Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Honoree for 2010 Ada Lovelace day = Accessibility Advocate and Educator Wendy Chisholm

March 24, 2010


finding ada is a movement in the name of 19th century programming theorist Ada Lovelace to acclaim the accomplishments of women in computing. Wendy Chisholm is a computer scientists well recognized in her field of accessibility and web design. I’d like to use this post to not only express my appreciation for her work but also to call attention to the accessibility field as a worthy versatile career path.


Chisholm’s co-authored book Universal design for web applications blends technical experience from w3c standards, snippets of programming patterns, and a deep respect for human differences. This book explains the rationale for many standards recommendations such as (my favorites) structure and semantics in headings. The now established design process of progressive enhancement is explained with strong admonitions to separate content from presentation and how to do that systematically. Many tools and checklists enable quality control over both process and product. In other words, this book is parallel to software engineering texts teaching essential knowledge and skills for professional web designers, as well as those that produce technical writings and organizational profiles in web format.


Web Accessibility for Everyone Podcast provides a profound insight into why accessibility matters so much for addressing individual differences, some designated by society as disabilities. Indeed, Wendy take the issue to the level of world peace. An example is the difficulty, using a screen reader, of finding routes in a public transit time table, typical in PDF or web pages. Indeed, the whole area of reading visually represented data is helpfully addressed in the book and a motivator for Chisholm’s computing interests. Wow, this podcasts would be a great entry point for computer science students and professionals — play it at your next brown bag lunch or design meeting.


Personally, I learned much from the book to codify my study of accessibility, as both a screen reader user and a programmer myself. I cringed often at the awful web gimmicks I used, such as layout tables and, horrors, blink. Living through and using the first generations of HTML has instilled many bad habits and , sorry, blinded us to bad practices. but, now, there’s no excuse for not gradually removing these warts and thoughtlessness that perpetuate barriers in a world where daily life and employment depend on rapid, accurate, and complete access to information from web sites. I’ve ranted here in prior posts about the decade old and now harmful qualities of computing websites such as ACM, CRA, and many Cs departments. Recently http://women.acm.org was proudly announced with good content from Turing award winners and women’s contributions to computing. but one quick pass with my screen readers showed lack of real structure and proper use of semantics as well as an egregious absence of labeled form elements. A compliance analyzer, like a static checker, http://wave.webaim.org confirmed these and more errors. what’s missing here? Mainly an accessibility statement identifying practices from web standards and a regimen of testing like I did in seconds. Hello, ACM, buy yourself this book and work with staff to get yourself up to snuff.


so, thanks Wendy, for providing such great educational content in an inspiring social context that rules the daily life of vision Losers like me.

Could TTS news reading beat Kindle and smart phones?

January 27, 2010

This post responds to concerns in ComputingEd post ‘Kindles versus Smart phones: Age matters, testing matters’. A UGa study and commentary focus on news reading as screen-dependant and vision-only. I suggest considering the print-disabled TTS-dependant ecosystem to expand understanding of human reading and assistive device capabilities.

Reading experiments might be broadened to include pure TTS, i.e. no screens. But first, what criteria matter: reading rate, absorption level; device comfort, simulated print experience, distribution costs and convenience,..?


For the record, I just read this article by RSS, then switched to my Newstand, downloaded NYTimes and other papers from Bookshare.org, cooperating with NFB Newsline, and news companies I gratefully thank. Papers are delivered wirelessly in XML-based DAISY format, retrieved and read on a Linux-powered mobile device (Levelstar Icon), spoken in an old-style “robotic voice”. For delivery efficiency and cost, this cannot be beat and I think I absorb selective news reading better than ever. But how is experience of print-disabled news readers factored into comparisons like this article?


This will soon be relevant if Kindle, iPod/iTouch, etc. TTS reading is fully enabled and adopted by some readers from proprietary delivery systems, like Amazon. For proper evaluation, it will be necessary to compare eReading by TTS on mainstream devices to that provided by evolved readers like APH book port, Humanware Victor Reader Stream, PlexTalk Pocket, Levelstar Icon, and (my favorite) GW Micro booksense. Also important is the media format, currently favored as DAISY on these devices. And finally is the provision of media, currently limited legally to print-disabled readers, as by NFB (National Federation of Blind) and non-profit Bookshare.org. In other words, there’s another ecosystem of reading open only to print-disabled that might benefit those attracted to eReading.


Oh, my, here’s the “universal design” mantra again. ‘Reading news by screen’ is, of course, more limited than ‘reading by print or audio”. It’s possible than for some reading criteria the screen-free mode or open XML-based format and its reading devices and experienced reader population may beat mainstream strategies!


Could these experiments be performed? Certainly, most universities have students who currently, or could, offer their experience with equipment provided through Disability Services. Fact quizzes and comprehension tests might raise questions about how our reading brains work and how well our reading devices and formats help or hinder. What research is in progress? Is there a CS agenda for this social and economic ecosystem? Why do people think reading is a vision-only activity? Ok, comics, photos, and crosswords are a bit challenging, but plain old print is so well handled by TTS. Let’s open our eyes and ears and fingers to a fuller range of capabilities. I would love to be a test subject for eReading experiments.

CT for Everyone includes Accessibility!

January 24, 2010

This post responds to a solicitation for ideas on “Computational Thinking for Everyone” at http://ctforeveryone.wordpress.com. This is a more succinct version of previous blog essays aimed at computing science educators and researchers. .


Principle of “Clarifying Mundane Matters”: Use CT to refresh and deepen understanding of seemingly simple problems.


“Appreciate diverse abilities” Principle: Use CT to understand differing human abilities with respect to computational structures.

Multi-level Principle: Literacy, fluency, and CT apply to organizations as well as individuals.


An example domain is web accessibility for print-disabled people who use assistive technology such as screen readers to navigate, read, and interact with web pages. ,I write as a computing professional, self-trained with intermediate skill level and assistive technology consumer experience.


Consider the following mundane tasks: (1) complete the NAP form the CT workshop free PDF; (2) retrieve two papers on CT from ACM Digital Library; (3) find the next upcoming colloquium talk at some CS department; (4) plan and mark the sessions you want at an upcoming conference; (5) retrieve the data set of your locality’s projects from recovery.gov.


Such tasks should require only a few minutes, not demanding vision only. Computational thinkers can conceptualize underlying queries, abstractions, and navigation strategies, perhaps expressed with HTML syntax. Indeed, imagine yourself equipped with hearing a synthetic voice announcing events as you TAB and key your way around these document objects. Of course, there may be many representations of, say, a web form, perhaps a table of labels and form field? But how is a screen reader to associate a label to announce with each edit box? Also, a page of departmental activities or a list of search results might be shown as a layout table with styles indicating different roles of text fragments. No go for a screen reader user who must plow through linearly, applying heuristics to induce page components and meaningful descriptions of clusters of text fragments. Does this suggest AI to help the dumb literal screen reader package? Maybe, but is that a good social solution?


Rather, standards can be negotiated so that browsers and screen readers can parsed with semantic identifications and useful descriptions announced to skilled users. Indeed, W3C standards compiled user observations, reasoning principles (perceivable, operable, understandable,robust), common sense, and experience surveys to yield a fledgling “science of accessibility”. Our mundane form problem is standardly prescribed explicit relational notations to pair label text with form elements, adding a line of code to eliminate hours of screen reader user guessing. Semantics for page outlines are simply headings H1,H2,… H6 properly ordered and appropriately worded. Voila, linear or random search is eliminated with further gains in design integrity, maintainability, and search engine positioning. Incidentally, screen reader surveys confirm form labels and poor or no heading structure as main barriers and annoyances.


While the ultimate test is whether the screen reader user is substantially as capable as a sighted performer, engineering practices are readily available. An online evaluator, such as WAVE from WebAim.org can statically analyze and display page structure and flag standards anomalies. Development by “progressive enhancement” builds styling, scripting, and flash onto POSH (Plain Old Semantic HTML). Browsers, especially in mobile devices, and across economic and disability divides are thereby enabled for “graceful degradation”.


The conference schedule problem illustrates bad effects of wrong level or loss of data structure in the delivery format, typically PDF. A conference program is certainly well structured with presentation properties (title, author, abstract, etc.) with relationships to sessions, tracks, and locations. PDF promotes printable or purely visual representations, leaving print-disabled readers with a jumble of text or dependence on sighted interpreters with separated note-taking. Hypertext offers some structure within browser constraints. A non-traditional solution could be the hierarchical document structuring of the widely used open XML-based DAISY specification. Convenient pocket-sized screen-less devices navigate and read DAISY with natural TTS and easy marking or recorded notes. Watch for these capabilities coming soon on mainstream mobile platforms. CT must explore alternative document representations and find the most versatile structure-preserving generation and transformation techniques, especially when visual reading is limited by screen space, ambient conditions, or print disabilities. Moreover, increased offering of government and science data sets demands full utilization of data structure beyond a PDF-crippled distribution strategy.


Honestly, many CS organizations need a makeover for their web sites to keep up with trends now driven by .gov innovations coupled with world-wide web standards. Knowing after vision adaptation and accessibility indoctrination far more than when I was active five years ago, I wonder: where students experience working with persons with disabilities, using assistive technologies; how students with disabilities learn from inaccessible pedagogical tools; how students gain fluency with accessible product presentations; and then become good consumers and caretakers, managers and procurers, developers and trainers in the workforce and personal lives. So, I challenge ‘CT for Everybody’ to use CT to rigorously and responsibly address the above mundane problems and expand CT to formalize the “science of accessibility” for integration into pedagogy and practice. Practically speaking, it’s easy to start by entering your URL into http://wave.webaim.org then trace error reports into the standards’ explanations. For a more vibrant experience, install the free, open Windows NVDA screen reader or turn on Mac VoiceOver, turn off your screen, and use CT to accomplish tasks at a more semantic than visual level. Another opportunity is to work with local A.D.A. professionals and evaluate research and pedagogical products and materials with real persons with disabilities.


Using the framework of the Workshop Report, are these examples really CT? In the context of social good and broadening participation, this terminology matters less than that “a visually impaired user of assistive technology almost gave up filling a form requesting a free PDF for lack of labeled form fields”. How mundane! But, what an opportunity loss from multiplying this flaw across form instances and user efforts! My concern is institutional, rather than individual, illiteracy and unFITness. somebody in an organization needs to be responsible for assuring such flaws are removed or never committed, requiring others handling resources and commitment, usually via a published “accessibility statement”. Literacy is a matter of organizational awareness and Fluency yields a favorable outcome for as many people as possible. My suggested remedy is some rigorous thinking and remedial actions that respect standard sand experimental data in the form of complaints and surveys. My hope is that “CT for Everyone” will encompass objectives like “universal design” and increased benefits of CT applied within computer science education ultimately influencing Everybody. Thank you.


References: “Universal Design for Web Applications” by Wendy Chisholm and Matt May; #a11y or #accessibility tagged tweets; the Amazon Kindle settlement from http://nfb.org; my blog “As Your World Changes” at http://asyourworldchanges.wordpress.com.

Reading, Ranting, and Computing: 2009 Heroes and Meanies

December 31, 2009

This post sums up 2009 from the perspective of a Vision Loser immersed in assistive technology, avidly learning about accessibility techniques and trade-offs. Sighted readers should glean more about how screen and book reading tools are advancing allowing print disabled people more freedom and enjoyment, at ever lower costs. Partially sighted people can learn how I am finding and using this technology. I call out some heroes and name some stupendous products. But no amount of technology can overcome the “meanies” of slighted social services and educational bases.


First let me thank comment ors and communicators about this blog, which wanders from emotional to technical to political to memoirs. I am always touched by search terms in the blog stats that indicate others are wondering: “what is ‘legally blind’ or ‘print disabled’? how to read Google book search images? why is the white cane significant?” Medical specialists don’t explain these, the disability community has its own vocabulary and modes, and often Vision Losers cannot find another person to query. I hope this blog reflects one person’s transition in useful terminology with practical advice. Please share your experiences here or ask direct questions.

Accessibility Heroes of 2009


My heroes are people who make a difference positively in my Vision Loser life space, often using their resources very wisely then communicating freely and with passion.

The Twitter #Accessibility Constellation

Suppose you are immersed in a subject that strongly influences your daily life
and has morphed into a social cause, say public gardening, or water
conservation, or web accessibility. Imagine you could walk into a conference ballroom and overhear conversations among the subject’s professional experts: reading recommendations, standards progress, emerging contentious issues, new technologies, and professional rumors. Add a dose of spirited interchange, sprinkled across 24 hours a day, with the blessed limitation of 2 lines per utterance. Allow yourself to interject a question or opinion occasionally to test your growing knowledge and appreciate any response from your virtual mentors. For me, this has been the Twitter #accessibility experience of 2009: virtually joining a constellation of accessibility stars and superstars.


so, let me thank the Opera web evangelists, STC accessibility sig, CSUN organizers,IBM accessibility, Mozilla developers, independent web consultants, and standards group members, who line up my browser tabs with hours of worthwhile reading. Most of these communicators use blogs for irregular longer explanations like iheni ‘making the Web Worldwide’ post on ‘Adventures of silver surfers’.

Special Mentions of Useful Work


Especially I appreciate:


wow, I sure learned a lot in 2009, 140 character message at a time, adds up rapidly. Little did I know starting to appreciate Twitter in early 2009how it would influence my web life..

