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Dr Scott Hollier - Digital Access Specialist Posts

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WCAG 2.1 is here – is your organisation ready?

Dr Scott HollierW3C has launched its new Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 standard – the first major update in a decade. This makes it a great time to upskill your staff, assess your organisation’s digital access credentials and maximise your support for people with disabilities.

Whether your needs are local to Australia or international, Scott can provide you with a range of consultancy services, auditing assessments and research endeavours to make websites, apps and documents accessible. Scott can also be booked for speaking engagements based on a variety of topics relating to disability, education, current and future technologies and his life story discussed in his book ‘Outrunning the Night: a life journey of disability, determination and joy’.

Scott’s credentials include a PhD in the field and two decades working across the corporate, government and not-for-profit sectors. Scott is also an active contributor to W3C research and has a personal understanding of digital access as a legally blind person. You can learn more about digital accessibility in the news items below.

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Narrator mega-upgrade in Windows 10 October update: hands-on

The road to the Windows 10 October 2018 update has ben a hard one for Microsoft as it had to postpone its rollout due to a series of issues including the unintentional deletion of personal files. However, from an accessibity perspective, the update is great news as the built-in Narrator screen reader has received significant improvements, both in terms of features and usability. Happily, my computer survived the update before Microsoft pulled it, resulting in a great opportunity to get acquainted with the significantly improved screen reader.  

Keyboard shortcuts are now more familiar

When Narrator is started with the usual Windows + CTRL + Enter command, the first thing that now greets you is a message that the keyboard shortcuts have changed. 

Narrator keyboard shortcut message in high contrast black

While this will mean that existing Narrator users will have to learn a new set of shortcut keys, for users of more popular screen reader such as JAWS and NVDA – which is most blind users – the Narrator commands have become much more intuitive. This is a great move and streamlines the experience for people wanting to use Narrator whether as an ad-hoc or permanent screen reader solution

Narrator Quick Start Tutorial now included

When I realised that the Narrator commands I was used to no longer worked, I was initially a bit worried about the process of relearning everything. However, it turned out Microsoft had already considered this with the inclusion of a clever Quick Start tutorial wizard that breaks down the learning process to a few commands at a time. This is useful for everyone, but its especially useful for users new to screen readers. The tutorial wizard features about a dozen screens, each one providing a sandboxed environment to learn about some new commands and then try them out before progressing to the next section.  

Narrator Quick Start Welcome screen in high contrast black

The Quick Start screens are as follows:

  • Welcome: a screen that explains how the Quick Start guide works.
  • Explore your keyboard: this page provides an opportunity for input learning where you can try out a key and hear Narrator explain what it does.
  • Scan mode: explains how the arrow keys can be used to scan around the page.
  • Reading words and characters: explains how Narrator can read out individual words or characters for proofing and editing.

Narrator Headings QUick Start screen in high contrast black

  • Headings: provides a window with sample headings to move around using the ‘H’ key.
  • Landmarks: explains how landmarks can be useful to move between navigation, main content and search options.  
  • Entering text: explains how Scan Mode is disabled when editing text and provides an opportunity to try it out.  
  • Buttons: explains how Narrator can interact with checkboxes and other controls. 
  • The Narrator key: Explains the significance of the Narrator key which like other Windows screen readers can issue commands using either CAPS LOCK or Insert. 
  • Important Narrator commands: provides an overview of Narrator commands typically used in everyday tasks.
  • Try it out: provides an opportunity to try using the commands learnt through the Quick Start guide on a webpage.  
  • Navigating Apps: highlights some general keyboard commands that are not necessarily Narrator-specific but likely to be useful.
  • Guide summary: an overview of the key points covered in the guide.

The great thing about the Quick Start guide is that most of the screens not only explain what the functions are but provide you with an opportunity to try out the commands while remaining inside the tutorial wizard. This means that once a user is comfortable with the command they can go to the Next button and learn the new features. While other tutorials like the Android Talkback are effective in providing an opportunity to practice in an environment away from direct interaction until the user achieves the task, Narrator has the bonus of not moving to the next option until the user is ready to do so.  

In terms of improvements to Narrator itself, I’ve noticed that it seems to work much better in picking up landmarks along with a faster and easier web browsing experience. It may be the case that such features were in the older version but were difficult to access with the keyboard commands, but the updated Narrator is certainly a step above in ease and usability compared to Windows 10 prior to the October 2018 update.

Is it better than JAWS or NVDA?

