Thursday, October 18, 2018

“Don’t take technology too seriously - it is people who are using the technology and need to make sense out of it”

A report from the 1st M-Enabling Forum Europe, 27 September 2018, Düsseldorf

As much as technology is our beacon of hope to give people with disabilities equal access to society, we must not forget that it will always be only a helper or facilitator and not the solution in and of itself. The title statement by Dr. Thomas Kahlisch, board member of the German Association for Blind and Visual Impaired (DBSV), added an important dimension to the discussions at the 1stM-Enabling Forum Europe, which assembled 100 accessibility experts in Düsseldorf. 

Policy ambitions and the reality on the ground 

Representatives of the European Commission gave updates on the status of Europe’s efforts to create a binding legal framework for ICT accessibility in the form of the European Accessibility Act (EAA). Once the European Parliament and European Council agree on the final content and wording of the text, the EAA will introduce obligations for the private sector, mainly for ICT products and services, and strengthen the accessibility requirements in public procurement already in force. After the adoption of the EAA, which is expected for the end of this year, countries will have two years for transposing the requirements into national law, followed by a four year implementation period.

Going by the outcome of a survey presented by Yuval Wagner, founder and president of Access Israel, legislation such as the EAA will be important. Access Israel carried out a survey among more than 500 persons with disabilities in Israel. 56% stated that their N°1 issue is a lack of accessibility, and for 64% out of these it was a lack of accessibility in ICT.

On the other hand, we have today a plethora of accessibility features in mainstream devices, dedicated apps and accessibility services which in theory could ensure seamless access to information and communication for everyone. The panel about “Innovative apps, products and services for independent living” for example painted the picture of an entirely accessible mobile ecosystem, starting with a central source of information – the GARI database with information on the accessibility features in over 1,500 devices – passing by accessible devices such as Apple’s who was also on the panel, and freely available apps specifically designed for accessibility such as Speech Code, another panelist.  To finish with,  assistive technology and services like sign language relays for phone calls can supplement these accessibility features.

Where is the disconnect?

It would seem that our stumbling block is well targeted communication. While all attendees to the Forum are clear on the need, importance and availability of accessible solutions, we need to get better in reaching those user groups who have never heard of accessibility and those who are reluctant in using new technologies all together.

“This future is all about technology”, said one of the attendees. “The big question is, can digital accessibility solve the physical and social accessibility?”

For one, we do have the amazing opportunity of making technology accessible from day 1 and avoid being pushed into a retro-fit mode in which we find ourselves today in trying to make the physical world accessible. Ensuring that ICTs are accessible has the potential of reducing the gap for persons with disabilities and also saving a lot of money.

However, tackling accessibility from the technical side alone will not suffice. We need to raise awareness and we need a system that provides consulting and guidance to companies and hands-on training for persons with disabilities. Or to put it in Dr. Kahlisch’s words: We need to help people make sense out of the technology and help them understand how using the technology is relevant to them in their individual situation.

More information:

The GARI database
Apple’s accessibility page
Speech Code
Tess Relay
Association manufacturers and retailers of assistive technology in Germany (BEH)
Association for Blind and Visual Impaired (DBSV)


Monday, October 1, 2018

What do CSS, standards and “easy” sign language have in common?

For one, they were all topics of very interesting presentations at this year’s A-Tag, the Austrian accessibility day, organised by accessible media. Secondly, they are all important components in making digital content accessible. 

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)  is a style sheet language used for describing the presentation of a document written in a markup language like HTMLBoth CSS and HTML as key elements of the web need to be accessible and coherent between each other to make a website accessible. 

What can go wrong? 

Manuel Matuzovic provided a great example of how things can go wrong. Imagine if you have 8 elements on your website and just for one week you would like to push your newsletter by moving it up to third position on your website. Your web developer quickly changes the position of the newsletter in the CSS code and it appears now on third position on your website. However, the underlying HTML was not changed and a screen-reader or the focus indicator of somebody who uses not the mouse but the keyboard to navigate the website, will jump to the element that is still third in the HTML code and will only come later to the newsletter. That can be confusing and impractical and it breaks the accessibility tree of the website. It is therefore important that the developer understands accessibility, so they would know that such an approach would make the site inaccessible, and that another solution would need to be found.

