Joining with thousands of like-minded persons interested in the same subject areas is a surefire way to recharge batteries for professionals in any milieu. The 20th annual Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference is an outstanding recent example of doing just that for all of us at AccessWorld. Called CSUN after its hosting organization (California State University at Northridge's Center on Disabilities), the conference has become an important venue for unveiling new products, presenting new developments, and generally sharing information regarding assistive technology that enables people with all types of disabilities to participate more fully and equally in employment, education, and social interaction. For those specifically interested in blindness and low vision, there were many exhibits and sessions to choose from. We can't bring the entire conference to you, but we've pulled together the highlights.
At a reception marking the event's 20th anniversary, the Center on Disability presented some highlights of the conference's history and recognized many of those responsible for nurturing it to the point of international acclaim. Dr. Harry Murphy, who launched the conference in 1985, and who retired as director of the Center on Disability in March 2000, spoke about the first conference and how much organizers learned from the experience. There were 700 attendees that first year, a number that has grown steadily, and attendance was over 4000 at the 2005 event. In addition to award presentations by the Center on Disability itself, AFB's Jim Denham presented CSUN with an AFB Access Award, acknowledging the conference as an example of accessibility for people with disabilities.
Caption: Mary Ann Cummins Prager (left) receiving the AFB Access Award on behalf of CSUN from Jim Denham of AFB TECH.
And the conference does indeed practice what it preaches. All presenters are required to provide materials in accessible formats. Attendees receive general conference materials in their choice of braille or large-print format, and a CD of all materials is available. For people with hearing impairments, real-time captioning, assistive listening devices, and/or sign language interpreting is available and, of course, all venues are accessible to people with mobility impairments. Accessible work stations are set up to accommodate participants with a variety of disabilities as well.
While the organizers do a good job of tagging sessions in tracks pertaining to various disabilities--whether, for instance, the session will be of interest to those with speech difficulties, low vision, blindness, or mobility impairments or to any participant--some fine tuning is still needed. Many of the sessions relevant to blindness and low vision were scheduled at the same times, rather than being staggered to give participants more opportunities to attend all relevant sessions. For example, the two presentations pertaining to the relationship between litigation and access for people with visual impairments were each presented by an attorney and offered a different facet of the subject, yet, they were scheduled at the same time on the same day.
This year's speaker, Dr. Albert Cook, is Dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta, Canada, and has been involved in assistive technology as an innovator, educator, author, organizational leader, and advocate since the early 1980s. His address reviewed several historical highlights of assistive technology, illustrating how today's devices are both similar to and different from the groundbreakers of 25 years ago. While his emphasis was on augmentative and alternative communication devices for people with speech and cognitive disabilities, Dr. Cook's core philosophy is applicable to all persons with disabilities. The ability to create tools is what differentiates us as humans, Dr. Cook pointed out. However, dependence on those tools is greater for people with disabilities than for those without disabilities. Referring to what he called "hard technologies" (the tools themselves, such as computer hardware and software) and "soft technologies" (the strategies for using those tools to foster independence and equality), he stressed the importance of narrowing the gap between the two categories. If the soft technologies are not in place to enable people with disabilities to be trained in, obtain, and make best use of the "hard" technologies, the existence of such tools can have a negative impact. In other words, without the strategies that enable people with disabilities to keep pace with nondisabled technology users, the gap that translates as inequality will widen as more hard technology becomes available, rather than narrow.
Product and Company News
Here we highlight some of the most exciting products and announcements that were revealed at the conference. More new product announcements can be found in AccessWorld News elsewhere in this issue.
Telesensory Shuts Down
On March 14, 2005, Telesensory Corporation ceased operations and laid off all of its employees. According to an e-mail from Ken W. Stokes, President & CEO, the action was "due to a deteriorating relationship with [the company's] principal supplier, which resulted in the unavailability of products to ship. . . ."
