
  capabilities allow construction of documents as complicated as the
  user desires. A very extensive and free suite of software exists
  to process SDF. There are many users of SDF around the world. The
  home page is at http://www.mincom.com/mtr/sdf.

  One output that doesn't exist (except in a limited sense in plain
text)
  is a "blind-friendly format". This is because the only context SDF
can
  be used in at the moment is for static file generation runs. The
sort of
  thing that would be done by this output format would be to offer a
range
  of interactive indexing options (requiring much less text to be read
to
  find information); present the exact logical structure of the
document
  (eg tables of data would be clearly marked, whereas an HTML document
  frequently has many tables as part of its layout); allow extraction
of
  certain parts of similarly-formated pages (eg just the abstracts)
and
  so on.

  A classic application where this might make sense is the RLSB web
  site, where there are no hints on the screen-reader pages to
  optimise the browsing for a reader. In order to simplify the pages
  the logical structure has been largely lost.

Suggestion
----------

  It would not be at all difficult to recast SDF as a markup language
  designed for transport over HTTP. A single MIME type addition and
  development of client-side technology such as browser plug-ins would
  allow SDF to become instantly accessible to many millions of people.

  I would like to suggest that with quite a modest amount of funding
  SDF could be prepared for submission as an Internet Engineering Task
  Force or World Wide Web Consortium standard. This would be no use
  without software developed to take advantage of the new standard,
  and so a set of reference tools would need to be developed and
freely
  distributed to boost the application of SDF. It should be noted that
  in the Internet world it is the norm to proceed with a practical
  implementation of something and then discuss the initial results
with
  and interested peer group: there would be no need to conduct some
  kind of campaign to get support in order to do this.

  A very small number of blind-specific tags could be developed as
part
  of the revised SDF. This would help in giving hints to screen
readers.

  Specifically, the steps required would be:

    - refinement of existing and submission of a new SDF standard
    - development of client-side presentation software such as a
      browser plug-in
    - integration of this into existing low-vision assistance
      software
    - some refinements to the existing general parsing engine
    - development of showcase implementations. There are some
high-profile
      companies who already use SDF who would quite possibly be very
      pleased to participate. Furthermore blind societies around the
      world would surely want to help.

Desired Result
--------------

  The end result should be a new facility for web publishers which
frees
  authors of much of the pain associated with maintaining bodies of
  structured documents while giving the power back to end-users of
  defining the styles to be applied to the documents they are
browsing.
  It just happens that this desirable facility is also perfect for
  vision-impaired readers.

  This facility would by no means supplant existing and proposed
  web standards, it would simply provide a tool for handling
  documents which are not at all suited to current HTML technologies,
  and for which there is a clearly demonstrable need.

  If the resulting promotion of an SDF-like language and associated
tools
  caused it to come into general use then all three potential
  beneficiaries would gain significantly.

  Of course the web is just a popular mechanism that sight-impaired
need
  to use. The document format would be useful in any general
publication
  sense; so long as the software used had a good sense logical
structure
  a File/Save As type filter should be quite easy to develop. Software
  companies often find it difficult to appear to be addressing the
needs
  of the disabled and should the proposed language become a standard
  they may have a real PR-driven incentive to support it in their
  products.

Regards Steve,
ICQ Number:  41951648
mailto:pattist@ains.net.au
Received on Saturday, 24 July 1999 19:59:04 UTC

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