CyberLearning and Learning Cyber: Lifelong and Accessibility Experiences

September 19, 2010

Susan L. Gerhart slger123@gmail.com


Alex Finnarn Alex.Finnarn@yc.edu

White paper for NSF CyberLearning Task force


Background: Alex is completing one year service with AmeriCorps Vista as a educational technology specialist for OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Yavapai College, also working with Northern Arizona SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) in Prescott Arizona. Susan is a semi-retired computer scientist, translating her experiences with vision loss into education and advocacy for web accessibility and adoption of assistive technology. She is a student of philosophy, history, and economics in OLLI, working with Alex and others on a technology task force, and facilitator of courses on social media and technology and society.


    To make cyber learning effective in the 21st century, it needs to be available for all populations and people who possess a desire to learn.
Current technology has not lived up to this promise. The younger generations of learners have embraced technology adequately with the help of adventurous teachers and innate ability; however, the older generations of learners have met cyber learning with adversity. Oftentimes, the systems they desire to use are not streamlined enough for adequate adoption. Finally, learners with classic accessibility issues, like poor vision, are ignored when online learning tools are designed. By reaching out to these disadvantaged populations, the whole of cyber learning will improve.

Experience with Cyber Learning for Lifelong Learners

OLLI is nationally supported by the Osher Foundation operating at over 100 U.S. independent locations. Yavapai College OLLI has over 600 members selecting peer directed courses from over 50 subjects during each six week session for fees of $130 for five class sessions per year. Courses are often structured around 1/2 hour lectures from The Learning Company supplemented by facilitator moderated discussions and materials. Diverse fare includes computer training (keyboard, Windows, Mac, Internet, Office, Photoshop) as well as rock and roll, art, health, memoir writing current events,, etc.


We asked: Where does CyberLearning assist OLLI activities and courses? What benefits might accrue
from a good technology platform?


We began to place course materials online after conducting a user survey in the spring of 2010. 87% of respondents in the survey reported having Internet access at home, and 79% reported checking their email at least once a day. The majority of the membership for OLLI did indeed have access to and used the Internet; however, none of the classes were able to readily incorporate cyber learning into their curriculum. A few classes tried using an online learning system, but interest peaked early and soon faded into disuse. With an able-bodied, intelligent, and Internet-ready membership, why was this OLLI unable to engage in cyber learning?


From strongly worded survey comments, we derived a “social contract” that members would not be forced into technology but rather be offered optional technology enhancements. Without clear cut cost benefits, such as reduced printing, or measurable improved learning objectives, we focused on outreach to home bound members, interaction with similar institutions for broader curricula opportunities, repositories and sharing within courses, and archiving institutional pictures and stories.


Existing platforms generally failed to attract interest and use from facilitators despite tutorials and assistance. The first problem is privacy, quite appropriate for repeated warnings of phishing and identity theft, but a barrier to sharing when members do not want a public web identity (Facebook aside). Streamlined and flexible entry is essential especially when courses occur in rapid cycles of six weeks. Forums for sharing are sparsely used because members are involved in many personal and community activities. They spend time as desired, but not required, on outside reading, Googling, and reflecting. A crucial feature of OLLI classes is the lack of tests or assessments during the course. Once grading and competition are removed from the classroom, many online platforms become bloated with unnecessary features. Furthermore, the incentive of using an online classroom to take a quiz or study for a test disappears, and a student must rely on innate curiosity to visit an online classroom.


While email and search engine savvy, OLLI members are not cognitively familiar with the models of forums, blogs, wikis, or tweet streams, and because of this, we are faced with introducing both new models and complex platforms together. After some experimentation and testing, we settled on using EDU 2.0, a rapidly growing U.K. based company with a reasonable business model and support, for an online classroom. We also partnered with another interesting venture in an Australian-based U3A, University of the 3rd Age, which offers self-paced courses and repositories available for facilitator adaptation at similar lifelong learning institutions. Although the OLLI membership is predominantly White, well-traveled, and professionally diverse, international thinking and contacts can offer many new opportunities for our OLLI, like an international book club.

Meanwhile, OLLI’s monthly newsletter has been adapted to appear on a WordPress blog with future plans for moderated forums. We are also actively using the college’s interactive TV classroom connection to offer distributed courses to our sister OLLI, expanding their course selection in the process. A long term goal we have is to host joint OLLI Internet-based courses that would take advantage of the country’s pool of retired expertise. However, the really tragic goal of reaching homebound elders in a community lacking public transit remains primarily a function of offering shared rides and a reliance on volunteers working within the public library.