The big question likely to be asked by many is whether Narrator has evolved to a point now where it can be used in place of a commercial screen reader such as JAWS or the excellent open-source screen reader of NVDA on Windows. In my opinion, Narrator has finally come of age and for many blind and low-vision users the combination of familiar keyboard commands and an excellent tutorial may be enough for casual everyday use. That said, users that rely on a screen reader for critical work such as researching or interaction with technical information will find Narrator lacking, and despite the improvements the update is unlikely to be any threat to the popularity of existing screen readers. Given that Narrator is already built into Windows and the keyboard commands will now be much more familiar, I’d recommend trying it out when your computer receives the October update but keep your usual screen reader handy as it’s likely you’ll need to return to it for heavy-duty computer use. Where I do think Narrator will be useful though is for people recently diagnosed with an eye condition as they can use the Quick Start guide to get familiar with a screen reader and the keyboard commands they learn are now largely transferrable to other screen readers.  

Additional information on the significantly updated Narrator can be found on the Microsoft Accessibility blog Windows 10 October update page.

Three workshops, three cities, three days: ATO continues to expand its access commitments

Last week I was given the great privilege of supporting the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) by continuing to upskill its staff through the delivery of three workshops across three cities over three days.

Scott presenting to ATO staff

The workshops were designed in consultation with ATO staff to support their internal marketing and communications, IT, design and content teams, focusing initially on the personal journey of disability then expanding to look at the user experience more broadly. The focus then shifted to how content can be prepared to ensure effective messaging for people with disability through the provision of accessible web, document and game accessibility requirements.

The three workshops held in Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne respectively featured lots of great discussion relating to the experience of using a screen reader for the first time, the importance of captioned video content and discussion on how to create an accessible game using multiple control mechanisms. As a result of the workshops, the teams will continue to maximise accessibility whether that be from a marketing & communications, IT, design or publishing perspective, so that it can continue to make its community engagement and in particular ato.gov.au as effective as possible.

The opportunity to deliver the three workshops resulted from the ATO’s earlier commitment to internally transition to the new WCAG 2.1 standard. It is hoped that other government departments will follow the ATO’s lead by strengthening its messaging processes for the mobile web and beyond. 

An open letter to Australian digital access providers: let’s grow the industry together

To the Australian digital access community,

It’s hard to believe that two years have passed since I left my full-time position at Media Access Australia and began the journey as a solo Digital Access Specialist. For the most part the journey has been an exciting one: highlights to date include active participation in the W3C Research Questions Taskforce (RQTF), the recent creation of the Centre for Accessibility initiative in partnership with DADAA and Media on Mars, running workshops in Vietnam and meeting so many great people along the way.

However, in recent times I’ve received a steady flow of phone calls, e-mails and requests for a ‘chat’ about the state of the industry. This has included demands to take sides in supporting one company or event over another and several requests for me to back off from digital access work altogether. While I understand that there are the normal ebbs and flows of competition in any sector, and perhaps I was somewhat shielded from all this before I became an independent consultant, it’s still been disappointing to see the industry changing from respectful competition between providers to a desire to tear down the great work being done by others. As such I’d like to speak to you about the importance of all the work being done in the industry as both a person with a lived experience of disability and as an access specialist.     

When I first completed my PhD, I had gained significant knowledge about the world of digital access and its implications for people with disability. However, as a fresh graduate with a speciality in the field I had little awareness or support on what to do with that information. My boss at the Association for the Blind of WA, now VisAbility, saw that I was isolated as a digital access specialist and sent me to my first OZeWAI national conference. This was the first time I realised there was a supportive community of digital access professionals who provided vital guidance and mentorship as I started my work in the area. It’s fair to say that my experience is not an isolated one and I suspect that pretty much every digital access professional in Australia has benefitted from this supportive community. While OZeWAI is a niche conference, it’s the only place that specifically supports the ability of digital access specialists to come together and share knowledge about the sector. I’m looking forward to coming this year and sharing information about my role as lead Editor for the CATPCHA Advisory note and again showing my appreciation as a legally blind person to everyone that has dedicated their careers to working in this space.  