The web of things rather than the internet of things 

W3C’s Shadi Abou-Zahra then spoke about the “web of things” on top of the internet of things. A smart home, where everything is connected, could potentially be very accessible for persons with disabilities. But not if for example the smart radiator gives out his readings only in GIF format. GIF is a format that screen-readers cannot read so it would be inaccessible to blind home owners. This example shows us that we need to have accessibility considered from the very beginning and ensure that it forms part of the core programming of every IoT device, rather than trying to add it on later. 

The ‘web of things’ concept is interesting in that it would allow all objects to communicate via one surface, like how we currently access the internet via our browsers and apps. If all devices can be accessed via one surface and that surface is accessible, it could indeed create an accessible world. 

The building blocks…. are standards

The different components can only work together, if we all agree on standards. All developers and manufacturers need to be aware of and follow the latest accessibility standards - in October 2018 that would be WCAG 2.1 and the revised EN 301 549. Eric Eggert, also from W3C, did a great job in explaining and demonstrating what the new components in WCAG 2.1 are, why they are relevant and how they can be implemented in practice. His explanations of the new success criteria in WCAG 2.1 can be found on the Knowbility blog linked in the recourse section and are definitely worth a read.

Another aspect is to integrate accessibility in all standards relevant for persons with disabilities or just adopt it for every user. The credo of “nothing about us, without us” does not apply to standards yet, but standards determine most of our products and services. 
Christian Galinski from Infotherm argued for a special interest group (SIG) on accessibility in standards. The SIG would promote Recommendation 2016 which advocates for introducing the obligation to mention in every standard whether they have accessibility relevance or not, which would make finding relevant standards much easier than it is today and hence easier to apply them. 

Last, but in no way least… the content  

On top of products and services, the content of course  needs to be accessible as well. 
For deaf users this means, content needs to be made available in sign language. And as with the hearing community and written language, the levels of understanding of sign language differ among people. So parallel to the need for “easy language”, there is also a need for “easy sign language”. For this reasons, the Austrian Sign Language interpreter community has introduced the concept of ÖGS+. This is interpreting into sign language (in this case Austrian Sign Language, ÖGS) in a way that is more pictographic and easier to understand. Since there is an extra level of explanation provided, the interpreters chose to design it with a +. Hence the name ÖGS+. Very soon, news and stories will be available on their website duooo.at in Austrian, German and International Sign Language as well of course in ÖGS+. 

A great one-day training event

Again, the A-Tag proved to be a very good one-day training event, bringing together the many different stakeholders needed to make digital content accessible to users of all abilities. Looking forward to next year's edition! 


Resources: 

W3C CSS Accessibility Task Force: https://www.w3.org/WAI/APA/task-forces/css-a11y/
Recommendation 2016 concerning standards on eAccessibility and eInclusion: http://aaate.net/recommendation-2016-concerning-standards-on-eaccessibility-and-einclusion/

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Crowd-sourcing information on accessible products and services

We have many wonderful accessibility solutions in the market today, but still many of the people who would benefit most do not know about them. Israeli platform yoocan works on closing this gap. yoocan is the #1 global collaborative community for experiences and knowledge by and for people with disabilities, so no one feels alone. CEO Moshe Gaon explains how yoocan was created, how it works and where it is headed. 


What is yoocan’s mission and how did it come to be? 

Moshe: It started with a personal story. My brother’s son, Erez, was born with a rare disease that resulted in complex cognitive & physical disabilities. I witnessed what this was doing to our family. There are two main implications for families when a family member has a disability: there is a strong feeling of loneliness and there is also a huge frustration that they cannot find a solution that helps them and their family member with the disability. In many cases, solutions do exist but may be not available in their country, or their city.

Being a businessman myself and looking at start-ups around the world, I was astonished that there exists no collaborative community where people in this situation can ask questions and get information about available solutions. So the vision was to create a collaborative community for and by people with disabilities and their families from around the world and pool information on what’s out there – it could be finding other people in similar situations, activities, organisations, products, innovations…

People can come into this collaborative community to do four things:

  • share experiences and tips
  • explore knowledge of others through their experiences and stories
  • search for products, services, organisations, innovation
  • access and buy products in a simple way

yoocan was designed to be by 2020 the n°1 collaborative platform for people with disabilities and their families and friends. It is user generated content that is provided for free by people with disabilities, organisations, innovators and companies.

How do you ensure the quality of the content on your platform when everything is user generated? 

Moshe: We control and precheck everything before it is published. Our team has to approve every new user account, organisation, product, service, story before it goes online. Since we have now a network of around 900 organisations we have relationships with, we have access to a lot of knowledge in this area and can always backcheck if we are not sure about one piece of content.