Perhaps a more important goal is “Learning Cyber” or learning “by osmosis” and how social networks and cyber learning are changing our information practices. Why would any sane person use Twitter? How does a grandparent respond to pressure to participate in Facebook in order to see pictures, or monitor children, grandchildren, and vice versa? Does Google always provide correct information? What happens when newspapers open articles to potentially unpleasant community commenting? What is RSS? How does one critically check facts and correct chain emails with political misinformation? Facing complex interactions with Social Security websites, how does one upgrade their skills for PDF, forms, and chat help? Who wrote Wikipedia? When can You Tube, BigThink, and TED supplement the History and Discovery cable television channels? What are our real privacy rights regarding Google, Facebook, and online retailers? Institutions like OLLI provide an informal setting for increasing and assessing the skills of individual Cyber Learners. Our technology initiatives may be more effectively directed at exposure and bridging generations in both technological and chronological senses.

Recommendations

For the continuing improvement of a national Cyber Learning movement, we suggest researchers and developers incorporate, sooner rather than later, constituents from learning environments such as OLLI and similar institutions. We also recommend investigating the educational and technological practices of the two international sources we found most attractive, EDU 2.0 and U3A. The above experience should provide insights into and questions about cross generational Cyber Learning, which will benefit the movement as a whole.

Links


  1. The Bernard Osher Foundation Lifelong Learning Institutes


  2. OLLI Yavapai College, Prescott Arizona


  3. The Learning Company DVD Lectures


  4. “University of the Third Age” international movement


  5. U3A Australia, courses at Griffiths University


  6. EDU 2.0 Free U.K. based Learning Site

How Attention to Accessibility Can Improve Cyber learning

Attention to accessibility for persons with disabilities should be an immediate objective for educating *ALL* constituencies who touch any aspect of Cyber learning. Consider “accessibility” as the practices and technology that enable persons with disabilities using “assistive technologies” to participate fully and comfortably in CyberLearning.


Indeed, there is no choice if the Departments of Justice and Educations follow through on their “Dear College President” letter regarding
fairness in applications of emerging technologies in academic environments. “Accessibility” here means that devices and web sites must support assistive technologies commonly available through special education channels and increasingly appearing in mainstream markets: Screen (text-to-speech) readers, alternative input/output devices, networked tablet readers such as Kindle and iPad, and possibly lab instrumentation and pedagogical software.


As we argued regarding senior learners, citizens and markets must be served by people who differ in many aspects of physical and mental activities. Education workplaces and curricula must adapt to concepts of universal design ancultural diversity.
Fortuitously, adapting to accessibility offers a systematic way of expanding and analyzing design tradeoffs that benefit far more than persons with disabilities. Think about curb cuts originally for wheelchairs and now beneficial to baby strollers, bikers, inattentive walkers, and luggage cart users. In web environments, standards: address usability for persons using screen readers, also causing difficulties for many mobile device user;, facilitate interoperability of browsers and other user agents; and help manage costs of do-overs and long term maintenance.

Recommendations


For CyberLearning to reach its potential and broaden participation, attention to accessibility is not only overdue and inevitable but also a chance to refresh underlying technology as a CyberLearning experience in itself.


1. Web standards such as WCAG 2, provide a fledgling “science of accessibility” in the form of definitions, principles, experimental results, and field trials. Standards and theories evolve by employing high quality peer reviews, broad community input, extensive documentation,continuing debate in blogs and on Twitter, and increasing adoption earlier in cycles of HTML adoption. Professor Richard Ladner’s group at U. Washington contributes in depth traditional graduate and capstone education experiences, experiments, and publications, yielding cohorts of researchers also involved in outreach to K-12 students with disabilities. Furthermore, an engineering paradigm is emerging as “progressive enhancement” supported by static analyzers, and free operational tools (NVDA screen reader and VoiceOver on Macs). This science is a rich area for computational thinking.

2 University and professional organization web sites are often exquisitely poor examples of attention to accessibility, attested to by a recent NSF-funded study, ironically locked behind a professional society pay wall. Why are many Cyber learning organization web sites so bad? Accessibility simply is not a requirement, e.g. look up your own organizational accessibility statement. Is there one, is it followed, who is responsible? Ok, so academics don’t have time to learn or enforce accessibility theory or practice. But, is it acceptable to turn away Students who can otherwise function well in society but face extra barriers in STEM? and where will accessibility aware CyberLearning developers come from? Ouch, should organizations such as NSF and MIT promote inaccessible pedagogical tools such as Scratch?


