I’ve recently returned from running some workshops in Tasmania in partnership with the Centre For Accessibility and VisAbility.
included VisAbility document accessibility specialists Vithya Vijayakumare and
myself running two workshops, the first being for Hobart TAFE and the second
being a continuation of the Escaping the Accessibility Island series.
TAFE workshop focused particularly on staff supporting the accessibility needs
of students while the second focused more broadly on web accessibility across
different organizational roles.
workshops included a hands-on practical exercise of using a screen reader, an
overview of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility
Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 and how it applied across a variety of roles including
policy officers, ICT professionals, content producers, marketing staff and
communication specialists. The workshop also provided a detailed overview on
how to make documents accessible and some insights into how to perform visual
checks on web content and use an automated tool.
workshop provided valuable information in how staff can incorporate
accessibility into their work practices, there was also a lot of fun had by all
as the practical aspects of digital accessibility were explored.
I’d like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank everyone in Hobart that took the time to come along to the workshops, partner VisAbility and the Centre For Accessibility for the opportunity to deliver the workshops. If you would like a digital access workshop to be run for your organisation, please get in touch.
There’s a saying that ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’. This is particularly true of Dr Jason White. In his role as Associate Research Scientist, Web Accessibility, in the Accessibility Standards and Inclusive Technologies Group at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton USA, he makes a significant contribution to digital access. However, it’s his remarkable generosity to continue that work in his spare time across international associations, groups and forums that highlights his remarkable dedication to this work. I’ve been fortunate to work with Jason as part of his W3C commitments and managed to squeeze in an interview with him in his short amount of free time. In this interview, Jason shares his thoughts on digital access from an international perspective, the implications of emerging technologies, accessible travel and music.
SH: Thank you so much for fitting in this
interview given the scarcity of your free time. To start, what sparked your
interest in the area of digital accessibility?
JW: An interest in digital accessibility has
been with me since I was in secondary school. It began when I started
purchasing accessible books from Computerized Books for the Blind, an
organization based at the University of Montana that obtained electronic books
directly from publishers and made them available to eligible people with print
disabilities. Through their newsletter, I learned of an effort to develop a
common format and a conversion mechanism to enable publishers to make their
books accessible more easily and effectively. The approach was based on
Standard Generalized Markup Language – SGML, which was used by some publishers
at the time.
As I was personally experiencing the challenges
of not having ready access to books, this work attracted my interest. When I
entered university as an undergraduate student in 1993, I applied for access to
the Internet (not then generally available to undergraduates outside of
computer science), partly to learn more about this work. I became an observer
on the mailing list of a newly established group – the International Committee
for Accessible Document Design – which had been formed to carry forward the
digital book accessibility effort. George Kerscher, who has made major
contributions to digital publishing accessibility since then, and who continues
to do so today, led the project. For several years, I did exactly what my
status suggests: I mostly observed. I read mailing list communications, papers
and other documents that were circulated online. The work of T.V. Raman
particularly influenced my thinking about accessibility at the time, as it has
done ever since.
Then, in 1997, the World Wide Web Consortium
(W3C) established the Web Accessibility Initiative. I wanted to follow this
work too, so I joined the first Working Group in accessibility that was
established by the W3C. Several people encouraged me to stop merely observing
and to start actively contributing. Over time, I learned that I actually could
Opportunities kept opening. I was part of the
process that led to the completion of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0
in 1999. I had the privilege of serving as Co-Chair of the Web Content
Accessibility Guidelines Working Group from 2000-2004, collaborating with Wendy
Chisholm and Gregg Vanderheiden to coordinate development of what became WCAG
2.0. In 2004 and 2005, I formally stepped away from W3C activities in order to
concentrate on undertaking research toward a Ph.D. in analytic philosophy of
language, which I pursued in subsequent years.
SH: You originally grew up in Australia. What
led to the massive decision of moving to the USA and involvement with W3C WAI?
JW: I graduated with the Ph.D. in 2011. During
the following year, I joined another W3C Working Group in accessibility. With
Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws degrees, and with a Ph.D. completed,
together with a desire to contribute to social justice, I was seeking
professional research opportunities.
