Happy Global Accessibility Awareness Day!

What is this you say? Glad you asked.  Global Accessibility Awareness Day is celebrated on the 3rd Thursday of May.  In its 5th year of existence, its goal is still to bring awareness and educate the technology community on how to make all things accessible.

When I look back at the advances that have been made in accessibility over the years, it still amazes me.  I remember when the first automated teller machines were coming out in early 90s.  By then, the computers I used spoke to me via specialized programs with hardware-based text-to-speech.  They sounded terrible by the way, but they got the job done.
So why couldn’t the teller machines speak as well?  Why did it take so long?  I think it’s partly because speech technology wasn’t robust enough at the time and had to mature in order for it to be financially feasible.   Also, banks needed to be made aware that a portion of their clientele was not able to access their machines on their own.  The last piece was for the banks to require bank machine manufactures to implement accessibility into their design.  I’m sure legislation played a big part into getting things done, but the fact remains that I can now do my own banking like everybody else.  I can go to virtually any teller machine and voila, an ear phone jack. Plug in and I’m off to the races.
That’s what it essentially boils down to.  Most of the time, small modifications and enhancements enable a person with disability their independence.

Over the years, in my career which has turned out to be all about accessibility, I find myself spending a lot of time convincing people about the virtues of accessibility.  People tend to think that, I am requesting changes to web pages, work processes, document enhancements and the like only to benefit me; because I’m the blind guy.  The trick is to get individuals to see the bigger picture.  Accessibility doesn’t just affect a few token individuals.  The benefits can enhance all of our experiences.  One last story, only because I think it’s a great example of accessibility and usability success.  There was a web site here at work that many people accessed frequently.  I was one of those people.  The page had been coded using JAVA applets and other magic tricks.  Out of a lot of guess work and determination, I was finally able to access what I needed from that site, but suffice it to say that the experience was not fun at all.  I therefore slated this site as an accessibility fail and started discussing alternatives with my colleagues.  It turns out that I wasn’t the only one having issues with the site.  Because of the way things were coded on the page, it was only accessible via computer-based browsers; no mobile devices and/or tablets.  Jump forward 6 months…  After a few meetings, some beta-testing work from yours truly, and we have a fully accessible site, WCAG 2.0 Level AA and it’s also usable from mobile and tablets.  Everybody wins!

So, pause on this day and take an opportunity to think about accessibility for all.
Visit the GAAD website for further info:

Global Accessibility Awareness Day

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Guidelines For Document Accessibility

One of the many things I do in my day-to-day tasks is to help my work colleagues learn how to create more accessible digital content. IE, Word documents, PowerPoint Presentations, Excel Spreadsheets, PDFs; you get the idea. Perhaps, what many of you may not know is that there is a document accessibility guideline out there called Clear Print. You can find more info on the Clear Print guideline in
this PDF document.

Following these guidelines will indeed generate a more readable document, but if best practices for an accessible document aren’t known by the author, then accessibility might still be an issue.

I’d like to point the reader to an essential document accessibility tool from our friends at Vision Australia. It’s a free Microsoft Word add-on that will add an accessibility toolbar to the ribbon. It does neat things like when you add an image to your document via the toolbar, it will direct you to add alt text. Alt text is an image description which access technology relies on to share information about the image to its user. You can also choose headings, paragraph styles, lists and even a table creation feature that steps you through a process which enhances the table’s accessibility. But, instead of me singing its praises, why not try it out for yourself. I’ve unleashed it on 2 of my work colleagues and they’ve enjoyed the ease of use and how it groups all that is accessibility under 1 toolbar. You can check it out here:

Document Accessibility Toolbar
Now, if only they could come up with toolbars for other Microsoft products.

Finally, always remember to run the Accessibility checker found under the file menu, Info Tab. It will give you pointers on what may be an accessibility issue within your document.

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Update on Facebook’s Automatic Alternative Text Feature

In my previous post, I extolled upon Facebook’s new image recognition and description feature.  Turns out it’s a service that works automagically and I didn’t need to download anything.  Now, either my contacts take really bad pictures, or Facebook’s generated descriptions leave much to be desired.  For
example, a typical description would look like this:

May contain 2 people, indoor, shoes and text.

I shouldn’t be too critical, as this is definitely a work in progress, but there’s definitely room for improvement.  For instance, if the engine is capable of detecting text within the image, why not run character recognition on it and give the results to the user.

