Posts Tagged ‘disability’

A Notable, Inimitable Woman: Helen Keller, 1880 – 1968

March 22, 2011

Here is an outline of my research for a course on Notable Women last session at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Yavapai College. I was fascinated by the question: what happened to the rest of her life after the incidents portrayed in the “Miracle Worker” plays and movies. As my reading progressed to reveal her decades of activist publication and public attention, the deeper question became “how did she cognitively process so many other writings and human contacts into coherent and relevant materials that sustained her spirit and finances?”.


speaking personally, as I’ve portrayed earlier in this blog, I have rewired my brain to read and write differently without using vision. Now, the Internet and trusty screen readers and RSS clients bring me loads of information, but I still find it difficult to organize even a small article like this post. Keller published many articles in popular publications like “Ladies Home Journal” but she also emoted some very fine rants on socialism, unions, suffrage, and disability civil rights.


Answering my questions from the resources below, especially the New Yorker article, she: mastered French and German at Radcliffe; read European newspapers; always had personal assistants; selected topics of interest for her human readers to communicate by hand tapping, lip reading, or Braille translation; wrote sections on a Braille typewriter, assembled and edited with assistance; wrote and received copious letters in the style of the time; made friends with Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, and the presidents du jour; traveled extensively; and generally got around a lot. Whew! But still, how does one assemble a model of the world coming without hearing or seeing? The New Yorker article portrays her cognitive functioning as much like poetry or highly flowery narrative. That is, she took in facts and physical object descriptions, asked questions, built a sense of her surroundings, and embellished with imagination constrained by her editorial assistants. Yet, there is such a difference experiencing the situation of labor unions from a film like “Norma Rae” and reading about sweat shops and factory safety mishaps. It still intrigues me that her reality matched sufficiently her colleagues and acquaintances that she could not only participate but also influence her times. Interestingly, some of that interaction came from a silent movie, vaudeville infomercial’s, and an attraction for press attention that vies with modern athletes and actors.


Yet, that same cognitive generative process caused lifelong doubts in others about her actual abilities versus the influences of Teacher and other assistants. A bizarre accusation of plagiarism arose at age 12 when professional pride and pettiness ran amok over a misunderstanding of originality of a story she told in a letter. Now, today we cannot get college students to differentiate copy-paste research from critical thinking, so one wonders how a 12-year-old could really appreciate the social significance of separating what one is told, holds in memory, and retrieves as a story gift from copyright and issues of attribution.


Well, anyway, if you wonder how minds work with different sensory limitations, take a look at the documentary on Youtube, the New Yorker analysis, and some of the cited oddball life passages.

Background</h3

Other facets not highlighted in documentary and popular bios

Finally, I think HK would have been great on Twitter, with pithy, passionate expressions of her daily insights, frustrations, and relationships. Happy 5th birthday, Twitter and many thanks to Accessible Twitter for keeping me in touch with the world.

What if Accessibility had a Capability Maturity Model?

April 29, 2010

The field of software engineering made notable strides in the 1990s when the Department of Defense promulgated via its contracting operations a Capability Maturity Model supported by a Software Engineering Center (*SEI) at Carnegie-Mellon University. Arguably, the model and resulting forces were more belief-based than experimentally validated, but “process improvement through measurement” became a motivating mantra. For more detail see the over-edited Wikipedia article on CMM.


This post is aimed at accessibility researchers and at managers and developers of products with an accessibility requirement, explicitly or not. Visually impaired readers of this post may find some ammunition for accessibility complaints and for advice to organizations they work with.

The 5 Levels of Maturity Model

Here are my interpretations of the 5 levels of capability maturity focused on web accessibility features:

Chaotic, Undefined. Level 1

Each web designer followed his or her own criteria for good web pages, with no specific institutional target for accessibility. Some designers may know W3C standards or equivalents but nothing requires the designers to use them.

Repeatable but still undefined Level 2

Individual web designers can. through personal and group experience, estimate page size, say in units of HTML elements and attributes. Estimation enables better pricing against requirements. Some quality control is in place, e.g. using validation tools, maybe user trials, but the final verdict on suitability of web sites for clients rests in judgements of individual designers. Should those designers leave the organization, their replacements have primarily prior products but not necessarily any documented experience to repeat the process or achieve comparable quality.

Defined Level 3

Here, the organization owns the process which is codified and used for measurement of both project management and product quality. For example, a wire frame or design tool might be not a designer option but rather a process requirement subject to peer review. Standards such as W3c might be applied but are not as significant for capability maturity as that SOME process is defined and followed.

Managed Level 4

At this level, each project can be measured for both errors in product and process with the goal of improvement. Bug reports and accessibility complaints should lead to identifiable process failures and then changes.

Optimizing Level 5

Beyond Managed Level 4, processes can be optimized for new tools and techniques using measurements and data rather than guesswork. For example, is “progressive enhancement” an improvement or not?” can be analytically framed in terms of bug reports, customer complaints, developer capabilities, product lines expansion, and many other qualities.

How well does CMM apply to accessibility?

Personally, I’m not at all convinced a CMM focus would matter in many environments, but still it’s a possible way to piggy back on a movement that has influenced many software industry thinkers and managers.

Do standards raise process quality?

It seems obvious to me that standards such as W3C raise awareness of product quality issues that force process definition and also provide education on meeting the standards. But is a well defined standard either necessary or sufficient for high quality processes?

Example:
An ALT tag standard requires some process point where ALT text is constructed and entered into HTML. A process with any measurement of product quality will involve flagging missing ALT texts which leads to process improvement because it’ is so patently silly to have required rework on such a simple task. Or are ALT tags really that simple? A higher level of awareness of how ALT tags integrate with remaining text and actually help visually impaired page users requires more sensitivity and care and review and user feedback. The advantage of standards is that accessibility and usability qualities can be measured in a research context with costs then amortized across organizations and transformed into education expenses. So, the process improvement doesn’t immediately or repeatably lead to true product quality, but does help as guidance.

Does CMM apply in really small organizations?

Many web development projects are contracted through small one-person or part-time groups. Any form of measurement represents significant overhead on getting the job done. For this, CMM spawned the Personal and Team Software Processes for educational and industrial improvements. Certainly professionals who produce highly accessible web sites have both acquired education and developed some form of personal discipline that involved monitoring quality and conscious improvement efforts.

Should CMM influence higher education?


