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Deaf users, chat, and so on

From: Charles McCathieNevile <charles@sidar.org>
Date: Sat, 28 Feb 2004 11:22:02 +0100
Message-Id: <F364A22F-69D7-11D8-9D60-000A958826AA@sidar.org>
To: IG <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>

Hi Folks,

on Wednesday I attended the RNID's day-long session in Brussels on 
access to the information society for people who are Deaf. A mixture of 
politics (all the great and good of European Accessibility were 
present, from Erkki Liikaanen and Inma Placiencia to Jorgen Friis and 
Shadi Abou Zahra among others), community building, and technical 
discussion, it was overall a valuable day.

Much of the discussion was about problems more basic than web 
accessibility, such as the lack of an emergency service that people can 
access (you can dial 000 or 911 or 17 or whatever the local equivalent 
is on a mobile phone, but you can't SMS it and there is no guarantee 
that SMS gets delivered  anyway).

There was also an encouragingly strong thread of discussion about the 
need to ensure that standard, mainstream technology development is 
used, rather than being locked into outdated specialised systems as is 
the case with text phones (which were developed in the 20s as a 
replacement for telegraphy, adopted in the 60's when businesses started 
to move beyond them and therefore give them away, and use a raft of 
different standards making Europe a series of little islands that can't 
call each other).

Captioning got a run, (I'll leave it to the experts, but there were no 
great surprises) as did the need for sign-language interpretation, 
particularly where the content was moderately complex and the 
captioning risked losing the many relatively poor readers among the 
deaf community.

And one area that got people very excited was the lack of a suitable 
chat framework. In general they are line by line, rather than being 
character-by-character interactive as text phones are. I am sure blind 
users appreciate that fact, because with a screen reader the 
alternative would be a nightmare. Deaf  users, on the other hand, find 
them enormously frustrating - particularly when translated to the 
mobile world.

Normally small isolated communities get offered only the most 
well-known, most mainstream technology, so the new MSN, ICQ, Yahoo chat 
systems are all that many poeple have seen, and they compare 
unfavourably to text phones. The older, widespread and robust Unix 
"talk" is in fact what they are looking for, but without a champion it 
seems that the concern went into making chat accessible for the blind 
with no particular consideration of what Deaf people actually do. Well, 
where accessibility entered into the picture at all, anyway.

GSM came in for a lot of harsh treatment - much as it has enabled 
people to have a whole lot more communication, through SMS, in 
something approximating an international standard (it's used in 
virtually every country except Japan, although it is not so common in 
North America which still has a mish-mash of competing mobile telephony 
platforms). Because there are many arbitrary barriers to using it - I 
cannot send SMS to france or finland from my australian phone, because 
the network providers block access, although there is no real technical 
reason. It used to be impossible to send messages between networks in 
Australia, but some behind-the-scenes discussion about whether that was 
discriminating against the Deaf began and the networks opened up 
shortly afterwards. And there is no guarantee that SMS messages get 
delivered anyway - like email it is a send-and-pray protocol, although 
non-delivery is rare enough that people forget it happens and get 
surprised by it.

(Jorgen Friis is from ETSI, the European standards body that developed 
GSM, and from Denmark, a generally nice country :-)

Anyway, such are my thoughts. Many thanks are due to RNID for the 
organisation of the event, to the participants, to an army of 
interpreters (3 sign languages plus lip-speaking) for facilitating side 
conversations, introductions, and answering my assorted questions about 



Charles McCathieNevile                          Fundación Sidar
charles@sidar.org                                http://www.sidar.org
Received on Saturday, 28 February 2004 05:24:17 UTC

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