Scripting Enabled, London 19-20 September

On Friday, I attended day one of Scripting Enabled, a two day event looking at ways to make social software more accessible. Day one was a series of talks on barriers to accessibility and what needs to be done and day two was a hack-day with a mixture of developers, designers, advisors and interested folk working together to find solutions and build prototypes.

The event was born out of Mashed08, where Christian Heilmann presented a prototype for accessibility, which caused so much interest that he decided that accessibility was an area that needed to be looked into a lot further. From this Christian came up with the idea for the Scripting Enabled event and said in his opening remarks: ‘Open your ears, hearts and minds – if we remove some of the barriers then we are on the way to win already!’

All in all, this was a great day and I heard a lot of passionate and enlightening stuff. The videos are presently being transcribed and I’ll link to them as well as mentioning any updates from the Scripting Enabled event when I hear of them.

First on stage was Denise Stephens– Enabled by Design

Denise is passionate about good design, she has a condition which means her needs change on a daily basis, she uses a mixture of tools to help her with tasks most of us take for granted and the web has often been her lifeline to friends, resources and entertainment. Frustrated by dull and inadequately designed products Denise created and runs Enabled by Design, an online community who help each other find assistive products and equipment. They aim to make independent living more accessible by innovative design principles. They would like to make design accessible, aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable – often the disability experience is serious and not much fun. Christian summed up how many disabled people feel: ‘Just because I need some aids my flat shouldn’t look like a cheap hospital’

Enabled by Design wants to spread the concept of Universal Design – the design of products for everyone and designed to make them easier to use for as many needs as possible and they aim to set up focus groups to liaise with designers. In December there’s a social innovation camp and everyone is invited, including developers, to find out more, get in touch via http://enabledbydesign.org

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Kath Moonan, Abilitynet – Why I hate the interweb!

Kath’s heart sinks when people say to her they hate using the internet. Some users get such a bum deal that they only use the internet when they have to and it’s especially sad that most of the fun stuff isn’t accessible.

Why is the web still not accessible?
* It’s still prohibitive and expensive!
* Assistive technologies not fit for purpose?
* A lot of users don’t know about the good stuff!

Kath works for Abiltynet, who work to improve accessibility for disabled people and they conduct very diverse tests with varied users. Many of the issues they come up against reflect patterns of needs for different groups of users. She feels that if we solve many of these needs then we will have a good user experience for everyone. Abilitynet sent out a survey to their users asking about issues they have and what their wish list would be and they got a really broad range of what their users needs are. She emphasised that you need to be really careful not to pigeon-hole people and treat everyone as an individual – everyone has different needs and many people have a mixture of needs.

Amongst disabled users, there is a great gap in technological knowledge and experience, many have been burnt in the past and have had problems for example with installing software. YouTube isn’t great for screen reader users, common issues include page layout being too crowded and with no heirachy, as well as the typography being hard to read and problems with Flash.

Kath has collected lots of user quotes together: forms, scrolling, typography, too much tabbing and complex layouts are a few of the things which make using the interweb really hard. We heard about how Facebook is really difficult for visually impaired users to use and is now even harder to use since they updated the design. Jaws users report that Flash is ‘inaccessible full stop’ and so they skip it. A steep learning curve is a real barrier to a lot of users using the web. Forms, especially on travel sites are really hard to use and time consuming. Custom stylesheets should also be on the accessibility for the web wish list.

During question time Kath was asked about online games, she said in the 2.5 years she’s been at Abiltynet they’ve never had anyone from the gaming industry talk to them. Apparently there’s some research going on at City University with Second Life and Kath emphasised the importance of exploring fun and leisure issues. The audience was asked if they were interested in games? The answer was a resounding yes!

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Antonia Hyde, United Response – Opening doors: online content for people with learning disabilities

United Response was set up over 30 years ago and they work with up to 1500 people at any one time. They support people with learning disabilities and mental health needs as well as people with physical disabilities.

There’s over one million people in the UK with a learning disability, this covers a wide range of conditions – these affect some people moderately, some seriously – but they all have common factor that they have a condition that impairs their way of learning. There’s no quick fix solution though as there’s no typical person, for example people have different communication preferences, many can live normally, keep a job, etc, but some find it very difficult to live without a lot of help.

Barriers to using the web
• Log in/out – where to go
• Captcha
• Navigation / information architecture
• Content – what is a website about?
• Control
• Generating content – user interaction

How do people use the web? Often with someone else to help and support them. There’s some great innovation around AT (assistive technology) for people with learning disabilities.

Key points
• People feel excluded
• Possible solutions: bigger pictures less text
• Break down sites into chunks with easy to read text
• Be inclusive
• Don’t create disability ghettos
• Balancing the ‘specialist vs mainstream’ – making both accessible and in both directions
• Making online language more accessible
• Include people with learning disabilities in the accessibility debate
• Use images / symbols instead of text

Widgit is a language that you can make pages with pictures. Symbols are a language to get across content, grown out of a need to communicate and there’s a huge amount of interesting stuff to be found around the use of symbols browsers. The difficulty is that are these are languages and software that you have to pay for and need a licence to use. Symbols are icons with a lot of politics – open symbols would be good!