On the other hand, embedded web development may inherit its parent organization quality and development processes, e.g. a library or IT division of a university. Since the abysmal level of accessibility across universities and professional organizations suggest lack of attention and enforcement of standards is a major problem. My recorded stumbling around Computer Science websites surfaced only one organization that applied standards I followed to navigate web pages effectively, namely, University of Texas, which has a history of accessibility efforts. Not surprisingly, an accessibility policy reinforced with education and advocacy and enforcement led small distributed departmental efforts to better results. Should by lawsuit or even education commitment to educational fairness for persons with disability suddenly change the law of the land, at least one institution stands out as a model of both product and process quality.

Organizations can define really awful processes

A great example of this observation is Unrepentant’s blog and letter to DoJ about PDF testimonies. Hours of high-minded social justice and business case talk was represented in PDF of plaint text on Congressional websites. Not only is PDF a pain for visually impaired people, no matter how much it applies accessibility techniques, the simple fact of requiring an application external to the browser, here Adobe Reader, is a detriment to using the website on many devices such as my Levelstar Icon or smart phones. My bet is that sure enough there’s a process on Congressional websites, gauged to minimize effort by exporting WORD docts into PDF and then a quick upload. The entire process is wrong-headed when actual user satisfaction is considered, e.g. how often are citizens with disabilities and deviant devices using or skipping reading valuable testimony and data? Indeed, WCAG standards hint, among many other items, that, surprise, web pages use HTML that readily renders strings of texts quite well for reading across a wide variety of devices, including assistive technology.

The message here is that a Level 3 process such as “export testimony docs as PDF” is detrimental to accessibility without feedback and measurement of actual end usage. The Unrepentant blogger claims only a few hours of work required for a new process producing HTML, which I gratefully read by listening on the device of my choice in a comfortable location and, best of all, without updating the damned Adobe reader.

Quality oriented organizations are often oblivious about accessibility

The CMM description in the URL at the start of this article is short and readable but misses the opportunity to include headings, an essential semantic markup technique. I had to arrow up and down this page to extract the various CMM levels rather than apply a heading navigation as in this blog post. Strictly speaking the article is accessible by screen reader but I wouldn’t hire the site’s web designer if accessibility were a requirement because there’s simply much more usability and universality well worth applying.


I have also bemoaned the poor accessibility of professional computing organization websites>. Until another generation of content management systems comes along, it’s unlikely to find improvement in these websites although a DoJ initiative could accelerate this effort.

CMM questions for managers, developers, educators, buyers, users

So, managers, are your web designers and organization at the capability level you desire?


How would you know?

  1. Just sample a few pages in WAVE validator from WebAim.org. Errors flagged by WebAim are worth asking web developers? do these errors matter? how did they occur? what should be changed or added to your process, if any? But not all errors are equally important, e.g. unlabelled forms may cause abandoned transactions and lost sales while missing ALT tags just indicate designer ignorance. And what if WAVE comes up clean? Now you need to validate the tool against your process to know if you’re measuring the right stuff. At the very least, every manager or design client has a automated feedback in seconds from tools like WAVE and a way to hold web developers accountable for widespread and easily correctable flaws.
  2. Ask for the defined policy. would an objective like W3C standards suffice? Well, that depends on costs within the organization’s process, including both production and training replacements.
  3. Check user surveys and bug reports. Do these correspond to the outputs of validation tools such as WebAim’s WAVE?
  4. Most important, check for an accessibility statement and assure you can live with its requirements and that they meet social and legal standards befitting your organizational goals.

Developers, are you comfortable with your process?

Level 1 is often called “ad hoc” or “chaotic” for a reason, a wake up call. For many people, a defined process seems constraining of design flexibility and geek freedom. For others, a process gets out of the way many sources of mistakes and interpersonal issues about ways of working. Something as trivial as a missing or stupid ALT tag hardly seems worthy of contention yet a process that respects accessibility must at some point have steps to insert, and review ALT text, requiring only seconds in simple cases and minutes if a graphic lacks purpose or context, with many more minutes if the process mis-step shows up only in a validator or user test. Obviously processes can have high payoffs or receive the scolding from bloggers like Unrepentant and me if the process has the wrong goal.

Buyers of services or products for web development, is CMM a cost component?

Here’s where high leverage can be attained or lost. Consider procuring a more modern content management system. Likely these vary in the extent to which they export accessible content, e.g. making it easier or harder to provide semantic page outlines using headings. There are also issues of accessibility of the CMS product functions to support developers with disabilities.


In the context of CMM, a buyer can ask the same questions as a manager about a contractor organizations’ process maturity graded against an agreed upon accessibility statement and quality assessment.

Users and advocates, does CMM help make your case?

If we find pages with headings much, much easier to navigate but a site we need to use lacks headings, it’s constructive to point out this flaw. It seems obvious that a web page with only an H4 doesn’t have much process behind its production, but is this an issue of process failure, developer education, or missing requirements? If, by any chance, feedback and complaints are actually read and tracked, a good manager would certainly ask about the quality of the organization’s process as well as that of its products.

Educators,does CMM thinking improve accessibility and usability for everyone?


Back to software engineering, getting to Level 5 was a BFD for many organizations, e.g. related to NASA or international competition with India enterprises. Software engineering curricula formed around CMM and government agencies used it to force training and organizational change. The SEI became a major force and software engineering textbooks had a focus for several chapters on project management and quality improvement. Frankly, as a former software engineering educator, I tended to skim this content to get to testing which I considered more interesting and concrete and relevant.


By the way, being sighted at the time, I didn’t notice the omission of accessibility as a requirement or standards body of knowledge. I have challenged Computing Education blogger and readers to include accessibility somewhere in courses, but given the combination of accreditation strictures and lack of faculty awareness, nothing is likely to happen. Unless, well, hey, enforcement just might change these attitudes. My major concern is that computing products will continue to be either in the “assistive technology ghetto” or costly overhauls because developers were never exposed to accessibility.

Looking for exemplars, good or bad?

Are there any organizations that function at level 5 for accessibility and how does that matter for their internal costs and for customer satisfaction as well as legal requirements?


Please comment if your organization has ever considered issues like CMM and where you consider yourself in a comparable level.

Vision What do Vision Losers want to know about technology?

April 5, 2010


Hey, I’ve been off on a tangent from writing about adjusting to vision loss rather on a rant about and praise for website accessibility. Also absorbing my blogging efforts was a 2nd run of Sharing and Learning on the Social Web, a lifelong learning course. My main personal tutors remain the wise people of #a11y on Twitter and their endless supply of illuminating blog posts and opinions. You can track my fluctuating interests and activities on Twitter @slger123.

