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email newsletter on technology for blind and visually impaired

From: Dan Jellinek <dan@jellinek.com>
Date: Sat, 29 Jan 2000 18:35:12 -0000
Message-ID: <05e401bf6b04$1faf8120$8bdedec2@dan>
To: <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>
Hello all, just a quick note to let interest group members know about a new
free email newsletter on the use of all kinds of technology by blind and
visually impaired people, 'e-access bulletin'. It is published with
sponsorship from the RNIB and two other major charities for the blind in the

For more information and to subscribe see our web site at
www.e-accessibility.com - and I append the first issue below. Anyone from
this group who would like to contribute to the newsletter is most welcome to
suggest ideas, please email me on dan@headstar.com


The email newsletter on
technology issues for people
with visual impairment and blindness.


Sponsored by the Royal National Institute for the Blind
the National Library for the Blind
and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association

Please forward this bulletin to friends or
colleagues so they can subscribe by
emailing eab@headstar.com
full details at the end of the bulletin.
The more subscribers we have,
the better our free service can become!


Section One:
News: EU moves to ensure inclusive information society; Countdown to CSUN;
New, improved BETSIE; Visual impairment web gateway planned; Contributions

Section Two:
New technologies: digital radio

Section Three:
Mobile telephony:
Wildfire from Orange, a voice-activated personal assistant

Section Four:
Web site accessibility: UK government boosts web access



The European Commission has launched a major new initiative - 'eEurope'
- aimed at creating a socially inclusive information society, including
a proposed new mandatory requirement for all government and other public
service internet sites to be made accessible to the special access software
used by blind and visually impaired people.

The move coincides with the Portugese Presidency of the EU - no coincidence,
as Portugal is the first European country where web accessibility is already
law. 'eEurope' focuses on ten priority areas, aimed at bringing every
online; creating a digitally literate Europe; and ensuring that the whole
process is socially inclusive. Priority Seven is 'eParticipation for the

Targets on accessibility, released for consultation, include:

"By the end of 2000: The Commission and member states should review the
relevant legislation and standards programmes dealing with the information
society, with a view to ensuring their conformity with accessibility
The Commission will [also] propose a recommendation to member states to
take account of the requirements of people with disabilities in the
of information and communications products and services.

"By the end of 2001: The Commission and member states should commit
to making the design and content of all public web sites accessible to
people with disabilities.

"By the end of 2002: The Commission will support the creation of a network
of centres of excellence, at least one in each member state, that will
develop a European curriculum module in Design-for-All to train designers
and engineers."

The eEurope home page is at:
From here, one can access the eEurope consultation document - ironically
available in Adobe pdf file only, not the most accessible of formats.

The Portugese internet accessibility group, PASIG, has set up an
With Disabilities discussion group. You can find out more at:

* UK government boosts web access: section four, this issue.


The countdown has begun to this year's vast annual 'Technologies and persons
with disabilities' conference at the California State University Center
on Disabilities, more commonly known as CSUN, to be held on March 20-25.

Among the many new technologies on display will be BrookesTalk, a specially
adapted web browser for the blind and visually impaired developed by the
School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences at Oxford Brookes University.
BrookesTalk has functions that mimic sighted users' visual scanning of
the web such as page summarisation, using grammatical techniques to provide
an abstract about 20% the size of the page; keyword lists from a page;
and overviews of web site structures. It also adapts search engines to
create lists of 'pure' search results (stripping out ads or other extraneous
material) which are easy to return to. See www.brookes.ac.uk/speech/

A team from the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia will
classroom applications of new techniques for Braille music notation
Tack Tiles (TM) Braille code for Music Notation and GOODFEEL (TM) Braille
music transcription software. It says the techniques empower blind students
to function in music classes on a level with their sighted peers, providing
them an independence from tedious rote dictation or tapes which might limit
their ability to progress.

