Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Disapedia.com offers promise as disability resource

I came across the following through a news alert on assistive technology. It is a relatively new web site, but if web traffic is any indication, then the site is getting more and more popular.

Has been on line for only seven months and has already had more than 7,000 visitors.

The Disapedia site seems to be a good and solid beginning foundation of a web site that could evolve into a good, one-stop resource. I don’t think the achievement of an end-all, be-all site is a true reality, but this could definitely find its place in the resource toolbox as one is putting together pieces of a larger puzzle.

I see good promise here, especially in the area of site updates, letting the reader see the ten latest updated articles on the home page. Disapedia on a whole is a noble effort that will take work to maintain. I wish them well as they pursue this endeavor and will be watching their progress.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

ADA Restoration Act of 2007 is introduced

In case you missed it, this past Thursday was July 26, the 17th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Since that act was signed into law, there have been a litany of court cases where people have claimed they had been discriminated against, most often by employers. Too often, though, the claimants have been struck down in the judicial process, basically stating that they weren’t disabled enough to qualify for protection under the ADA. These were usually cases where people had a disability, but were either taking medication or using a prosthetic device or hearing aid to help manage the disability’s impact on their lives. Basically, the employers said the person was too disabled to have the job and this was compounded by the court saying they were not disabled enough to qualify as a covered party under the ADA.

For some time now, people have been pushing for a redefining of the ADA and it is finally happening. On Thursday, not coincidentally, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) introduced the
ADA Restoration Act of 2007
In the House of Representatives, while a similar measure was also introduced in the Senate.

This update will tweak the original wording of the ADA to hopefully correct the overly narrow interpretation that the Supreme Court has wrought in many cases. In Rep. Sensenbrenner’s own words, “The ADA Restoration Act will force courts to focus on whether a person has experienced discrimination “on the basis of disability,” rather than require individuals to demonstrate that they fall within the scope of the law’s protection at all… The legislation will finally enable Americans with disabilities to shine a light on the discrimination they have experienced.”

In a promising demonstration of bipartisanship, Rep. Sensenbrenner Introduced the legislation at a press conference with the
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Sen. Tom Harkin.

I believe Rep. Hoyer’s words rang true for many when he said, “"Let me be clear: This is not what Congress intended when it passed the ADA. We intended a broad application of this law. Simply put, the point of the ADA is not disability, it is the prevention of wrongful and unlawful discrimination.”

You might want to check out the latest edition of
Government Technology,
An on-line magazine for Information Technology professionals, for an article about the ADA Restoration Act. It is interesting to note the ironic twists of interaction that Tony Coelho has had with the original ADA and its interpretation by the judicial system.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Assistive technology lets blind students independently participate in chemistry labs

Again, I am humbled by the advances in assistive technology.

By no means, do I claim to be the all knowing swami of assistive technology, nor do I have an over-inflated ego and really believe that people consider me to be such. However, I do my best to stay abreast of the latest assistive technologies particular to those with low vision and blindness, and learn what I can about other types of AT out on the market.

So, I now sit here in awe of the technologies that have evolved to allow
blind students to participate in chemistry labs
at both the high school and college levels.

Besides not knowing the degree of doctorate level blind people in the world of chemistry mentioned in the article, I had no idea that such tools existed that would let blind and low vision students know what their sighted classmates know. These include a tooll that lets the blind student know when a solution changes colors, indicating a reaction has occurred. Also, there is another electronic sensor that aids in determining the color of solutions.

It appears that the key for access is the screen reader program scripts that have been written specifically for the software applications that are used in the classroom, similar to those used by JAWS and the like with other computer applications.

The article also discusses some low tech solutions the teachers have employed. Some of these, like the notched pipettes, seem like common sense. Others like the pie tin used with a drop counter to give a blind student the same information audiotorally that his sighted classmates get visually, demonstrate the instructors’ will to innovate.

Finally, the article also mentions by name some resources for finding adaptive devices. It also has links to other outlets for news about students with disabilities and assistive technology information.

Monday, July 23, 2007

What technological access and personal ability can accomplish

I’ve always thought that I am pretty keen on seeing the assistive technology applications of various advances in electronic devices. However, I must admit to being humbled when I read about the incorporation of technologies in the following Baltimore Sun article.