To get back in action on this blog, I thought the WordPress stat search terms might translate into a sort of FAQ or update on what I’ve learned recently. Below are subtopics suggested by my interpretations of the terms people used to reach this blog. Often inaccurately, some people searching for tidbits on movies or books called ‘twilight’ might be surprised to read a review of the memories of an elder gent battling macular degeneration in the 1980s. Too bad, but there are also people searching for personal experience losing vision and on technology for overcoming limitations of vision loss. These folks are my target audience who might benefit from my ramblings and research. By the way, comments or guest posts would be very welcome..


This post focuses on technology while the next post addresses more personal and social issues.

Technology Theme: synthetic speech, screen readers software, eBooks, talking ATM

Terms used to reach this blog

  • stuff for blind people
  • writing for screen readers
  • artificial digital voice mp3
  • non-visual reading strategies
  • book readers for people with legal blind
  • technology for people with a print-disability
  • apps for reading text
  • what are the best synthetic voices
  • maryanne wolf brain’s plasticity
  • reading on smart phones
  • disabled people using technology
  • synthetic voice of booksense
  • technology for legally blind students
  • audio reading devices
  • reading text application
  • synthetic speech in mobile device
  • the use of technology and loss of eyesight
  • installer of message turn into narrator

NVDA screen reader and its voices

    Specific terms on NVDA reaching this blog:

  • NVDA accessibility review
  • voices for nvda
  • nvda windows screen reader+festival tts 1
  • videos of non visual desktop access
  • lag in screen reader speaking keys
  • nvda education accessibility

Terminology: screen reader software provides audio feedback by synthetic voice to users operating primarily on a keyboard, announcing events, listing menus, and reading globs of text.


How is NVDA progressing as a tool for Vision Losers?
Very well with increased acceptance. NVDA (non Visual Desktop Access) is a free screen reader developing under an international project of innovative and energetic participants with support from Mozilla and Yahoo!. I use NVDA for all my web browsing and Windows work, although I probably spend more hours with nonPC devices like the Levelstar Icon for Twitter, email, news, RSS as well as bookSense and Bookport for reading and podcast listening. NVDA continues to be easy to install, responsive, gradually gaining capabilities like Flash and PDF, but occasionally choking from memory hog applications and heavy duty file transfers. Rarely do I think I’m failing from NVDA limitations but I must continually upgrade my skills and complaint about website accessibility (oops, there I go again). Go to:

The voice issue for NVDA is its default startup with a free open source synthesizer called eSpeak. The very flexible youngsters living with TTS (text-to-speech) their whole lives are fine with this responsive voice which can be carried anywhere on a memory stick and adapted for many languages. However, oldsters often suffer from Synthetic voice shock” and run away from the offensive voices. Now devices like Amazon Kindle and the iPod/iTouch gadgets use a Nuance-branded voice quality between eSpeak and even more natural voices from Neo Speech, ATT, and other vendors. Frankly, this senior citizen prefers older robotic style voices for book reading especially when managed by excellent firmware like Bookport Classic from APH. Here’s the deal: (1) give eSpeak a chance then (2) investigate better voices available at Voice and TextAloud Store at Nextup.com. Look carefully at licensing as some voices work only with specific applications. The main thing to remember is that your brain can adapt to listening via TTS with some practice and then you’ll have a world of books, web pages, newspapers, etc. plus this marvelous screen reader.

Apple Mania effects on Vision Losers

Translation:What are the pro and con arguments for switching to Apple computers and handheld devices for their built in TTS?
Good question. Screenless Switcher is a movement of visually impaired people off PCs to Macs because the latest Mac OS offers VoiceOver text-to-speech built in. Moreover, the same capabilities are available on the iPhone, iTouch, and iPad, with different specific voices. Frankly, I don’t have experience to feel comfortable with VoiceOver nor knowledge of how many apps actually use the built-in capabilities. I’m just starting to use an iTouch (iPod Touch) solely for experimentation and evaluation. So far, I haven’t got the hang of it, drawing my training from podcasts demonstrating iPhone and iTouch. Although I consider myself skilled at using TTS and synthetic speech, I have trouble accurately understanding the voice on the iTouch, necessary to comfortably blend with gesturing around a tiny screen and, gulp, onscreen keyboard. There’s a chicken-and-egg problem here as I need enough apps and content to make the iTouch compelling to gain usage fluency but need more fluency and comfort to get the apps that might hook me. In other words, I’m suffering from mild synthetic voice shock compounded by gesture shyness and iTunes overload.


My biggest reservation is the iTunes strong hold on content and apps because iTunes is a royal mess and not entirely accessible on Windows, not to mention wanting to sell things I can get for free. Instead of iTunes, I get my podcasts in the Levelstar Icon RSS client and move them freely to other devices like the Booksense. Like many others with long Internet experrience, such as RSS creator and web tech critic Dave Winer, I am uncomfortable at Apple’s controlling content and applications and our very own materials, limiting users to consumers and not fostering their own creativity. Could I produce this blog on an iPad? I don’t know. Also, Apple’s very innovative approach to design doesn’t result in much help to the web as a whole where everybody is considered competitors rather than collaborators for Apple’s market share. Great company and products, but not compelling to me. The Google OS Android marketplace is more open and will rescue many apps also developed for Apple products but doesn’t seem to be yet accessible at a basic level or in available apps. Maybe 2010 is the year to just listen and learn while these devices and software and markets develop while I continue to live comfortably on my Windows PC, Icon Mobile Manager and docking station, and book readers. Oh, yeah, I’m also interested in Gnome accessibility, but that’s a future story.