In 2013, I was notified of, and ultimately
applied for an open research position in Web accessibility at Educational Testing Service
(ETS). It was attractive for a variety of reasons, including the presence of
colleagues in accessibility whom I already knew and respected from W3C
activities in the late 90s, the focus of the proposed work on access to
education (with sufficient scope to encompass assessments and instructional
materials), the opportunity to participate in research projects leading to
published scholarship, and the chance to continue to contribute to the
development of accessibility standards. I was also keen to investigate the
accessibility potential of natural language-based user interface technologies,
such as speech interactions, in which ETS has research expertise. In addition,
ETS is a nonprofit organization, thus satisfying my preference to work in a
university or in the nonprofit sector. Geographically, it is located close to
the thriving intellectual environment of Princeton, obviously an attractive
location for anyone interested in research and scholarship. Taking up the
position, as I did in late 2014, entailed moving from Melbourne, Australia, to
Princeton, New Jersey.
SH: You wear a number of different hats in your
work. Could you share a bit about your
roles and how you coordinate them internationally?
JW: I divide my attention between participating
in the development of accessibility standards, and engaging in
accessibility-related research projects carried out by the Accessibility
Standards and Inclusive Technologies group at ETS. Web standards are
fundamental to digital accessibility work undertaken at ETS, both in research
and in the development of operational assessments. Thus, a further aspect of my
role is to collaborate with colleagues at ETS who are involved in the practical
implementation of digital accessibility in a joint effort to arrive at solutions
to detailed issues that arise, and to facilitate positive engagement with W3C
activities which support the emergence of standards-based mechanisms for
overcoming accessibility challenges. There is a strong commitment to
standards-based approaches that can be delivered consistently via the Web, in
digital publishing, in the classroom and within assessments.
In addition, I am a participant in the work of
the DIAGRAM Center,
a collaborative educational accessibility project supported by the U.S.
Department of Education and led by Benetech – the nonprofit organization which
is best known for Bookshare,
a digital library of accessible books made available to people with print
disabilities. My contributions to the DIAGRAM Center are part of a
collaboration between Benetech and the Accessibility Standards and
InclusiveTechnologies group at ETS, as participants in the DIAGRAM project
SH: The biggest news to come out of W3C WAI
last year was the release of WCAG 2.1. How is it’s uptake going?
JW: WCAG 2.1 was adopted in a
revision of the EN 301 549 standard
for public procurement of information and communication technology in the
European Union. This is a significant move toward wider implementation. To what
extent the new success criteria in WCAG 2.1 affect the development of web sites
and web-based applications at large remains to be determined. If empirical
studies are carried out, we may obtain well informed answers to this question.
As is true of standards generally, we can expect uptake to grow over time, with
the open questions being: to what extent, and how quickly?
SH: In our work with the Research Questions
Task Force we’ve been looking at the issues around inaccessible CAPTCHA. As a
lot of people only know CAPTCHA as the difficult-to-read letters locked in an
image, could you share a bit about the work on updating the W3C advice?
JW: Much of the update is based on a review of
the accessibility literature and other relevant scholarship related to CAPTCHA.
There are various kinds of CAPTCHA, some involving video games, image
recognition, or sound recognition, for example – tasks that are supposed to be
easy for human beings to solve but difficult to solve reliably in software.
Having reviewed the literature and discussed the implications for
accessibility, the Research questions Task Force and the Accessible Platform
Architectures Working Group have substantially revised the advice published in
of the revised document are currently under review. Comments from
the accessibility community and from the public in general are welcome.
SH: Given your extremely busy schedule it’s
important that you have reliable tools. what type of assistive technologies do
you use that are reliable to get you through the day?
JW: I use a combination of refreshable braille
and speech output. I think it is valuable for those who work in accessibility
professionally to be familiar with assistive technologies available under
several operating systems. For example, screen readers under Microsoft Windows,
such as JAWS for Windows, NVDA and Microsoft Narrator differ among themselves,
but also differ more significantly, for example, from VoiceOver in the Mac OS
environment, or from ChromeVox under Chrome OS. I find that having several
operating systems available provides a more objective understanding of the
capabilities and limitations of the different screen readers, and of screen
readers in general, while allowing me to keep up my knowledge of how the
different operating systems are evolving in relation to nonvisual access.
In my daily work, I use a combination of web
browsers, Microsoft Office applications (mostly for email and calendar access,
and sometimes for editing documents), and UNIX/Linux tools, such as Emacs,
Pandoc, Git, and LaTex. Nowadays, there is less of a divide than there used to
be between the Microsoft environment and operating systems derived from UNIX,
including Linux and Mac OS. Thus, I can still use most of the essential Linux
tools that I prefer even in a Windows environment, as well as on a Mac or in
SH: There’s been a lot of talk around the
next-generation Silver / AG accessibility standard. How is it going?