Furthermore, if the engine recognizes people, why not tell me that they are smiling, what they might be wearing, (or not wearing for that matter).

Don’t get me wrong, it’s really neat technology, I guess I thought there would be more to it. I’m sure, given a bit of time and this particular Facebook Accessibility feature will shine.

But, enough about that.  I was recently forwarded this article from the Huffington Post about the current state of web accessibility.  It’s definitely an interesting read;

Facebook’s new blind-friendly feature puts a small dent in a big problem. Huffington Post

April 6, 2016 By Casey Williams

For the blind, navigating the digital world can be as tricky as moving through the physical one. Some companies have tried to make their sites easier for the world’s 39 million blind people to use. Facebook, for instance, just introduced a new image-recognition
feature that lets blind users “see” photos on the site.

But blind advocates say fixes like Facebook’s don’t solve the biggest obstacles blind people face online.

“We think it’s pretty cool,” Mark Riccobono, the president of the National Federation of the Blind, told The Huffington Post. “But we get concerned about flashy technology.”

“For the average blind person, it’s not whether they know something is in a photo or not that determines whether they can do online banking, pay their bills or buy groceries,” said Riccobono, who is blind.

Even as the Internet becomes an increasingly necessary feature of modern life, much of the web is difficult for blind people to use effectively.

A range of technologies exist to help blind people navigate the web. Braille keyboards and text-to-speech programs convert text to audio, which allows blind people to consume information on the web aurally. The devices can also transform speech into text, which allows blind people to “type.” These devices often work well with thoughtfully designed websites. But they hit snags when sites have elements that aren’t clearly labeled or are incompatible with keyboard shortcuts, which blind people rely on.

“Websites that have been designed from the beginning with accessibility in mind are easy for blind people to use – they’re easy to navigate, you can jump around pretty effectively and get information as effectively as a sighted person,” Riccobono said. But, he said, many sites still have “artificial barriers” that make performing basic online tasks difficult for blind users.

One of the biggest barriers is unclear labeling. In order to describe what’s on a given webpage, text-to-speech programs comb through the source code for labels that describe the page’s elements. They then say those labels aloud. If elements aren’t clearly labeled in the source code – if a checkout button, say, is just labeled “image” – it can make navigating the page very frustrating for users who rely on spoken descriptions to move around the site.

“If I go on an e-commerce website and put stuff in my cart, but get to the payment screen and have trouble because the checkout button’s not labeled – that’s a high degree of frustration,” Riccobono said.

Web developers can use accessibility guidelines for blind users when designing their websites. But even when they refer to those guidelines, web companies don’t always do a good job implementing them, Riccobono said.

“If you don’t test [your code] for accessibility, and a problem arises and it’s not dealt with, then the code gets launched anyway,” he said. Once finalized, it can be difficult to retrofit websites to improve accessibility.

Blind advocates have urged the Obama administration to update the Americans with Disabilities Act to include explicit standards for web accessibility for blind users. While President Barack Obama initially seemed amenable to the standards – in 2010, he named them among “the most important updates to the ADA since its original enactment” – last year his administration quietly postponed consideration of new web accessibility standards until 2018.

For Riccobono, updating the ADA is a necessary step toward equal access for the blind.

“We need to do in the digital world the same thing we’ve done in the physical world,” he said. “The lack of standards makes it very difficult for businesses to understand when they’ve met a high standard of accessibility.”

Reproduced from:

Facebook’s new blind-friendly feature puts a small dent in a big problem

 

 

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Facebook makes images accessible to all!

Recently, Facebook has been scoring big time on the accessibility front.  Turns out that my FB contacts will no longer have to explain their posted images to me; well not as much anyway.  Why just yesterday, I was chastising my cousin for forgetting to describe his most recent posted picture.  The Facebook accessibility team has been developing an image recognition algorithm which attempts to decipher the image and insert a canned description in order for us blind folks to also partake in FB fun.  I haven’t tried it yet, as it’s not on the Canadian appstore yet, but I’m sure it’ll be pretty neat.
You can read more on this endeavor and see it in action at TechCrunch: Facebook’s tool to help the blind “see” images just launched for iOS

 

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CBC TV App… Doing the right thing

I was recently updating the apps on my iPhone; something I frequently do since I’m at around 173 installed apps.  I really do need to do some major cleaning up.  Anyway… while I was waiting for the updates to complete, I noticed that the CBC TV app had an update.  It had been a long time since the last one, so I decided to read the update notes.  Turns out, it was a huge boon, accessibility-wise.