What is yoocan’s business model? 

Moshe: yoocan is a for profit undertaking. While the information is freely accessible on the platform to the user, our idea is to gain money in a way similar to Amazon by providing a platform for companies that can sell their products and services on this platform.

We have also created recently the yoocan assistive technology hub. This will be a forum where we allow companies in the early stages, when they have just started their ideas, to use the yoocan community and use our services to help them accelerate their progress through our connections to find either potential partners or potential users.

Our vision is to not only provide a great service with information and knowledge for our users but to also promote and accelerate the development of early stage technologies through our network. In order to supplement that, we want to create this year a global competition of assistive technologies (AT) that will celebrate and promote the best AT from around the world. We did a beta test at this year’s Access Israel convention earlier this year with a showcase and competition of 7 local early stage companies to evaluate how it can work.

Recently we started working on local language translation of the yoocan platform. We already have a corporate partner in Israel to create yoocan in hebrew and seek similar business partners to do the same in Arbic, Spanish, and other languages. This project will allow people in different countries to access local services of yoocan and the global information directory we have created.

My vision for yoocan is that we will be an ecosystem integrated that allows everybody active in this environment to use the yoocan platform to advance services and to create awareness to what is out there.

In creating and building up yoocan, what was the most surprising to you? Either in reaction from the users and community or in the development of the platform as such? 

Moshe: There was a number of things that surprised me. First, when you work with non-for-profit organisations, often, because they are so stretched for money, they find it uncomfortable to work with others out of worry that they might lose an opportunity for funds. I found it actually hard to convince people that collaboration gets everyone a win-win. In the disability community, everybody wants to talk about collaboration but we created a breakthrough in this area in terms of actual collaboration. Case in point being the before mentioned competition that we organised with TOM and Access Israel.

Second surprising point is that so many people talk about inclusion and doing something in the environment of disability, but then there is little willingness to fund innovative projects and technologies in this area. Maybe also because until now the technology was lacking to make products relevant for people with disabilities. But with the advent of bionics, 3D printing, Internet of Things (IoT), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) this has changed. However it is still difficult to raise money from a start-up perspective as opposed to philanthropy.

What do you think is missing today in the public debate on accessibility? 

Moshe: Governments still neglect inclusion. Everyone likes to talk about accessibility but not much is actually done. A laudable exception is what the Australian government has done by changing the insurance law so that government money will go directly to the people rather than to the insurance companies. There is a lot of money involved but in most countries this money goes to government agencies and insurance companies but never really arrives in the hands of people with disabilities.

What would be the ideal thing to happen to take yoocan to the next level this year? 

Moshe: One of three things would be really helpful: 1) a major global newspaper to write about yoocan; 2) another major corporation like the #1 bank in Israel (who recently granted 100,000 dollars to yoocan to translate the platform into Hebrew mentioned before) to collaborate with yoocan to create yoocan in another language - Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Spanish, etc. 3) to raise more money for additional expansion into new areas (creating apps, AT hub, invest into tech companies….).


We wish Moshe and yoocan all the best and hope that all of these or any of these will happen this year for yoocan!

Have a look at yoocan, the global collaborative community for and by people with disabilities, sharing experiences and knowledge, so no one feels alone: https://yoocanfind.com/

Friday, July 13, 2018

Regional changes impact Top 10 of accessibility features - GARI Annual Report 2017

The GARI project continues to grow year by year and the 2017 Annual Report gives a compact overview of what is new and what has changed over the last year. We are happy to report that in 2017 the GARI website registered a monthly average of 42,000 unique visits, which is an increase of over 100% compared to 2016, as well as over half a million page-views per month, which equals a growth of over 50% on 2016.

15 new features in 2017

In 2017, the MWF carried out a 4th feature review of the GARI database and invited over 80 stakeholders around the world – including organisations of persons with disabilities, senior citizen bodies, consumer groups, national regulators, government agencies, accessibility experts, academics and industry representatives, to give feedback on the accessibility features listed in GARI as well as on the usability of the GARI user interface.

The detailed feedback helped us improve the usability of the GARI website and resulted in the addition of 11 accessibility features for mobile phones and 4 accessibility features for Smart TVs.

Spike in interest in Latin America

In 2017, we were really surprised to see that for the first time, the majority of visitors to the GARI online portal came from Latin America with 47%, overtaking North America with 23% and Europe with 15%.