The Great book Reader Game, Fueled by Bookshare

Hold on to your ear buds, this is a great era of reading technology advances, also known as “Digital Talking Books”, represented in DAISY format. When I got my print disability certification and joined bookshare.org in 2006, I started using book reading software on a clunky Toshiba laptop. With no real advisors, I stumbled onto the best reader of the time bookport from APH, the American Printing House for the blind. At first, I was daunted by the array of keys arranged into
combinations that implemented amazing reading functions. Motivated by then tiring regime of audio CD library transactions and cranky players, I rapidly grew to appreciate Precious Paul on the bookport reading my bookshare DAISY downloads.


But then came the Levelstar Icon Mobile Manager in 2007 that could connect wirelessly and bypass PC to bookshare, with an entirely natural Newsstand for retrieving national papers through the NFB news line. Since I preferred the more robust device and flexible reading by bookport, I simply transferred DAISY books from Icon to Pc to bookport every few weeks.


Comes 2009 and the CSUN exhibit hall and I found the Plextalk Pocket. Definitely more streamlined with a great recorder, now I also transferred my DAISY books to its SD card. But I never really felt comfortable with the PPT menus, voice, and reading routine.


Within a few months came the booksense from GW Micro with the best available neo speech voices in a candy bar size with more comfortable navigation. All right, now I get motivated to organize my hundreds of DAISY books into categories and I have references and fiction with me anywhere. Also my latest podcasts transferred from Icon and a bunch of TXT and HTML files. By the way, I had a fantastic simple shopping experience for Booksense at I can See My PC.com.


Oh, there’s more to come. recently reported is another incarnation of the
bookport based on Plextalk Pocket
and a promised something from Kurzweil. speaking business for a moment, bookport was sadly discontinued due to manufacturer limitations. however, companies in Korea and Japan are supplying the designs and components for American company specification and distribution. the worldwide market is somewhat like the cell phone industry where circuitry and casing, fingertip embossing, and, most important, commodity synthetic voices will bypass
traditional desktop and laptop computers. We’re riding a great wave of technology to enable us to exploit services like bookshare and its impressive educational movement.


Where is the Kindle in all this? Well, as I wrote in Amazon-ASU, Kindle, what a mess”, they blew off the disability market by not making their menus and device operations then accessible, then tried to launch into the college textbook sphere, a sore point for ADA requirements to transform print into print-disabled readable formats. Add in publisher and author concerns, and a perfect storm ensued. OK, I buy through a less cluttered alternative amazon interface but, dammit, those “get your Kindle now” come-ons are disgusting.


As to the bookshare library fueling my reading rampages, I appreciate publisher contributions but especially volunteer scanned and validated books. While I find it hard to segregate teenage reading for the bookshare special ed commission, I continually grow my library from changing personal interests and
new acquisitions. Recently, I took a course on Winston Churchill in order to fill in massive gaps in my world history knowledge and found a whole sub collection of WC books for the downloading. often I hear a Diane rehm interview or reader review and have the book in seconds. while Overdrive and Audible formats are great occasionally, I’ll take DAISY books read by Paul or Kate from my pocket or pillow anytime.


So, 2009 was great for pleasures of audio reading for this print-disabled reader . And 2010 is enticing. so many books, such enthusiastic book clubs, it’s hard to believe my reading life could be so comfortable and keep me engaged and learning every day. thanks, Bookshare, especially.


However reading books is complemented by the “web magazines” of lengthy podcasts, with demos, dialogs, and product plugs. Most useful to me is AccessibleWorld.org, and its heroine founder Pat Price for mature discussions oriented to a wide Vision Loser audience.

The mixed breed Apple tree and iPod Touch


It’s too early to tell for me, but the iPod touch is, well, an eye-opener, or maybe, finger stimulator. The transfer of speech enabled interface from Mac Os to touch screen is rather elegant and yet perfectly conventional for someone used to things that talk. I’m still practicing my flicks, learning menus and screen layouts, and adjusting to voice and volume. My iPod Touch guide is a Blind Cool Tech podcast.

Frankly, I don’t know if I’ll really
use the device in my daily routine or pass it on to the grateful hands of my helper relative. For me, this is an experiment in keeping up in two ways (1) the interface and (2) the app market. Now I know better what people are raving about, at the very least. Unfortunately, I hate iTunes as a cluttered mess, reluctantly made partially accessible by apple, and not as good a podcatcher as the Levelstar icon RSs client. I despise being driven into stores, to get something in the midst of other stuff I do not want to think about, let alone buy. so, a reluctant shopper has yet to find the hook that will make me a senior “silver surfer” happy app user and podcast listener. stay tuned.


Maybe most important is that the Touch and iPhone commemorate a unification of assistive and mainstream markets. When my fingers get better enabled, I’ll be able to converse with sighted people about similarities and differences in using these mobile devices. Ha, I might even seduce a few into TTS appreciation, leading to my ideal world where everything talks fluently and informatively. I even appreciate how Talking ATM technology helps Vision Losers manage , a fascinating tale of advocacy that makes daily life more normal.

People Who keep me going


Making this short, since I do get emotional, I truly appreciate my family and friends putting up with my frustrations, crazy ideas, and needs for transportation and shopping. Daily life details with partial vision are so much harder than I could have imagined. where’s my Icon case? Oh, on the black table, not the white contrast pad. that phone number I forgot to record? any medicare notices in the mail? whisper then please forget my PIN on grocery checkout. Hold in memory 10 things to do, ask for help, then re-ask a forgetful student helper. Coordinating schedules for lifelong learning and traditional college classes… I would never make it through the day without the freedom of a brisk 2 mile cane-free walk late afternoons.


Ouch, there are meanies in this life. Great retirement areas are not truly great unless they trade off a bit of housing, view, and roadway for public transportation for economically, physically, or temporarily disadvantaged people. Nothing would be so beautiful as a bus or van coming along the connector street a block away from home, taking me the few miles to lifelong learning classes or downtown restaurants or nearby shopping. Yes, I can walk but, well, why die of a fear from a careless driver in a pedestrian-unfriendly town. now, there are volunteer services, but we are talking about civilized life here, requiring taxes and attention, too often withheld by meanies. The sweetest words are “need a ride?” but at just the right time, if only there were a $5 routine impersonal option, sigh.. However, <a href="http://asyourworldchanges.wordpress.com/2009/06/28/resilience-bouncing-back-from-vision-loss/&quot; Resilience as a quality of life for Vision Losers comes with the territory, and plenty of authors have advice and role models to reverse these thoughts about meanies.


I also appreciate the opportunities from OLLI lifelong learning at Yavapai college where I can take a variety of courses to fill in my lifelong knowledge gaps. Luckily I can also expose others to social media trends and techniques to older adults as well as my showing off neat reading gadgets and growing skills.


New retirees often go through a memoir-ish phase until realizing the hard work involved. For me, post-Sputnik educational opportunities hooked me on computing . I am fascinated by whether NOT being first helped the USA start activities that profoundly influenced our lives, like, oh, say, the Internet. Beep-beep-beep that’s the way it was.


As I gradually understand better the needs of Vision Losers, I appreciate the generational demands on caretakers, need support and training. More on this topic in 2010.

The “Meanies” who could do better

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Accessible Computing Mockery (ACM) happily behind the times

Knowing better, I mistakenly rejoined a professional association,acm.org, to gain access to its digital library. I sought to complete my publication repository, back to 1970s, maybe update some loose threads in a retrospective, and learn what I could from scholarly research on accessibility, usability, and assistive technology. For $200, I found myself struggling very hard through myriad metadata details to find items and, horrors, PDFs. in a layout table of search results, with headings left to site navigation. Quickly realizing it wasn’t this hard on google or bookshare, I asked through feedback for accessibility assistance. No response, asked again, 4 times. Complaining through other professional channels, I finally got a”well, we’ll update our CMs, sometime”. Invited to consult my tax advisor about considering a lifetime ACM membership, ha, I asked for my money back, declaring NFW I’d renew. Now, that’s just plain bad service to a professional contributor asking for ADA assistance. Strictly speaking, the entire site is technically accessible but using deprecated conventions a decade old. “It’s the headings, STUPID!”, I wanted to shout but knew I’d waste words and energy.


Sadly, my later post on ‘grafting accessibility onto computer
science education’
showed a widespread ignorance of simple, effective web standards across university and computing association websites. ever wonder where so many software accessibility problems come from? As a Cs educator myself, I stand guilty excluding my last semester when I wised up , conquered denial and deception, and tried to learn to guide software engineering projects. Believe me, accessibility isn’t in the Cs curricula, textbooks, or radar screens of more than a few research groups. Moreover to read their publications, and there are many good ideas and experiments, you need to fork over $$ to ACM through personal or institutional membership. and fight that deprecated portal monument to inaccessibility. Beware, my activist archetype will guide me through another year of asking Computing educators and NSF program personnel about accessibility inclusion of distributed pedagogical tools. Professional organizations like ACM and CRA should truly lead, by example, and minimize harm by taking their noses out of the federal funding trough and looking at their own disability demographics and responsibility to the society that depends upon computing products. Please see my constructive analysis and comments in the
December 7 post honoring the (only 10 accessibility errors) National Cs ed week.

The wealthy who starve rehab and transit services


In august I ranted about health insurance denial for being a vision Loser . While my anti-protected-capitalism streak still labels these companies and their protectors as the greatest meanies I could imagine, I now have a few more thoughts. Traveling to Canada in the midst of tea bag town halls I realized the U.S.A. was losing ground with other countries in both spirit and material senses. Wrangling among political factions on enormously costly and complex systems like health care is a failing situation that allows others
who resolved these issues a half century ago to improve their worlds without our anxieties and get on with other challenges the U.S.A. cannot adequately work on. In other words, we’re unhealthy due to this wrangling in a possibly fatal or declining sense.


closer to the situation facing Vision Losers is our sparse rehab system. Marvelous treatments now allow macular degenerates to prolong their vision loss experience until we all may possibly have access to stem cell interventions and repair. But eye conditions like mine, myopic macular degeneration and glaucoma, are often just plain not reversible or controllable. vision loss, Like other sensory changes, is part of aging or injury or birth, and medicine isn’t the solution. rather, people with these conditions need rehab, training, and support more than medicine. If I hadn’t found a white cane and a little OMT (orientation and mobility training) I would likely be more damaged from falls or dispirited from being home-bound. the OMT cost, a few eye doctor visits and tests, made more difference to my life. Where does this rehab fit into the health care system? who pays? taxes? donations? volunteers? Really, we’re talking about a layer of our social services that must be maintained by taxes from all, believing that a proper role for any government is to diminish pain to unfortunate people and also enable them to reach their potential. Anybody who would deny OMT funded by a few dollars of taxes per citizen is a big, old, meanies in my very well informed opinion. come on, Americans, especially Arizonans, let’s give up a picture window in our dream homes, a trip to a Broadway play, or even a solar panel in order to support the education and salaries of the rehab layer of society. Your vision slips, you don’t want to move to a city with Lighthouse or SOAVI, where are you going to get needed training? again, this is just a matter of civilization, and a bit of wealth sharing.

Wishes for a better 2010

  1. An AccessibleX for every open service X. AccessibleTwitter shows how an web designer committed to accessibility can create a usable alternative interface to a service that chooses not to adopt standards or embrace its disabled users. So be it, big open X, but you’ll lose direct advertising revenue and loyalty, if that matters. Google WAVE is a great example.
  2. Really open book services. Google Book Search throws up unreadable page image that limits scholarly accomplishments of visually impaired people, like me. google should work a deal with Bookshare to send page text to qualified people as part of their settlement to exclusively manage intellectual property of millions of authors.
  3. A simple web-based RSS reader. RSS is the vein of gold in our web infrastructure that conducts blog posts and news updates to our attention with less web clutter and more convenience. My Levelstar Icon RSS client is perfectly simple, works for podcasts and text feeds, and collects 150 tributaries into one flow. But, Crossing the RSS divide for more web users is a challenge we need to address, including the .gov feeds.
  4. The end of stupid CAPTCHAs. These ugly buggers caught on as a symbol of human superiority to troublesome bots. “Prove you are human, decipher this image or sound track” if you also have acute enough vision or hearing. Sorry, AI lovers, but WordPress, for example, gets by with a good spam filter and email confirmations. OpenId requires one authenticated existence to prove humanity to other services. The blind communities have their own volunteer CAPTCVHA solvers, but why should a segment of society with 70% unemployment bear the costs of CAPTCHA entries to blogs and services? Think before using them, CAPTCHAs are not cool.
  5. More and better communication of academic computing professionals, especially educators, with web accessibility consultants and standards organizations. Indeed, there is a “science of accessibility” with framework of concepts, criteria (perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust), engineering principles (POSH=Plain Old Semantic HTML”), progressive enhancement design process, empirical studies, validation and design tools, all based in the current mantra of “computational thinking”. The ACM and IEEE should tear down their paywalls and expose their taxpayer-funded research results for everybody, rather than let ideas languish and researchers proceed in academic chambers. The current situation breeds out accessibility knowledge badly needed for future generations of mostly web and mobile usage.
  6. Engage designers and offer prizes for renovation of websites falling behind the times and below standards, as found in our recorded tour of stumbling around academic computing websites. True, the allure of good websites is a decade ago for many CS departments, often with control ceded to IT or New Media departments. In my experience, most students wanted to, but rarely had the chance to, participate in a design project aimed at utility, universality, and beauty. Website design is exactly that, with the added challenge of back end server and database architectures. Seriously, I ask, which is the best USA CS department website? Why? and how does it reflect its faculty, staff, and students?
  7. A pie chart manipulator to replace pictorial charts. With more and better data coming from the USG and computational engines like Wolfram Alpha, visually impaired people are stuck reading painfully through tables or using under-explained image texts. Tactile devices engage science and engineering students, but are there other options? Is there a widget that works the brain through fingers to explore and assimilate data just like looking at a pie chart? Our brains do amazingly well with TTS through ears rather than printed text through the eyes. Are we underutilizing our senses, individually and in combination?
  8. Continued progress and support for a modern technology USG, including conquering forms. We will all have improved services and information, provided gov websites apply accessibility principles and seek then use our feedback. What would really help is one good HTML form style that all websites could adapt and save citizens from stumbling around or abandoning our agency interactions.