JW: The Silver project has released promising
drafts of proposals for the structure of its requirements and for the
conformance scheme. This is interesting and valuable work, in that it revisits
some of the assumptions that underpinned the development of WCAG 2.0. I also
hope the opportunity will be taken to create guidance regarding the
accessibility of speech-based interfaces, virtual reality, and related technologies
that occupy a larger role today than they did when WCAG 2.0 was in its
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines were
developed as one component of a suite of documents created by the W3C to
enhance the accessibility of the Web. The other two components are Authoring Tool
Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG), addressing the design of editors,
conversion tools and other software with which authors develop web pages and
web applications, and User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG),
concerned with support for accessibility within web browsers, plug-ins and
other software that presents web content to the user. If we consider an information
pipeline that runs from the author of web content (a web site or an
application) to the person who ultimately reads and interacts with such
content, then it is clear that W3C guidance was intended to enhance
accessibility at all stages. The content would be written using an authoring
tool that was accessible to people with disabilities, and which was designed to
create content conforming to accessibility requirements. WCAG defined what
those accessibility requirements were. The content would then be presented to
the user by software that supported accessibility features and assistive
technologies as specified in the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines.
Currently, only one of these components – WCAG
– is under active development. In practice, it also receives the overwhelming
majority of attention. One of the open questions regarding Silver is whether,
and how, it will address the other two pillars of accessibility guidance –
authoring tools and user agents.
SH: Given the amount of work you do, relaxation
must be a valuable and rare commodity!
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
JW: I enjoy listening to music, ranging from
early music to twentieth-century compositions. It’s a pleasure at the end of a
busy day of work. Music subscription services make available a vast catalog of
recordings. In addition, I read general technology-related web sites, and occasionally
scholarship outside of my current areas of research activity. Living across the
street from Princeton University makes it very convenient to attend research
seminars and public lectures on campus in my free time. In particular, the
ethics seminars organized by the University Center for Human Values are deeply
rewarding. I can also be found on various screen reader and
accessibility-related mailing lists, sometimes asking for advice, but also
trying to help other participants whenever I have solutions or ideas to offer.
SH: Your work involves a lot of travel, do you
have any tips for people who are blind or vision impaired as to how to get
around with the minimum of fuss?
JW: For a minimum of fuss, good planning is
valuable. It doesn’t solve all of the potential problems, of course, but it
greatly helps. Knowing exactly what you need to take, making sure that you’ve
packed it, and having transport arrangements in place for every step of the
journey are measures that would help anyone, but which are particularly useful
for a person who is blind or who has a vision impairment. Ensuring that the
address and phone number of your accommodation are accessible and easily
reachable at all times is important – I’ve made that mistake, and learned from
it. Although improvements in out-door and in-door navigation technologies will
further facilitate travel in unfamiliar environments, the need for good skills
and appropriate planning can be expected to remain important.
SH: What’s the best way for people interested
in digital accessibility to join in W3C activities?
JW: Perhaps joining the Web Accessibility
Initiative Interest Group would be a good starting point, followed by deciding
whether to participate in one of the accessibility-related working groups.
Which group to join is a decision that depends on the individual’s background
and interests. Each of the working groups has also established specialized task
forces that concentrate on specific needs or accessibility challenges. This
structure of distinct, but interrelated groups may be confusing to the uninitiated.
Thus, it would probably be valuable to take the time to understand the over-all
structure and objectives of the working groups before starting to participate.
There are formal procedures for joining a W3C
group, which differ depending on whether one is an employee of a member
organization of the Consortium, or wishes to apply to participate under invited
expert status. The best starting point for learning more is the home page of
the group, which should lead to documentation that explains how to join. Communication
typically takes place by mailing lists, teleconferences and face-to-face
meetings. It may take several weeks to become accustomed to the collaboration
arrangements and technologies used, but there are always other participants
from whom help can be sought.