Telesensory was founded by John Linvill and Jim Bliss in 1970 to develop, manufacture, and market products for blind people. The company's first product was the Optacon, a portable electronic print-reading device with columns of vibrating reeds that presented letter shapes as you tracked the print. Lately, Telesensory has mainly focused on closed circuit televisions (CCTVs) and other products for people with low vision.
Apple demonstrated VoiceOver, the new screen reader that will be built into version 10.4 of the Macintosh operating system (OS) due to be released this summer. Apple touted the advantages of having a screen reader already installed when you buy the computer, rather than needing to install one as an add-on. The first time you run VoiceOver, by pressing the Command key with F-5, the Set-up Assistant is launched and helps you learn to use VoiceOver. Apple says that applications including e-mail, the text editor, and its Safari Browser are accessible, as are other utilities and the OS X installation disk.
Apple provides guidelines for third-party developers to make their applications accessible. A major question is how accessible third-party applications used in publishing, music production, and other areas will be. If Apple follows through, VoiceOver will quickly become the most widely available screen reader. For more information, visit: <www.apple.com/macosx/tiger/voiceover.html>.
Two New DAISY Players
Telex announced the Professor, a portable sound system that can play DAISY books, text files, and audio CDs. It also includes a cassette player for NLS-FORMAT, four-track, and regular two-track cassettes, and an AM-FM radio. The Professor will be available this summer. For more information, contact: Telex Communications; phone: 952-736-4233; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Plextor was showing the Plextalk PTN1, a digital talking book player. The PTN1 measures 8.66 inches by 6.76 inches by 2.2 inches and weighs 2.65 pounds. It plays MP3 files and commercial CDs as well as DAISY books. The price is $350. For more information, contact: Plextor: phone: 510-440-2000, e-mail: <email@example.com>; web site: <www.plextalk.com/index.html>.
Inside Some Sessions
AccessWorld sent out its roving reporters to attend as many sessions as possible to bring back the best of CSUN for our readers. The following are some summaries.
Digital Talking Books
Recurring themes throughout sessions of particular relevance to people who are blind or visually impaired were DAISY-formatted digital talking books, Web accessibility, accessible global positioning system (GPS) devices, and notetakers/personal digital assistants (PDAs). Bookshare and Springer Design, manufacturer of the Book Courier, teamed up for a session demonstrating the convenience of downloading books from Bookshare.org and loading them into the Book Courier, a handheld device that plays Daisy, MP3, Audible.com, and text files.
Elsewhere, Larry Skutchan from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) demonstrated the power of the Book Port, the Book Courier's number one competitor. Terrie Terleau from APH also demonstrated two new electronic mobility devices. The K Sonar can be attached to the grip handle of a white came or simply held in the hand, and used to detect the presence and location of objects. Information is transmitted through tones of varying pitch and frequency. For a quieter and more tactile approach to locating (or avoiding) objects in one's physical environment, the Student Miniguide transmits its information via vibrations.
Among the sessions offered by the Iowa Department for the Blind's Project ASSIST (which we reported on in the March 2005 issue of AccessWorld) was one on the development of a tutorial for using NexTalk VM with popular screen readers Window-Eyes or JAWS for Windows. As part of the program's grant for developing materials for computer users who are deaf-blind, this particular program makes it possible to use a standard PC as a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD), enabling a deaf person to hold a text conversation over the phone line with someone using another TDD. Despite the additional factors of screen reader and braille display, the team at Project ASSIST found that this program can be successfully used by deaf-blind individuals. A few minor aspects for which "work arounds" cannot be found can be handled by what the department's director, Curtis Chong, referred to as a "biological interface unit"--otherwise known as a reader!
The staff also described their 12-week online Train the Trainer workshop. Students become familiar with distance learning strategies, terminology, and accessibility of software in the first half of the course. In the next six weeks, each student creates an online training module teaching the use of a Windows application or an assistive technology product. The next course begins in June, and applications are due by May 1. For more information, visit: <www.blind.state.ia.us/assist>.