  9. Every Vision Loser receives adequate orientation and mobility training, access to public transportation, support in daily living, and continuing opportunities in using software, networks, and web services. Not only students, job seekers, and veterans deserve services but also the aging who have so much to give back to society and so much to lose from isolation or falling behind.

Best wishes for a productive, stumble-free,, tweet-full, and fun 2010

Susan L. Gerhart, :Ph.D.

slger123 at gmail.com and on twitter

Grafting web accessibility onto computer science education

December 7, 2009

Note: this is a long post with webliography in the next article.
There is also a recorded tour of CS web sites as an MP3 download.

Understanding web accessibility through computational Thinking


This post is written for distribution during the first proclaimed National computer science education week, December 7, 2009. My goal is to stimulate awareness within the CSE community of the importance of web and software accessibility to society at large and to the proper development of associated skills within CS curricula. Taking this further, I offer a call to action to renovate our own websites for purposes of (1) improved service, (2) learning and practice, and (3) dissemination of lessons learned to other academic entities, including professional organizations.


recognizing that traditional, accredited CS curricula do not define a role for accessibility, I suggest actions that can be grafted into courses as exercises, readings, debates, and projects. To even more legitimize and improve uptake of accessibility, many of these problems can be cast as computational Thinking in the framework of drivers from society, technology, and science.

Definitions and Caveats

Caveat: I do not represent the blindness communities, standards groups, or any funding agency.
Also, I limit this accessibility context to the USA and visual impairment disability.

here is my personal definition framework:

  • Definition: disability = inability to independently perform daily living tasks due to physical or mental causes

    example: I cannot usually read print in books or news, nor text on a computer screen at size 14

    Example: I cannot usually follow a mouse cursor to a button or line of text to edit

  • Definition: Assistive Technology (AT) = hardware or software that overcomes some limits of a disability

    example: A screen magnifier can track a mouse cursor then smooth and enlarge text in the cursor region

    Example: A screen reader can announce screen events and read text using synthetic speech

  • Definition: Accessibility = Quality of hardware and software to (1) enable assistive technology and also (2) support the AT user to the full extent of their skills without unnecessary expenditure of personal energy

    example: A web page that enables focus through keyboard events enables a screen reader to assist a user to operate the page with ease, provided hands are working. Same is true for sighted users.

    Example A screen magnifier enables reading text and screen objects but at such a low rate that I cannot accomplish much usual work:

    Note: I am conflating accessibility with usability here, with usability usually referring beyond disabilities. Informally, to me, “accessibility” means my screen reader is fully operational, not in the way, and there are no reasons I cannot achieve the goal of page success as well as anybody.

  • Definition: Accommodation = explicit human decisions and actions to accomplish accessibility

    Example: Modifying a web page enhances comprehension for a screen reader user, see POSH computational thinking below

    Ecxample: Adapting security settings on a PC to permit a job applicant with a screen reader on a pen drive to read instructions and complete tests and forms

    Example: A curb cut in a sidewalk enables wheelchairs to moor easily cross streets. Also true for baby strollers, inattentive pedestrians, visually impaired, luggage carts, skateboards, etc.


I base my analysis and recommendations on several domains of knowledge:

  • Learning and acquisition of skills as a recent vision Loser, becoming “print disabled”, “legally blind”, now at an intermediate skill level

  • Computer scientist, active for decades in formal methods and testing, highly related to “computational thinking” with broader professional experience in design methods and technology transfer.

  • Intermittent computer science and software engineering educator at undergraduate and master’s level programs with experience and opinions on accreditation, course contents, student projects, and associated research

  • Accelerated self-study and survival training from the community of persons with disabilities, the industry and professions serving them, and the means for activism based in social media like twitter, blogs, and podcasts

  • Lingering awareness of my own failings before my vision loss, including software without accessibility hooks, web pages lacking structural/semantic markup, and , worst of all, omission of accessibility considerations from most courses and projects. My personal glass house lies in slivers around me as I shout “if only I knew then, when I was professionally active, what I know now, as a semi-retiree living with the consequences and continuing failures of my profession.

what is “computational thinking” and what does it have to do with accessibility?

This term was coined by dr. Jeannette wing in a 2006 article, and best expressed in her
Royal society presentation and podcast conversations. for our purposes, CT asks for more precise description of abstractions used in assistive technology, web design, and mainstream browsers, etc. The gold standard of web accessibility for my personal kind of disability, shared with millions of Americans, is the bottom line of reading and interacting with web sites as well as currently normally sighted persons. To an amazing degree, audio and hearing replaces pixels and seeing provided designs do support cooperation of assistive technology at both primitive levels and costs for effort expended. I’ll illustrate some fledgling computational thinking in a later section and by touring CS and other websites, but, sorry, this won’t be a very pleasant experience for either me the performer or listeners.


CSE can benefit from the more rigorous application of CT to meet its societal obligations while opening up new areas of research in science and technology leading to more universal designs for everybody. To emphasize, however, this is not a venture requiring more research before vast improvements can be achieved, but rather a challenge to educators to take ownership and produce more aware computing professionals. …

Driving forces of society, Technology, and science


Here’s a summary of trends and issues worthy of attention within CSE and suggested actions that might be grafted appropriately.

driving forces from society

computer science education has a knowledge gap regarding accessibility


As excellently argued in a course description “Accessibility First”, web design in general, accessibility, and assistive technology are at best service learning or research specialties falling under human computer interface or robotics. where do Cs students gain exposure to human differences, the ethics of producing and managing systems usable by everybody, and the challenges of exploring design spaces with universal intentions.


The extensive webliography below offers the best examples I could find, so please add others as comments. Note that I do not reference digital libraries because (1) the major ACM Portal is accessibility deficient itself and (2) I object to the practice of professional contributions being available only at a charge. The practice of professional society control over publications forces a gulf between academic researchers and a vibrant community of practitioners, including designers, tool builders, accessibility consultants and activists.


Action: Use the above definition framework to describe the characteristics of the following as ordinary or assistive: keyboards, tablets with stylus, onscreen keyboard, mouse, screens, fonts, gestures, etc. How do these interfaces serve (1) product developers and (2) product users? Where is the line between assistive and mainstream technology?


Action: see the proposed expansion of the National computer Science education proclamation in our conclusions. Debate the merits of both the whereas assumptions the therefore call to action. Are these already principles adopted and practiced within CSE?

Disability is so prevalent that accessibility is a uniform product requirement.

Being disabled is common, an estimated 15% of U.S.A. population with serious enough visual impairment to require adjustments from sites designed assuming full capabilities of acuity, contrast, and color. Eyesight changes are inevitable throughout life, even without underlying conditions such as macular degeneration or severe myopia. Visual abilities vary also with ambient conditions such as lighting, glare, and now size and brightness of small screens on mobile devices. considering other impairments, a broken arm, carpal tunnel injury, or muscle weakness give a different appreciation for interaction with a mouse, keyboard, or touch screen. As often said, we will all be disabled some way if we live long enough. Understanding of human differences is essential to production of good software, hardware, and documentation. Luckily, there are increasingly more specimens, like me, willing to expose and explain my differing abilities and a vast library of demonstrations recorded in podcasts and videos.


Action: view You tube videos such as the blind web designer using a screen reader explaining the importance of headings on web pages. Summarize the differences in how he operates from currently sighted web users. How expensive is the use of Headings? See more later in our discussion of CT for Headings.


Action: visit or invite the professionals from your organization’s Disability services, Learning center, or whatever it is called. These specialists can explain disabilities, assistive technology, educational adjustments, and legal requirements.


Action: Is accessibility for everybody, everywhere, all the time a reasonable requirement? What are the ethics and tradeoffs of a decision against accommodation? What are the responsibilities of those requiring accommodations?

The ‘curb cut’ principle suggests how accessibility is better for everyone


Curb cuts for wheelchairs also guide blind persons into street crossings and prevent accidents for baby strollers, bicyclists, skateboarders, and inattentive walkers. The “curb cuts” principle is that removing a barrier for persons with disabilities improves the situation for everybody. This hypothesis suggests erasing the line that labels some technologies as assistive and certain practices as accessibility to maximize the benefits for future users of all computer-enabled devices. This paradigm requires a new theory of design that recognizes accessibility flaws as unexplored areas of the design space, potential harbingers of complexity and quality loss, plus opportunities for innovation in architectures and interfaces. Additionally, web accessibility ennobles our profession and is just good for business.


Action: List physical barriers and adaptations in your vicinity, not only curb cuts, but signage, safety signals, and personal helpers. Identify how these accommodate people with canes, wheelchairs, service animals, etc. And also identify ways these are either helpful or hampering individuals without disabilities. Look at settings of computers and media used by instructors in classrooms. Maybe a scavenger hunt is a good way to collect empirical physical information and heighten awareness.


Action: Identify assistive technology and accessibility techniques that are also useful for reasons different from accessibility? e.g. A keyboard enabled web page or browser tabs support power users.

Persons with disabilities assert their civil rights to improve technology.


while most of us dislike lawsuits and lawyers, laws are continuously tested and updated to deal with conflicts, omissions, and harm. Often these are great educational opportunities on both the challenges of living with disabilities and the engineering modifications, sometimes minor, for accommodations. Commercial websites like amazon, iTunes, the Law School aptitude test, small business administration, and Target are forcefully reminded that customers are driven away by inaccessibility of graphics, menus, forms, and shopping carts. Conversely, recently, I had a quick and easy checkout from a Yahoo small business website, greatly raising my respect and future return likelihood whenever I see the product vendor and website provider.


Devices such as controllers on communication systems, the amazon Kindle, and new software like google WAVE and chrome browser often launch with only accessibility promises, excluding offensively and missing feedback opportunities from persons with disabilities. Over and over, it is shown that the proverbial software rule of increasing cost of fixing missing requirements late is exemplified by accessibility, whether legal or business motivated. While a lawsuit can amazingly accelerate accessibility, companies with vast resources like Microsoft, Oracle, blackboard, and google are now pitted in accessibility races with Yahoo, apple, and others. The bar is rapidly being raised by activism and innovation.


for many The social good of enabling equal access to computing is an attractor to a field renowned for nerds and greed. Social entrepreneurs offer an expansive sense of opening doors to not only education and entertainment but also employment, that now stands around 20% for disabled persons. Many innovative nonprofit organizations take  advantage of copyright exemptions building libraries and technology aids for alternatives to print and traditional reading.  


The computing curb cuts principle can motivate professionals, services, and end users to achieve the potential beauty and magic of computing in everyday life, globally, and for everybody who will eventually make the transition into some form of sensory, motor, or mental deficiency. But, first, mainstream computing must open its knowledge and career paths to encompass the visionaries and advances now segregated. All too often persons with disabilities are more advanced, diversified, and skill full in ways that could benefit not yet disabled people.


Action: The ubiquitous bank ATM offers a well documented ten year case study of how mediation led to a great improvement in independent living. for visually impaired people. Take those ear buds out of the MP3 player and try them on a local ATM, asking for service help if needed or ATM is not voice enabled. Using a voice enabled ATM also provides insight into the far more problematic area of electronic voting systems.


Action:
the amazon Kindle lawsuit by blind advocates against universities considering, or rejecting, the
device and its textbook market provides a good subject for debate.


Action: On the home front, pedagogical advances claimed for visual programming languages like Alice are not equally available to visually impaired students and teachers. first, is this a true assertion? How does this situation fit the definition of equal or equivalent access to educational opportunities? should the platform and implementation be redone for accessibility? Note: I’ve personally seen a student rapidly learn OO concepts and sat in on Cs1 courses with Alice, but I am totally helpless with only a bright, silent blob on the screen after download. Yes, I’ve spoken to SIGCSE and Alice personnel, suggested accessibility options, but never received a response on what happens to the blind student who signs up for an Alice-based CS course. Please comment if you have relevant experience with accommodations and Alice or other direct manipulation techniques.

The Web has evolved a strong set of standards and community of supporters.

W3c led efforts are now at 2.0 with an evolved suite of standards products, including documents, validator’s, and design tools. standards go a long way enabling accessibility by both their prescriptions and rationales, often drawing on scientific principles, such as color perception. but the essence of web standards is to define the contracts among browsers and related web technologies that enables designers to predict the appearance of and interaction with their designed sites and pages. The theme of WCAG 2.0 sums up as Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. we all owe a debt to the Web standards Mafia for their technical contributions, forceful advocacy to vendors, and extensive continuing education.


Web standards are sufficiently mature, socially necessary, and business worthy that open, grassroots motivated curricula are being defined. CSE people who understand CT may well be able to contribute to this effort uniquely. In any case, questions about the relationship of tradition CS education and this independent curriculum movement must be addressed considering the large workforce of web designers, including accessibility specialists. Furthermore, web design inherently requires close designer and client communication, making it difficult to offshore into different culture settings.


Action: Use the #accessibility and #a11y hash tags on twitter to track the latest community discussions, mostly presented in blogs and podcasts. Pick a problem, like data tables, to learn the accessibility issues from these experts. find and create good and bad examples, but note you may need a screen reader software for this. can you characterize the alternatives and tradeoffs in CT terms?