Leonie Watson & Artur Ortega – Screen readers and JavaScript

What’s out there:
Technologies that are available for people with visual impairments cross a lot of medical conditions, from clouded sight to colour blindness and also people with corrective sight conditions. The longer we live, the more chance we’ll suffer from visual impairments. People use various technologies such as screen readers, browser functionality and magnifiers. A screen reader turns text into electronic speech or brail on a refreshable brail display. So far Windows has been the dominant operating system that accessibility technology has been developed for and it is quite expensive, although Apple have recently introduced a screen reader to their operating system which is free. On Linux you have all sorts of choices, for example: Orca, Emacspeak and Speakup. System Access to Go will install itself and is a good one to look at if you haven’t had a go of a screen reader before. Lunar and Freedom Scientific’s Magic are popular windows apps. There are comprehensive integrated packages within Mac and Linux systems, custom style sheets and apps are good for interfacing with browsers and web widgits are useful for accessing web content.

Screen readers and how they work with web pages:
Forget about your mouse, screen readers work with pages in a linear way, it can be irritating, slow and frustrating – but quick navigation keys can help this process. To read a web page there needs to be an underlying mark-up in the page in the first place – if there’s no hooks then there’s no way of getting through the page quickly.

Most of the popular screen readers have a virtual buffer which interacts with web content, for example when a page loads the screen reader takes a virtual snapshot and allows shortcut keys to interact with the page and navigate around it. Web 2.0 technology has created more problems for screen readers, making it difficult to work out pages and changes, this can also be a very slow process and is not always accurate. JavaScript works with a virtual buffer to improve accessibility.

Some accessibility wish list items

• an application that looking up images instead of words
• custom stylesheets – so you can have your own preference for colours and fonts on favourite webpages. Also, when you visit a site again your custom stylesheet will be linked to a cookie
• searchable flash and subtitling, so hearing impaired people can listen to Flash content

Damon Rose from BBC Ouch said that Facebook was probably the messiest site on the internet for a JAWS user. Submit buttons for changing status are hidden for JAWS users, headings and page structures too, but the real problem is the applications that are running on top of Facebook because generally they’re not built by people who are thinking about accessibility. Artur has had a look at the new Facebook design and he feels it’s worse than the old one. Many developers who make applications for Facebook don’t realise that they’re creating inaccessible applications.

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Jonathan Hassle – Head of Accessibility, BBC – Dyslexia Barriers

As the subject of games came up earlier in the day, Jonathan briefly talked about gaming and accessibility. Gaming is a very visual and aural medium and descriptive subtitling is very important, for example, if you’re playing a game you need to know that someone is coming up behind you to kill you and if you’re missing this information you’re not going to get very far in a game. All the commands and controls should be accessible by tabbing and if you want to see some tabbing in action look at one-key Space Invaders and Chess at OneSwitch.org In 3D immersive worlds such as Second Life there has been some work to make it accessible and fun, for example people with mobility difficulties have enjoyed engaging in pursuits such as flying and visual audio will help you have fun if your visually impaired. Jonathan emphasised how games designers should have a ‘multi-modal’ approach to building games and immersive worlds and think across all disabilities.

Jonathan went on to talk about literacy difficulties in the UK, research has estimated that 1,900,000 people have dyslexia in the UK and 1,100,000 people have a reading age of 5 or less and 500,000 have AHAD. His talk about dyslexia and the web gave us some pointers on how to make web content more accessible. Web 2.0 is all about contributing, but if you have a problem writing, you might have difficulty having your say and be embarrassed about, for example, making spelling mistakes.

Barriers and common symptoms of dyslexia:

* Letter reversal – d for b
* Word reversal – tip for pit
* Inversions – m for w or n for u
* Transpositions – felt for left
* River of words – being driven to the spaces
* it can be a combination of things that make reading really difficult

Solutions: dyslexia and web / print for reading:

* non-white background
* colour gels
* easy to read fonts
* try not using words, for example images instead of words, podcasts, video, audio, a diagram or animations

On dyslexia and web personalisation

* look carefully at word spacing, line spacing, fonts, colours, backgrounds
* people can be self-conscious, especially if they share their computer or fear of people looking over their shoulder
* Most people don’t know about customisation apps and tools such as stylesheets or how to use them
* The Textic Toolbar was developed by a dyslexic developer (Phil Teare) to help people with dyslexia

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Phil Teare, of Textic.com followed on from Jonathan, he describes himself as a hacker, a disability nut and dyslexic, he talked candidly about what it’s like to live with dyslexia.