The glorious talking ATM

Terms used to reach this blog

  • talking ATM instructions
  • security features for blind in ATM


What could be more liberating than to walk up to a bank ATM and transact your business even if you cannot see the screen? Well, this is happening many locations and is an example for the next stage of independence: store checkout systems. Here’s my experience. Someone from the bank or experienced user needs to show you where and how to insert your card and ear buds plug. After that the ATM should provide instructions on voice adjustment and menu operations. You won’t be popular if you practice first time at a busy location or time of day, but after that you should be as fast as anybody fumbling around from inside a car or just walking by. Two pieces of advice: (1) pay particular attention to CANCEL so you can get away gracefully at any moment and (2) always remove ear buds before striding off with your cash. I’ve had a few problems: an out of paper or mis-feed doesn’t deliver a requested receipt, the insert card protocol changed from inline and hold to insert and remove, an unwanted offer of a credit card delayed transaction completion, and it’s hard to tell when a station is completely offline. I’ve also dropped the card, sent my cane rolling under a car, and been recorded in profanity and gestures by the surveillance camera. My biggest security concern, given the usual afternoon traffic in the ATM parking lot, is the failure to eject or catch a receipt, which I no longer request. But overall, conquering the ATM is a great step for any Vision Loser. It would also work for MP3 addicts who cannot see the screen on a sunny day.

Using WordPress</h4

Terms:

    >
  • Wordpress blogging platform accessibility >

  • wordpress widget for visual impaired

Translation: (1) Does WordPress have a widget for blog readers with vision impairments, e.g. to increase contrast or text size? (2) Does WordPress editing have adjustments for bloggers with vision impairment?


(2) Yes, ‘screen settings’ provides alternative modes of interaction, e.g. drag and drop uses a combo to indicate position in a selected navigation bar. In general, although each blog post has many panels of editing, e.g. for tags, title, text, visibility, etc. these are arranged in groups often collapsed until clicked for editing, if needed. Parts of the page are labeled with headings (yay, H2, H3,…) that enable a blog writer with a screen reader to navigate rapidly around the page. Overall, good job, WordPress!


However, (1) blog reader accessibility is a bit more problematic. My twitter community often asks for the most accessible theme but doesn’t seem to converge on an answer. Using myself as tester, I find WordPress blogs easy to navigate by headings and links using the NVDA screen reader. But I’m not reading by eyesight so cannot tell how well my own blog looks to either sighted people or ones adjusting fonts and contrasts. Any feedback would be appreciated, but so far no complaints. Frankly, I think blogs as posts separated by headings are ideal for screen reading and better than scrolling if articles are long, like mine. Sighted people don’t grok the semantics of H2 for posts, h3, etc. for subsections, etc. My pet peeve is themes that place long navigation sidebars *before* the contnent rather than to the right. When using a screen reader I need to bypass these and the situation is even worse when the page downloads as a post to my RSS clinet. So, recommendation on WordPress theme: 2 column with content preceding navigation, except for header title and About.

Books. iBooks, eBooks, Kindle, Google Book Search, DAISY, etc.

Terms

  • kindle+accessibility
  • how to snapshot page in google book
  • is kindle suitable for the visually impaired?
  • how to unlock books “from kindle” 1
  • is a kindle good for partially blind peo 1
  • access ability of the kindle

I’ll return to this broad term of readers and reading in a later post. Meantime, here’s an Nytimes Op article on life cycle and ecosystem costs of print and electronic books. My concern is that getting a book into one’s sensory system, whether by vision or audio, is only the first step in reading any material. I’m working on a checklist for choices and evaluation of qualities of reading. More later.

Searching deeper into Google using the Controversy Discovery Engine

You know how the first several results from a Google search are often institutions promoting products or summaries from top ranked websites? These are often helpful but even more useful, substantive, and controversial aspects may be pushed far down in the search list pages. There’s a way to bring these more analytic pages to the surface by easily extending the search terms with words that rarely appear in promotional articles, terms that revolve around controversy and evidence. Controversy Discovery engine assists this expanded searching. Just type in the term as you would to Google and choose from one or both lists of synonym clusters to add to the term. The magic here is nothing more than asking for more detailed and analytic language in the search results. You are free to download this page to your own desktop to avoid any additional tracking of search results through its host site and to have it available any time or if you want to modify its lexicon of synonyms.
Some examples:

  1. “print disability” + dispute
  2. “legally blind” + evidence Search
  3. “NVDA screen reader” + research Search
  4. “white cane” + opinion Search
  5. “Amazon Kindle” accessibility + controversy Search

    Feedback would be much appreciated if you find this deeper search useful.

    Adjustment themes: canes, orientation and mobility, accessibility advocacy, social media, voting, resilience, memories, …

    Coming in next post!

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.

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

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.

Disabled? Sorry, *NO* insurance for you!

August 19, 2009

In line with current U.S. rumblings about our massively messed up health care system, here is my personal diatribe against insurance profiteering, and appeal for attention toward disability services. I don’t usually post negative stuff or rants, but we’re all angry and my story of disability resilience is part of the record submitted in support for a public option. Other Vision Losers may find comparable experiences and those not yet disabled may gain some insight about life becoming disabled in early retirement before Medicare in these dark ages of private insurance.

Note: there are many local geographic references, with some Prescott AZ Resources for Visually Impaired.

Background

I have myopic macular degeneration, a lifelong progressive deterioration from birth or growth spurt causing elongated eyeballs and correctable near-sightedness until too much retinal atrophy. My last sliver of good vision left in 2005 taking driving, print reading, face recognition, and surrounding detail into a swirling world of haze. Glaucoma onset at age 60 now costs about $800/year in standard meds that control eye pressure. I have had no other treatments since 1998 with cataract removal following extensive surgery for retinal detachment in 1993. I currently have 3 retinal exams per year with the usual tests.


I am single, not a veteran, did not seek employment after job termination in 2005, preceding my eligibility for employment-based disability benefits by about 6 months. I easily qualified for social security disability at age 63 when I was using COBRA health insurance at about $7000/year.


I have basically provided my own rehab and general disability support, easily totaling over $15,000 out of pocket. Following legal blindness in 2006 I retrained myself in computer use and began seeking orientation and mobility training (OMT) for navigating with a white canes and crossing streets. After applying to AZ social services, I waited over a year for this critical safety and independence training with only one trainer in the county, who quit from low pay. Eventually, after crying at a local low vision information group, a school special educator gained state certification and provided a few lessons and a $35 cane. I am truly grateful for the trainer who kept me moving forward when I was becoming home bound. Second Sight local rehab and People Who Care provided low vision overviews but covering information I had already learned myself.

Health “Insurance” to Susan: Sorry, you own your disability until Medicare.