Action: Create or try some web page features in several different browsers. Notice the differences in appearance and operation. Which sections of WCAG apply to noticeable differences or similarities?


Action: What is the career connection of computer science and web design? What are the demographics, salary, portability, and other qualities of web design versus traditional CS and SE jobs?

Transparency and dissemination of federal government data is drawing attention to accessibility

First, a remodeled whitehouse.gov drew accolades and criticisms. New websites like data.gov and recovery.gov appeared to reinforce the Obama administration promises. Disability.gov showed up on my radar screen through its Twitter flow. All these web sources, are now in my RSS feed reading regime. But the websites seem to be still behind on some aspects of accessibility, and under scrutiny by activists, including me. Personally, I’d be satisfied with a common form for requesting data and services, not the elements itself but well evolved interaction patterns through feedback and validation. More importantly, the data sets and analyses are challenging for visually impaired people, suggesting even new scientific research and novel technology to utilize alterative non-visual senses and brain power.


Additionally, innovation in assistive technology and accessibility is recognized at the National Center for Technology Innovation, with emphasis on portability and convergence with mainstream technology. Indeed, apparently, there are stimulus funds available in education and in communication systems.


Action: Visit the various USG cabinet department websites and then write down your main perception of their quality and ability to answer questions.


Action: Find examples of USG website forms users fill out for contacts, download of data sets, mailing lists, etc. How easy is filling out the forms> what mistakes do you make? How long does each take? Which forms are best and worst?

Action:
Check out on recovery.gov whether any stimulus funds are being spent on assistive technology. Or perhaps that information is on Deptart of Education sites as plans or solicitations.

Mainstream and assistive technologies are beginning to cross over.


BusinessWeek notes a number of examples:
Clearly mobile devices are driving this change. Embedding VoiceOver in Mac OS, transferred then to products like IPod Touch, has motivated a number of blind “screenless switchers”. Google calls its version on Android “eyes-free”. For those long stuck in the “blindness ghetto” of products costing $1000s with small company support and marketing chains through disability support service purveyors, this is a big deal. Conversely, although limited by terms of amendment under the Chafee agreement, members of Bookshare have enjoyed access to a rapidly growing library of texts, really XML documents, read in synthetic speech by now pocket size devices than cross Kindle and IPod capabilities. There’s never been a better time to lose some vision if one is a technology adopter willing to spend off retirement funds to remain active and well informed. The aging baby boomer generation that drives USA cost concerns will be a vast market in need of keeping up with the government flow of information, electronic documentation, not to mention younger generations.


But, while this Vision Loser is happy with the technology trend, to those disabled around the world working with older or non-existent computing environments this and free, open source trends make truly life changing differences.


Action: What are the job qualifications for working in the areas of assistive technology and accessibility? Is this business are growing, and in what regions of the USA or the world?

Technology drivers

social media opens the culture of disability and the assistive markets for all computing professionals to explore.


while the cultures of disability may operate separate systems of societies and websites, in the case of vision impairment, the resources are right there for everybody to learn from, primarily by demos disseminated as podcasts by blind cool Tech, accessible world, and vendors. several annual conferences feature free exhibit halls visited by disability professionals, independent disabled like me, and luminaries like stevie wonder. cSUN is the biggest and a good place to get vendor and product lists. Again, many products can be seen in local disability support services. Local computer societies and CS courses may find well equipped people who can present like my Using things that Talk. This is a vibrant world of marketing closely couple with users, highly professional demos, and innovative developers, often disabled themselves. I personally treasure shaking hands with and thanking the young blind guys behind my Levelstar Icon and NVDA screen readers. Also, mailing lists are to various degrees helpful to the newly disabled, and rarely particular about age and gender. it’s a great technology culture to be forced into.

Action: Whenever you’re in a large enough city, visit their local vision training centers. I think you’ll be welcome, and might leave as a volunteer.


Action: With well over a thousand podcasts, dozens of blogs, and a regular tweet stream, the entry points for learning are abundant. However, the terminology and styles of presenters and presentations vary widely. Consider an example, often used in computer science, like David Harel’s watch, the microwave oven, or elevator controller. How do the state diagrams manifest in speech interfaces? Can you reverse engineer device descriptions using computational thinking? How could this help disabled users or accessibility providers?

Text-to-speech (TTS) is a mature technology with commodity voices.


Screen reader users rely on software implemented speech engines which use data files of word-to-sound mappings, i.e. voices. built into Mac Os, and widely available in windows and Linux, this mature technology supports a marketplace of voices available in open source or purchased with varying degrees of licensing, at a cost of about $25. comparable engines and voices are the main output channel of mobile assistive devices, like now I type on the Levelstar Icon. web pages, books, dialogs, email, … reading is all in our mind through our ears, not our eyes. An amazing and not yet widely appreciated breakthrough of a lineage of speech pioneers dating back to 1939 through DecTalk ATT Natural voices and now interactions with voice

recognition.


Action: Wikipedia has a great chronology and description of synthetic speech. Track this with Moore’s law and the changes of technology over decades.


Action: Compare synthetic voices, e.g. using samples from vendor nextup.com or the ‘As Your World Changes’ blog samples.

Processor and storage enable more and more talking devices. why not everything?

Alarm clocks, microwave ovens, thermostats, and
many more everyday objects are speech enabled to some degree, see the demos on blind cool Tech and accessible world. I carry my library of 1000+ books everywhere in a candy bar sized screen-less device. but why stop until these devices are wirelessly connected with meaningful contextual networks. Thermostats could relay information about climate and weather trends, power company and power grid situations, and feedback on settings and recommended adjustments. Devices can carry their own manuals and training.


Action: Listen to podcasts on blind cool Tech and accessible world about talking devices and how they are in use by visually impaired people. Reverse engineer the devices into state machines, use cases, and write conversations between devices and users in “natural language”, assuming ease of speech output.


Action: Inventory some devices that might be redesigned for talking, even talkative. Electrical or chemical laboratory instruments, medical devices, home appliances, cars and other moving things, etc. But what would these devices speak? How do they avoid noise pollution? interference? annoyance?


Action: Computer science researchers are great at devising advanced solutions that provide service to relatively few disabled persons. For example, I have no use of GPS because if I’m somewhere I don’t know, I’m in bigger trouble than needing coordinates. This would b different in a city with public transportation, maybe. How do we evaluate technology solutions with the user, not the technology purveyor, as the main beneficiary?

Pivotal technology for visually impaired, the screen reader, is rapidly evolving through open source

A screen reader doesn’t really read pixels but rather the interfaces and objects in the browser and desktop. GUI objects expose their behaviors and properties for the screen reader to read and operate via TTS. Listen to the demos of Cs websites you may be familiar with. Unfortunately the marketplace for screen readers has been priced at over $1000 with steep SMA updates and limits in trials and distribution. Products largely sold to rehab and disability services passed on to users, with limited sales to individuals. This is a killer situation for older adults who find themselves needing assistance but without the social services available to veterans, students, and employee mandated. Worse, product patents are being employed by lawyers and company owners (some non USA) as competitive lawsuits.

however, the world has changed with the development over the past few years of NVDA, Non visual desktop access, originating in Australia with grants from Mozilla, then yahoo and Microsoft. A worldwide user community adapts NVDA for locale and Tts languages, with constant feedback to core developers. gradually, through both modern languages (Python) and browser developer collaborations, NVDA is challenging the market. You can’t beat free, portable, and easily installed if the product works well enough, as NVDA has for me since 2007. It’s fun to watch and support an agile upstart, as the industry is constantly changing with new web technologies like ARIA. The main problem with NVDA is robustness in the competing pools for memory resources and inevitable Windows restarts and unwanted updates.

Action: download and install NVDA. Listen to demos to learn its use. You will probably need to upgrade TTS voices from its distributed, also open, Espeak.

Action: learn how to test web pages with NVDA, with tutorials available from Webaim and Firefox. Define testing criteria (see standards) and processes. Note: good area here for new educational material, building on CS and SE testing theories and practices.


Action: develop testing practices, tools, and theories for NVDA itself. since screen readers are abstraction oriented, CT rigor could help.


Action: Modify NVDA to provide complexity and cost information. Is there a Magic Metric that NVDA could apply to determine with, say 80% agreement with visually impaired users, that a page was OK, DoOver, or of questionable quality in some respect?

structured text enables book and news reading in a variety of devices..


DAISY is a specification widely implemented to represent books, newspapers, magazines, manuals, etc. Although few documents fully exploit its structuring capabilities, in principle, a hierarchy of levels with headings allows rapid navigation of large textual objects. for example, the Sunday NY Times, has 20 sections, editorials, automobiles, obituaries, etc. separated into articles. Reading involves arrowing to interesting sections, selecting articles, listening in TTS until end of article or nauseous click to next article. books arrive as folders of size usually less than 1 MB. reader devices and software manage bookmarks, possibly in recorded voice, and last stopping point, causes by user action or sleep timer. In addition to audible and National narrated reading services with DRM, The TTS reading regime offers a rich world from 60,000+ books contributed by volunteers and publishers to bookshare and soon over 1M DAISY formatted public books through bookserver.org.
These are not directly web accessibility capabilities as in browsers but rather do read HTML as text, support RS’s reading of articles on blogs, and include browsers with certain limits, as in no Flash.
Over time, these devices contribute to improved speech synthesis for use everywhere, including replacement of human voice organs. Steven Hawking, blogger heroine ‘left thumbed blogger’ Glenda with cerebral palsy, and others use computer and mobile devices to simply communicate speech.


Action: Listen to podcasts demos of devices like Icon, booksense, Plextalk, Victor stream. What capabilities make reading possible, tolerable, or pleasant? Voice, speed, flexibility, cost, access, …?

Accessibility tools are available, corresponding to static analyzers and style checkers for code.

While not uniformly agreeing, accurate, or helpful, standards groups provide online validator’s to “test” accessibility. For example, WAVE from webaim.org, marks up a page with comments derived from web standards guidelines, like “problematic link”, “unmatched brackets”, java script interactions (if java script disabled), header outline anomalies, missing graphic explanations, small or invisible text. It’s easy to use this checker, just fill in the URL. However, interpreting results takes some skill and knowledge. Just as with a static analyzer, there are false hits, warnings where the real problem is elsewhere, and a tendency to drive developers into details that miss the main flaws. Passing with clean marks is also not sufficient as a page may still be overly complex or incomprehensible.


Action: Below is a list of websites from my recorded tour. Copy the link into WebAim.org WAVE (not the Google one) and track the markup and messages to my complaints or other problems. show how you would redesign the page, if necessary, using this feedback.


Action: redesign the ACM digital library and portal in a shadow website to show how a modern use of structured HTML would help.


Action: consider alternatives to PDF delivery formats. Would articles be more or less usable in DAISY?


Action: design suites of use cases for alternative digital libraries of computer science content. which library or search engine is most cost effective for maintenance and users?

science drivers

Understanding of brain plasticity suggests new ways of managing disabilities

Brain science should explain the unexpected effectiveness and pleasure of reading without vision.


My personal story. Although I was experimenting with TTS reading of web pages, I had little appreciation, probably induced by denial, of how I could ever read books or long articles in their entirety. since it was
only a few weeks after I gave up on my Newsweek and reading on archetypes until my retina specialist pronounced me beyond the acuity level of legal blindness, I only briefly flirted with magnifiers, the trade of low vision specialists. rather, upon advice of another legally blind professional I met through her book and podcasts interviews, I immediately joined the wonderful nonprofit bookshare.org. A few trials with some very good synthetic voices and clunky PC-based software book readers lead me to the best at that time handheld device, the Bookport from APH, American Printing House for the blind. within weeks, I was scouring bookshare, then around 20,000 volumes, for my favorite authors and, wonders be, best sellers to download to my bookport. At first, I abhorred the synthetic voice, but if that was all that stood between me and regular reading, I could grow to love old precious Paul. going on 4 years, 2 GB of books, and a spare of the discontinued bookport, I still risk strangulation from ear buds at night with bookport beside me. Two book clubs broadened my reading into deeper unfamiliar nonfiction terrain and the Levelstar Icon became my main retriever from bookshare, now up to 60,000 volumes with many teenage series and nationally available school textbooks. I tell this story not only to encourage others losing vision, but also as a testimonial to the fact that I I am totally and continually amazed and appreciative that my brain morphed so easily from visual reading of printed books to TTS renditions in older robotic style voices. I really don’t believe my brain knows the difference about plot, characters, and details with the exception of difficult proper names and tables of data (more later). Neuroscientists and educators write books about the evolution of print but rarely delve into these questions of effectiveness and pleasure of pure reading by TTS. The best exceptional research is Clifford Nass A ‘wire for speech’ on how our brains react to gender, ethnicity, age, emotion, and other factors of synthetic speech. such a fascinating topic!

Action: Listen to some of the samples of synthetic speech on my website, e.g. the blockbuster ‘Lost symbol’ sample. Which voices affect your understanding of the content? How much do you absorb compared with reading the text sample? Extrapolate into reading the whole book using the voices you prefer, or can tolerate, and consider how you might appreciate the book plot, characters, and scenery Do you prefer male or female voices? Why?.

Numerical literacy is an open challenge for visual disability.