Web Accessibility and the Law
Lainey Feingold, a disability rights attorney who has steered entirely clear of the courtroom and focused instead on negotiating structured agreements with corporations, made three main points in her sessions on recent legal developments and advocacy strategies regarding Web accessibility. First, having your "day in court" may sound satisfying, but when it comes to complicated issues like Web accessibility, court is sometimes the last place you want to be. Regardless of whether you do eventually wind up in front of a judge, you will always need to document your concerns and all the constructive steps you have taken to seek resolution. Her second recommendation was to be specific and constructive in your requests. Get the accessibility experts and web site developers talking directly to each other. Finally, think locally. If there is a company policy regarding access to information, for example, then start with that, not the entire Americans with Disabilities Act. She mentioned that when the New York State attorney general recently reached an agreement with two travel web sites, a lot of other companies took notice. This approach might be useful in other states as well. The presentation concluded with an overview of the different laws that could potentially be used to increase the accessibility of web sites in the United States.
Cynthia Waddell, president of the International Center for Disability Resources, discussed a wide range of legal developments in 2004 related to accessibility: the settlement of Dr. Bonnie O'Day's complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission regarding the inaccessibility of a cell phone sold by Verizon Wireless (see the AccessWorld News in the May 2003 issue); New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's settlement with Ramada Inns and Priceline.com, in which the companies agreed to make their web sites accessible; the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, including the establishment of a national repository for textbook files in an accessible format; and the requirement that as of April 1, 2005, purchases by federal government workers of technology under $2,500 by credit card must now comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. For more information, visit <www.icdri.org>.
Web Content Accessibility
The new guidelines for evaluating web content accessibility should be released sometime in the coming year. Wendy Chisholm and Judy Brewer of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) reassured the audience that if their web sites comply with the first version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, then they will need only minor changes (if any) to comply with WCAG 2.0, as well.
The main impetus for releasing version 2.0 of the guidelines is to make them easier to use, test, and understand. The W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative also wanted to extend the guidelines beyond hypertext markup language (HTML), to cover a wider variety of markup languages and content formats. The organization is preparing materials to help in the transition, including detailed examples, code snippets, and browser support information for HTML (including XHTML), cascading style sheets (CSS), and scalable vector graphics (SVG).
Terry Thompson, of AccessIT--National Center on Accessible Technology, explored the many ways in which universal web design benefits all users, with and without disabilities. Mr. Thompson compared accessible web techniques to curb cuts at street corners, which were designed for wheelchair users, but come in handy also for people wheeling a suitcase or pushing a stroller. On the Web, the equivalents might be captions that were intended for use by deaf viewers but also benefit people who are in noisy environments or who are not native speakers of that language. Text alternatives to visual elements benefit users who are blind, but also people using small, handheld devices including PDAs or people with slow Internet connections, who might prefer to browse with the images turned off. Avoiding the use of color to convey essential information helps people who are colorblind and also people using monochrome displays or handheld devices with grayscale screens. Providing a clear, simple design, including a consistent and intuitive navigational system, benefits a variety of users with disabilities, but the result is a web site on which all users can easily find the information they need.
Accessible Video in a Diverging Web Environment
David Klein and K. "Fritz" Thompson, of the Law, Health Policy, and Disability Center at the University of Iowa evaluated several different formats and players for accessible online video as part of their project to provide accessible Web-based training. Their recommendations were to start with high-quality video and audio because you will need to compress these files for Web delivery. They suggested acquiring a separate audio track, if possible. They also suggested providing closed or open captions for viewers with hearing impairments and any user who is in a situation where they can't hear well, as well as a complete transcript and any supporting documents. Finally, be sure to proof and correct your captions and transcripts.