In addition, the past decade or so has seen a separate but equally important series of events pop up which also play a vital role in the digital access journey in the form of meetup groups and Camp events. While OZeWAI is fantastic in supporting people working in the sector, there’s not much need for digital access providers if the broader community doesn’t want to make its content accessible. As such, its important that organisations everywhere understand what accessibility is and how it is embedded into their work practices. This is where local events are so important and it’s been exciting to see the popularity of these groups and events growing. For example, our meetup group remains strong despite its oh-so-early start time of 7:30am and our Perth Web Accessibility Camp had 140 attendees which has been steadily growing for the past five years. The A11y Camp held over east for a few years also appears to be popular, as is the A11y Bytes events held on Global Accessibility Awareness Day. These are all great initiatives in getting the accessibility message out to people. Again, as a person with a disability it’s wonderful to see so many people actively putting on these events and the level of engagement they are having with the community.

However, the calls, e-mails and chats I’ve received recently suggest that there’s increasing competition between these events and I’m a bit puzzled as to why this needs to be the case. All these events are held at different times in different places with the aim of supporting different communities. For example, I doubt many organisations would want to send their staff to both the Perth Camp and the A11y Camp as they meet a similar local audience, cover similar content and are located 4,000kms apart from each other. In my view it makes sense to have these types of events locally so that organisations can easily send along their staff at a low cost and bring that accessibility knowledge back with them. By contrast, the relatively small number of digital access specialists means a national conference like OZeWAI makes sense as a place where we can upskill our own knowledge.  

The issue that’s been raised with me many times recently, especially by members of my meetup group, is that there seems to be a strong push to support one approach or organisation’s work at the expense of all others. Recent complaints raised with me centred on some people joining our meetup list with the sole purpose of spamming our list with commercial products and services which were not only ignored as spam, but also demonstrated a lack of interest and respect in the important accessibility work that our members are doing here. While our group welcomes anyone that would like to come along and speak to us, the point was made that it’s hard to hear the message coming through the front door when it seems like someone is trying to break in through the back.

Speaking to other digital access professionals it seems these issues run far deeper than just those raised by my meetup group with concerns raised across the country ranging from claims of jealousy by some and conspiracy by others. The upshot is that all events are important and there’s plenty of room for more. Given that Perth can consistently draw a crowd, attract quality keynotes and work effectively with competing providers to achieve a great outcome, there’s no reason why great standalone events couldn’t happen in every capital city as we have the population to support them and the passion to host them. It’s my hope that we’ll see more events supported by more collaboration across providers in the future.

While I don’t see a need to compete in the events space, I fully appreciate that there is competition between providers of digital access services and this is a normal part of any sector. Yet recently this seems to have spilled over from respectful competition to a need for some providers to contact me with a request to remove myself from particular types of work. I’m not sure if this is common practice in the industry but given I’ve been asked about my work processes and where I stand, I thought it best to share it with you here.

Firstly, and most importantly, if anyone knocks on my door and asks for help with digital access, I’m going to help them. Sometimes that’s voluntary work and currently that makes up about two days a week of my time. Sometimes that may be commercial work. If the work is not in my skillset such as a phone call I received a few weeks ago about wheelchair brackets in cars, I’ll endeavour to connect that request with someone that can help. Sometimes I’ve knocked back work because it wanders into dodgy territory, but basically if the work helps people and is ethically sound then I’ll usually take it on. I’m also interested in working on things that can help promote the industry more broadly, and for this reason I’ve really enjoyed my work with the Centre for Accessibility initiative as we look to create projects that can strengthen community engagement. Sometimes the work I do may be in competition with other providers, and sometimes it will be something new, but the one thing it will always be is my passion. As such, if you call me with the aim of discouraging me from doing this work, I’m willing to listen but I can assure you it won’t’ change my commitment to the field. 

The final point I’d like to make relates to all people with a lived experience of disability wanting to undertake digital access work. One of the topics that I keep hearing about time and time again this year is debate over which service provider is the largest in Australia. What I’d prefer to hear debated is which digital access provider has the most people with disability employed on a living wage as a part-time or full-time employee. Currently there are lots of talented people with disability available but most are either on a casual contract waiting for the phone to ring or have no work at all. In other countries organisations that work in this space are able to employ people with disability at a decent wage for decent work, so I’m sure the business models here can be adjusted to do the same. The reality is that while people with disability will take casual work if that’s the only thing on offer, the employment situation wont’ get better if businesses are unwilling to bring staff with disability on permanently. The next time I see a newsletter sent out highlighting new staff brought into an access provider it’s my hope I’ll see it feature a person with disability in a permanent position.