I personally encountered this problem trying to discuss a retirement report based around asset allocations expressed in pie charts. Now, I understand charts well, even programmed a chart tool. But I could find no way to replace the fluency of seeing a pie chart by reading the equivalent data in a table. This form of literacy, a form of numeracy, needs more work in the area of Trans-literacy, using multiple forms of perception and mental reasoning. Yes, a pie chart can be rendered in tactile form, like Braille pin devices, but these are still expensive. Sound can convey some properties, but these depend on good hearing and a different part of the brain. Personally, I’d like to experiment with a widget operated by keyboard, primarily arrow keys, that also read numbers with different pitches, voices, volume, or other parameters. The escalating sound of a progress bar is available in my screen reader, for example. Is there a composite survey somewhere of alternative senses and brain training to replace reading charts? Could this be available in the mainstream technology market? How many disabilities or educational deficiencies of education and training might also be addressed in otherwise not disabled people?
Is there an app for that?


Action: Inventory graphical examples where data tables or other structures provide sufficient alternatives to charts? Prototype a keyboard-driven, speech-enabled widget for interaction with chart like representations of data. Thank you for using me as a test subject.


Action: Moving from charts to general diagrams, how can blind students learn equivalent data structures like lists, graphs, state machines, etc.?

Web science needs accessibility criteria and vice versa.


The web is a vast system of artifacts, of varying ages,
HTML generations, human and software generated, important, etc. could current site and page accessibility evaluation scale to billions of pages in a sweep of accessibility improvement?
Surveys currently profile how screen readers are used and the distribution of HTML element usage.


Do a web search, in bing, Yahoo, google, or dogpile, whatever, and you’ll probably find a satisficing page , and a lot you wish not to visit or never visit again. Multiply that effort by , say 10, for every page that’s poorly designed or inaccessible to consider the search experience of the visually impaired. Suppose also that the design flaws that count as accessibility failures also manifest as stumbles or confusion for newer or less experience searchers. Now consider the failure rate of serious flaws of, , say, 90% of all pages. Whew, there’s a lot of barriers and waste in them there web sites.


experienced accessibility analysts , like found on webAxe podcasts and blog, can sort out good, bad, and just problematic features. Automated validation tools can point out many outright problems and hint at deeper design troubles.


Let’s up the level and assume we could triage the whole web, yep, all billions of pages as matched with experimental results of real evaluators, say visually impaired web heads like me and those accessibility experts. This magic metric, MM, has three levels: OK, no show stoppers by human evaluators; at 80% agreement; DO OVER, again with human evaluators 80% agreement of awfulness; and remaining requiring reconciliation of human and metric. Suppose an independent crawler or search engine robot used this MM to tag sites and pages. probably nothing would happen. but if…

Action: declare a week of clean Up the web, where the MM invokes real Acton to perform “do over” or “reconcile”. Now, we’re paying attention to design factors that really matter and instigating serious design thought. All good, all we need is that MM.

Action: which profession produces the most accessible pages, services, and sites? computer scientists seem to be consistently remiss on headings, but are chemists or literary analysts any better? If acm.org is as bad as I claim, are other professional societies more concerned about quality of service to their members? what are they doing the same or differently?
How does the quality of accessibility affect the science of design as applied to web pages, sites, and applications?

Accessibility needs a Science of Design and Vice Versa


Accessibility concerns often lead into productive unexplored design regions.
Accessibility and usability are well defined if underused principles of product quality.  The ‘curb cuts’ principle suggests that a defect with respect to these qualities is in a poorly understood or unexplored area of a design. Often  a problem that presents only a little trouble for the expected “normal” user is a major hassle or show stopper for those with certain physical or cognitive deficiencies. However, those flaws compound and often invisibly reduce productivity for all users. Increasingly, these deficiencies arise from ambient environmental conditions such as glare, noise, and potential damage to users or devices.


Moreover, these problems may also indicate major flaws related to the integrity of a design and long term maintainability of the product. An example is the omission of Headings on an HTML page that makes it difficult to find content and navigation divisions with a screen reader. This flaw usually reveals an underlying lack of clarity about the purpose and structure of the website and page. Complexity and difficult usability often arise from missing and muddled use cases. Attitudes opposing checklist standards often lead to perpetuating poor practices such as the silly link label “click here”.


The ‘curb cuts’ principle leads toward a theory of design that  requires remedy of accessibility problems not as a kindness to users nor to meet a governmental regulation but rather to force exploration through difficult or novel parts of the design terrain. The paradigm of “universal design” demands attention to principles that should influence requirements, choice of technical frameworks, and attention to different aesthetics and other qualities.   For example, design principles may address  where responsibilities lie for speech information to a user, thus questioning whether alternative architectures should be considered. Applying this principle early and thoroughly potentially removes many warts of the product that now require clumsy and expensive accessibility grafts or do-overs.


Just as the design patterns movement grew from the architectural interests of Christopher Alexander, attention to universal design should help mature the fields for software and hardware. The “curb cuts” principle motivates designers to think beyond the trim looking curb to consider the functionality to really serve and attract ever more populations of end users.


The accessibility call for action, accommodation, translates into a different search space and broader criteria plus a more ethically or economically focused trade-off analysis. now, design is rarely explicitly exploration, criterion’s, or tradeoff-focused. but the qualitative questions of inclusive design often jolt designers into broader consider of design alternatives. web standards such as WCAG 2.0 provide ways to prune alternatives as well as generate generally accepted good alternatives. It’s that simple: stay within the rules, stray only if you understand the rationales for these rules, and temper trade-off analysis with empathy toward excluded users or hard cool acceptance of lost buyer or admirers. well, that’s not really so simple, but expresses why web standards groups are so important and helpful — pruning, generating, and rationalizing is their contribution to web designers professional effectiveness and peace of mind.


Action: Reconstruct a textbook design to identify assumptions about similarities and differences of users. Force the design to explore extremes such as missing or defective mouse and evaluate the robustness of the design.


Action: Find an example of a product that illustrates universal design. How were its design alternatives derived and evaluated?

revving Up our computational Thinking on accessibility

POSH (Plain Old semantic HTML) and headings

POSH focuses our attention on common structural elements of HTML that add
meaning to our content with Headings and Lists as regular features. An enormous
number of web pages are free of headings or careless about their use. The
general rule is to outline the page in a logical manner: h1, H2, h3,…,H6, in
hierarchical ordering.
why is this so important for accessibility?

  1. headings. support page abstraction. reaching a page, whether first or return
    visit, I, and many other screen reader users, take a ‘heading tour’. Using our ‘h’ key repeatedly to visit headings, gives a rapid-fire reading of the parts of the page and an
    introduction to the terminology of the web site and page content. bingo! a good
    heading tour and my brain has a mental map and a quick plan for achieving my
    purpose for being there. No headings and, argh, I have to learn the same thing
    through links and weaker structures like lists. At worst I need to tab along
    the focus trail of HTML elements, usually a top-bottom, left-right ordering.

  2. Page abstraction enables better than linear search if I know roughly what I
    want. for example, looking for colloquium talks on a Cs website is likely to
    succeed by heading toward News and Events, whatever. with likely a few dozen
    page parts, linear search is time and energy consuming, although often leading
    to interesting distractions.

  3. Page abstraction encourages thinking about cohesion of parts, where to
    modularize, how to describe parts, and consistent naming. This becomes
    especially important for page maintainers, and eventually page readers, when
    new links are added. Just like software design, cohesion and coupling plus
    naming help control maintenance. An example of where this goes wrong is the
    “bureaucratic guano” on many government web pages, where every administrator
    and program manager needs to leave their own links but nobody has the page
    structure as their main goal.

  4. while it’s not easy to prove, but plausible, SEO (search engine optimizers)
    claim headings play a role in page rankings. This appeals to good sense that
    words used in headings are more important so worth higher weights for search
    accuracy. It might also mean pages are better designed, but this is just
    conventional wisdom of users with accessibility needs.

so, we have abstraction, search, design quality, and metrics applied to the
simple old semantic HTML Heading construct.


Now, this rudimentary semantic use of Headings is the current best practice, supplementing the deprecated Accs Tags that all keyboard users can exploit to reach standard page locations, like search box and navigation. Rather, headings refine and define better supplements for access tags. Going further, the ARIA brand of HTML encourages so-called ‘landmarks’ which can also be toured and help structure complex page patterns such as search results. The NVDA screen reader reports landmarks as illustrated on AccessibleTwitter and Bookshare. Sites without even Headings appear quaint and deliberately unhelpful.

The Readable conference program Problem

I recently attended a conference of 3.5 days with about 7 tracks per session.
The document came as a PDF without markup, apparently derived from a WORD
document with intended use in printed form. Oh, yeah, it was 10MB download with
decorations and all conference info.


I was helpless to read this myself. yes, I could use the screen reader but
could not mentally keep in mind all the times and tracks and speakers and
topics. I couldn’t read like down Tracks or across sessions nor mark talks to
attend. Bummer, I needed a sighted reader and then still had to keep the
program in mind while attending.


A HTML version of the preliminary program was decidedly more usable. Hey, this is what hypertext is all about! Links from talks to tracks and sessions and vice versa, programs by days or half-days subdivided on pages, real HTML data tables with headers that can be interpreted by screen reader, albeit still slowly and painfully.
that’s better, but would be unpopular with sighted people who
wanted a stapled or folded printout.


OK, we know this is highly structured data so how about a database? This would
permit, with some SQL and HTML, wrapping, generation of multiple formats, e.g.
emphasizing tracks or sessions or topics,… But this wouldn’t likely distill
into a suitable printable document. Actually, MS WORD is programmable, so the
original route is still possible but not often considered. Of course, it’s often more difficult to enter data into forms for a database, but isn’t that what student helpers are for? Ditto the HTML generation from the database.


The best compromise might be using appropriate Header styles in WORD and
use an available DAISY export so the program in XML could be navigated in our
book readers.


This example points the persistent problem that PDF, which prints well and
downloads intact, is a bugger when it loses its logical structure. Sighted
readers see that structure, print disable people get just loads of text. This
is especially ironic when the parts originally had semantic markup lost in
translation to PDF, as occurs with NSF proposals.


so, here I’m trying to point out a number of abstraction problems, very
mundane, but amenable to an accommodation by abstracting to a database type of
model or fully exploiting markup and accessible format in WORD. Are there other
approaches? Does characterizing this problem in terms of trade-offs among abstractions and loss of structural information motivate computer scientists to approach their conference responsibilities different?


More generally, accessibility strongly suggests that HTML be the dominant document type on the web, with PDF, TXT, WORD, etc. As supplementary. Adobe and free lance consultants work very hard to explain how PDF may be made accessible, but that’s just not happening, nor will this replace probably millions of moldering PDFs. Besides negligent accessibility, forcing a user out of a browser into a separate application causes resources allocated and inevitable security updates.

Design by Progressive Enhancement&lt


‘Graceful degradation’ didn’t work for web design, e.g. when a browser has javascript turned off, or an older browser is used, or a browser uses a small screen. Web designers recast their process to focus on content first, then styles, and finally interactive scripting. There’s a lot more in the practitioner literature that might well be amenable to computational thinking, e.g. tools that support and ease the enhancement process as well as the reverse accommodation of browser limitations. Perhaps tests could be generated to work in conjunction with the free screen reader, to encourage web developers to place themselves in the user context, especially requiring accessibility.


So, here’s a challenge for those interested in Science of Design, design patterns, and test methods with many case studies on the web, discussed in blogs and podcasts.

Touring CS websites by screen reader
– download MP3


Are you up for something different? Download

MP3 illustration of POSH Computer Science websites 45 minutes, 20 MB
. This is me talking abot what I find at the following locations, pointing out good and bad accessibility features. You should get a feeling of life using a screen reader and how I stumble around websites. And, please, let me interject that we’re all learning to make websites better, including my own past and present.

Note: I meant POSH=”Plain old semantic HTML” but sometimes said “Plain old simple HTML”. Sorry about the ringing alarm. Experimental metadata: Windows XP, Firefox, NVDA RC 2009, ATT Mike and Neo speech Kate, PlexTalk Pocket recorder.

Web Sites Visited on CSE screen reader tour


  1. U. Texas Austin


    Comments:
    Firm accessibility statement;
    graphic description?;
    headings cover all links?;
    good to have RSS;
    pretty POSH


  2. U. Washington


    Comments:
    No headings, uses layout tables (deprecated);
    good use of ALT describing graphics;
    not POSH


  3. U. Arizona


    Comments:
    all headings at H1, huh?;
    non informative links ‘learn more’;
    not POSH


  4. CS at cmu.edu


    Comments:
    no headings;
    non informative graphics and links;
    unidentified calendar trap;
    definitely not POSH


  5. Computational Thinking Center at CMU


    Comments:
    no headings;
    strange term probes:;
    non informative links PPT, PDF;
    poor POSH


  6. CRA Computing Research Association


    Comments:

    no headings;
    interminable links unstructured list;
    not so POSH


  7. ACM.org and DL portal


    Comments:
    irregular headings on main page;
    no headings on DL portal;
    noninformative links to volumes;
    hard to find category section;
    poo POSH


  8. Computer Educators Oral History Project CHEOP


    Comments:
    straightforward headings;
    don’t need “looks good” if standard;
    good links;
    POSH enough


  9. NCWIT National Center Women Information Technology


    Comments:
    doesn’t conform to accessibility statement;
    graphics ALT are not informative;
    link ‘more’ lacks context;
    headings irregular;
    do over for POSH

So, what to do with these POSH reports?


Clearly, some sites could use some more work to become world class role models for accessibility. At first glance, my reports and those that would be compiled from validator’s like WebAim WAVE indicate that some HTML tweaking would yield improvements. Maybe, but most websites are under the control of IT or new media or other departments, or maybe outsourced to vendors. Changes would then require negotiation. Another complication is that once a renovation starts, it is all too easy to use the change for a much more extensive overhaul. Sometimes, fixes might not be so easy, as often is indicated by the processes of progressive enhancement. This is classical maintenance process management, as in software engineering.