Quote taken from the app description:

“Greater Accessibility – As part of our ongoing commitment to make our programming available to all Canadians, the new CBC TV app now supports VoiceOver.
In addition to Closed Captioning, we have included Described Video audio tracks (when available), enabled with a simple tap.”

So, there you have it.  Easily accessed descriptive video.  Traditionally, descriptive video has been located on the second audio programming channel, (SAP).  The issue with that has always been, how does one get to that feature.  It’s never been standardized.  For example, on one of our TVs at home, you get there by cycling through the language audio channels; 1 toggling button, that’s fine. I can handle that.  On the other TV however, it’s hidden under a sub menu found under options and then audio.  You got to love product designers.  I sometimes question their logic, or lack thereof; but I digress.

Don’t think descriptive video is worth looking into?  My wife actually turns it on when she leaves the room, or when she’s busy doing something else, so she doesn’t miss any salient points in her Coronation Street.  To be honest, I don’t use descriptive video all of the time, but I like having the option of turning it on and off at will.

CBC certainly isn’t the first organization who has added full Voiceover support and descriptive video to their app.  Take for example Netflix. Their descriptive narration is simply amazing.  We recently watched Daredevil and Jessica Black and I marveled at the quality in unobtrusive nature of their narration style.  I’m pretty sure the narrators even enjoyed themselves.
At any rate, I hope that other organizations that have streaming video will follow suit and integrate accessibility into their app and make a similar commitment to access for all. You can find the CBC TV app by following this link:

CBC TV in the appstore

 

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Give credit where credit is due

When most of you get a phone for personal or business use, your first thoughts probably are: Is the screen big enough, what are the phone specs, will I be able to play Candy Crush on it?  When a person with a disability, goes fishing for new phone technology, they wonder the following: will I be able to use the phone?  It’s a pretty simple question with a complex answer.  Depending on your disability, one smartphone platform may suit you better than others.  For example, Apple has done very well accessibility-wise with their iDevices.  There is a learning-curve, but Apple is still at the forefront of accessible smartphones.  Next in line is Android.  Due to the myriad hardware solutions for this platform and the fact that every company sets up a different look and feel for every device, it makes it rather challenging when it comes down to a fully accessible smartphone.  It can be very frustrating for the end-user.  Don’t get me wrong, the situation is improving when it comes to accessibility on Android.  It’s just that due to the nature of the platform, this sort of thing takes time.
As for Blackberry accessibility, I cannot comment, since I haven’t tested their most recent hardware.  It’s now based on Android, so it might be better, but who knows.

The whole point of this post was to give credit to someone, or rather, a company.  Turns out Bell Canada has stepped up to the challenge and unveiled their new accessibility smartphone program.  It seems to be somewhat extensive and there’s even a feasible Android solution that is rather tempting.
Just to clarify, I have no connection to Bell Canada, nor will I profit in any way from this post.  I just like to celebrate accessibility successes when they are warranted.
You can find out more about the Bell Accessibility features from this post at Disabled World: New Bell Mobile Accessibility Products & Services

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Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears …

3D Printing Body Parts
With the advent of 3d printing, no longer will Shakespeare ask to borrow your ears. He’ll be able to 3d print as many as he wants. I’ve been intrigued with this technology ever since I was introduced to it a few years ago now. My first encounter was at the University of Toronto. A group of students foresaw the possibilities of this technology; although what I mostly saw was bobble heads, fully functional plastic wrenches and even LEGO. Just the fact that you could manufacture items from a device was amazing to me. Now, jump forward a few years and the same team is working to address a real-world issue. In some parts of the world, access to prosthetic limbs and those who make them, (prosthetist), are difficult to come by even non-existent. The answer is both simple and yet complex. How does one design an inexpensive and easy way to 3d print a limb tailored to the individual. This team was able to do just that. Their first project was launched last year in Uganda. You can find more info on this project and their progress at the following link: The PrintAbility Project

If 3d printing limbs isn’t cool enough, what about living tissue and even organs? Well, a group of scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have proven that this is yet another possibility. In particular, they were able to successfully 3d print a human ear… and I was able to use a Shakespeare quote. Win win. Read more on this bleeding-edge technology at: 3D Printing Replacement Tissue Proven Feasible So, don’t be surprised in the next few years if you start seeing 3d printers as part of your doctor’s office swag. Now if they could only 3d print fully functional eyes, I’d be on board for that.