A new 'virtual touch system' which displays virtual graphics through rounded
pins on top of a special mouse will be on show from Israeli firm VirTouch.
It provides tactile access to graphics, text, education programs, art,
photography and tactile games, and displays text in regular alphabets as
well as Braille.

A study of distance learning techniques for blind and visually impaired
students - who can be uniquely disadvantaged by visually-oriented distance
learning systems such as videoconferencing - will be unveiled by the
of Northern Colorado. The internet is used as a central teaching resource,
with a standardised navigation shell for the web so students do not feel
"lost" each time they begin a new course; email lists; interactive
tutorials; discussion areas; and links to external assistive software.
See: http://vision.unco.edu/

Details of these and all other CSUN papers are at:


BBC Online, the most popular web service in Europe, has released an improved
version of BETSIE, the web-based system which translates its web pages
into plain text without frames. The new version allows visually impaired
users to alter the settings however they wish, changing the colour scheme
or font size for best visibility.

BBC software developer Wayne Myers estimates that BETSIE is used to view
around half a million BBC web pages every month. As well as the blind and
visually impaired, he says users of BETSIE include an ever-growing number
of people with portable handheld web access devices, who also require plain
text output.

The BETSIE home page is at:


The National Library for the Blind is to co-ordinate the establishment
of a new internet portal - working title 'Visugate' - providing access
to a wide range of digitised information on blindness and visual impairment.

The NLB is seeking government funding for the project, which will involve
the digitisation of information not already available in electronic formats,
as well as links to existing digitised information on the web.


All contributions from readers to E-access Bulletin are extremely welcome,
whether they be feedback about our coverage; ideas or requests for stories;
or articles to be considered for publication.

All offerings should be sent by email to the editor, Dan Jellinek, on
- thank you very much in anticipation!



With crystal clear sound, no interference and additional services, digital
radio - or, as it is formally known, Digital Audio Broadcasting - is
the most significant advance in public radio broadcasting since its
However, for the blind and partially sighted, there are serious concerns
with the new developments in the medium which has proved their long-term
friend and often their communications lifeline.

First, to listen to digital transmissions, a new receiver will be required.
Unlike a simple analogue tuner, it contains significant computer circuitry
to decode the signal and is therefore very expensive. For example, the
Arcam Alpha 10 digital radio tuner, sold as a hi-fi component, costs nearly

Prices will fall as take-up increases - the snowball of supply and demand
has not yet begun rolling - but there are more profound worries. The Digital
Audio Broadcasting standard includes a data channel, which is transmitted
alongside the audio signal. This works similarly to TV Teletext, and radio
receivers will contain viewing panels on which this information can be

To an extent, this seems contradictory. Radio with visual information -
surely that's called television? The BBC says not. A spokesperson says:
"First, we won't broadcast moving pictures, as that takes up too much
And second, digital radio draws on the strengths of radio, which are its
portability and its intimacy". They are keen to point out that the visuals
are not a vital semantic component: "They enhance, rather than depict the
audio. You can switch them off or ignore them, and still have radio."

The biggest benefit from digital radio is its sound clarity. Until the
1990s, advances in radio transmission and reception had been steady but
small. FM (frequency modulation) arrived for a clearer, but less robust
signal. Stereo emerged, with the added spatial definition, but also

With these changes, though, the basic technology had not altered
- they used analogue signals, and the receivers were inexpensive.
analogue transmission is wasteful of capacity, and prone to signal

In 1987, the BBC and some private sector consortia put together proposals
for Digital Audio Broadcasting - a digital radio signal essentially made
up of ones and zeros. In a way, this was radio going back to its roots
- Morse code, the first method of communication using radio waves over
long distances, was a kind of digital signal. And Digital Audio Broadcasting
is immune to corruption for much the same reason as Morse - all that needs
to fight through the static is a stream of ones and zeros (or dots and
dashes) rather than a perfect, fluctuating representation of the sound-wave.