However, hey, why not use this as a design contest? Which student group can produce a mockup shadow website that is attractive and also meets the WCAG, validator, and even the SLGer tests?


Just saying, here’s a great challenge for CSE to (1) learn more about accessibility and web standards, (2) make websites role models for other institutions, and (3) improve service for prospective students, parents, and benefactors.

conclusion: A Call To Action

To the proclamation, let us informally add

  • whereas society, including the Cs field itself, requires that all information, computer-based technology be available to all persons with disabilities,

  • whereas computer science is the closest academic field to the needs and opportunities for universal accessibility,


  • Disabled individuals are particularly under-represented in computing fields, in disparate proportion to the importance of disability in the economic and social well-being of the nation

  • therefore
  • computer science educators will adapt their curricula to produce students with professional awareness of the range of human abilities, the resources for responding to needs of persons with disabilities

  • computer science education will be open and welcoming to all persons with disabilities both helping the person to reach their own employment potential and opportunity to contribute to society and (2) inform educators and other students about their abilities, needs, domain knowledge,

See next post for Webliography

Comments, Corrections, Complaint?

Please add your comments below and I’ll moderate asap.
Yes, I know there are lots of typos but I’m tired of listening to myself, will proof-listen again later.
Longer comments to slger123@gamail.com. Join in the Twitter discussion of #accessibility by following me as slger123.


Thanks for listening.

Webliography for ‘Grafting Accessibility onto Computer Science Education’

December 7, 2009

References for ‘Grafting Accessibility Onto Computer Science’ Education

This webliography accompanies an article on <‘As Your World Changes; post on ‘Grafting Accessibility onto Computer Science Education’ Dec 7 2009 That article analyzes trends in Society, technology, and Science and suggests actions for exercises, projects, and debates suitable for traditional computer science courses. See also a recording of how CS web sites appear to a visually impaired person using a screen reader.
The article’s theme is the application of computational thinking to accessibility problems and techniques.

Computational Thinking


  1. Computational Thinking and Thinking About Computing, Jeannette wing, Royal Society


  2. Jon Udell Podcast Interview with Dr. Jeannette Wing on Computational Thinking


  3. Jon Udell Interview Podcast with Joan Peckham on NSF Computational Thinking activities


  4. Center for Computational Thinking Carnegie Mellon University

Accessibility Resources


  1. IEEE ‘Accessing the Future’ 09 Conference

    Recommendation 1: # In standards and universal design it is imperative that accessibility and the needs of people with disabilities are incorporated into the education of those who will generate future ICT.

  2. Assistive Tech and organization conferences and exhibits, e.g. CSUN Cal State North ridge accessibility conference(San Diego)

  3. User Centered Design Blog post on future of accessibility


  4. Project Possibility Open Source for Accessibility


  5. Knowbility Consulting, John Slatan Access U


  6. Business Week series on assistive technology


  7. Understanding Progressive Enhancement


  8. National Center on Technology Innovation brief on Assistive Technology

    Portability, customization, etc.


  9. Five Key Trends in Assistive Technology, NCIT summarized


  10. Webaim.org with guidelines, validator, NVDA testing, screen reader survey


  11. Opera’s MOMA Discovers What’s Under the Web Hood


  12. Hakob Nielsen AlertBox and Beyond ALT Report


  13. Podcast series on practical accessibility, see #74 ‘Back to Basics’


  14. Video on importance of HTML headings


  15. gov 2.0: Transparency without Accessibility? (FCW)


  16. Clifford Nass ‘Wire for speech’ book and experiments

Web Standards and Accessibility References


  1. STC Society of Technical Communicators Accessibility SIG


  2. WAI Web Accessibility Initiative of W3c


  3. WCAG 2.0 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines


  4. #Accessibility or #a11y tracks tweets using AccessibleTwitter


  5. The Web standards Mafia honored Nov. 30 Web standards day

    <


  6. Interact open web standards curriculum project


  7. Opera’s Web standards Curriculum


  8. Online book on Integrating Accessibility in design ‘Just Ask’


  9. How People with Disabilities use the Web

Computer Science Week and Policy Organization References

    <

  1. Computer Science Education Week


  2. Accessibility official statements of SIGCSE


  3. US ACM Policy on Web Accessibility

    with many useful links


  4. Dept. of Justice Office of Civil Rights on Web Accessibility in Higher Education


  5. Computing Research News on Accessibility Research (Ladner)


  6. ACM Special Interest group on Computing accessibility

Computer Science Education and Accessibility References

  1. ‘Accessibility First Approach to Teaching Web Design Hamilton College


  2. Web Design with Universal Usability (Schneiderman)


  3. Academia.edu people with speciality accessibility


  4. Web Education Survey


  5. Diversity Through Accessibility blog


  6. Improving Web Accessibility through Service Learning Partnerships


  7. Integrating usability and Accessibility in Information Systems Assurance


  8. Equal Access, Universal Design of Computing Departments


  9. AccessMonkey project at U. Washington


  10. An Accessibility Report Card for World Known Universities


  11. Introducing Accessibility in Internet Computing


  12. WebAnywhere reader from U. Washington


  13. Broadening Participation NSF


  14. Visually Impaired Students get a boose in Computing (RIT)


  15. Imagine IT Project at Rochester Institute of Technology
Service Organizations within Academia
References

  1. WebAIM on University Accessibility Policies


  2. Web Accessibility Center at The Ohio State University


  3. Designing More Accessible Websites — TRACE Center U. Wisconsin


  4. Best HTML Practices from ICTA Illinois Center for Web Accessibility


  5. Cultivating and Maintaining Accessibility Expertise in Higher Education


  6. Access IT National Center at U. Washington


  7. A Checklist for Making Computing Departments Inclusive, DOIT at U. Washington


  8. Distance Learning Accessibility Evaluation


  9. U. Texas Accessibility Center (RIP)


  10. Disability 411 Podcast for Disability Professionals

Services and Products for Visually Impaired


  1. Bookshare.org

    60,000+ digital talking books scanned by volunteers or contributed by publishers, available to all USA Special Ed students


  2. TextAloud reader and mp3 converter

    also source for commercial synthetic voices and a good newsletter on text to speech

    <li
    <
    Free, open source, international screen reader NVDA (non-visual desktop access)


  3. audio-driven PDA, RSS, newspaper and book reader
    from Levelstar.com

    >

  4. Disability.gov
  5. American Federation for Blind, Access World newsletter and product reviews

  6. American Council for Blind

  7. National Federation for Blind
  8. Access World Product reviews


    DAISY internationalism consortium on digital talking books standard

>

Podcasts on Assistive Tech and Persons with Disabilities


  1. Blind Cool Tech amateur product reviews

  2. Accessible World Tech Training

  3. ACB Radio news, demo, interviews


  4. WebAxe Podcast on Practical Accessibility

Notes and References on the ‘Curb Cuts’ principle

  1. ‘Universal Design’ paradigm (from Wikipedia) integrates concepts from physical, architectural, and information design.

  2. Detailed principles (from NCSU design center) include equitable use, flexibility, simplicity, intuitiveness, tolerance for error, low physical effort,…

  3. A chronology of inventions for electronic curb cuts illustrates how hearing, seeing, and learning disabilities have influenced the modern communications world.

  4. The ‘curb cut’ symbolism is widely used in the accessibility world, e.g. ‘curbcuts.net’, an accessibility consultancy

    . The site kindly provides a guide to concrete curb cuts


  5. Background on accessibility in the context of “curb cuts”
    covers the essential role of considering the full range of human abilities in design.

  6. Analysis of the “curb cut” metaphor in computing suggests many problems in its usage.

Relevant ‘As Your World Changes’ Posts


  1. AYWC ‘Using Things That Talk’ demonstration presentation


  2. AYWC Literacy Lost and Found (charts, reading)

  3. AYWC Amazon Kindle and accessibility: what a mess!


  4. AYWC stumbling around .gov websites: the good, bad, and goofy


  5. AYWC Are missing, muddled use cases the cause of inaccessibility?


  6. AYWC Images and their surrogates — the ALT tag


  7. AYWC Let’s all use our headings

Comments, Corrections, Complaint?

Please add your comments below and I’ll moderate asap.
Yes, I know there are lots of typos but I’m tired of listening to myself, will proof-listen again later.
Longer comments to slger123@gamail.com. Join in the Twitter discussion of #accessibility by following me as slger123.


Thanks for listening.

Stumbling Around .gov Websites: Good, Bad, and Goofy

November 22, 2009

Recently, attention returned to concern about
the role of accessibility in the U.S. government transparency movement. While gov website operators might well deserve a good grade for effort, most sites have obvious failings that experts and users repeatedly point out. In this post, I show some of my personal problems and suggest corrective actions. Visually impaired people can hear a realistic experience with a capable, free screen reader to better understand how websites respond to an intermediate level visually impaired, task oriented user. Sighted readers and accessibility specialists are urged to consider alternatives to reduce causes for stumbling around.

Hear me Stumble Recording

Download MP3 recording (38 minutes, 17 MB) trying tasks at whitehouse, disability, data, and recovery .gov. Starting with some typical tasks, I get into each website far enough to identify and stumble over some problem, then later come back and analyze the cause in both the website and my own practice, written up below. These little experiments are certainly not definitive because someone more experienced with the website might take a very different route or the proper screen reader action just might not occur to me at the moment. So, listen if you’re patient and interested to these 4 segments and follow along in your browser to perhaps grok what I’m missing in the recording.

For the record, I was using Windows XP, Firefox 3.5, NVDA RC 09, and PlexTalk Pocket as recorder.

The BLUF — great availability of useful information but fall short of
excellence in usability

BLUF=bottom line Up front

The Obama administration has unleashed an enormous flow of energy and
information for citizens to use for their personal lives, political causes, and
general improvement of society. I really appreciate the nuggets of
explanations dispensed in RSs feeds and twitter streams, amplified by social
media communicators interested in technology and organizations with a special
thread of accessibility. I offer these stumbles as the only feedback I can
provide, hoping my analyses eventually reach into the administration and d.c.
government apparatus. My stumbles are not flat on my face, fallen and cannot
get up, but rather trips over seed bumps, unnecessary traversals around hazy
obstacles, and stops to reconsider the surroundings to decide my next safe
steps. Just like real physical life, these stumbles absorb way too much energy,
often discouraging me from completing a task. Informed by my own experience
building interfaces, databases, and websites plus software engineering methods
of testing, use cases, complexity measures, and design exploration, I truly
believe each stumble indicates a serious design flaw. The good news is that
while my stumbles may partially track with vision loss and continuing learning the rules of accessibility and assistive technology,
of the ‘curb cut’ principle suggest corrections will smooth the
way for other, abled users who are also troubled with usability difficulties
they cannot understand without the accessibility and usability framework.

Summary of my stumbles on typical .gov tasks

  1. Website: whitehouse.gov

    Task: Find a recent blog post received by RSS

    : stumble: Post was not in recent list, didn’t know how to use archives, didn’t trust search

    Follow up: Navigated around November archive, eventually found links to previous articles

    Suggestions: Factor archives, Use landmark pattern for list sections

    Comments: Now has a text only version but similar navigation problems

    Grade: C. Text Only site isn’t much of an accessibility improvement, please work on organizing this mass of information. RSS feeds more useful than website. Also, use your clout to force social media services to become accessible, too.

  2. Website: Disability.gov

    Task: Discover information about public transportation in local community

    : stumble: Found ” Transportation” main topic but could not reach specific information

    Follow up: Read “how to use” and eventually figured out info organized by state

    Suggestions: “See sidebar” isn’t sufficient so data needs better organization

    Comments: Site content is effectively transmitted by RSS and Twitter. good survey can help improve site

    Grade B: Good process, but not yet organized properly or communicating website use

  3. Website: data.gov

    Task: Trial download of a data set using search form

    : stumble: Very hard to understand search form components distracting headings and social media,

    Follow up: Eventually got search results, but unsatisfactorily

    Suggestions: Start over

    Comments: Only for wonks on salary, not advised for citizens

    Grade: Incomplete, do over, or adapt expensive recovery.gov interface and data management

  4. Website: Recovery.gov

    Task: Find recovery funding projects in Arizona

    : stumble: Locating form for query and then results

    Follow up: Found the form under non descriptive heading, easily set query, drilled down past top of page to text version of results table

    Suggestions: Make the “Track the money” foremost part of page, submerging feature awards and website data

    Comments: $10M+ project needs more usability and accessibility input

Individual Website Analyses

whitehouse.gov — this National Landmark needs ARIA landmarks

I don’t visit this site often but I do read occasional blog and press briefings in my Levelstar Icon RSS client. One article caught my attention, about encouraging Middle Eastern girls, and seemed worth a tweet to my followers with similar interests. But I needed a good web address so set off to navigate myself through the site.

I was surprised to find a link to an “accessible” version, not sure what that mean. It turns out to be “text only” which doesn’t mean much to me if the navigation is the same as a screen reader is abstracting from text decorations anyway. Hence, I was faced with a branching decision with no criteria for which branch to take, somewhat confusing.

As usual to refresh or familiarize myself, I take a “heading tour” to learn the main sections of the site and target the section for my task. Soon, I find the “blog” section but the article list is mainly on President Obama’s Asian trip, not reaching back as far as the article I wanted was a few days old. I declared a “Stumble” by not knowing how to use the archives, needing to train myself and wander a bit more off recording.