At end of COBRA in late 2006, I found it difficult to get response from United Healthcare (in Florida) on continued coverage but expected costs over $10,000. AARP insurance rejected me outright because of the 3 glaucoma meds which they would be forced to cover. My professional organization, IEEE, had just suspended its health insurance offerings. I was surprised to find no possible configuration of insurance for an otherwise fit pre-medicare retiree. Turning to a local broker, I found the only choice, at $3500/year, with Blue Cross of AZ which demanded waiver for related eye condition costs. Note that I would have become eligible for Medicare 2 years after admission to social security disability which turned out to be just after I reached age 65 anyway. Isn’t it ironic that the deterioration of a few body cells at the wrong time can alter one’s retirement resources by so many factors?


Like many people independently “insured”, I but down visiting doctors in expectation that any condition occurring after start of insurance would be considered pre-existing, i.e. subject to rejection or rescission. I was basically only covered for accidents. Ironically, my inability to gain OMT increased my chance of accidents out walking or getting around. Indeed, in 2004, a decorative rock near the Prescott court house sent me to the ER for five stitches at about $1000. Inevitably, disability increases medical costs, even for insured people, if the social context, the physical environment, and safety training are minimal or nil.


One effect of visual disability is the extreme difficulty of getting usable health insurance information. I’m as Internet adept as anybody, with email since 1977, but the Medicare, prescription drug, and health insurance websites and documents are painful to use, requiring hours of work and absorption of information in memory. Now, I’m good at web stuff, but filling outh pages of forms is beyond my ability, hence I resorted to a local broker to do this for me, accepting their offerings and trusting their advice. Note that I do have personal helpers, in-house teenagers, but not up to handling complex medical forms I cannot read to check. I also felt that prescription drug policies were partially hoax as I could not find a way to match 3 standard glaucoma meds with 165 choices all couched in weasel words. A consumer protection action could well be applied to make all policies simple enough that even a visually impaired non-Ph.D. had a chance.

My Personal Feelings

  1. The Medicare disability gap, no help for two years, is outrageous. Here is a mature individual adapting their personal life, trying to maintain productivity and independence, seeking but finding only minimal social services, with this gap at the worst possible moment. Who thought of that torture for the permanently disabled?

  2. Social services: rehab are available only if you’re working, want to work, veteran, in school, or really poor. Near retired are on your own. I called everywhere to find OMT and get in touch with local low vision education resources. I was willing to pay for a consultant to guide me at a faster pace, but no such person existed. There were none when I needed them, nada, just a waiting list. Eye doctors refer to low vision specialists, located in Phoenix, who pushes exorbitantly expensive optical devices. Instead, being a technologist myself, I attended an accessibility exhibition in L.A., found podcasts and product demos, and, at a cost of nearly $15,000, assembled my own assistive technology regime. I also began writing a blog at http://asyourworldchanges.wordpress.com to share my experiences with others in the same boat.


    Just imagine how hard it’s going to be on both the services and citizens as more baby boomers lose vision and need both mobility and computing re-training? There are standard occupational and educational training programs but the jobs are ill-paid, yielding much better services in coastal cities. How many low vision people, other than me, will you see walking around Prescott, although an estimated 9000 in Yavapai County?
    At this point, the most valuable service I’ve received is that $35 cane and a few lessons at crossing streets that, of course, lack audible signals or driver warnings. I truly believe that white cane is my ticket to the only freedom I can have. There is no viable public transportation, So I’m often using taxis if rides are not available. And notice that the Community Center, within walking distance of my home, has no sidewalk access.


    In contrast, before the recession, I was formulating plans to move to Tucson where SOAVI offers regular services comparable to Lighthouse in major cities and welcomed my computing expertise as a volunteer. Retirement-rich Prescott is incredibly service-poor.
    I regret that so few other low vision people in the Prescott area can receive comparable training. I also note that there is no computer training I am aware of nor any exposure to assistive technology comparable to the audio reading, book services, and more available to veterans and students. As a technologist, I found my own resources, and I am proposing such information through courses at OLLI at Yavapai College.

  3. How it feels to be a citizen deprived of health insurance “choices”.
    • Not health but rather,
      corporations insurance. They determine the risk pools, not the forces of demographics and society. Some person pushed around the paper to deny me coverage for my pre-existing condition and, at AARP, of any insurance. Managers and policy makers determined that, no matter what else about my health, I would reduce profits in annual exams. I’ve read that about 400,000 health corporation employees spend their working hours paid by premiums to deny insurance to citizens in order to pass profits to shareholders and corporate bosses. This is as evil a form of capitalism as could be imagined with no innovation, public service, or redeeming values, just pure profiteering.

    • Even more insulting, as a “self-pay” I got to fork over for the full rate rather than any reduction negotiated among doctors and insurers. Luckily, I had only year and a half of routine exams for my “pre-existing condition” but lived in fear of a major treatment that could run into $10,000s.

    • I am appalled at state politicians and tax payers who refuse resources to
      our system of social services so starved of trained rehab people that low vision individuals sacrifice safety and independence that probably lead to higher medical costs, e.g. $1000 when I tripped over a decorative rock down town Prescott.

    • I also resent second class status as a citizen who has for nearly 20 years supplemented family members in and out of personal difficulties, but now becoming taxpayers. I was a willing safety net, but there’s no net for me.

    • A visiting friend recently got excited at the national anthem played at the square, but I could find no feeling of national loyalty, only sorrow for myself and the many other disabled people I know who, with great resilience, overcome disability but always end up with less financially and more aggravation and deprivation from lifetime medical services. You own your pre-existing condition, so it goes, but why should the U.S. support a medical industrial complex that profits from exclusion of persons with disabilities.

    • Finally, I know all too many people who remain mired in companies they dislike, submitting to discriminations practices, enslaved due to health insurance.

Recommendations

Abolish the profiteering, paper pushing, intrusive health insurance companies and provide full support for a public option. No country can claim it is “good and great” when its health care system is rotten and wasteful at the core. Why fight terrorism abroad and still facilitate slavery and profiteering from illness and disability in the home system?


Additionally, extend the notion of health support to include the social services, rehab specialists, training centers, and public support that keeps people with disabilities productive and not needing more costly medical services. Just adding 3 more rehab people to the Prescott area would add, what, maybe $300,000 or about one middle-class house or a $1 more taxes. Now, realize that everybody will be disabled eventually and these specialists are even more essential.


Note that the disability I describe is a “social construct” as much as an individual condition. I have rather resiliently responded to my condition with great personal growth while the insurance and social services have constituted far more challenge and distress. I have only faced the full force of this dysfunctional system for about 10 of the 15 years of my progressive disability while many others have a lifetime. I have come out with a sense of service to others exhibited in my blog writing, advocacy in social media, and participation in lifelong learning distance education opportunities at Yavapai College.