Steering Clear of Limits

is a most apt title for this insightful news article about the convergence of the technology John Hudson uses, but also about his approach to life. When reading it, I couldn’t help but marvel at Hudson and his upbeat and "can do" attitude.

For example, despite the fact that he has no arms and only one leg, which is shorter than normal and has only four toes, Hudson types 42 words per minute and bowls with a 138 average score. Oh yes, he also drives his modified van.

This article highlights both the advances in technology and the achievements one can accomplish when his abilities outweigh his disabilities. It is inspiring to see both of these.

For those seeking some statistical data, about 400,000 vehicles which have been modified with adaptive equipment were on the roads of the U.S. in 2005, according to the article. Additionally, this number has grown by 10-15% annually over the last few years. The reason for this growth in demand for modified vehicles is multi-fold: better informed consumers with disabilities; advances in technology; and growing numbers of seniors, people with disabilities, and wounded veterans.

However, more than the technological advances, the article highlights the most important evolution that is occurring—independence. That is in large part due to individual attitudes, such as Hudson’s, and augmentation by electronic devices that make possible the desires of people with disabilities to have their lives be as normal as possible.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Yahoo continues to employ CAPTCHA without accessible alternative

If somebody says the word” CAPTCHA ,” many people do not recognize it. However, when those same people go on-line and use a web site where they submit something to the site, then are asked to verify that the user is human by typing in the distorted text in a picture, they know what that is, but don’t know what it is called.

These two things are one and the same and CAPTCHA without an accessible alternative is a curse to screen reading programs, which see the image as just another graphic on the page. The blind computer user relying on the screen reader is unable to read the text because the screen reading software sees the image as a graphic, not text, and is unable to discern any text characters from the graphic.

Some people have tagged CAPTCHA without audio, or other accessible workarounds, as a “No Blind People Allowed” sign, a statement that is true in its meaning, even though the host site may have been unintentional in denying access, because the web designer just didn’t even think about denying access when trying to screen out automated, computer generated responses. However, the end result of web inaccessibility is still the same.

It wasn’t that long ago that Google presented this same CAPTCHA problem and one man began an on-line petition to bring the innaccessability of the screening technology to Google’s attention. Google now employs an audio option for its web pages when they employ CAPTCHA.

There are a few other notable web sites which have also made their CAPTCHA accessible, but one giant and globally recognized web site has not—the search engine Yahoo!, which offers a cursory solution to the inaccessibility that many blind users claim does not work. Yahoo! Has employed a policy of “email us your phone number and a Yahoo! Rep will call you,” but the reps apparently do not follow up with their calls. I can personally attest to twice having tried this method, only to have my request ignored by whichever rep received them. I was only able to proceed in what I was doing when I sought sighted assistance, losing both time and productivity.

If a person using a screen reader wants to do something as simple as set up a Yahoo! email account or subscribe to a Yahoo! group, they have to get past this inaccessible CAPTCHA. If the Yahoo! reps are supposed to call these users after they submit their phone numbers, but don't, then the site is simply inaccessible.

Like the previous effort directed at Google, there is now an on-line petition for blind computer users to sign, which is an attempt to bring Yahoo! Into the fold of web accessibility. The web domain
Has been set up as an easy to remember web site to help blind computer users get to the petition. (The petition is actually hosted on another site, but this URL will automatically redirect users to the petition.)

As Google and other web sites have demonstrated, accessible alternatives exist that still provide the security the web sites need. This doesn’t have to be expensive, either. There is one solution that is “donationware,” called
FormShield for .NET 2.0

A few years ago, in an honor society newsletter, I read something that truly applies in this case. The quote was “efficiency is doing the thing right, but effectiveness is doing the right thing.” It is time for Yahoo! To step up and do the right thing.

If you know somebody who is a blind computer user, please direct them to the web site above to sign the petition. The web is a wonderful tool and one that should be free of access barriers such as inaccessible CAPTCHA.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Videophones and broadband connections are base of new Welsh product for the deaf

Here’s some assistive technology news from across the pond.

has launched a video telephony project which has, on its surface, some interesting appeal for the approximately 2,400 Welsh people who are deaf and use sign language.

According to the article linked above, the product will use videophones that “will allow deaf people to communicate with each other in sign language at a distance and also to talk with the hearing community through the use of online interpreters.”