In fact, we are not talking major engineering feats, but rather well structured pages as in good technical communication, a few lines of code that make forms into relational structures and pictures into captioned objects. The principle is general use of POSH (Plain Old Semantic HTML) from straight text HTML preserved through styles and fancy interactions topped off by seconds of automated compliance analysis and minutes of insightful execution of use cases. However, accessibility in pedagogical software definitely requires fundamental adoption of hooks and interfaces provided by system vendors.


Think of this change as one small step in technical communication and one giant leap forward in understanding and improving human learning performance.


3. Practically speaking, curricula can only have accessibility grafted onto courses and tools rather than taught as separate subjects. But creative and active learning can come into play: interviewing local ADA specialists for requirements and projects; turning off displays and browsing with a screen reader; estimating costs of retrofitting for omitted accessibility requirements; analyzing risks of lost markets and litigation; adding features suggested by audio supplement or alternative output and input channels; ethics and accessibility addenda to assignments. People who love game controllers and touch screen mobile devices should dig these exercises.


4. Specific interventions must be attempted starting with faculty awareness and introduction to the science of accessibility and its economic importance as well as social fairness. Suggested activities: accessibility seminars at educator gatherings; forced overhaul of professional and government sites to match .com and other .gov levels; design contests for students to makeover and create new information resource sites to meet the grand universal design challenge; audit of pedagogical tools, including textbooks, for universal learning objectives encompassing accessibility; release of all disability related publications now imprisoned beyond professional society pay walls; increased awareness of accessibility as a job and professional speciality; recognition of assistive tech as part of user interfaces; rubrics for POSH in technical communications. …


On a personal note, many avid learners gain vision rehabilitation facilitated through a vibrant online culture of blogs and podcasts on emotional, social, education, and technical topics. Visit this world yourself: book clubs and interactive demos at AccessibleWorld; product demos by individual users at BlindCoolTech; more demos and discussions at ACBRadio; and now a community of #accessibility and #a11y gurus and users on Twitter. Off the mainstream, but taking full advantage of CyberLearning while casting a wider net to newly disabled individuals offers a testimony to spontaneous online learning.

The Data Literacy Challenge


Finally, while the above complaints and suggestions are largely remedial, one clear challenge is the equal visualization” of information and data. Portfolio pie charts, rainfall tables, stimulus recovery expenditure maps, timelines, … are all essential for citizen participation and difficult for visually impaired people. Difficult, yes, but can alternative and multiple ways of channeling data into brains be accomplished through the adapted and flexible recognition and reasoning processes developed by visually impaired thinkers such as scientists and engineers? Can these new models of information and modes of interaction then benefit people with less analytical background or resistance to data driven reasoning?Designing cyber learning for the temporarily fully enabled may not only limit those currently working with disabilities but fail to build upon the unique experiences of and qualities of disabilities which we all have intermittently and eventually.

Links


  1. Department of Justice A.D.A. letter to college presidents


  2. W3C web standards and accessibility guidelines

  3. “>
    U. Washington assistive technology and accessibility projects (Richard Ladner)

  4. “>
    Book “Universal Design for Web Applications” by Matt May and Wendy Chisholm


  5. White paper on”Grafting Accessibility onto Computer science Education”, “As Your World Changes” blog, Susan L. Gerhart


  6. Inaccessible article on inaccessibility of academic web sites

  7. newly founded Institute on Cultural Diversity, including persons with disabilities

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A Blogger Treasure, Walking No More

May 28, 2010

Julie Woodman aka “Granny J” at Walking Prescott blog

Julie and her blog were genuine treasures for the Prescott community. She inspired other bloggers to seek honesty, humor, and beauty in our writing. We all aspire to her level of blogging for ourselves and others.


And here is her post on Bloggery 101 Social Media Class which helped us learn her blogging philosophy. Now, don’t let anybody tell you blogging isn’t for people of all ages!

Disablism: the good, Bad, and Maddening

May 1, 2010


Disablism Day May 1 2010

I’m enjoying Goldfish’s Invitation for Blogging about disablism
day”.

The good about disability

background: print-disabled and legally blind for five years into retirement.