Fix the system by abolishing private health insurance, acknowledging that this impoverished dogma of capitalism is far worse than any possible replacement that serves all the people. Apply the funds, after retraining insurance paper-pushers, to building a disability friendly society that, like the curb cut, will improve lives for everybody.

Addendum: So now we know, sorry,, the nation cannot afford health insurers!

Many U.S. citizens have lost our innocence about capitalism watching the fiasco of Wall Street bailouts and, now, the role of the medical-industrial-government complex in our personal lives and 1/6 of the national economy. So, it’s now established baseline that acceptable universal health care can be provided for 3% overhead, i.e. Medicare. And, facts vary, but let’s assume premiums carry 20% overhead, including profits to shareholders, bonuses to executives, salaries to underwriters (i.e. those who deny insurance or claims), adjusters who hassle doctors and their administrators over claims, processors who actually do work comparable to the Medicare 3% overhead. Oh, yeah, also lobbying, lawyering, and the usual industry hobnobbing at expensive places. All this, when in many locations there are near monopolies or few competitors. And more along the lobbying vein are the subsidiary think tanks that produce reports to influence legislators.

Can the U.S. economy actually sustain 20% versus 3% overhead costs? Wouldn’t we be nuts to continue such a costly system? Well, not if it were geared toward innovating and modernizing health care records and studies of comparative treatment effectiveness. But that’s not happening, at least for the benefit of the citizenry. No innovation, inhumanc3e denial of services, isn’t this just pure profiteering?


Here’s a counter-proposal if U.S. citizens cannot give up on capitalism in its most appropriate context, as argued by NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman. Knowing 3% overhead is the baseline, allow 5% of premiums for profit private companies. That’s all, covering administration, executive salaries, and dividends. Sorry, insurance industry investors, and I’m probably one somewhere in my diversified portfolio. Profits have been inflated, costs have not been controlled, it’s time for reparations after the war on those with pre-existing conditions. But won’t the health industry go nuts and up their charges? Well, let the insurers and health care providers go to negotiating like other claims, rather than allow the insurers to have the final call. Now, let’s slice off another 1% of premiums into a fund to improve healthcare delivery, doctors’s lives in underserved districts, the social service gap I’ve described. Isn’t that a better trade-offhann corporate bonuses or deniers’s salaries?

Bottom Line: If the for-profit insurers’ cannot even come close to a current public option, i.e. Medicare, the country cannot afford to subsidize their dogmatic capttalism. For those who cannot abide government-run systems, give a private option capped at a reasonable level of 5% overhead, stripped of denial privileges and forced to innovate and streamline to survive.

Contact

August 19 2009
Susan L. gerhart, Ph.D.
http://asyourworldchanges.wordpress.com
blog “As Your World Changes”, ‘Adjusting to vision loss with class, using technology’

slger123@gmail.com

Honoree for Ada Lovelace Day — Pat Price for AccessibleWorld.org

March 24, 2009

The Accessible World Community

Ada Lovelace Day resulted from a petition to recognize women’s role in technology. The woman I am recognizing was not strictly a technologist but rather a businesswoman in the insurance industry. I did not know her but have often used a web-based community she founded for learning about technology, sharing ideas and books, and fostering nonprofit as well as commercial projects through an outlet for recorded chat sessions and tutorials. The arena of service is the broad range of visually impaired people, multi-generational but especially supportive of older folks. She herself was mostly blind, with some periods of vision where technology could help, also dealing with deafness and crippling deterioration.


As my own vision was leading me to adopt more audio support, I repeatedly found myself wandering around Accessible World.org. My beloved Levelstar Icon Mobility Manager was discussed in tutorials and online user group sessions. A steady stream of low vision products and tutorials were referred to in mailing lists leading me to drop into the archives. Friends of Bookshare.org knit together veteran volunteers and book lovers into book groups I occasionally visited to complement my own local clubs. I was inspired to hear the pleasure of communicating impressions about plots and characters, knowing that these book lovers were reading from Braille and audio devices as fluently as from print.

The Visionary behind Accessible World


This lady, Pat Price, of Indianapolis Indiana died Feb. 1, 2009, with Memorial from Friends of Pat Price, conducted using the Accessible World and Talking Communities web communication. One memorable testimony described her as “outrageously productive”, not only at age 80 but throughout her life, quietly organizing people from disparate realms of life to address problems of the visually impaired.

Lessons for technologists from Accessible World


What can technologists learn about the roles of women? First is that technology really, really matters to disabled people, allowing us to roam the world in contact with others, often nearly housebound after active professional lives. Second, the web is so stupendously cost-effective that a few individuals as webmaster, tech support, event coordinator, and publishers can form a tight-knit community where newcomers can learn about both culture and opportunities. Third, a woman could lead this contribution without being a technologist herself but rather providing the vision, energy, spirit, wisdom, and patience to lead others with the necessary technical skills. For me, Accessible World was a wonderful source of insight into a cross-section of the blindness world as technology progressed within and around it.

Conversely, there’s a sense of admonition and embarrassment I feel as a technologist myself. since web sites mean so very much to the visually impaired, it is supremely callous and unprofessional of those web sites that fail us. Indeed, it is even up to the level of cruelty when considering the extra pain , yes, pain, imposed upon tired hands forced around a keyboard until finding the search box or heading outline that provides equal access to the page’s purpose. It is dispiriting to fail when a web service like Blog Talk Radio builds around an inaccessible chat client rather than one such as Talking Communities used by Accessible World. And then I lose respect for podcasters who choose services without regard to accessibility. In the ideal world, there would not be a separate Accessible world ignored by those technologists not yet disabled or accepting of their roles as care-givers or respective of social justice. Sadly, that ideal world is easily within reach if only we began to hold our own professional organizations to higher standards of universal design as a goal and minimal usability as requirements for all software, gadgets, and web sites.

More about Ada Lovelace

  1. Wikipedia on Ada Lovelace
  2. Ada Lovelace as a mathematician
    Ada Byronb Lovelace in garb of her time

  3. The first programmer, Ada Lovelace

Learning to Write By Listening

May 26, 2008

Revamping writing skills is a major phase in vision loss transition

One reason for starting this blog was to regain my writing skills. This post describes my personal techniques for writing while using a screen reader and other assistive tools. A suite of recorded mp3 files illustrate some steps in rewriting and expanding the previous post on Identity Cane.