Those who have heard the new system agree it produces astonishingly clear
sound. More importantly there is no interference, even in bad weather or
while moving. A side-effect to this is that, unlike with analogue
which fades gradually as you move out of range, with digital the cut-off
point is abrupt: it's everything or nothing.

There are other benefits: because the bandwidth is used more efficiently,
more stations can fit into the spectrum. The BBC plans several, including
extended news and music services, as does Digital One
the UK's first commercial digital radio network run as a joint venture
between GWR, the UK's largest private radio group, and cable company ntl.

And then of course there is the possibility of parallel transmission of
data, alongside the audio signal - which brings us back to the danger for
blind or visually impaired people of losing the purity of the medium.

As long as the data panels remain strictly supplementary, there is no
cause for concern. But as this 'optional' feature creeps into ever-more
prominence, perhaps displaying vital telephone numbers, web site information
and the like which, for sighted people, is tedious when narrated, it could
become more contentious. Cinderella radio deserves the clarity of sound
and the extension of choice, as long as she doesn't in the process
into her more showy ugly sister.

The BBC has a text-only guide to digital radio at:
- the version with images is at: www.bbc.co.uk/digitalradio/

And the Radio Works' guide to DAB is at:



The mobile phone company Orange (www.orange.co.uk) is in the process of
rolling out a new speech recognition service for its phones - 'Wildfire'.

In fact Wildfire, they would have you believe, is more than a service:
it is "an intelligent, invisible personal assistant" who uses the latest
speech recognition technology to listen, react and respond to your spoken

Furthermore, the service is anthropomorphised - it is not an 'it', but
a husky-voiced 'she', and the web site makes great play of 'her' willingness
to obey. While this might indulge unreformed (or is it unreformable?) male
fantasies, it is doubtful that many female users will find it quite so
endearing. Perhaps there should be a choice between a female and
sexy male voice.

The technology is based on the premise that voice activation and control
is more intuitive and convenient than pressing buttons. As such, it has
great potential value for the blind and partially sighted, as it allows
one to do virtually anything that would have previously required dialling
or menu-selection from the telephone handset, including manage and sort
voicemail; phone people by name; interrupt a message playback if a call
comes in; build an address book; and so on.

In an amusing innovation, the commands one uses to access the services
are colloquial. For example, being told there is a message, one is expected
to reply "What's it say?" However, although one is colloquial, one must
be precise: and if, for example, you ask more primly: "What DOES it say?",
Wildfire becomes confused, and although she tends to get there in the end
it could quickly become irritating both for the user and for the others
on the crowded train that is today's surrogate office.

Other commands are similar, for example, 'Next item' if you want to listen
to the next message, or 'Previous item'. If you forget any of the commands,
you can ask 'What are my options?' and if you change your mind at any time
just say 'Never mind', and Wildfire will stop what it/she is doing.

Such a sophisticated voice-activated tool might be expected to be a great
boon for the blind and visually impaired, but Kevin Carey, director of
the technology access charity HumanITy, gives it a qualified welcome. "It
is a technology going in a sensible direction - they're doing all the right
things, but there are still problems in the way it's implemented".

The positive points are that Wildfire is run exclusively at the 'server-end'
- you phone the network, and Wildfire's intelligence resides on a remote
computer-system. This means that features can be added, and yet your phone
need not be upgraded or customised in any particular way. Wildfire is simply
a short dial away, rather like BT's Callminder system with a sprinkling
of extra personification and voice-activation.

This strength, however, is in other ways a weakness. First, the fact that
the service resides on the network rather than a chip in one's phone means
that it costs per minute. The charges vary, but they are not insignificant,
and so ensure that one's relationship with Wildfire must be fleeting and
snatched. The effort required to spark Wildfire off in the first place
is significant (and costly) too: setting up the address book, like
else, is done online. What's more, learning how to use the system in the
first place requires a sighted friend to read out its manual. Online help
is scarce and costly.

One way Carey believes the cost and bother of the laborious set-up procedure
could be minimised is by using the Internet. If you could simply import
your current address books from your PC or personal-organiser, via a web
page, to Wildfire, it would save all the hassle. Orange claims that such
services are in the pipeline.