This change also impacted the list of the top 10 most-searched-for features in GARI. While hearing features dominated this list over the past couple of years, it has become more diverse in 2017 with the 10 top accessibility features in GARI being:

  • Internet Capability
  • Hearing Aid or ‘H A C’ Setting
  • Hearing Aid T-coil Coupling
  • Supports ability to install third party applications or apps 
  • Touch Screen
  • External Keyboard Support
  • Screen Reader 
  • Braille Display Support
  • Easy to Press Keys

We thank the many organizations, individual experts and other interested parties that have continuously helped us to make the GARI database ever more responsive and relevant to people’s needs -  and we look forward to continuing to grow the entire project over the coming years.

Audio version of GARI report

For this year’s report, we also have an audio version provided by Speech Code which can either be accessed through the “play” icon in the lower right corner of each page in the report or by using the links listed here below.

The following links provide the content to the GARI Annual Report 2017, page by page:




You can also download the 2017 GARI Annual Report in PDF format.

Monday, July 2, 2018

5G – the miracle solution for accessibility?

Report from the M-Enabling Summit 2018

You may have heard about 5G  - offering the promise of always being connected with instantaneous information on our devices. What does this mean in practice though? And how does it relate to accessibility? 

The panel on “The Imminent Impact of 5G Connectivity on the M-Enabling Ecosystem” at the M-Enabling Summit 2018 in Washington counted representatives of the three major US network operators and speakers from the two US trade associations of the wireless industry. All the technological expertise necessary to explain what 5G will give us that will make life and society for people with disabilities and older citizens easier to navigate. 

Kara Graves from CTIA kicked off the session with a comprehensive but easy to follow overview on how 5G will work. 5G will not be an entirely new system, but can be envisioned as a lot of different improvements on what we have today in 4G. 5G technologies will for example use a mix of low, mid, and high band frequencies, depending on the provider and use case, but they will also need a denser infrastructure than what we currently have, since the 5G signal in the mmWave spectrum does not travel as far. 

Immediate benefits will be enhanced call clarity, high-definition (HD) voice, and real-time text – clearly features that will benefit not only the hard-of-hearing or deaf communities and older users, but everyone using mobile communications. 

The high network speed will improve video conferences and communication in sign language, as well as facilitate telecommuting for a more diverse workforce. Personal assistants in the devices, powered by artificial intelligence, can already today read and send text messages, make emergency calls, and perform numerous other tasks through vocal prompts. They are bound the get even better. 

In numbers, 5G promises: 
  • up to 100 times more devices being able to connect to the networks (enabling the Internet of Things) 
  • 100 times faster speeds 
  • a 5 times more responsive network 
  • ultra-reliability and low latency (today 4G LTE networks have a response time (latency) of 20-30 milliseconds but 5G will offer a latency of only 1 millisecond) 

Possible use cases where these numbers can translate into saved lives include real time information in the public safety network through 5G enabled sensors across the city, improved emergency response with first responders getting more quickly to the scene and having the info they need to help patients before they arrive, as well as better geo-targeting for emergency alerts. 

Further areas, where the wireless industry sees the potential of 5G deployed are 
  • healthcare: with the promotion of preventive care, better patient access and the support of remote surgery applications
  • mobility: facilitating mobility for seniors and persons with disabilities (e.g. autonomous vehicles) 
  • education: improving education opportunities through augmented and virtual reality programs

So, will 5G be the Holy Grail for mobile accessibility? No, not right away at least. While we praise the potential of 5G for all the wonderful things it will bring, one member of the audience pointed out that a majority of people has not even reaped the full benefits of 4G yet. Yes, 5G will bring us real time information and super accurate location services and all the handy services that come with it. But first, the technology needs to be rolled out on a large scale, then applications and services must be implemented accessibly and then, most importantly, we need to work with users, old and young, with and without disabilities, to help them unlock this great potential for their individual needs. It starts small by helping them find accessible, easy to use devices (like GARI endeavors to do). It goes on from there to understand what is possible and how to use what technology can offer us. 


M-Enabling Summit 2018: http://www.m-enabling.com 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Trends in mobile accessibility : artificial intelligence and smart cities

Report from the M-Enabling Summit 2018

The 7th M-Enabling Summit opened its doors to around 600 participants from 30 countries. The opening panel on Artificial Intelligence (AI) heard representatives of Microsoft, Amazon and Oath (the company coming out of the merger of AOL and yahoo) talk about the immense and exciting potential of AI. These included how Amazon’s Alexa is helping in speech therapy for autistic children, Microsoft’s Seeing AI and inbuilt accessibility features in Microsoft Office that make power point presentations automatically accessible, and how Oath’s human-AI collaboration is captioning thousands of videos per day.