To close, I think it’s worth reflecting on two possible futures for our industry in 2019. Do we want a sector where we try to rebrand all our events to gain prominence over others, adversely influence each other’s work  and try to block new initiatives? Or alternatively, do we want to grow the industry together by competing respectfully with each other and supporting everyone’s endeavours – including people with disability – in making a difference? Ultimately we will all decide this question soon, but it’s my hope we can look to 2019 as a time to refocus on what’s important and grow the industry together.  

Yours sincerely

Dr Scott Hollier

Digital Access Specialist

Apple iOS 12 accessibility hands-on

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed the full feature set of the accessibility features in apple products running iOS. This is due in part to most of the updates being incremental rather than revolutionary, and this is not intended as a criticism: indeed, Apple pioneered the inclusion of a touch-enabled screen reader in everyday devices with the iPhone 3GS in 2009, so while other companies have been playing catch-up, Apple has been able to continue adding polish to its rich feature set of accessibility features which is ultimately a good thing.

That said, with the recent launch of Apple’s new range of iPhone X devices bringing an operating system update to iOS 12, it’s a great time to have a look at what’s on offer for people with disabilities that want to use the iPhone or iPad. For this test I used a recent model of the iPad mini which has now received its iOS 12 update.

Farewell iOS 11 – and thank goodness for that

Before going through the iOS 12 feature set, it’s worth reflecting on the infamy of iOS 11. To say that it was buggy would be an understatement of epic proportions, with one of its bugs even sneaking into an Apple commercial. This resulted in a notable cat-and-mouse game of Apple putting out patches, users finding new bugs and Apple sending out yet another patch. While most of the bugs were ironed out towards the end of its OS life, the long beta testing of iOS 12 has largely helped Apple avoid the mistakes this time around. As a result, it is strongly recommended that you upgrade your device to iOS 12 if it can do so, especially if you’re unsure as to which version of iOS 11 is installed on your device.

iOS 12-specific accessibility improvements

In addition to overall stability, there are notable improvements to performance and boot-up times. There are two specific things that are important in relation to accessibility. The first is the upcoming Siri shortcuts which are likely to help assign tasks which will make it easier to use the iPhone or iPad. For example, if you can say to Siri ‘what’s on the menu’ in a café, it could potentially open your favourite OCR app,  scan the menu and provide you with the result. This has the potential to be a powerful addition.

The second is already familiar to iPhone X users and that’s the new commands required to access the Home screen and perform functions without a physical Home button. Given the likelihood that Apple will move away from the Home button on iPad devices, it’s no surprise that iOS 12 has changed the shortcuts around for all devices going forward. If you use Voiceover, the new shortcuts are as follows;

  • Go to Home Screen: swipe up from the bottom until you hear the first sound.
  • Open App Switcher: swipe up from the bottom until you hear the second sound.
  • Open Control Centre: swipe down from the top until you hear the first sound.
  • Open Notification Centre: swipe down from the top until you hear the second sound.
  • Cancel a gesture: slide your finger either to the left or to the right.

Accessibility feature categories

If you’re new to Apple iOS devices, the accessibility features can be found by going to Settings, then General, then Accessibility. To help make it easy to identify relevant features, Apple as categorised the features into sections titled Vision, Interaction, Hearing, Media and Learning. Let’s walk through what features are on offer.

iOS 12 accessibility features screenshot 1

Vision settings

The Vision settings are all designed to assist people with a vision-related issue. This can range from people with no vision through to people that need some minor assistance such as making the text bigger the built-in features include:

  • VoiceOver: a screen reader designed to help people who are blind, or vision impaired to navigate the device primarily using swipe gestures. 
  • Zoom: a full-screen magnification tool that allows you to zoom into a part of the screen.
  • Magnifier: this feature allows you to use the camera to zoom on some text or an image in the real world and display it on the screen.
  • Display accommodations; this includes a variety of features which allows for an adjustment of the screen such as inverting the colours or applying colour filters.
  • Speech: allows for the adjustment of speech options. 
  • Large text: provides an option to make the text larger across the device.

iOS 12 accessibility features screenshot 2

  • Bold text: makes the text bold, allowing for the text to be thicker and potentially easier to recognise characters.
  • Button shapes: this feature recreates the outline found around apps in previous versions of iOS.
  • Transparency: this allows the user to decide how ‘see-through’ elements in iOS can be viewed. Minimising transparency can make it easier to see text and screens.
  • Increase contrast: this feature can change the colour palette to help make elements contrast more effectively.
  • Reduce motion: this can help in reducing the effects that may cause distractions or difficulties in seeing actions.
  • Labels: this can provide additional information on functions.