  1. I love technology.And, wow, does disability open your eyes, so to speak, or maybe it’s our ears and brains. For example, I carry my entire rebuilt
    library of over 1000 DAISY books from bookshare.org on a lavaliere booksense along with many GB of podcasts all downloaded via Levelstar Icon Mobile Manager and Docking station. Better reading now than ever in my life, thanks to this technology and the Internet.

  2. I meet many cool people through my disability. The virtual community of #a11y and #accessibility on Twitter are my gurus and heroes, loading up my browser tabs with good articles and forging new links in my mental map of the field. In physical life, I’m the lady with the white cane to ask about
    macular degeneration.

  3. retired and still kicking, my disability + technology background + learning regime have given me a focus for hours a day of accessibility activism as well as outreach. “Turning lemons into lemonade”, they say, but I just call this a lifetime bonus for as long as I can hold it together.

The bad and Other stuff I’m Too Mad To talk about

  1. My very own profession sucks at accessibility and supporting disabilities. As a computer science educator, researcher, developer, and manager I followed the trends of not noticing disabilities, and got some immediate karma. You know where all those unaware developers are coming from? Our very own computer science accreditation and technical programs.

    And even inexcusably worse are
    the leading professional organizations, such as ACM and its decrepit website. Personally, I coughed up $200 for access to a pay wall of articles for my memoirs and on accessibility. A painfully usable digital library interface did not elicit requested help, back channel messages about accessibility problems were ignored, and all I got was a lifetime membership offer and more renewal notices. The ACM motto: “Of course, accessibility is important. But, we don’t know anything about it. Now, please go away”.

  2. If you have or expect a vision problem, don’t move to a place without public transportation! What a difference in my life if only a bus scooted along
    the major crosstown connector street a block from my house! I can take taxis when I don’t have regular driver available, can also ask for rides, but the loss of independence is a daily demoralizer. Worse, when I do get out like a regular pedestrian, drivers enter crosswalks to scare me and I know half the drivers are talking or otherwise not paying attention.

  3. Trying to establish new relationships with fuzzy faces is challenging. At least, it’s easier now that I’m out in the open about vision loss compared with prior years of hiding, but it’s still saddening not to know the details of my lifelong learning classmate features. Like everybody around a table is a talking space suit, I struggle to remember names to connect with voices and body outlines. But, at least I’m really working on people connections, finally.

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.

What Vision Losers Ask in Searches

April 19, 2010

Personal Themes: Planning, mobility, advocacy, citizenship


In the preceding post on search terms about technology, I recapped some lessons about technology assisting me as a Vision Loser: the wonderful free NVDA scrreen reader; gaining independence using a talking ATM; some technicalities of working with the generally usable WordPress platform; Applemania for assistive technology; and the over-arching theme of TTS, i.e. text-to-speech with synthetic voices. The terms people use to reach my blog expand my range of topics even if I have to make up an interpretation for the searcher’s goal. This post covers more personal than technological topics.

Terms and Basics: “Legally blind, disability, and personal meaning”

Search terms used to reach this blog

  • creative activities for the legally blind
  • what is print-disabled.
  • can a legally blind person join the navy
  • legally blind disability
  • culture of disability
  • identity after disability
  • who are the legally blind non-readers?
  • are legally blind people fully blind
  • jobs for us citizen for partially blind
  • forms for legally blind declaration
  • adversity as change in disabilities
  • resilience partially sighted
  • disability resilience visual impairment
  • orientation and mobility trainer
  • the use of technology and loss of eyesight
  • declaration of legally blind

VisionAware glossary of vision-related terms offers one framework. This topic is certainly a matter of curiosity for both sighted and Vision Losers like me. Frankly, I am rather indifferent to precise terms and refer to myself as blind, partially sighted, visually impaired, disabled, etc. according to how I think the person I’m communicating with will understand and react. More important, I believe, is that the Vision Loser can be matter of fact and comfortable about the situation. Of course, practically speaking, there is that extra box to check on tax forms, that ID card or driver’s license card, the signature line you’re asked for, and many other details of personal and financial transactions. To my knowledge, there is no moment you get a stamp of “legally blind” but rather a process lets you know it is happening. In fact, vision may fluctuate up and down along scales of acuity and bredth of field that was for years my diagnosis of “stable, but precarious”. In fact, I walked through TSA checkpoints with a white cane in one hand and a still valid driver’s license for ID and even once rented a car from Hertz when my companion couldn’t get a debit card approval. No one ever asks “hey, are you legal?” except in bars. And often the situation itself such as bright lights may define whether your sight is functionally useful. What I find more interesting and challenging is planning and navigating the rehab maze. That will be a future post. For now, the above terms just identify some of the ways people look for information.