The project uses the strength and speed of broadband internet technology, aspiring to link the hearing and deaf world.

Additionally, the article states, “SignWales also offers daily news in sign language at the touch of a button, through a special server which makes the connections for the users.”

This promising project embraces sign language as the preferred communication tool of the deaf community. The primary cost that I can see will be for the videophones and the connection the service will require up front, as well as the on-going cost of the interpreters who will be what appear to be intermediaries when users communicate with hearing parties.

This is a very interesting project and only time will tell how it grows.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Lifestyle management service offers promise as assistive technology as well

While going through my daily technology reading yesterday, I came across a service that seems like it might offer some good application for assistive technology, even though it is not marketed specifically in that realm.

On its web site,
pitches itself as “mobile note taking and hands-free messaging.”I think there is some value of this technology by people with disabilities, but am not sure what all of this might include.

On the surface, Jott is about lifestyle management. It lets users send text message as a voice message, which is transcribed and sent on to its destination. Another application lets users send themselves an audio reminder about tasks that need to be done. Users can even print out the text of their voice message when they get home, such as a list of chores their children need to do. One of the strengths the web site touts is the ability to organize and manage one’s life. It puts the power of dictation in the hands of drivers during their commute, letting them send out information in messages up to 30-second intervals. There is even an option to send the message to a designated group of recipients.

With Jott, I can see where a blind person could send a text message to somebody without even having assistive technology to give him access to the text messaging on his own phone. Ditto for somebody who has physical limitations with their hands, they could use voice dialing to call into Jott and then dictate the text message to send out.

All it takes to use Jott is a cell phone and a few minutes to set up an account. Use of the service costs nothing at this time as it is in beta phase. The FAQ suggests that the service will eventually move to either an ad supported web site or offer the service on a subscription basis.

Anybody else have suggestions for assistive applications of this technology?

Other interesting Jott related links:
The Jott Blog
Jott FAQ

Friday, July 13, 2007

Technology lets folks turn on TV by twitching eyebrows

There is an interesting assistive technology device being fine tuned in Singapore.

When this device is finished being refined, it will let users
Switch on the TV by twitching their eyebrows.
(Note: I am having problems making the link work, but if you do a right mouse click on the link, select "copy shortcut," and copy this into the "Open" command or address bar of your web browser without the final / at the end, it will open the article.)

This device is newsworthy, because of the pricing approach of the students who created the product to aid elderly people and those with a disability that makes hand operation of a remote control impossible.

The following passage was published on the Singapore News web article linked above:
“The device works by detecting muscle movements of the eyebrows to trigger the required function.
A band with sensors is held together by a velcro strip and is wrapped as close to the eyebrow level as possible. This strip is wired to a control pad which has indicator lights flashing on the function - either to change channels or increase volume and to trigger an alarm bell. The person just has to wait for the light to jump to the desired function on the pad before raising his eyebrows to trigger the change in channels or volume.
The infrared signal from the device can be picked up within a 5m-radius of the equipment.
For example, one of the paralysed patients who tried the device could only blink his eyes but it was enough to make the device work.”

While there are other assistive technology products on the market that can do similar operations, the goal of the three final-year electrical engineering students at Ngee Ann Polytechnic who have developed this device is to make it affordable. While related products sell for $1,000 to $7,000, according to one of the students, they plan to make their product available for under $100. Assistive technology that is designed with the full intention to help people with disabilities and not set out to make the developers lots of cash is news indeed.

The developers are also not limiting their vision for the application of the device. While their professor's original idea for the project was something that could ultimately be used to help operate the wheelchair, the students went beyond that. They also hope to make it do more than just operate a television. They want to make it function as a remote control for fans and lights as well.

Keep pushing, folks. I’m sure there are other applications that it can be used for.

Options abound for making accessible web video

I just read a good recounting of available captioning options for
making web video accessible.

For the uninformed, there are captioning options available for videos using both the Microsoft Media Player and the Real Player. (I must admit that the uninformed included myself before this article was published.) Additionally, according to the above linked article, there has also been a text captioning option in Apple’s QuickTime player available for some time now.

So, if your professors insist on incorporating web videos as part of their curriculum, please know that the tools exist across the three main formats to make these accessible.