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Neat things in the news this week

I’ve got 2 interesting stories this week that were considered news-worthy… and they didn’t involve the Superball draw. 🙂

First off, in the spirit of my last entry, the University of Michigan is investigating the creation of a Kindle-like device, but with braille.  Oddly enough,
while I was demonstrating my braille note taking device to a fellow subway passenger a few days ago, I was commenting how a braille tablet would be the
next logical step.  I should have patented my idea!

Anyway, here’s a video of the device and its underlying technology: The Holy Braille Tablet

 

Next, although, not really current news, (It was news to me), toy companies are starting to produce dolls with disabilities.  The idea was originally started
by parents concerned by the lack of toys that portrayed their childrens'(differences).  The campaign called “toys like me” has been a success and now toy
manufactures are jumping on board.

See this video for more info: Toys Like Me!

 

Finally, just a quick blurb for a Toronto meetup group that might be of interest for some of you. The Toronto Accessibility group meets monthly.  It’s
a nice relaxed way to learn more about accessibility and ask questions in a friendly atmosphere.  This month’s meeting is held at Mozilla’s Toronto headquarters.

You can find more about the meetup here: Toronto Accessibility Meetup

 

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Happy Braille Day!

Happy Braille Day

This piece was originally published on another site a few years back.
I decided to publish it here in a modified/updated format in order to honor Braille day.

I have touched on many topics, but there is one that I have found quite daunting to approach, since it’s so dear to me, yet has become somewhat controversial… braille.
It should be easy for me to write about braille and how amazing it is to me.  I could write about how it’s opened doors and how it is part of my everyday life in everything I do. There is an everlasting stigma that braille is too expensive to produce, too bulky and antiquated. I’d love to take braille for granted, but I can’t. Why have braille when you have audio… this is the common belief anyway.

I was recently having a conversation with someone totally removed from the accessibility field. This particular individual had a computer background, so I showed him the braille display that I use with my iPhone. The first thing he said was: “Why are you using braille anyway? Isn’t it more convenient to use audio?  I shouldn’t have to expand upon the benefits of braille, but here I am doing exactly that. Over a century ago, Louis Braille revolutionized the world by introducing the braille code; a series of dots, which now enable me to be as productive as anyone else within my chosen field of work. His vision was simple: enable the Blind to read. Braille day is a yearly event held to commemorate Louis’s contribution to blind literacy.  It falls on his birthday, which just so happens to be today; January 4th.

How I learned to read braille

Despite popular myths, braille is not difficult to learn. It does take time, but so does learning how to read.  First things first, I needed to acclimatize myself to tactile sensations felt through my fingers. My teacher’s assistant in kindergarten produced many tactile shapes, pictures, letters and numbers for me to figure out. I remember getting really tired touching these furry/bumpy shapes made out of yarn, sand paper and other various materials.

When reading was introduced in later grades, I too joined in the process of learning how to read; only I used braille instead of print; for obvious reasons. Through a series of flashcards and a lot of patience, I managed to learn both French and English braille contractions. I make it sound easy, but it was just as challenging as learning to read print. Odd things happened to my fingers. I wanted so much to learn how to read quickly, that the skin at the tip of my fingers would peel off periodically. I guess I was creating reading calluses. At any rate, here’s what finally took my reading to the next level.

During my braille learning phase, my father and 12 other brave local souls had taken upon themselves to take the braille transcription course, in order to be able to create the books that I would need for my educational pursuits. I remember my father banging off braille sheets on the old manual brailler and reading the results with his eyes. He never did manage reading braille with his fingers. His first complete book transcription was a French children’s book called “Oui-Oui
Part En Voyage”. Oui-Oui, the main character of the book, was a toy with a bobble head which always nodded; hence his name. This character and his environment called toy land is pretty much the French version of Toy Story. Anyway, here’s what my dad did. He read the first two chapters to me and then said that I would have to finish the book on my own. I remember being so angry, sighting the unfairness of it all. What I didn’t realize is the gift he was giving me: independent reading. I took my flashcards and embarked on the arduous task of figuring out the sentences and various French contractions.
Once I finished this book, I wanted more. Since this was part of a series and the braille transcribers were working on other books from it, I was able to continue my reading journey and the rest, as they say, is history.