The presenters noted that QuickTime, Windows Media, and RealPlayer audio and video software all share the following capabilities: high-quality audio and video; free plug-in/player (may auto-install or prompt for updates); support streaming or progressive download; Cross-platform availability; ability to "protect" content from permanent download; and large installed base: that is, many people already have these players installed on their computers.
All the players are supported by existing captioning tools such as MAGpie, and all allow the developer to use "component-based" captioning, which makes corrections easier by storing the captions in a separate, smaller file. Those captioning technologies include extensible markup language (XML), synchronized multimedia integration language (SMIL), Microsoft's proprietary version of SMIL known as synchronized accessible media interchange (SAMI), QuickTime caption files, and Flash. In each case, the caption files include the text of the captions, time codes for synchronizing their display with the video, and text formatting such as the font and font size, line breaks, bold, colors, and so on.
The presenters also provided a useful comparison between the different methods of delivering media over the Web: downloads, streaming, or progressive downloads. The presentation and some supporting materials are available at: <http://disability.law.uiowa.edu/lhpdc/publications/documents/
Creating Accessible Adobe PDF Documents
Adobe's portable document format (PDF) is popular for a variety of uses because it maintains the fidelity of the original document, regardless of the computer or operating system on which it is viewed. However, PDF has historically posed serious access barriers for blind or visually impaired people using assistive technology such as screen readers or screen magnifiers, and creators of PDF documents rarely use the proper techniques required for making the documents accessible. Loretta Guarino-Reid and Greg Pisocky from Adobe discussed how Adobe has worked to make document creation more accessible and the tools built into the Adobe Acrobat software that designers can use to create accessible PDFs more easily and the Adobe Designer software for making PDF forms more accessible.
Some of the changes from Adobe include an improved accessibility checker built into Acrobat software, including validation and repair; optical character recognition (OCR) software that designers can use to improve the accessibility of PDF documents created from scanned files; defaults set so that assistive technologies have permission to access document content; and Touch Up Reading Order tool for sighted people to correct the reading order of a document for screen-reading tools. (This last tool is not yet accessible to screen reading software, however.)
Adobe's entire presentation is available online at <www.easi.cc/csun2005.htm>.
Letting Go of Wires
Optelec presented a session on universal access through wirelessly connected devices to demonstrate the EasyLink Bluetooth braille keyboard with an accessible iPAQ, the MobileSpeak screen reader, and the MyLink device. The EasyLink keyboard worked well but, in a later demo at their exhibit booth, the presenters had some difficulties connecting because of the number of competing Bluetooth devices in the room. The MobileSpeak screen reader was demonstrated with a Nokia cell phone (a Symbian operating system and GMS [global system mobile communications] service is required). The device can be synchronized with Microsoft Outlook and, with some add-ons, MobileSpeak works with e-mail, MP3 players, the DAISY reader, a color recognizer, games, and text messaging. (See " Two More Approaches: A Review of the LG VX 4500 Cell Phone from Verizon Wireless and Microsoft's Voice Command Software" in this issue for more information about some of these products.)
Optelec's recently introduced MyLink is described as a universal remote with PDA functionality and a braille display. It has some interesting features but is much more bulky than a PDA or cell phone.
Accessibility Approaches: Responses to Section 508
The Information Technology Technical Assistance and Training Center (ITTATC) presented the results of a study of technology industry companies' responses to Section 508. Their study included eight companies, most of them quite large, with varying levels of federal government contracts. ITTATC then created a list of recommendations for these companies to improve their business practices in incorporating accessibility into product design.
Battle of the File Formats
AccessIT presented a session comparing HTML, tagged Adobe PDF, and Microsoft Word formats to determine which best preserves the structural integrity of electronic documents, and whether assistive technology can access the structure. Included was a discussion of the importance of using proper formatting, such as headings and table markup, when creating documents. Their recommendation was reflected in the current New York State law (Chapter 219) governing accessible formats for electronic textbooks. The hierarchy of preferred formats in this case was DAISY 3, accessible HTML, accessible or structured PDF, and Microsoft Word or ASCII. DAISY was mentioned only briefly since the presentation was focused on common business applications.