But there was also a voice of caution from Steve Tylor, Director of Assistive Technology at Leonard Cheshire, a UK health and welfare charity: “We will never fix people's ability or disability to use technology, unless devices start understanding or at least second guessing what the user wants to do. For this to happen though, it isn’t sufficient just to consult people with disabilities, but rather they must be involved in the design and development of such products and services because they will build in accessibility from the beginning in a way we could never think of otherwise."

So the big companies see tremendous potential in AI. The disability community shares the positive outlook but also cautions that AI alone will not be the miracle solution.

  ----

The question to the panel and audience on Smart Cities was also thought provoking - do smart cities leave accessibility behind?

Commissioner of New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities Victor Calise opened the session with some insights on the challenges of making a city as big as New York smart enough to accommodate not only their 8 million plus citizens with and without disabilities, but a huge number of old and young tourists visiting every year. He also shared the struggles the city faced when trying to re-invent the pay phone or Emergency Call Boxes in an accessible way for both the blind and deaf community.

On the topic of universal access to information and emergency services, Betsy Beaumon, president of Benetech, explained how her company tries to improve the social services in cities by crowdsourcing and connecting information like free places in shelters, where to get help in case of domestic violence, available resources in times of natural disaster etc. Benetech tries to achieve this by creating an open infrastructure that allows many different systems to access the same data, and incentivizes the stakeholders to collaborate.

In time, IoT sensors across the cities and real time information will help in projects like the one initiated by Benetech and will render our cities smarter and hopefully more accessible. Real time information in particular has already found wide spread application in public transport and is rendering the navigation of cities much easier. But the availability of this information alone is not enough. Holger Dietrich from the German NGO Soziale Helden emphasized the need for making big data actionable. His NGO, which has created the popular Wheelmap app (which is also listed in GARI: http://gari.info/findapps-detail.cfm?appid=370), which maps wheelchair accessible places around the world, has gone the next step by creating an accessibility cloud, where they combine similar efforts all around the world and feed various maps of accessible places into one big system, so that users can access to get a comprehensive view of accessible places worldwide.

Two technological developments are essential in bringing all these trends to fruition: 5G and our trusted companion, the mobile phone. The rollout of 5G networks will provide both more detail and better geographical location information, explained John Bruns from the US network operator AT&T. And the mobile phone, a device that usually never leaves our side, has the potential to be that universal remote control allowing us to access these new technologies and services in a comfortable way. This means that it is even more important to enable every citizen, old and young, with and without disability, native speaker in the country or foreigner, to find a device they understand and that best meets their needs – a goal we have been working towards with GARI for 10 years now.

Dina Grilo from JPMorgan Chase & Co is convinced that smarter cities will be built on 5G, big data and artificial intelligence that all serve the individual. It will be these cities that business will want to settle in since an accessible smart city allows companies to tap into the talent of employees with disabilities who might otherwise not be able to work for them for purely logistical reasons, such as inaccessible public transport. But to make this a reality, we need to integrate people with disabilities into the development of smart cities from day one.

M-Enabling Summit 2018: http://www.m-enabling.com/agenda.html

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Over 100 accessibility features in my phone – how do I know what helps me?

The Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) every year provides the opportunity to assess how far we’ve come in regards to accessibility, to readjust where we want to go and to discuss which should be the next steps to get there. 

For this year’s GAAD, we have prepared a draft feature guide for GARI. The intention is to give users an overview at one glance of the 120 accessibility features listed in GARI along with thoughts as to who they might be useful for. Using this guide, we invite users to go and explore the database for devices that provide these features in order to find a device that best suits one’s needs.

You can download the draft feature guide here: 


We would love to hear from you, if our categorisation is useful, or if you would change things around. The categories are based on those used by well-established international organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO). Since one feature or function can serve users in different ways, a feature might be listed in multiple categories. 

“Captions” for example make video content accessible for deaf and hard-of-hearing users but are also helpful to people with comprehension difficulties or non-native speakers of any given language. “Screen-readers” on the other hand are a very specialised feature that is mostly used by blind users. 

Looking forward to hearing your feedback and happy GAAD 2018! 

Feedback can be sent to accessibility(at)mwfai.org


Links: 

Global Accessibility Awareness Day, 17 May 2018: http://globalaccessibilityawarenessday.org/

Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative (GARI):