Interaction settings

While the Vision settings represent most accessibility features, there are also several features designed to help support people with a mobility impairment. They include:

  • Switch control: provides support to people that use switch keys to perform multiple commands at once. 
  • Assistive touch: provides equivalent options for features such as single-tap and double-tap. 
  • Touch accommodations: provides options relating to the responsiveness of the screen when issuing commands. 

iOS 12 accessibility features screenshot 3

  • Shake to undo: as the name suggests, this allows the device to be shaken to undo the most recent input.
  • Call audio routing: this can force a call to always output in a way such as to the speaker or a Bluetooth device.

Hearing, Media and Learning settings

The final three sections contain some helpful features specifically around hearing and to support people with learning disabilities. The Media section also provides some options for captioning and audio description. The features include:

  • MFI hearing devices: this provides support for people that use hearing aids and other related technologies to connect with their iPhone or iPad.

iOS 12 accessibility features screenshot 4

  • Mono audio: this allows for the stereo effect to be removed so that all audio comes through both earphones. There is also a sliding scale to adjust the stereo mix.
  • Subtitles and captioning: this ensures that captions are visible on all video playback.
  • Audio descriptions: this makes video playback automatically select an audio descried soundtrack where applicable. 
  • Guided access: this keeps the interface simple within apps, particularly helpful for people with learning or cognitive disabilities.
  • Home button shortcut: allows the launch of an accessibility feature when the physical home button is triple-tapped.

Is iOS 12 worth the upgrade?

Whenever a new version of an operating system comes out, it’s important to consider if it is worth the upgrade. In this instance I would strongly encourage an upgrade from any earlier version of iOS on any device that supports it. VoiceOver users will need to adjust to the new gestures around the Home screen, but the improvements in stability and speed will certainly make it worth the effort.

iOS or Android?

In response to my recent article on Android 9.0 Pie accessibility, I’ve been asked by several people whether Apple iOS devices such as the iPhone and iPad are better from an accessibility standpoint, or whether its better to go with the latest Google Android smartphone or tablet. In short it depends on your disability and which ecosystem you prefer to use. In the case of people who are blind or vision impaired, the market is heavily weighted towards iOS despite the broader population choosing Android, so this would suggest that the wealth of vision-related features make Apple the preferred mobile operating system. However, both operating systems are well developed with accessibility features, so it may be worth trying devices from both platforms to see which one works best before purchasing.

Additional information on the accessibility features of iOS can be found in the Apple accessibility online resource.

CFA completes successful workshop series

The Centre for Accessibility (CFA), an initiative created in partnership with DADAA, Media on Mars and myself, has successfully completed its series of four workshops in Perth and regional Western Australia as part of its ILC Linkage grant commitments.  Scott presenting to workshop attendees

The workshop series, titled ‘Escaping the Accessibility Island’, was created to help mainstream organisations move away from the ‘island’ model of accessibility whereby one individual is solely tasked with the responsibility of digital access, to a top-down approach whereby all organisational roles understand how to implement digital access in their work practices.  Group of people participating

The four workshops ran from 31 August to20 September 2018 and included two in the Perth metropolitan area hosted by DADAA in Fremantle and two held in regional Western Australia. The two regional workshops included Geraldton to support the mid-west and Busselton to support the south-west. While the ILC grant funded three workshops, the popularity was so great that the CFA partners donated their time and space to provide an additional 30 places to one workshop and a fourth workshop was added to meet the high level of interest.   two workshop participants smiling

While the workshops were designed to provide practical, hands-on information for senior managers, content producers, ICT professionals and staff in marketing and communications roles, it was the personal insights and group discussions that many indicated helped to support their digital access needs.

While the grant associated with the workshops has now been completed, the WCAG 2.1 resource on the CFA website will continue to be supported and updated as a free guide to mainstream organisations wishing to incorporate accessibility into their work practices. As the CFA initiative moves forward, new ideas are currently being explored to determine what projects can best emphasise that accessibity is not just about compliance, but ultimately about people.

Many thanks to the WA government for funding the ILC Linkage grant that made the launch, resource and workshops possible. Special thanks also to the staff at Media On Mars and DADAA who worked so hard in the marketing and logistics, and thanks to everyone that has been involved in coming along to our launch and workshops. Personal thanks also to Lizzy in Geraldton for providing fantastic support in guiding me around. 

Further information on the Centre for Accessibility initiative and the WCAG 2.1 resource can be found at the CFA website.