Topics in Java Accessibility
Sun Microsystems discussed the current and future accessibility status of Java. Version 2.0 of the Java Access Bridge for Windows is being released in beta. Sun has also developed the Java Accessibility Helper (Version 0.7), a graphic tool to assist software programmers and developers in examining Java-based applications for accessibility. It identifies problems based on priority levels 1, 2, and 3, although these are not based on the WAI or 508 guidelines. In fact, the Java Accessibility Helper is not itself accessible. They also noted that Java applets are not generally accessible, so they recommend Java Web Start as a possible alternative. Although they did mention some advantages to Web Start (for instance, it runs from the desktop without the browser), they did not necessarily demonstrate how this would be more accessible.
Accessible PowerPoint on the Web
EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) presented strategies for creating PowerPoint presentations via the Web that maintain accessible features. They suggested using the Office Accessibility Wizard (which costs approximately $40) to convert documents created in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to HTML. This product adds Save As Accessible Web Page to the File menu in Office applications. When selected, it opens a help feature to walk the user through the accessibility options to incorporate into the HTML version of the file.
Accessibility in the Workplace
Industry Canada conducted a survey of their 7,000 employees regarding accessibility of information and communication technology within their workplaces and devised strategies for improvements. Working with two accessibility specialists, they identified problems such as inaccessible applications and documents. One of the biggest challenges has been working with third-party vendors to improve the accessibility of their products. A particularly interesting point was made that, except for the W3C's guidelines on Web accessibility, there are no standards or specifications for manufacturers or software developers to follow when they are told to make something "accessible." Industry Canada identified future areas of concern to include PDAs, e-training, and the creation of standards.
J-say Technology: Successful Integration
Next Generation Technologies, the developers of the J-Say product line of computer software, which allows the Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software and the JAWS for Windows screen-reading program to work together, introduced both the Standard and Professional versions, and demonstrated the Professional version. Overall, the interoperability between the two programs was impressive. There were some problems with the demonstration as a result of feedback from the speaker system that was picked up by the microphone. The Professional version would seem to be necessary only for someone who has no real keyboarding ability, since it controls both text input and navigation commands. The Standard version focuses more on using speech to input text, leaving navigation within applications to the keyboard. Using J-Say Standard, the computer user can dictate text into WordPad, Dragon Pad, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Outlook, and Internet Explorer (for example, to fill in forms). A script allows users entering data into Outlook Contact fields to enter only Name, Phone, and E-mail, thus reducing the number of fields that need to be navigated. A similar script was written to simplify input in the Outlook Calendar. Although the current version works only with JAWS, the manufacturers are planning to introduce versions that interface with other screen readers such as Window-Eyes and Hal.
Recharging the Batteries
There were many other sessions and products of interest at the CSUN 2005 conference. And there were highlights of the less technical variety, too. The appearance of singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder (who, like many other people who are blind, stops by the conference exhibit hall at least once a year to see what's new) caused the expected stir of excitement.
Caption: Stevie Wonder helps CSUN attendees recharge their batteries.
At the Friday evening party hosted by HumanWare, the company added a bit of lightheartedness to its celebration of merger with a kind of "team spirit" ditty suitable for singing. GW Micro surprised many at its reception with the announcement of the addition of the Braille Sense (formerly known as the Hansone, a Korean-made braille notetaker) to its product line. Several companies added excitement by drawings for cash and product prizes. With so much going on, no single individual could see everything--but one outcome shared by most conference attendees was the recharging of batteries and renewed enthusiasm for reading assistive technology's next chapters as they are written.
Kelly Bleach, Darren Burton, and Elizabeth Neal contributed to this article.
CSUN 2004 by Deborah Kendrick and Jay Leventhal
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