Following up later, I found myself confused about the organization of past material. I took the November link but ended up in more heaps of videos, blog posts, briefings, etc. Eventually, I got to blog article lists and found the web construct that linked to past articles, looks like “previous 1 2…. next”.


Answer: DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano blog post on ‘Meeting female students in Abu Dhabi’

To analyze a bit further, let’s separate accessibility from usability. This task seemed to take a little more effort than needed, because I stumbled around learning the archive information architecture and list results patterns. Nothing in the screen reader or the HTML seemed problematic. Headings helped, not hindered. Perhaps this is a stubble that can only be prevented by more practice, but it’s possible we have a jumble of website content that could be factored to make paths easier to follow.

Traversing a list divided into sections is a common pattern, often intermixed with links to articles and media. The list of blog posts was indeed an HTML list that could be followed by items, but got strange at the end the next-previous section is labeled with something like LSQUO, which makes no sense in a screen reader. This construct is also easy to miss using links rather than items. Could this pattern be


standardized (see below)?

Duh, why didn’t I just use the website Search? Unfortunately, I have a deeply ingrained mistrust of site searches, mainly from getting gobs of results that don’t help. Like, how would I know the rules for making a good search query? Is it “Napolitano Abu Dhabi” with quotes where, and default being conjunction? And these words are not the easiest names to type correctly, so is there spelling correction? Well, it turned out “Napolitano” (2nd try) turned up the article about 4 results down but with the same search result bar construct. OK, I’m convinced to bring Search back into my website explorer toolkit. and will work to overcome bad experiences from past generations of website searches.

Overall, I grade myself as a B with my improving mental map of the site, but definitely prefer using the content by RSS feed, i.e. getting blog and briefings spoken from mobile device. Sorry, but whitehouse.gov still gets a C in my ratings, mostly from the need to have a stellar, near perfect website to model for not only .gov but also community, state gov, professional associations, universities, etc. Only 10 months into the website, the amount of content, useful individually, may grow into a giant heap of links that drive citizens away. Regarding accessibility, I simply don’t see the rationale for the text only site and recommend looking ahead to using better overall structure with landmarks (see below).

Disability.gov is very useful but maybe convoluted?

Disability.gov is a regular in both my RSS feed list and Twitter tweetroll. The site has a general framework of disability needs and resources. New resources and classes of resources per day of the week are routinely broadcast. I have a warm feeling when I see these, like somebody is actually looking out for me in that great USG bureaucracy.

For some local surveys, I anticipate needing data and examples of regional transportation systems supported by public and disabled communities. Ok, I know I’m delusional that a conservative wealthy retirement oriented city will even consider such a thing as services for economic, environmental, or social reasons. But, hey, there’s a sliver of hope. Indeed, this is a typical way the USG can foster citizen innovation through better and more transparent data.


The website navigation sidebar is straightforward with tasks and information topics. In the recorded session, I picked Transportation and then got stuck. I had a page headed Transportation, nice, with topic overview, but no real information, just a use the sidebar. Ok, but how? why? After, in my follow up, I figured out that information was organized by state, which makes sense, but wasn’t explicit when I stumbled.

Choosing Arizona from the state list, I found a number of resources, none of which lead directly to the Tri-city Prescott area. Tucson was well represented, but I knew that, been there, seen the buses, and vision services. Overall, I found this site satisfactory, with an encouraging amount of information, but I’m still somewhat befuddled about the relationship between topics and sidebar and details.

At one point, I was presented with a survey. Sure, I’ll give you feedback, thanks for asking. As usual, I didn’t know how long the survey would take, like how many questions. First accessibility glitch was that required fields were designated by some symbol not read by a screen reader in normal mode, probably an asterisk *. That meant I had to switch into listening more punctuation in the screen reader or just answer all questions. Silly, why not say REQUIRED, rather than use a little symbol. Next, I couldn’t figure out the form of answers, which turned out to be radio buttons labeled 1 to 10 and NA. Ok, that’s a lot of tabbing but not overwhelming, as I whizzed through the questions. Then, came a switch to some combo boxes for answers. Annoying, suggesting the survey wasn’t vetted by many people using screen readers, but not really too bad. Do other gov sites have comparable surveys? They should.

Overall, I rate myself and disability.gov with a B. I need more practice, and the website developers need more feedback. But really, I know they’re trying, and somebody will likely read this blog. Good job, and I truly appreciate the resources, framework, and the RSS and tweets.

data.gov for wonks, not citizens


Oh, my, this site is annoying. The headings are sparse and inappropriate. There’s a sideline off to social media sites that aren’t accessible and in the way. A link says “Click here” which indicates deprecated thinking and cluelessness about hyperlinking.

The main purpose of this site is a distribution point for datasets collected from various government agencies distributed in XML, CSV, and other formats usable in spreadsheets and statistical analyzers. Great, but the form is a mess.

I tried to query fo ex ampler datasets, any topic, from National Science Foundation. The agency list is long, painfully, with check boxes. That’s about 40 tab or next line key strokes to get to NSF. Then I found the Submit button. Not so good, which I learned by reading “No search results” at the bottom of the page! Most important effect of a search is to know if it succeeded, produces results, geez! What did I do wrong? Do I need to select format and make an explicit query? Ok, tried that with term “computers”, All Categories, All Agencies. Got 2 results this time, both on illegal exports, spooky and uninteresting.

Argh, I gave up. I’m sure this site will eventually be useful for policy wonks willing to train and practice, but I, an ordinary citizen with a research background, didn’t feel like I could get much out of here. Sadly, the form’s long list of check box agency names uncoordinated and un searchable was painful. But worse was not getting direct feedback about number of or absence of search results combined with uncertainty about the query actually executed. I had little confidence in either the site or myself as searcher, but, luckily, I don’t forecast any personal need for data.gov. Sayonara.

So, I rate this sucker a big Incomplete with good intents but pretty clueless about accessibility and usability. Hey, download NVDA and try this out yourselves, data.gov designers. There are lots of ways to design forms and search results. Back to the design stage, please Now that recovery.gov is launched at great expense, perhaps some of the interface and data management functionality can be used to refresh data.gov, but who am I to reorganize .gov :-)..

Recovery.gov Usable but Cluttered

Well, it wasn’t fun but I can use this website. The big problem is clutter. I go here to “Track the Money” and cannot find the form to do so. Uh, oh. Plenty of stuff about the site itself, some of the big featured expenditures, but where’s the form. Oh, there it is, under heading “Data, Data, and More Data”, cute but not obvious. This time, I decided to drill down on National Science Foundation awards in Arizona. Unlike data.gov, the agency selection was single choice reached by the convention of first letter, N, and a few key strokes to make the selection. All right, but now what?

So, the search seems successful yielding another page with lots of accessibility and agency clutter at the top I had to listen through. Back and forth a bit, I found the link to text presentation of the data, accompanied with a blue map.

Looking for text data, same boring junk at the top then up comes the table of rows of actual data. It’s hard to navigate by row and column, some columns have no real information, like I know I asked for ” National Science Foundation”, read in every row. But painfully working row by row I can find an interesting item like $80K created .17 job –wow! Indeed, the award details is there and readable and interesting.

The big problem with this iteration of Recovery.gov is that the website is in the way. I definitely do not plan to post anything on MySpace social media service but I have to listen to or bypass this silly text and thought too often to learn what’s on a page. It just seems goofy to send a Recovery dataset to a “friend” on a social network, although it could be relevant in a mature Twitter thread. If the gov goal is to incorporate social media into its normal workflow, then there are big questions of stability, accessibility, and much more of these profit-seeking, ad-driven enterprises.

I give myself an A for conquering this site, although I’m still stumbling around tables of data. Recovery.gov gets a B for assembling this information in readable form, although not in dataset forms as relative to missions like data.gov. In other words, it looks like a lot of page scraping to identify trends. My suggestion is simple: get the “Track the money” form front and center and press the website, social media, and features into the background. Overall, better than I expected, although the recording and further use leave a feeling of irritation, like having to sweep off a desk of junk to find a phone to get the information needed. Like, just give me control and let me track the money myself. I’ll be back.

General Suggestions for Improvement

It’s Time to Bring Landmarks to .gov

I’m getting spoiled by really accessible websites like AccessibleTwitter and BookShare that use the ARIA landmark feature to structure pages and search results. For example, the .gov sites could be separated into (1) agency logo and babble, (2) navigation, (3) main content, (4) reference to other gov sites and external services. Bookshare shows how to organize search results integrated with the next-previous results page bar.


Indeed, this brings up the issue of consistency among .gov websites, which could be kind of nice and helpful. Not meaning to squelch individuality of agencies or artistic license or experimentation with diversity, but a citizen wanting a simple answer to an information question isn’t as impressed with decorations as with ease of use, especially on return visits. And visually impaired users especially appreciate predictability, a trait shared with most human beings, when confronted with pure tasks. With all due respect,most visits to gov websites are not for tours through marble halls or to expand social networks to include anonymous civil servants, but rather to get a piece of info as fast and readable as possible.

Should gov sites link to inaccessible social web services? NO!

All gov 2.0 buzz seems to involve social media, as in Twitter, Facebook, and sometimes Flickr and MySpace. But the accessibility of most of these sites is way below that of the .gov sites. Can a website assert it is accessible if it links to patently inaccessible services? I think not. The good news is the movement toward alternatives like Accessible Twitter and accessible versions of YouTube. These should be mentioned in accessibility statements. Or, better yet, no links to unless these billion-dollar enterprises raise their accessibility levels to the acceptable status demonstrate by these alternatives. Perhaps there should be a warning label on sites known to be poorly designed or not for the newbie. The US government uses its clout for diversity, why not also for accessibility?


After spending several hours on these websites, knowing a lot myself about social media, the focus on social stuff seems rather silly considering the weight of the data involved. Am I, is anybody, going to post a link on MySpace or Facebook of a significant query and insight? I doubt it. Rather, these sites give an impression of trying to be oh, so cool, gotta get our stuff out to the fan pages on Facebook. Gimme a break. From a screen reader user, this is just pure clutter in the way of your main mission, stuff I have to listen to redundantly and irrelatively. Try it yourself and determine what value is really added from social media service references so prominently in users’ faces/ears. Even scarier, if gov agencies are adopting these inaccessible, unstable services for actual business, the traditional discrimination policies must come into play, as well as questions about judgement. For example, Twitter is a great news medium, but its rules can, and do, change at any moment.

How about a gov BEST and WORST practices competition?

I personally don’t get any value, but rather irritation, from the skip links and text size adjustments. First, the skip links are often just plain wrong, often enough to mistrust and not worth a false link and recovery. Text size adjustments are relevant to those who need large fonts not supplied by browser adjustments. Pages with good headings and landmarks don’t require skip links. Pages that aren’t crowded with text don’t need on-page text size adjustments.. To me, these are accessibility decorations that amount to screen reader noise. It’s rather jarring to find major inconsistencies among gov websites, e.g. text-only at whitehouse.gov but not others, different HTML form patterns, and greatly varying degrees of conventional accessibility.

As complained about in the whitehouse.gov blog lists, there’s a common pattern that might be nicely standardized. A list of, say 100, items is divided into sections with a bar of links: previous, 1, 2, … next. If you’re drilling down through several pages of results, getting easily into this bar is important. A landmark is a natural way of identifying results.

Does every search form have to be constructed differently? Above tasks required me to figure out the subdivisions of forms (usually not labeled) and then the form elements. There’s probably a special class of gov site users who can whack their way through a form down to a data set in no time. But the ordinary citizen has to struggle through understanding then mastering the form, finding results, and interpreting answers, which can take hours. How about an award for government service by providing a superior form that other sites can emulate? And give those web designers a bonus or promotion, too!

Sum up, getting better? Yes or No?

Overall, although using these sites made me rather grumpy, the trend is toward better accessibility, more usability, and genuine transformation of how citizens use USG data. My wishes are:

  1. Work on clutter and removal and helping users find direct paths to important data, i.e. work on the most significant use cases.
  2. Designers and maintainers of these website should listen to recorded TTS of their pages and contents for several hours to really appreciate the clutter effect of featuritis, accessibility decorations, and social media silliness.
  3. Cut down on the social media crap and rethink what really matters. Yes, these services are useful but really, do they deserve so much prominence? Will they still be here 3 years from now?
    It just seems incongruous to think of sharing recovery datasets with ad-hungry “friend” oriented services. Most serious is the hypocrisy of declaring accessibility on a gov website when these lucrative services so actively ignore accessibility and force visually impaired service users to volunteer developed accessible alternatives.

  4. The most important use of this data is not visible to most citizens. Namely, RSS feeds are the best way for someone to monitor these sites, scanning article titles, downloaded to a mobile device, with rare visits to actual websites. How can the USG foster better offline use of important government developments?
  5. Is there a “curb cut” effect from feedback like this? I hope so, that fixing stumbles precipitated by accessibility bumps and usability gaps will help everybody.
  6. Finally, a cautionary warning I just heard from my CNN news feed. Many recovery awards seem to have fallen into fallacious congressional districts, making the whole record keeping of job data questionable. Apparently citizens reporting award data don’t know what congressional district they belong to (I’m AZ ONE, I think, maybe). Now, data base developers and instructors know, there’s a TRIGGER for that. Zip codes usually map to unique districts but that might not be a requirement or implemented yet. Just saying.

