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/