Until then, Carey believes the network should give some free configuration
time. This might lose Orange some initial revenue, but it would convince
more people to be bothered to install the system in the first place. When
such solutions arrive, when Wildfire increases its vocabulary, and when
the networks upon which it resides implement a more flexible phone-tariff
to better represent the usage patterns of such services, then it may just
live up to its promise.

One or two other mobile manufacturers are producing or are set to produce
voice recognition services, in a sign that the field is set to take off
in 2000.

Ericsson is to use the new 'Bluetooth' standard for wireless data transfer
in a new headset for use with its phones to be released in the summer.
The device will allow the user to leave the phone up to 10 metres away
- it could be in another room - to be activated and used remotely by
into the headset using voice recognition.

And Samsung's new SGH 800/810 mobile includes a Voice feature which will
allow you to dial someone's number simply by saying their name, use voice
commands for the menu controls, and record voice memos. Unlike Wildfire,
this is a handset-resident service, and therefore has the opposite
and disadvantages to Wildfire's server-end system.

For more on Wildfire visit: www.orange.co.uk/wildfire/

For more on Ericsson's planned Bluetooth products visit:

And for more on the Samsung SGH 800/810 you can try visiting the fairly
inaccessible page at:
The most useful information on the phone here is the manual, but it is
only available to download as an Adobe pdf file.



All new UK government internet sites will be expected to be accessible
to special access software used by blind and visually impaired people,
and existing sites must be made accessible as soon as possible, according
to new guidelines released by the Cabinet Office.

Among the guidelines are that web page 'frames' - fixed sections which
use a more complicated structure - should only be used where there is no
straightforward alternative. If frames are implemented then a 'No frames'
alternative must be supplied for the entire site and access to it should
be easily visible on the homepage.

Although compliance is not compulsory, ministers will expect swift action
to bring sites up to scratch. Compliance will be policed by a 'New media
team' in the Cabinet Office, headed by the e-envoy Alex Allan.

The guidelines can be found at:

The RNIB has welcomed the guidelines. Campaigns officer Julie Howell said
that, while few government sites yet comply with the guidelines, she was
optimistic that this would change.

"The government departments I've spoken to are worried about the Disability
Discrimination Act - they don't want to be the first to be sued. Since
the guidelines were published I've had departments or their web site
ringing me non-stop. They are competitive, they all want to be the best".

She said it was also encouraging that she had not been hearing excuses
from departments about why they could not comply with the guidelines,
some of them being fairly tough to meet. "The guidelines say all departments
have to adhere to the accessibility rules unless there is a demonstrable
reason why they should not. We are keen to hear of any such reasons, to
enable us to help tackle any problems, but so far everyone we've spoken
to has been fully supportive".

However, Howell admits that the situation outside the public sector offers
more cause for concern. "Business is a different matter. They do not have
to facilitate services to the public like government. Often they say that
if they have a phone line alongside web information then that is enough
to cater for blind or visually impaired people, but we say that is not
enough - web services should be accessible".

To help both government and private sector companies check their web sites
for accessibility, the RNIB is looking to assemble a group of blind
to give sites the once-over. Anyone interested in joining this project
should contact Julie Howell on 0171 391 2191. Readers can also use this
number to obtain a free copy of the RNIB/Web Accessibility Initiative video
on accessible web site design, 'Web Sites that Work'.

The RNIB will also be looking to be involved in the new European 'eEurope
- Information society for all' project on the information society and
(see news, this issue). Its public policy team is currently compiling a
response to the eEurope consultation document, to be submitted before the
1 February deadline.

* * * ISSUE ENDS * * *

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Published by Headstar Ltd www.headstar.com
Copyright 2000 Headstar Ltd
The Bulletin may be reproduced in full as long as all parts including this
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Received on Sunday, 30 January 2000 04:28:18 UTC

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