Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Apps can make the in-accessible accessible – Ofcom accessible apps day

On 17 May 2013, the UK regulator Ofcom brought together a wide range of people with varying degrees of background in accessibility to discuss the status of accessible apps development.

Robin Christopherson from AbilityNet gave a great presentation on the potential that accessible technology constitutes for the disabled as well as the “temporarily bodily abled people” as the American disability community seems to call the non-disabled, because “for a lot of people, there is at least some time in life when everyone has some sort of disability”.  

Himself blind, he demonstrated in an amazing way how skilful he handles his smartphone and tablet, not being any less fast with these devices than any other user. “If you design inclusively, you level the playing field,” he said.

Paul Porter from RNIB, also a blind user, demonstrated how painful and frustrating it is when apps do not provide basic accessibility. However, when accessibility is built in the right way, it can tremendously improve the life of disabled persons. “If people ask the right questions about accessibility, you turn up getting more usable products,” said Peter Abrahams from Bloor Research. Indeed, more and more people regard accessibility as a proof of product quality.

“It is all about choice, about options for input and output technologies,” according to Robin Christopherson. “What are options for abled bodied people, can be life changing for disabled people.” Fortunately, the days of having low-volume, high-cost assistive technologies seem gone, and advances in accessible technologies come on a monthly basis.

Ben Shirley’s presentation on advances in speech recognition of course showed that there are still areas that do need substantial improvement before these technologies can be widely deployed at low cost.

All the same, many important players in the market invest in ensuring their services are accessible. While Gareth Ford Williams and Ian Pouncey from the BBC’s accessibility team explained about their efforts in making the iPlayer truly accessible for as wide a range of people as possible, Michael Day presented British Telecom’s Next Generation Text Service (NGTS) app that is intended to be complementary to text relay services and should enable hearing and speaking impaired users to communicate much more conveniently.

Ben Foster from the UK NGO Patient Services demonstrated the practical aspect of how apps can make the life of patients easier. The organisation offers a variety of apps - from helping people manage their medical conditions to apps that facilitate the setting up of doctors’ appointments and the filing of prescriptions.

The MMF was very happy to have the opportunity during this seminar to present the new GARI and invite all participants to name the accessible apps that they think should be included in GARI’s soon to come new section on accessible apps.

In response to questions from the audience about how accessible apps can best be made known by users, Richard Orme from RNIB replied that “when accessible apps come out, people notice fast and use them and talk about them and tell their friends”.

In this sense, please do let us know when you stumble upon new accessible apps and think that they should be included in GARI’s accessible apps section!

Presentations of the Ofcom accessible apps day will soon be available on the Ofcom website: http://www.ofcom.org.uk/

Monday, May 6, 2013

9 May – Global Accessibility Awareness Day

On 9 May, many events around the world celebrate the Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Jennison Mark Asuncion and Joe Devon, the organisers of the GAAD talked to us about their initiative and accessibility in mobile communications.

What is your background in accessibility and what was your motivation to organise the Global Accessibility Awareness Day? 

Jennison: I’ve been working in the private sector supporting digital accessibility since 2001. Apart from that, I’ve also been researching postsecondary students with disabilities and their ICT use in Canada with the Adaptech Research Network since 1997.

My motivation for helping organize GAAD, outside of Joe, who inspired this event with his famous blog post back in November 2011, is a desire to make the domain of accessibility, “accessible” to the designers, developers and others who are rolling out amazing apps at rapid speed. Rather than seeing accessibility as the killjoy, I think that depending on how digital accessibility is introduced into a discussion, making apps accessible can be seen as an innovation challenge worth pursuing.

Joe: Technology has empowered so many users. And so much effort has been put into making web pages pretty, even if they are on old versions of browsers. Yet something as fundamental as making a web page accessible to someone who cannot use a mouse or see a screen is simply not on the mind of the typical developer. Not because they don’t care about their craft. But because they are unaware that something such as a screen reader even exists, or that someone may actually be using just a keyboard to interact with their site! My motivation is to make accessibility part of the conversation, as it should be. I have no background in digital accessibility. However as someone who works in technology, this matters to me. I saw the gap and wanted to try and do something to address it in some way.

