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Dr Scott Hollier - Digital Access Specialist Posts

W3C WAI updates Web Accessibility Laws and Policies listing

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has recently updated its Web Accessibility Laws and Policies list. This list provides guidance as to which countries and regions have formal policies and legislative frameworks to support the preparation of online content for people with disabilities. In most cases this includes support for the internationally recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and other associated policies such as accessible procurement.

According to the list, countries and regions that currently have formal laws and policies related to web accessibity include:

  • Australia
  • Canada                     
  • China            
  • Denmark                    
  • European Union                  
  • Finland                     
  • France                      
  • Germany                  
  • Hong Kong               
  • India              
  • Ireland                       
  • Israel                         
  • Italy                
  • Netherlands             
  • Norway                      
  • Republic of Korea               
  • Switzerland              
  • United Kingdom                  
  • United States of America               

The listing also provides links to the relevant policy in each country or region. While this list provides information on countries and regions with formal policies, there are other countries that follow WCAG 2.0 principles such as Thailand and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but in a less formalized manner.

Additional information on W3C web accessibility standards and resources can be found at the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative home page.

Apple iPhone X – access issues and workarounds

There’s no doubt that when it comes to digital access, Apple reign supreme in the mobile space. Prior to 2009, the idea that a blind person could effectively use a touchscreen seemed like an impossible dream – at least until the iPhone 3GS came out packing the VoiceOver screen reader. That Apple objective of universal access remains largely present in the current offerings with accessibility features available in most Apple products.

Apple iPhone XApple iPhone X (Image © 2017 Apple)

However, the release of the iPhone X, pronounced ‘iPhone 10’, makes some changes that have raised concerns for people with disabilities. While there are some benefits to the new phone such as the inclusion of wireless charging, the two big things that have access implications are the removal of the home button and the new Face ID at the expense of the fingerprint sensor.

Home button removal

From the perspective of people who are blind or vision impaired, the removal of the home button is a pretty big deal. As noted in an AppleVis blog post about the Apple announcements, the use of the Home button to activate various assistive technology tools such as VoiceOver has to now be achieved in a different way. The article confirms that to address this issue, Apple have movved the three-button tap and Siri support to the side button. In addition, the accessibility shortcut to activate accessibility features will be supported by haptic feedback and a gesture which may be awkward to use, but ensures the functionality remains.

In addition, the Assistive Touch accessibility feature may be helpful by providing a virtual home button. A detailed tutorial on how to set this up can be found in Alyssa Bereznak’s article What to Do If Your iPhone’s Home Button Breaks.

Face ID at the expense of Touch ID

The next issue is the Face ID which relies on the iPhone picking up that a person is looking at the phone for it to be activated. As a person who is legally blind I can vouch for the challenges in trying to look at something you can’t see. As there is no Touch ID fingerprint option to fall back on in the iPhone X, this has the potential to be difficult. There is, however, a workaround for this as well in that the specific need to look at the iPhone will be disabled if VoiceOver is enabled, meaning that the user just has to hold the phone up in line with their face to achieve the same effect. How easy it is to use though for a blind person remains to be seen.

For other disability groups, it’s difficult to say at this early stage whether Face ID will be helpful or not. For some people with motor function difficulties it may be much easier to be able to look to the iPhone and unlock it, while others may struggle to get the iPhone in the right place to trigger the feature, whereby in comparison a fingerprint swipe may have been the easier option. While new features always have the ability to make things easier, it’s the removal of long-established accessibility features to incorporate the changes that have raised the concerns of many.

Accessible smartphone alternatives

While some of the design decisions for the iPhone X may have negative access implications, it’s important to remember that there are plenty of alternatives out there. In addition to accessibility, there’s also affordability considerations as the price of the iPhone X starts from $AUD1579 for the 64GB model.