Most of this post assumes a state of experience comparable to mine three years ago before I became print-disabled. It was hard then to know what questions to ask to prepare myself. I bumbled through using the TextAloud reading application which enabled me to write well enough while I could control the lighting around my PC and begin to experiment with alternative screen reader packages. Unfortunately, I had some truly humbling experiences trying to edit rapidly at review panel meetings with overhead lights bearing down, voices all around, and a formidable web-based panel review system. Following the edict "Do no harm" I recognized a challenge of physical, cognitive, and technological dimensions. I had to admit I was professionally incompetent when it came to writing, ouch!

My model for writing without vision

The basic questions are:

  • What are my accuracy versus speed trade-offs? And, how do I manage them?
  • What tools do I need? And, how do I teach them to myself?
  • How must I change my writing style? What are the new rules of ‘writing by ear’

If you are not sure how this writing process is working, listen to me writing some text using the NVDA screen reader.

The tradeoffs of accuracy and speed

The Accuracy Versus Speed Tradeoff is intrinsic to writing. How fast do you record your thoughts, accepting some level of typing and expression errors, with separate clean-up edits and rewrites? If I type very fast, I make more errors but am better able to record the thoughts and even establish a "flow" mental state. Writing more slowly allows corrections of wording, punctuation, and spelling but risks loss of thread and discouragement from a feeling of slowed progress.

Writing and editing are very different cognitive tasks complicated by operating primarily in listening mode. The input and output parts of the brain must operate together. A document filled with typos is pure agony to correct, causing a cascade of further errors and often destroying the structure of the whole document. One twitch in a edit can remove more than a letter, even a line, sentence, or paragraph. In "computational thinking" terms, the trade-off is to design the interactions of two concurrent processes that interleave events and actions to produce a document with an optimal amount of errors to be removed by even more processing involving editing tools.
I tried several drafting techniques. Writing in long hand notes, outlines, and snippets had worked for 40 years but I could no longer read my hand-writing. Recording into my Icon PDA helped organize my thoughts and extract some pithy phrases from my brain. As my memory has improved to take over former vision-intensive tasks, I have found it possible to mentally compose a paragraph at a time then hold it together long enough to type into the word processor.

Basic writing and Listening Tools

Writing without looking requires several tools, with my choices discussed below:

  • Compositional, for typing, formatting as needed, and editing
  • Spell checker, possibly a style or grammar checker
  • Pre viewer to present the written results as they will be read by sighted, partially sighted, and blind readers
  • Speech tools to read while typing and editing, as well as presentation of the written result
  • Voices to capture alternative audio presentations of written results, as well as feedback on style and tone

My personal process is:

  • Compose in mostly text with minimal HTML markup using Windows NotePad;
  • Use the NVDA screen reader for key and word echo, with punctuation announcement off then on;
  • Copy text into the K1000 tool, applying its fabulous spell checker, listen for errors and speaking flaws using its self-voicing reader, and copy back to Notepad;
  • Listen in several voices, including both female and male, for flaws and nuance of style;
  • Preview in a browser, Mozilla Firefox,to grasp whatever I can see on a large screen and to check links;
  • Copy into wordpress blog editor.

The obviously best choice for writing is the word processor most
familiar to the writer. However, criteria may change as vision degrades. The spell checker may not have visible choices and may not announce its fields to a screen reader. Excess interface elements and functionality can get in the way. Upgrades and transition to a new computer may demand new software purchases. After years of Microsoft Word and Netscape HTML Composer, I finally settled on the combination of Windows Notepad and Kurzweil 1000. The trickiest feature of the ubiquitous Notepad is "word wrap" for lines with very few other ways for a writer to screw up a document. Since I write HTML for my website and blog, using Notepad avoid temptations of fancy pages by not using WYSIWYG. Also Notepad never nags for licenses discount deals, and upgrades,

.
On the upscale side, I needed a scanner manager for books and Other printed stuff. The Kurzweil education Systems 1000 offers not only scanner wrappers but also several word processor features. One is a beautiful spell checker to read context, spell the word,offer alternatives all using its own self-voiced interface. Listen to me and the K1000 spell checker. I also like having a reader with alternative word pronunciation, pausing, and punctuating. However, I occasionally lost text due to lock-up and unpredictable file operations, so I opted for the universal, simple Notepad for composition.

Update December 2008. I am now using the free Jarte editor based on Wordpad. Behaving like the Windows Wordpad, Jarte has a spell checker similar to K1000, multi-document management, and other features. Most importantly, the interface recognizes and cooperates with a screen reader, NVDA for me. Carolina software designers have done a great service for visually impaired writers and should serve as a model for interface developers of other software products. I’ll be upgrading soon to pay for the free version and some extra features.

A screen reader drives writing. by listening

As discussed in NVDA screen reader choice posting, I do not use the conventional expensive screen readers in favor of a free, open source wonder the I expect to rule the future of assistive technology. NVDA allows me to switch among voices, choose key and word echo, and degree of punctuation announced.

Writing and reading by listening has surprising consequences. First, it strongly differentiates sighted readers from those listening who will probably not hear the colon you use to start a list of clauses separated by semi-colons. Second documents must be read multiple times, with and also without punctuation announcements. It is difficult to concentrate on the sentences when every comma, quotation, and dash is read. And it is necessary to hear every apostrophe and other punctuation to locate extraneous as well as missing items.

Synthetic voices alter writing practices

Another suite of editing tools are synthetic voices, which may come as a surprise to many sighted as well as newly unsighted writers and readers. Synthetic voices have dictionaries of pronunciations but inevitably screw up in certain contexts. Is that "Dr." a street or an educational degree title? Is "St. Louis" the city with a saint or a street? is 2 the numeral like two spelled out or too as in also? No matter your screen reader settings and data, your readers may differ. Well, some of this can be tweaked but generally my attitude has been to just live with quirks.

Synthetic voices offer an even more powerful editing feature unknown to most sighted writers. The excellent researcher Clifford Nass" "Wired for Speech" tell how our brains react differently to gender, ethnic, age, personality, and other features of synthetic voices. Even if we know the voice is only a data file, we still confer more authority to male voices and react negatively to perceived aggressive female voices. This allows editors with synthetic voices to identify phrases with a tone that might be perceived as weak, over-bearing, age-related, or introverted. Don’t believe me? Listen to examples of male and female voices.