What outcomes do you expect? 

Jennison: If we can get even a few people who know nothing about digital accessibility, asking questions, becoming interested in learning more, having at least one perception change, and walking away with an appreciation for at least one of the digital accessibility issues facing people with different disabilities, we’ve met our goal.

Joe: I agree 100% with Jennison. I’m especially hoping that core developers, involved in work that touches front end products, are among those who are interested to learn more.

Why should we care about accessibility of ICT in general and mobile phones in particular? 

Jennison: I know few who will deny that ICT plays a role in almost every aspect of our lives. As a subset of ICT, smartphone technology, at least for the minute, is the flavor of the day. Who knows what will be the next big thing. I really believe strongly that unless and until we get things right with ICT accessibility, and by extension, mobile phone/app accessibility, the needle regarding such areas as the underemployment of people with disabilities will not move significantly.

Joe: Most of the world is using mobile phones with flashlights to navigate in the dark and membrane keyboards to keep out the dust. Android devices are pushing into many countries now. Access to data means improved living standards.

What are the most important initiatives in accessibility to ICT right now? 

Jennison and Joe: The great news is that there is a lot happening in pockets of digital accessibility. The open source community is doing some amazing things, the continuing evolution of the NVDA screen reader is but one example. Mobile apps are empowering folks with developmental and other disabilities. Social media has definitely opened up new lines of communication between the design/development related technology communities, the community of people who work in digital accessibility, and end-users with disabilities.

These conversations are in themselves helping bring awareness and are making some of the right things happen when it comes to ICT accessibility. Take GAAD as an example. Had it not been for Twitter, I (Jennison) in all likelihood wouldn’t have stumbled upon Joe’s blog post that inspired this global effort we’re driving together.

Finally, while it should not be seen as the primary reason by any means, legislative developments, such as aspects of the AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) in Canada, the Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the accessibility of public sector bodies' websites, and the CVAA (The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act) in the USA are helping ICT accessibility move forward. The reality is that sometimes people need legislative encouragement to motivate them.

Where do you see regulations in accessibility going? 

Jennison: I believe regulations in accessibility in the digital space will continue evolving and more countries will adopt such regulations, as more consumers with disabilities demand the same opportunities (real or perceived) that ICT promises to us all. All eyes will certainly be on the Americans with Disabilities Act come this summer, as movement to get web accessibility (hopefully digital accessibility to be more inclusive of tomorrow’s technology) much more explicitly referenced.

Will it be easy? Regulatory matters never are.

What developments do you expect to see in accessibility of mobile phones over the coming months?

Jennison: I can tell you what I hope to see, more choice in accessible mobile phones for people with different disabilities, period. Like with anything else, there is always a danger when choice is not an option and when people with specific disabilities are forced to become dependent on any one product/model.

Joe: Agreed.

What advice do you have for designers and developers of mobile apps?

Jennison: The major mobile platforms have developed guidance on how to make apps accessible to people with disabilities, and the W3C is undertaking efforts around mobile accessibility, don’t ignore these authoritative sources. Opt to use toolkits that have taken efforts to make widgets accessible, such as jQuery Mobile. Test your mobile apps for accessibility with actual end-users with disabilities. Finally, for those who opt to use a tool that generates code for multiple mobile platforms, as part of your selection process, ask the vendor what has been done to assure that the code produced will be accessible and usable by people with disabilities, and let their responses guide your vendor decision. Choosing one of these tools that does not generate accessible code ultimately means that developers will have to go back into the code and manually fix things, if that is even possible. This ultimately defeats the purpose of using such tools, namely, saving time and cost.

Joe: User testing prior to putting an app out there is key. It’s really the same whether you are developing an app for mobile or the web. It shouldn’t be left to users with disabilities to have to file bugs after the fact.

Have a look at the GAAD website to find an overview of events organized around this day and to find out how you can get involved too: http://globalaccessibilityawarenessday.org