Using white, symbol, identity canes

  • white cane low vision
  • how to use symbol cane
  • legally blind safety issues
  • white cane with GPS
  • starting to carry a white cane
  • he walks with white cane
  • define white cane
  • waving cane accident car 2
  • blind man’s Harley: white canes and gend 2
  • slim line white cane
  • do i need a white cane with my vision
  • use white cane
  • white cane adjusting
  • blindness and adjusting to the white can
  • tip white cane
  • symbol cane
  • symbol cane for low vision
  • the cost of not using my white cane
  • blind woman walking with white stick
  • white stick and drivers have to stop
  • using the white stick
    safely

  • no sidewalks for the disabled
  • measuring for white cane
  • using an id cane
  • emotional response to using a mobility cane
  • partially sighted use of white stick
  • white cane technologies

Terminology: identity cane in U.S. called symbol cane in U.K. and differs from ‘long cane’ used for practical mobility. Colors also may differ internationally, white in the U.S.


Back when I was starting to require mobility assistance, I wrote about the values of using an Identity Cane. This instrument was a puny stick valuable for poking around and showing others of my disability, but wasn’t functionally useful for walking or climbing stairs safely. Due to the sorry state of social services in the U.S., notably retirement-focused Arizona, it took a long search, months after I really needed help, to find an OMT (Orientation and Mobility Trainer). Gifted from the state with a $35 sturdier cane matched to my height and walking style, I gratefully received a few lessons in waving the cane and negotiating street crossings.

Here’s the answer to the basic question. You use the cane either tapping or sweeping ahead to tell of rough surfaces, dips, curbs rocks, people’s feet, etc. Meantime, using residual vision, you watch for upper body hazards, like trees, mailboxes, street signs, elbows, etc. Climbing stairs, I use the cane to tap each step then sweep when I think it’s a landing, with bottom steps being the most treacherous. Crossing streets requires far more strategies of listening for and watching turners and signal timings, with the cane displayed or waved to attract drivers’ attention. That
is how I do it, probably not completely according to rules, but I haven’t been to the Emergency room in years. Note: as to measurements, this does require the help of an OMT person watching you and your own personal experience with a length that feels comfortable. It’s a matter of a few inches more or less. Furthermore, at first your arm gets tired so a few trial lengths may be affected. My OMT gave me two specific useful pieces of advice: (1) avoiding a nasty step on the path to my lifelong learning classes and (2) make yourself “big” and noticeable at intersections.


My current problem is actually when people try to help and distract me from the synchrony and concentration of using the cane. Often companion walkers get in a hurry or talking and tell me something like ‘5 steps’ when there are are 4 or 6 or, never matter, let me take the steps at my own pace and style. Most of this training is simple but just requires someone to nudge you out and help build confidence, then practice and learning one’s own mistakes and recovery strategies. This is a difficult interpersonal issue as to how to refuse help as well as when and how to ask for assistance.


Another concern is becoming a hazard myself, like tripping a shopper looking at grocery shelves. Or tangling canes when walking with someone with their own mobility difficulties. And, I’m currently having a real phobia for street crossing, with too many instances of drivers entering the crosswalk a few feet away and just plain realization of the dangers of inattentive drivers in a hurry. Now, we need a national law to install yet another electronic gadget in cars, receivers from a cane telling drivers we’re around — like your GPS might say ;blind pedestrian at corner waiting to cross Willow Creek. Please wait’.

Accessible websites and advocacy

Terms asking about accessibility

  • “heading list” + accessibility
  • computer curb cuts wikipedia
  • bad accessibility websites
  • page layout of whitehouse.gov
  • sites with bad accessibility
  • image alt tag checker
  • how do i find my alt tags for my picture
  • headings accessibility test
  • universal design for web applications we
  • pdf crippled
  • Google book search accessibility


It comes with the territory that something in society makes a Vision Loser feel like a real loser, for avoidable reasons. Those ‘advocacy juices’ start to flow, you learn why social practices are so harmful, find and apply constructive advice, rationalize compromises, use mistakes as educational opportunities, and generally contribute to the betterment of society. Well, that would certainly be nice but if it were that easy a few active complainers could clean up the messes in society that hamper our ability to operate like everybody else. For me, with my lifelong exposure to the Internet, web accessibility is a perfect advocacy focus. For others, safety or OMT or low tech devices or public transit or rehab or costs might blend professional backgrounds and advocacy missions.