Braille Is Bulky

If you would have met me in high school walking home on a typical day, I would have screamed: “yes, yes braille is bulky and heavy. Carry my bag for me, will you?” I typically carried 30 to 40 pounds of the stuff every day. Good thing I was stubborn. A typical braille book is divided in 4 to 5 volumes.
Having to deal with five or six different subjects in school and then the accompanying braille notes I took, you can imagine how quickly my book bag filled itself up.  I still cringe at the thought of exam time where I needed everything in order to review. Good thing I was walking distance from school.

 

Meanwhile, a new concept was emerging. Electronic braille. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a display which would be able to show letters in braille representation?  Research on such a device was started as early as 1951. My first note taker was the VersaBraille; a tape-based note-taking device with a 20 braille cell display.  It weighed more than 20 pounds, but it was a step in the right direction.

But now, we have electronic braille note takers for students that can hold over 1000 books and can fit in your pocket.
Nowadays, I use a smartphone with a pocket sized braille display. I’m all for portability and miniaturization. So is my back.  Presently, there are different organizations looking into making braille displays more affordable; under the 500 dollar mark. Once that happens, you can throw out the old “braille is too expensive” argument.

Braille over Audio?

 

Now, why even have that argument. I use both methods concurrently. For instance, I am using a braille display in order to proofread this entry and use the speech for review. And sometimes, when I’m lazy, I will listen to an audiobook.  They do put me to sleep though. Both reading methods are viable, but I still think that braille is needed for acquiring true literacy.

Braille Rules!

Finally, let’s get to the crux of the matter. For me, braille does indeed rule. It’s part of my everyday experience. I use it at work, at home, even at play. Just as a sighted person would read and write, I can do the same and feel as an equal participant within society. Is using audio only, a bad thing?  No, of course not. Many of my friends do not use braille and that’s fine for them. I was given the opportunity, the choice in my life to be able to use braille and I’m glad my parents were able to fight for, what I deem for myself, an essential tool.
Thanks Louis for fighting adversity and making your braille code a reality.

To learn more about Louis Braille and his system, visit: Who is Louis Braille?

Happy Braille Day!

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When Accessibility Features Get In the Way

I’ll admit it’s quite the controversial title for a blog entry, but hear me out. Picture the following. You’re idly sitting in front of your keyboard tinkering with either shift keys and all of a sudden you’ve triggered something on your computer. We’re talking Windows here, (any version). What you’ve done is called up keyboard assistant features… and if you’re not careful, you could inadvertently turn them on. This is exactly what one of my friends did recently. Somehow, he did not heed the filter keys warning and activated the feature. Due to its nature and his computer configuration, it made the keyboard totally unusable. A few mouse clicks brought back functionality, but it made him temporarily dead in the water. So, let’s do a bit of preemptive trouble-shooting in order to mitigate such situations on your own rig.

 

The folks at Microsoft have (thoughtfully) built in some keyboard shortcuts in order to facilitate accessibility and they are enabled by default. Unfortunately, they have connected them to keys that you would think are innocuous and don’t do anything when pressed on their own.

In my case, these are the keys that I tinker with all the time. When I’m thinking, I repeatedly tap the left shift key. I guess I could resort at banging my head, but this is less conspicuous in an office setting. Pushing the left shift key 5 times will trigger the Sticky key function. As this is not useful to me, I need to change this forthwith.

Holding down the right shift key for 8 seconds, another bad behaviour I have, turns on filter keys.

 

So, if these keyboard assistance functions are not useful to you, do the following:

Within Windows 7 or 8, press WINDOWS+U to launch the Ease of Access,

Tab until you hear, “Make the keyboard easier to use” and press Enter,

Now, go into the setup sticky keys and uncheck its shortcut key, which is the LEFT

SHIFT key.

Press ALT+O to click the okay button,

Next tab to Setup filter keys and press enter

Tab to and uncheck the shortcut key, which is right shift for 8 seconds

Now, press ALT+O to click the okay button. Do not tab to it, or you’ll land into the test area.

You can get out of that bind, but it’s tricky.

Press ALT+O again to close the main configuration window and then alt+f4 to close Ease of access.

 

So there you have it. Now you can press your SHIFT keys with abandon and not land into trouble.

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