Note to sighted writers: you might also find these techniques assistive for finding typos, checking style, and evaluating the forcefulness of your writing. Nothing says you have to be visually impaired to try writing by listening.

Complexity becomes more visible with vision loss

When I write my blog, I must address both sighted and unsighted readers. Sighted people see a dull page of text, while people listening to the page or using magnifiers or contrast themes may react differently to a posting on a myriad of textual, graphical, and audible facets. Much of this out of my control as I cannot see the appearance of my pages in your browser, nor do I know if you are listening in a browser or an RSS client. Also, your speech settings, if any, may differ from mine in speed, dictionary, gender and more. .

A very insightful article on writing for accessibility points out the ill effects of complex sentence structures, reliance on punctuation, expectations of emphasis, and unawareness of the span of settings possible on the end users side.
Now, in my technical and business writing days, I was the "queen of convoluted sentences". I just never understood what was wrong with sub-sentences (as long as the sentence parsed ok); rather, I thought it a mark of quality. Whoops, there I did it again. I used a parenthetical phrase that might not be read with parentheses around it. And I relied on a semi-colon to separate sentences. Sorry about that, I’m working hard on this. But, there I made another mistake. I used a contraction which synthetic voices have trouble pronouncing “I’m” when I could say "I am". Abbreviations are also problematic. Should I say ER or E.R. or "Emergency Room’? This is giving me a headache.

The strongest lesson about compensating for vision loss is that ‘Complexity really hurts’. Overly complex things, whether physical or informational, cause accidents and invoke recovery methods. All this wastes precious physical energy. It is easy to be discourage when tasks that could be performed before vision loss are now too expensive in energy or time. But, conversely, I can now see complexity for what is, usually bad design. And, on the brighter side, once the source of complexity is identified, there may be a work-around, a simplification, or a suggestion for a better design. All this conscious adjustment of expression practices may actually be good training for aging more gracefully. Sigh.

Recordings to Illustrate Writing by Listening

The following recordings accompany this posting. Mp3 files may download or launch a player, depending on your browser and computer settings.


  1. Listen to me writing
    shows the screen reader speaking text in Notepad as written and revised.


  2. Spell checking and listening in K1000


  3. Listening in several synthetic voices for gender and other differences

  4. Audio version of this and other posts

Grabbing my Identity Cane to Join the Culture of Disability

May 14, 2008

How the white cane marked my transition

I am just coming off 2 months of travel to events in differing capacities as professional reviewer, accessibility spokesperson, disability consumer, and general traveler. After two years of legal blindness, I am still feeling like an immigrant in a new culture. I retain strong memories of my past ways of work and interpersonal interaction, but I am now beginning to understand the culture of disability. This transition has been marked by my adoption of the Identity Cane as a frequent companion as I navigate my hazy world.

Description of the white identity cane

The Identity Cane is a slim white cane intended not for robust walking assistance but rather to let others know its carriers are visually impaired. There are a few issues here.

First, consider robustness of the instrument. Mine, costing about $20, folds nicely and is quite light. It is good for poking at curbs and sidewalk spots that look like holes or ridges. But it is not for tapping or waving, as would be learned in a mobility training regime. One tangle with a fire hydrant or bicycle and this pole will be a pile of sticks. However, compared to other physical gadgets that seem to break for no reason, this fold-up item is holding up well.

How the identity cane signals vision limitations

The Identity Cane is meant to be a signal to passersby, service people, and new acquaintances that you have vision difficulties where they might help you. The other day, at an intersection, another street crosser seeing my cane just stated loudly "ok, time to cross", not knowing whether I could see him or how much help I needed. Airport personnel are alert to the cane to offer assistance to find elevators or check-in counters. A white cane can also gain more polite and helpful responses when you ask a stranger "where is the Saint Michael Hotel?" while standing directly in front of its sign.

However, this little pole is no badge of invincibility. Drivers on cell phones are just as likely to run over you whatever you are carrying, although the cane can be waved to possibly attract attention. Airport T.S.A. check-ins are variable, with some monitors wanting to stuff your cane onto the conveyor or into a box or frisk for objects planted on the blind lady. To my surprise, nobody ever asked when I went through security with my soon-to-expire Drivers License in one hand and a white cane in the other. A cane can help remind flight attendants you might need extra help but it might also enlist an unwanted wheel chair rather than a walking escort, if needed at all.

The identity cane influences my own behavior

For me, the Identity Cane is an important reminder that I am partially sighted. I do not use it on my exercise walks along a regular route, but elsewhere it tells me "slow down, watch out for decorative stones that might send me to the Emergency Room, look for exit doors that might set off sirens, remember I can ask for help, never take a short-cut, generally behave like a person who cannot see everything".

Yes, it was really hard to get used to carrying the cane as an Identity. What if people think I am blind? Well, duh, Susan, remember your priorities – safety is paramount, energy is consumed by covering up, and relationships are hard enough without the ambiguity of a disability.

But it is not really that simple to clarify the cane’s meaning if you are partially sighted. Having covered up my condition for 5 years with an uncomfortable employment situation, I became very good at navigating and acting normal. Except when I tripped or ran into something. Then I looked clumsy. Or when I skipped an event that was hard to handle for transportation or dining reasons,, I appeared unsociable or shirking. This is getting into more aspects of the culture of disability, where adopting the cane is an admission of vocational difference, a more than symbolic transformation of identity that demands organizational change in work or community groups.

The white cane educates public option

Since low vision is a relatively rare occurrence condition the Identity Cane is a strong signal in the noise of everyday life. Never in my career had I seen a blind woman at a professional event, so my cane carrying at recent working gigs has probably been most unusual for other attendees. That is especially good for computing professionals to remind them that low vision is not just for their grandparents but also is part of the working conditions for someone performing the same tasks as them. If only it could also raise their curiosity to learn more about assistive technology, the afflictions of their students, the A.D.A. regulations they wish away, and the prevalence of accessibility issues.

For me, the Identity Cane is a badge of education, not only within my profession but also in the community that suffers from lack of low vision services. Visually impaired people may appear less often in public leading to a circle of ignorance. City fathers think "we do not need to pay for accessible street crossing when nobody blind wants to cross" — but no sane blind person would risk their life at the intersection. This makes the Identity Cane a symbol of activism as well as a protective measure.

The identity cane is a strong force in vision loss

In summary, the cane used only for Identity is a strong force for overcoming vision adjustment resistance, personally, professionally, and for the wider public.


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