This is my major criticism of inaccessible web sites. If only headings were used to organize and label page parts, screen reader capability to navigate by headings could be fully utilized. Literally hours of wasted time extracting mental maps of pages or tabbing around the wrong lists could be avoided. Indeed, I think failure to use headings is a root cause of many accessibility problems, e.g. lists of unrelated links, maintenance messes, … When I see a page using an ‘h4’ only, I know page authors don’t understand separation of content and presentation nor are they using established progressive enhancement engineering processes. My recommendation in my complaint to site owners is to attend accessibility courses, read myriad blog posts, track #accessibility and #a11y on Twitter, and read Chisholm and Mays ‘Universal Design for Web Applications’. Other culprits, however, are web page editing and content management systems that, hopefully, will soon be superseded by projects like Drupal with accessibility as an important selling point. H1, H2, H3,… is so fundamentally sound for both writing and reading web pages.

Citizenship and Electronic Voting

Terms

  • the nitty gritty of electronic voting

I wrote about my experiences in the 2008 primary and national elections with a generally favorable impression of the usability of the voting tablet. However, voices sped up or slowed down and I had no way of validating the printed output. The voting system vendor Premiere Election Systems is now defunct, with a rather poor history of counting accuracy complaints. Who knows what’s next for this autumn’s national and local elections. It would be great to have a more common interface among similar devices: voting, ATM, store check-out, remote controls, thermostats,… Common functions include: navigation, voice control, selection, confirm/cancel, etc. for users and various administrative setup of ballots, etc. Foremost is that ‘all things should talk to users’ and eventually hold on-board speakable manuals and environmental information. Just
wishing…


My main message on citizenship is that vision loss should not be a disable for citizenship but we have to be take the initiative to make the voting experience productive. For some people, independence and privacy are not big issues, so taking a sighted person to mark you ballot feels fine. For others, like me, I want to stretch the system and use voting as a teachable moment for family, friends, and community. That’s a tall order but legally mandated. For U.S. citizens now is the time to find out how you can vote in the upcoming elections, like calling or visiting local election boards. This was a good experience for me and even helped the election officers to watch me at work.

Remembering Sputnik: Just a memoir moment

Terms used to reach this post

  • impact of sputnik on mathematics
  • how did sputnik affect America mathematics?
  • how did Russia create sputnik first
  • sputniks effect on the public
  • how did sputnik effect the future?
  • political sputnik
  • how did sputnik effect public education
  • how did sputnik affect education
  • world effects of sputnik
  • sputnik tv public
  • bay of pigs then sputnick song
  • computing arpa “von braun”
  • sputnik lead to modern technology such a
    space race 1950’s and military industrial 1

This topic has nothing to do with vision loss or accessibility but rather is a memoir and personal history of Sputnik. For many scientists and technologists in our 50’s and 60’s Sputnik was a notable national event (1957) that precipitated funding for and attention toward math and science education. Summer institutes for high school students and teachers, fellowships, and, drum roll, DARPA and the advent of the Internet. Our Social Media class has proposed lifelong learning activities where we collect, post, and record our experiences and related materials for our progeny and educational systems. Amazingly, most of us had little American history covering WWII, Cold War, etc. just lived through it haphazardly. Today’s students also don’t get much modern history, so our event recollections, like the NPR story Corp project, might provide legacies and primary materials.

Thanks for asking!!

Search terms provide really useful feedback.

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.

Could TTS news reading beat Kindle and smart phones?

January 27, 2010

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

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


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


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


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


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

CT for Everyone includes Accessibility!

January 24, 2010

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Reading, Ranting, and Computing: 2009 Heroes and Meanies

December 31, 2009

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


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

Accessibility Heroes of 2009


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

The Twitter #Accessibility Constellation

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


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

Special Mentions of Useful Work


Especially I appreciate:


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

The Great book Reader Game, Fueled by Bookshare

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

The mixed breed Apple tree and iPod Touch


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

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


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

People Who keep me going


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


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


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


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


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

The “Meanies” who could do better

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Accessible Computing Mockery (ACM) happily behind the times

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


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

The wealthy who starve rehab and transit services


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


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

Wishes for a better 2010

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

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

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

Susan L. Gerhart, :Ph.D.

slger123 at gmail.com and on twitter