Firstly, if you’re particularly keen on Apple products, it’s worth mentioning that the other two iPhones announced, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, retain Touch ID while picking up the benefits of wireless charging and still have all the fantastic accessibility features built-in for several hundred dollars less. There’s also high-end Android smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S8 and a new Google Pixel just around the corner which are slightly cheaper still.

Finally, if you’re looking for a mid-range smartphone that still has most of the features as the flagship phones along with fingerprint sensor and a wealth of accessibility features, I’d recommend my personal favourite the Moto G5 Plus rated by NET as  ‘Simply the best budget phone’. It’s also one-fifth the price of the iPhone X.

So overall it is understandable that the removal of the Home button and Touch ID from the Apple iPhone X may make the phone more awkward to use for people with disabilities, but in fairness to Apple it also appears the company has endeavoured to ensure that the functionality remains with workarounds to address the issues. Additional information on the iPhone X can be found on the Apple website.

Eye Control feature coming soon to Windows 10

Microsoft has recently announced that it will be adding the ability to control elements in Windows 10 through the use of eye movement.

The feature known as Eye Control, was added in Build 16257 of Windows 10 for beta testing. Microsoft have stated in an e-mail to subscribers of their Insider program that “Eye Control makes Windows 10 more accessible by empowering people with disabilities to operate an on-screen mouse, keyboard, and text-to-speech experience using only their eyes.”

While the inclusion of eye control in Windows offers a significant improvement in the provision of accessibility for people with a mobility impairment, it is currently a difficult process to set up. This is due to the feature currently relying specifically on the use of a Tobii Eye Tracker 4C and the need to install an Insider build of Windows 10. However, this issue will be addressed in the near future as support for the feature will be expanded of the Tobii Dynavox PCEye Mini, PCEyePlus, EyeMobile Plus, and I-series devices prior to the feature’s formal launch. The formal release of the feature to the public is scheduled to be included in the next significant Windows 10 update due before the end of the year.

Additional information on the Eye Control feature including its installation, use and supported devices can be found in the Microsoft Insider blog.

Adobe addresses Acrobat PDF tagging issues

The August release of Acrobat Pro DC has seen two accessibility tagging improvements, making it easier for users to create accessible PDF files.

 In a recent Adobe blog post, Rob Hagerty, highlighted that the tag tree now remains visible when a document is saved and reopened, allowing users to quickly return to a specific document section.

The biggest announcement, however, relates to the interaction of tags when sections of a document are moved. With the August update, the tag tree will now automatically adjust during the moving process. For example, moving page 10 to page 3 of a document will result in the tag tree automatically updating to reflect the change. This will make it significantly easier for screen reader users to navigate PDF documents edited in Acrobat Pro DC.

Additional information on the accessibility of Adobe products can be found in the Accessibility section of the Adobe website.

Top 5 reasons why online voting is essential for people with disabilities

If you live in Australia, its highly likely that you’re aware of the upcoming marriage equality postal vote – or plebiscite – or household survey – to be held later this year. For the benefit of international readers, Australia is currently in the midst of a same-sex marriage debate, and the best way to progress it has been a hotly debated topic both in an out of parliament for several years. it is now most likely the process will be completed via a postal survey.  

If you read through the news items and social media posts on the topic, it’s certainly fair to say the whole process is somewhat controversial. Issues currently being discussed include whether it’s necessary to spend $AUD122 million on the process given its non-binding, whether the process is needed at all when polls consistently show two-thirds of Australians are in favour of marriage equality, and whether the use of a postal vote will unfairly skew the results in favour of older Australians given most people under the age of 25 have probably never physically put a letter of theirs in a post box.   

While all these issues are important, the one that concerns me the most is that people with disabilities may not have the opportunity to have their say at all due to the unfortunate return to the use of inaccessible print media.