Related Posts

Social Media for Seniors — Lessons Learned

October 31, 2009

Here are a few things I’ve learned in the past 2 months while working on three projects related to this blog:

  1. “Learning and Sharing on the Social Web”, a lifelong learning course at Yavapai College

  2. “Using Things That Talk”, an assistive technology demonstration session at Yavapai College

  3. 2nd Tuesday AAUW Book Club

General Lessons Learned

  1. Blogs, blogging, and bloggers are still somewhat mystifying, although legitimized by the “Julie and Julia” movie. Some people will readily comment, while most need encouragement. It takes several trips around a blog to understand its structure, find the comment space, and adjust to the theme.

  2. Facebook has driven interest in social media, like “my family wants me to post and view pictures this way, now what?”. While I appreciate the attraction of everybody having a place on the web, similar to the spirit of the recently defunct GeoCities, personally I have several problems with Facebook:
    • I’m turned off by the use of “friend” for every opportunity to snag an email address. This demeans a very important relationship for the sake of advertising placements.
    • The privacy policy is a slipper slope, starting with request for birth date, then more and more info to link up wih “friends”. I do not want to personally segregate people and my personal information, especially when I don’t understand a complex policy.
    • All the interfaces I tried, m.Facebook, lite, and regular were cluttered and sometimes inaccessible with my screen reader

    • As a 30 year veteran of the Internet and early adopter of the Web, I don’t like to see the splitting off and duplication of fan or public sites even if this racks up more interaction.

    So, my Facebook page, says, I hope, that “Susan maintains a blog and an active Twitter stream. Please use these or email”. Uh, and, of course, my vision doesn’t support faces or pictures any more, so I’m outta there.

  3. Many people are perfectly happy with email, specially if they are primarily receivers or have limited interactions. However, anybody on mailing lists with members prone to “reply all” is looking for better solutions, especially if they are coordinators. That’s what drove the AAUW book club above for keeping track of future books, allied information, and questions. I have hopes for, but not yet tried out in a group, the Posterous email-based blogging service
  4. I personally favor using blogs as reference collectors. For example, in the AAUW book club blog are podcasts, articles, and other outlines easily linked in via comments whenever we encounter them. This leaves behind not only a great resource for new members but also for general web browsing. It’s just great to have a place to share a tidbit of information without the fuss of email lists or message replies.
  5. Presenting information in a classroom while visually impaired is easy enough with a helper to run the PC connected to the projector. Since I cannot see much of the projected web page beyond a white on white blur, I just talked away and kept my accompanists on track. However, this got harder when doing the assistive tech demos and the audience members couldn’t all see that well either.

More later when I think of additional or better explanations. By the way, all these activities are lots of fun, engaging me to work hard on my skills, and interact with neat people, whom I thank for the opportunities.

Story: A Screen Reader Salvages a Legacy System

October 30, 2009

This post tells a story of how the NVDA Screen Reader helped a person with vision loss solve a former employment situation puzzle. Way to go, grandpa Dave, and thanks for permission to reprint from the NVDA discussion list on freelists.org.

Grandpa Dave’s Story

From: Dave Mack
To: nvda

Date: Oct 29

Subj: [nvda] Just sharing a feel good experience with NVDA
Hi, again, folks, Grandpa Dave in California, here -
I have hesitated sharing a recent experience I had using NVDA because I know this list is primarily for purposes of reporting bugs and fixes using NVDA. However, since this is the first community of blind and visually-impaired users I have joined since losing my ability to read the screen visually, I have decided to go ahead and share this feel-good experience where my vision loss has turned out to be an asset for a group of sighted folks. A while ago, a list member shared their experience helping a sighted friend whose monitor had gone blank by fixing the problem using NVDA on a pen drive so I decided to go ahead and share this experience as well – though not involving a pen drive but most definitely involving my NVDA screen reader.


Well, I just had a great experience using NVDA to help some sighted folks where I used to work and where I retired from ten years ago. I got a phone call from the current president of the local Federal labor union I belonged to and she explained that the new union treasurer was having a problem updating their large membership database with changes in the union’s payroll deductions that they needed to forward to the agency’s central payroll for processing. She said they had been working off-and-on for almost three weeks and no one could resolve the problem even though they were following the payroll change instructions I had left on the computer back in the days I had written their database as an amateur programmer. I was shocked to hear they were still using my membership database program as I had written it almost three decades ago! I told her I didn’t remember much abouthe dBase programming language but I asked her to email me the original instructions I had left on the computer and a copy of the input commands they were keying into the computer. I told her I was now visually impaired, but was learning to use the NVDA screen reader and would do my best to help. She said even several of the Agency’s programmers were
stumped but they did not know the dBase program language.


A half hour later I received two email attachments, one containing my thirty-year-old instructions and another containing the commands they were manually keying into their old pre-Windows computer, still being used by the union’s treasurer once-a-month for payroll deduction purposes. Well, as soon as I brought up the two documents and listened to a comparison using NVDA, I heard a difference between what they were entering and what my instructions had been. They were leaving out some “dots, or periods, which should be included in their input strings into the computer. I called the Union’s current president back within minutes of receiving the email. Everyone was shocked and said they could not see the dots or periods. I told them to remember they were probably still using a thirty-year-old low resolution computer monitor and old dot-matrix printer which were making the dots or periods appear to be part of letters they were situated between.

Later in the day I got a called back from the Local President saying I had definitely identified the problem and thanking me profusely and said she was telling everyone I had found the cause of the problem by listening to errors non of the sighted folks had been able to see . And, yes, they were going to upgrade their computer system now after all these many years. (laughing) I told her to remember this experience the next time anyone makes a wisecrack about folks with so-called impairments. She said it was a good lesson for all. Then she admitted that the reason they had not contacted me sooner was that they had heard through the grapevine that I was now legally blind and everyone assumed I would not be able to be of assistance. What a mistake and waste of time that ignorant assumption was, she confessed.


Well, that’s my feel good story, but, then, it’s probably old hat for many of you. I just wanted to share it as it was my first experience teaching a little lesson to sighted people in my
own small way. with the help of NVDA. –


Grandpa Dave in California

Moral of the Story: Screen Readers Augment our Senses in Many Ways = Invitation to Comment

Do you have a story where a screen reader or similar audio technology solved problems where normal use of senses failed? Please post a comment.


And isn’t it great that us older folks have such a productive and usable way of overcoming our vision losses? Thanks, NVDA projectn developers, sponsors, and testers.

Crossing the RSS Divide – making it simpler and compelling

September 18, 2009


RSS is a web technology for distributing varieties of content to wide audiences with minimal fuss and delay, hence it’s name “Really Simple Syndication”. However, I’m finding this core capability is less well understood and perhaps shares barriers among visually impaired and older adult web users. This article attempts to untangle some issues and identify good explanatory materials as well as necessary web tools. If, indeed, there is an “RSS Divide” rather than just a poor sample of web users and my own difficulties, perhaps the issues are worth wider discussion.

So, what is RSS?

Several good references are linked below, or just search for “RSS explained”. Here’s my own framework:

Think of these inter-twined actions: Announce, Subscribe, Publish, Fetch, Read/Listen/View:

  1. Somebody (called the “Publisher”) has content you’re welcome to read. In addition to producing descriptive web pages, they also tell you an address where you can find the latest content., i.e. often called a “feed”. These are URLs that look like abc.rss or abc.xml and often have words or graphics saying “RSS”.
  2. When the Publisher has something new written or recorded, they or their software, add an address to this feed, i.e. they “publish”. For example, when I publish this article on WordPress, the text will show up on the web page but also my blog feed will have a new entry. You can keep re-checking this page for changes, but that’ wastes your time, right? And sooner or later, you forget about me and my blog, sniff. Here cometh the magic of RSS!
  3. You (the “Subscriber”) have a way, the RSS client of tracking my feed to get the new article. You “subscribe” to my feed by adding its address to this “RSS client”. You don’t need to tell me anything, like your email, just paste the address in the right place to add to the list of feeds the RSS client manages for you. However, s
  4. Now, dear subscriber, develop a routine in your reading life where you decide, “ok, time to see what’s new on all my blog subscriptions”. So you start your RSS client which then visits each of the subscribed addresses and identifies new content. This “Fetch” action is like sending the dog out for the newspapers, should you have such a talented pet. The client visits each subscribed feed and notes and shows how many articles are new or unread in your reading history.

  5. At your leisure, you read the subscribed content not on the Publisher’s website but rather within the RSS client. Now, that content might be text of the web page, or audio (called podcasts), or video, etc. RSS is the underlying mechanism that brings subscribed content to your attention and action.

What’s the big deal about RSS?

The big deal here is that the distribution of content is syndicated automatically and nearly transparently. Publishers don’t do much extra work but rather concentrate on their writing, recording, and editing of content. Subscribers bear the light burden of integrating an RSS client into their reading routines, but this gets easier, albeit with perhaps too many choices. Basically, RSS is a productivity tool for flexible readers. RSS is especially helpful for those of us who read by synthetic speech so we don’t have to fumble around finding a web site then the latest post — it just shows up ready to be heard.


Commonly emphasized, RSS saves you lots of time if you read many blogs, listen to podcasts, or track news frequently. No more trips to the website to find out there’s nothing new, rather your RSS client steers you to the new stuff when and where you’re ready to update yourself. I have 150 currently active subscriptions, in several categories: news (usatoday, cnet, science daily, accesstech,…); blogs (technology, politics, accessibility, …), some in audio. It would take hours to visit all the websites, but the RSS client spans the list and tells me of new articles or podcasts in a few minutes while I’m doing something else, like waking up. With a wireless connection for my RSS client, I don’t even need to get out of bed!


This means I can read more broadly, not just from saving time, but also having structured my daily reading. I can read news when I feel like tackling the ugly topics of the day, or study accessibility by reading blogs, or accumulate podcasts for listening over lunch on the portico. Time saved is time more comfortably used.

Even more, I can structure and retain records of my reading using the RSS client. Mine arranges feeds in trees so I can skip directly to science if that’s what I feel like. I can also see which feeds are redundant and how they bias their selections.


So, RSS is really a fundamental way of using the Web. It’s not only an affordance of more comfort, but also becoming a necessity. When all .gov websites, local or national, plus all charities, etc. offer RSS feeds, it’s assumed citizens are able to keep up and really utilize that kind of content delivery. For example,>whitehouse.gov has feeds for news releases and articles by various officials that complement traditional news channels with more complete and honestly biased content, i.e. you know exactly the sources, in their own words.


The down side of RSS is overload, more content is harder to ignore. That’s why it’s important to stand back and structure reading sources and measure and evaluate reading value, which is enabled by RSS clients.

Now, about those RSS clients


After 2+ years of happily relying on the Levelstar Icon Mobile Manager RSS client, I’m rather abashed at the messy world of web-based RSS clients, unsure what to recommend to someone starting to adopt feeds.

  1. Modern browsers provide basic support for organizing bookmarks, with RSS feeds as a specific type. E.g. Firefox supports “live bookmarks”, recognizing feeds when you click the URL. A toolbar provides names of feeds to load into tabs. Bookmarks can be categorized, e.g. politics or technology. Various add-on components provide sidebar trees of feeds to show in the main reading window. Internet Explorer offers comparable combinations of features: subscribing, fetching, and reading.

  2. Special reader services expand these browser capabilities. E.g. Google Reader organizes trees of feeds, showing number of unread articles. Sadly, Google Reader isn’t at this moment very accessible for screen readers, with difficult to navigate trees and transfer to text windows. Note: I’m searching for better recommendations for visually impaired readers.
  3. I’ve not used but heard of email based RSS readers, e.g. for Outlook. Many feed subscriptions offer email to mail new articles with you managing the articles in folders or however you handle email.
  4. Smart phones have apps for managing feeds, but here again I’m a simple cell phone caller only, inexperienced with mobile RSS. I hear Amazon Kindle will let you buy otherwise free blogs.
  5. Since podcasts are delivered via feeds, services like Itunes qualify but do not support full-blown text article reading and management.

So, I’d suggest first see if your browser version handles feeds adequately and try out a few. Google Reader, if you are willing to open or already have a Google account, works well for many sighted users and can be used rather clumsily if you’re partially sighted like me. Personally, when my beloved Icon needs repair, I find any of the above services far less productive and generally put my feed reading fanaticism on hiatus.

Note: a solid RSS client will export and import feeds from other clients, using an OPML file. Here is Susan’s feeds on news, technology, science, Prescott, and accessibility with several feeds for podcasts. You’re welcome to save this file and edit out the feed addresses or import the whole lot into your RSS client.

Is there more to feeds in the future?

You betcha, I believe. First, feed addresses are data that are shared on many social media sites like Delicious feed manager. This enables sharing and recommending blogs and podcasts among fans.


A farsighted project exploiting RSS feeds is Jon Udell’s Elm City community calendar project. The goal is to encourage local groups to produce calendar data in a standard format with categorization so that community calendars can be merged and managed for the benefit of everybody. Here’s the Prescott Arizona Community Calendar.


The brains behind RS are now working on more distributed real-time distribution of feeds, Dave Winer’s Scripting News Cloud RSS project.


In summary, those who master RSS will be the “speed readers” of the web compared to others waiting for content to show up in their email boxes or wading through ads and boilerplate on websites. Indeed, many of my favorite writers and teachers have websites I’ve never personally visited but still read within a day of new content. This means a trip to these websites is often for the purpose of commenting or spending more time reviewing their content in detail, perhaps over years of archives.

References on RSS

  1. What is RSS? RSS Explained in simple terms

  2. Video on RSS in Plain English
    emphasizing speedy blog reading in web-based RSS readers


  3. Geeky explanations of RSS from Wikipedia

  4. Whitehouse.gov RSS links and explanation (semi-geeky)

  5. Examples of feeds
  6. Diane Rehm podcast show feed

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