SH: Jason, it’s been a privilege to learn more about
your remarkable dedication to digital access. Thank you very much for your time
and I’m looking forward to our continued work on the W3C Research Questions Task
Perth Web Accessibility Camp was held on 12 February at VisAbility and a fantastic day was
had by all. With over 100 people in attendance and a great diversity of
presentations, it was a great opportunity to talk about digital access from a
variety of perspectives. Here’s a selection of my personal highlights from the
The Keynote was delivered by Professor Denise Wood, Central Queensland University. The topic, titled ‘Designing Culturally Responsive and Inclusive Online Learning Environments: An Evidence-Based Approach’, discussed how people with disability engage with learning tools and some of the challenges they may face. The key takeway message for me was that accessibility issues are much less about the online learning platform used by the institution and much more about how the content on top of it is designed. It can also be useful to students to include additional accessibility tools to support students broadly.
Next up was ‘Here comes WCAG 2.1!’ by Amanda Mace from Web Key IT
and Julie Grundy from Intopia. There was some great discussion across the new
WCAG 2.1 Success Criteria, explaining the importance of things like reflow and
ensuring that content on mobile devices needs to work effectively for people
that may not be able to move their device to activate various sensors. With WCAG
2.1 gradually being adopted internationally, it was a great introduction as to
how the new extensions build on the legacy WCAG 2.0 requirements.
break it was my turn, providing an update to the W3C advice on inaccessible
CAPTCHA. In the presentation I talked about how traditional CAPTCHAs such as
the use of text on bitmapped images and audio-based CAPTCHAs are not only
inaccessible but also not secure. I also provided an update on the advice our
group has been putting together as part of the CAPTCHA advisory note. It was
great to have a chance to share the information.
A topic that is starting to get more attention was highlighted by Vithya Vijayakumare and David Vosnacos from VisAbility discussing the access implications of 360 degree video. In particular the exploring of captioning positioning for people who are Deaf or hearing impaired and how binaural recording can be used to provide an effective surround experience. This is rapidly becoming a hot topic in international standards discussion so the presentation was both timely and informative.
An important emerging topic that was discussed was from Claudia De los Rios Pérez from Curtin University who discussed the implications of Web design for neurodiverse users. The needs of people with Autism and similar conditions can be overlooked in the pursuit of WCAG compliance so it was good to get some guidance on how to structure websites in a way that better supports the diversty of users.
While all these presentations were fantastic, my favourite from the Camp was from Clare Chamberlain on the topic ‘Negative Life Trajectory – a battle for Plain English’. The topic really challenged the audience to consider the implications of language and the need to carefully consider our messaging. The takeway for me is that we tend to bury our websites in complicated language and clutter which affects a number of different disability groups, yet in most cases the same message can be delivered effectively through some simple restructuring and rephrasing. Prior to this presentation I’d always thought it was quite challenging to simplify language without the loss of meaning, but the presentation demonstrated it can be done quickly and effectively with a bit of time and consideration.
In addition to the presentations, it wouldn’t be a Perth Web Accessiblity Camp without the infamous Great Debate which is up to its sixth year with the fiery topic ‘Paying extra for accessibility is totally worth it’. The debate did its job well in waking up the audience after lunch and providing some great food for thought along the way.
Many thanks to my colleagues in the Camp organising committee for what was a fantastic day and VisAbility for hosting the event.
Electronics Show (CES) is the world’s largest consumer technology
exhibition and showcases the products likely to appear in our shops in the
coming months. While CES 2018 was more of an evolution rather than revolution,
this year’s show highlighted some new products that could have significant
benefits for people with disabilities. Here’s a few of my picks for new consumer
technologies that are likely to be helpful as they appear in our shops during
MATRIX POWERWATCH 2 SELF-POWERING SMARTWATCH
The Matrix PowerWatch 2 is one of the most exciting devices at CES this year. This is due in part to the watch itself, but also due to the potential application of the technology for people with disabilities. The watch cleverly uses a combination of mini solar panels and body heat to keep the watch charged meaning it never needs to be plugged in.
people with disabilities, the PowerWatch 2 offers several great features
commonly found in smartwatches such as heart rate monitoring, but the fact it
never needs manual charging now makes it an option for people that may find it
difficult to get a watch on and off to charge due to their disability. Arguably
more exciting though is the potential of the technology embedded in other
products as there could be a wealth of disability-related sensors, mobility
aids and communication devices that may become self-powering. This could
potentially improve the reliability of daily assistance without fear of the
battery going flat.
GOOGLE V AMAZON: MORE SCREENS, MORE DOMINANCE
Over the past few years the war over dominance in the smarthome has been raging with the Amazon Echo taking the early lead. However, Google Home has well and truly caught up with most new products featured now including dual connectivity for both the Amazon Echo and google Home range of products. There are also a number of specialist products such as the Whirlpool KitchenAid which has a built-in Google digital assistant and provides premium recipe services. The thinking here is that customised devices containing an assistant can have some extra advantages such as in this instance being able to rinse the assistant under the tap if food gets on it.