Phil’s on lots of forums and by his own admission often posts a hideous mess online and empathises with people are embarrassed about posting to forums when they may have spelling problems. He was diagnosed as dyslexic when he was 10 years old, he is uncomfortable with the fact that you have to pay to be assessed and told by an education expert that you’re dyslexic. He realised that he wanted to be a programmer that dealt with writing tools for disability and access issues and one of the first applications he wrote was a test for dyslexia and it works by testing for a variety of cognitive attributes that may tell you if you’re dyslexic. Educational psychologists spend a long time training to test for dyslexia, so it’s difficult to create a simple tool to test for this.

He went on to tell us that over 50% of people in prison are dyslexic in a nation where 10% of the population is dyslexic. This reflects on how difficult it is to get a job with dyslexia in a world that is becoming more and more text based. A lot of people know about assistive technology such as JAWS, but not many people know about technology for dyslexic people.

Dyslexia can be a severe impediment on your ability to read and write, for example, Phil’s reading speed is about 1/6 of the average reading speed which makes filling in forms or reading books for work / education really hard. Spelling is hard too and makes life difficult, this is not down to laziness and often creates problems due to other peoples attitudes. It’s a difficult for people who aren’t dyslexic to empaphise with and put themselves in a similar mind set.

He is also very easily distracted by visual or audio noise which stops him from concentrating. There are a lot of unnecessary distractions on the web such as advertisements and widgets, for a lot of people these make sites unusable. He hates forms – long form filling is difficult, simple forms are better. When he became self employed and had to fill in his first tax form he got into a big mess with spelling mistakes, etc. The tax office sent it back and he was really annoyed. He created a online form for filling in his tax form but it kept timing and the only way he could do it was to get someone to help. This is when Phil finally decided that dyslexia was a disability.

He loves assisted environments, such as integrated development environments (IDEs) that have code completion (code prediction) which highlights and assists completing tasks. Dyslexia is all in the mind, it’s entirely confined to the human brain, which only has to be slightly different to affect mental behavior. Phil also has a slow bandwidth between his eye and his brain so it means that he has a fuzzy image of the last word like a lo-fi webcam – think about how this makes you feel – this is also aural and tactile.

Is it legally a disability? As far as designing a website it is – as it should conform to certain standards and it’s incorporated into the disability legislation act.

What can you do to help dyslexics? Make everything simpler, but not simple, after all Einstein was dyslexic. Offer low-contrast web options as this makes things easier to read. Add spell checkers, font options and educate people – show people how to use the browser or technology and make it easier – people will not see all these tools though if links to them are hidden at the bottom of a webpage.

What can web 2.0 do? Phil’s building a web-based proxy called Masher Nations, written in Python – the idea is you make a web proxy that you can submit your own specifications to and then build a web community around it. It uses Yahoo’s ‘build your own web’ service. It’s a proof of concept (you can find this at http://mashernationsdemo.appspot.com) and is free and open BSD. You can offer your own style sheets without having people have to figure out all the technicalities and is a way of adding functionality to most of the sites you use. It uses layers assistive technology on top of web pages, it’s simple to use – you just type in your name and it configures to your requirements and is available on Google Code.

At the end of the day Christian Heilmann chaired a discussion panel with the audience, here are some quotes:
• ‘Education is going to be the key to letting people know what they can do’
• ‘People need to go out and talk to people about what’s out there’
• ‘My web My Way is the tip of the iceberg as far as what’s out there’
• ‘We need to develop tools as simple as the Wii as it works with symbols rather than words’
• ‘We need to get behind the RNIB Toolbar’
• ‘It’s easy to say shutdown unaccessible sites like Facebook, but we really need to talk to the geeks so we can fix it instead’
• ‘Could the BBC swap their homepage for a day to a CSS naked day? ‘
• ‘Why can’t we use ad space for informational video /ads instead – maybe something that people would actually like to look at?’
• ‘If an accessibility app can be used for mainstream things like mobile then people may take more interest in it’
• ‘Older people are telling us that young people are making things for themselves rather than older people’
• ‘Nobody likes to think of themselves as disabled – so lots of people ignore content aimed at disabled people because they want to use what everybody is using’

What would the panel like to have tackled at the hack day?
* Kath Moonan: Trying to make everything built in a simple way on one screen and uncluttered
* Artur Ortega: New innovations for making things more accessible such as solutions reusing existing code
* Jonathan Hassle: I want something that brings it all together. I’d like to see some modding – eg take a site that is presently not working for audiences we talked about today and then make them accessible and prove that they can be better.
* Phil Teare: A means of collapsing a web page – most well structured web pages – and make them simple
* Christian Heilmann: An easy way to distribute Grease Monkey for YouTube – it’s a great tool, but far too geeky

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5 responses to “Scripting Enabled, London 19-20 September

  1. Thanks for the great write up Rainycat. It was a really inspiring day, thanks for such a detailed write up.

    Thx,

    Kath

  2. Aww, thanks Kath!

    Indeed it was an awesome day :-D

  3. Pingback: FutureGov » Useful links » links for 2008-09-25

  4. Pingback: FOWA: Future of Web Apps, ExCel, London « I love kittens…

  5. This is brilliant, really useful summary of some great speakers. Cheers Rain.