It is highly ironic that the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the government department given the responsibility for running the postal survey, felt that so many Australians now favour online as a means for completing government information requests that the last Census was held online for the first time. While the census didn’t exactly go according to plan due to crashes and alleged cyberattacks, it did highlight that completing such requests online is the preferred method for both government and the general public. Furthermore, many core government services including Centrelink, Medicare and the Australian Tax Office now put a heavy focus on accessing information online through the MyGov portal, again putting forward the argument that interacting with government services online is the best way to go.

So why then do we continue to see a return to archaic forms of voting such as postal votes that focus on the use of paper? Even during general elections, the emphasis is still on confirming your registration in a printed book and filling out a ballot form on paper. It seems that the reason for this is a combination of legislative restrictions and tradition. While I appreciate that the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ model may hold up for some, my argument here is that the system is broken for people with disabilities, and we have the technology to fix it, so it’s about time that we did.

With that in mind, here are my top five reasons for why it is essential that people with disabilities are given the opportunity to vote online.

1.    Accessibility

The most significant reason why all voting opportunities should go online is due to accessibility. The technical issues in the last Australian Census overshadowed the fantastic reality that for the first time, people with disabilities were able to independently participate in the completion of the Census form using the assistive technology of their choice. The website was largely compliant to the WCAG 2.0 standard meaning it worked well for most people with disabilities. As such, barriers relating to the printed version of the Census were no longer an issue which included the print being too small for people with low vision, completely inaccessible questions to people who were blind, and difficult-to-read questions for people that had cognitive disabilities. The Census demonstrated that it is possible to have an accessible online portal that can gather information on a national scale, so there’s not much of a technical argument that a similar process could not be used for voting.  

2.    Improves accuracy and security

As a legally blind person, it is an uncomfortable reality that the easiest way for me to vote will be to ask someone I trust to help me fill out the form. While I’m fortunate to have a number of people around me that are likely to respect my wishes, there’s no guarantee that this will be the case and I have no way to check if the form is filled out correctly. With the right security checks, an online voting system could ensure that I am who I say I am and that my vote is as I intended. This is already the case with sensitive government information relating to payments, health and tax so there’s no reason why such checks can’t be carried out in a voting context. The process could even be connected to the secure MyGov account as a way of crossing my name off the electoral roll.

3.    Easier to complete

In the last Federal election, I was surprised when I received the Senate ballot paper as it seemed to be as long as an unravelled toilet roll and printed in micro-font. Compare the process of filling this out with an online system whereby you can make the text as large as you need it to be in the colours most comfortable for your eyes, or even have it read out to you with an input method of your choice. Many people with disabilities already have their home computer, smartphone or tablet optimised for their needs so completing the voting process through this method is not only accessible but much easier.

Furthermore, providing the ability to complete a voting process online removes the need to travel to a polling place, a task often challenging for people with disabilities who may not be able to drive or are unfamiliar with a polling location.

4.    Removes the need for specialist solutions

In response to the postal survey backlash from organisations such as Blind Citizens Australia and Media Access Australia, the ABS have now agreed that there will be some form of telephone system for people who are blind to complete the marriage equality survey. While this is great news, there are few details at this time about how the process will work and ultimately it seems like a backwards step whereby one government department announces a postal survey followed by another government department scrambling to figure out how to make it work for people who are blind. Online voting removes the need to create yet another process just for people with disabilities and streamlines the process for everyone.

5.    Cheaper

If the four arguments above haven’t convinced you that online voting is the way to go, I’m hoping that the significantly reduced cost that online voting brings will be a good motivator in changing your opinion. Returning to the Census again, a factor in it going online was so the ABS didn’t have to spend so much money on paper, or staff to distribute and collect it. If the process moves online then it becomes cheaper. It also removes the cost of specialist solutions and has the added bonus of making it much easier to tally the votes at the end as its already stored electronically.

It’s my opinion that the right to vote in any country is a privilege and something that I take seriously as part of a citizen of this country. While issues and elections will come and go, the fundamental right to independently participate in them is absolutely critical. It’s my hope that the next time the government requests my opinion on an issue I’m able to provide it without the help of a third party.