From a disability perspective, there’s a few things to take note in terms of digital assistants this year including their interaction with the Internet of Things (IoT). Firstly, it’s clear this year that Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are neck-and-neck so either ecosystem appears to be well supported at this time. However, it also means that other digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are not getting much traction so any automated home integration should look to Google or Amazon as their preferred provider.
Secondly, a notable trend is that the digital assistant is appearing in more devices. This means that there is a lot of potential for disability-specific products being enabled with an assistant. For example, we may see motorised wheelchairs with an assistant which could put itself away at the end of the day, then be brought back to the bedside just by calling it.
The other aspect of digital assistants highlighted this year is the move towards screen integration, but not at the expense of audio integration. This is great news for people who are Deaf or hearing impaired as it means that there are devices that can be controlled visually, but people who rely on audio such as people who are blind or vision impaired will continue to enjoy the full functionality of the device. The effective integration of multiple interfaces is a great indicator that as this area continues to develop, our ability to control our environment will not be limited by one type of interface.
LG OLED ROLLABLE TV
Last year LG demonstrated a prototype rollable OLED TV, but this year it’s ready for the shops with a likely release in late 2019. The rollable TV could potentially have many benefits for people with a vision-related disability as the giant screen can be put away when not needed, but provides a large screen display when required such as reading text from a smartphone message or using a smartphone to take a photo of text which could then be blown up on the TV. Aside from the TV itself, we’re seeing more displays being able to use the bendable OLED technology with prototype smartphones already being foldable, so the possibility of having a giant display screen in your pocket for those times that seeing things on a large display is needed is not too far off now.
Another highlight of CES 2019 that I personally found really exciting is Google Interpreter. While Google has had translation features in its smartphones for some time, this is optimised for conversations between two or more people with the results being both in audio and visually shown on the screen.
A big issue I have when travelling to other countries is that I don’t have many options when it comes to languages – due to being vision impaired I can’t easily point to something or even read an English translation. The potential of being able to fluently have a conversation with someone when I arrive at a shop that has something like this available would be incredibly helpful.
HTC VIVE PRO
EYE-TRACKING VIRTUAL REALITY
The last thing that has great potential is the improvements to eye tracking found in the latest version of the HTC Vive Pro Eye Virtual Reality system. Eye tracking itself is not particularly new with a number of games and even Windows 10 supporting eye tracking products. However this allows eye tracking to occur in a 3D virtual environment meaning that someone who has limited movement can step into virtual worlds to engage with games, interact with productivity applications or even potentially interact in a blended mode as Augmented Reality systems are developed with the same technology. This could be the start of significant new opportunities of people with mobility impairments limited only by the imagination of the virtual world being created.
just a few of my personal favourites on display. If you’d like to read more
about all the products at CES 2019, please visit the CES section of the CNet website.
Using food delivery apps can be a frustrating experience for people who are blind or vision impaired. From personal experience I’ve found this is generally due to missing alternative text or the screen reader being hijacked by a pop-up special offer that prevents the order from being completed. However the challenges of online food purchasing is about to change with a landmark legal case in the US against Domino’s Pizza.
The complaint was brought forward by Guillermo Robles, a blind Domino’s customer who said that the iOS based app on the iPhone did not work effectively with the VoiceOver screen reader. As a result, he was unable to change pizza toppings, complete the order or use coupons.
The case began in 2016 with an argument based on the belief that not being able to complete an order placed Domino’s in breach of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Specifically, the Act states it is unlawful for businesses to deny individuals with disabilities access to their goods and services unless the effort involved places them under an “undue burden”.
While the case was initially lost, Robles was successful on appeal and Domino’s Pizza USA is now required to fix its website and app.
The accessibility issue featured in the case primarily revolves around the lack of alternative text for images, a common complaint faced by blind and vision impaired users of fast food apps due to the rapidly-changing nature of special products often resulting in alternative text being skipped over in the rush to promote items. As a result, a future Domino’s online store is now required to ensure that its website and app are compliant with web accessibility standards and compatible with VoiceOver on iOS devices.
While Domino’s Pizza USA is a separate trading entity to Domino’s Pizza Australia, the ruling is likely to spark other online food providers to take notice and update their content to more effectively support the needs of people with disabilities.