Category Archives: Accessibility

Accessible Software Is Essential To Learning

A personal Story by Sabra Ewing

For many students, accessible software is essential to learning. This is especially true for those of us who rely on assistive technology. Unfortunately, despite the wealth of publicly available information about accessibility, and a host of free resources, student and educator ignorance about accessibility requirements in education continues to create unnecessary barriers for students with disabilities. Here’s a personal account that I hope will illustrate the need for increased professional development in accessible learning.

I didn’t think I would enjoy my required computer science course when I arrived there on the first day of my freshmen year of high school. We were supposed to start using a program called JCreater, which the technology personnel in my school district were unable to make usable by a screen reader. Believing this to be a great stroke of luck, I didn’t mind when my vision teacher told me that the principal would waive the requirement for me and that I would take a gym class instead. Had I just done a bit of research, I might have learned about a free accessible alternative to JCreater that would have allowed me to easily work alongside my peers, but I didn’t know enough about computer science to know what to look for. In any case, according to Newsweek and World Report, I was either attending the number 1 or number 2 public high schools in the nation depending on the year. I assumed that, if the knowledge of the teachers there, coupled with that of my blindness-specific instructors couldn’t devise a way for me to fulfill the requirement, then nothing could. I lived in ignorance for the remainder of my freshman year, thinking that, without a doubt, I had gotten the better end of the Computer Science deal than my classmates.

During my sophomore year, I began to feel slightly apprehensive about the whole affair. I learned that, in addition to the first required class, I was being denied access to three subsequent optional courses. One was an advanced placement course, another was dual credit. In all, this equated to four classes that could have gotten me more ranking points. But I pushed these thoughts out of my mind. Ranking points didn’t matter to me, I told myself. Neither did the fact that our school had a computer science team and a robotics team. It was true that both teams had many of the same members, and that I had taken to eating lunch near them each day, but that was only because they weren’t too loud, not because I had any interest in what they were doing.

By junior year, I broke down and openly admitted that my interest in Computer Science was increasing. But there would be no point in pursuing it. The fact remained…I had not touched a computer during the two weeks I had been in the computer science class. I had never tried programming for myself. How could I really be sure whether or not I could do it as a blind person?

By the time I became a senior in high school, not knowing had become too much to bear. So near the beginning of the year, when we had a three day weekend, I began doing some research into the matter. By this time, I had picked up on the fact that there are lots of programming languages and that my peers had been studying a language called Java, so I decided to see if I could do the same. That night, I spend twelve hours installing software and learning to use command line as well as the basics of the Java programming language. Ever since I compiled my first application depicting a diagonal line, I knew that computer science was for me. I never considered asking to join the computer science or robotics team because I, along with the other students in my small school, was fully aware that I lacked the necessary skill to do so. However, I did ask the Computer Science teacher why I couldn’t have taken the series of courses by using different software to debug and compile my programs. The terse response was that other software packages didn’t effectively color code various information and that in order to be successful in the class, I would surely need one-on-one assistance the school couldn’t provide. After recovering from my shock that this intellectually developed person couldn’t understand that color coding has no bearing on the experience of a totally blind programmer, I began to feel angry and hurt. This difficult situation and others like it could have been avoided through education and increased social awareness for me and the others at my school.

This is an example of how despite the existence of accessible software, I still didn’t have access to all of the same educational opportunities as my peers. Accessible materials are great, and they definitely constitute a big step forward, but those materials are essentially useless in the hands of un-knowledgeable students and educators. In this case, my teacher’s lack of knowledge meant that I missed out on a series of courses and several extracurricular activities I could have really enjoyed. Had I not wanted to find out the truth for myself, I might not today be majoring in computer information systems and thinking of switching my major to computer science. Worse, my ignorance of the software available to me meant that I inadvertently sent the message to my peers that blind people can never be their full academic counterparts. Today, schools don’t find it acceptable to deny access based on race, gender, and religion. Let’s make sure schools also display knowledge and sensitivity toward students protected under The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Free webinar: How does an NPO prepare for OpenAIR?

Event:  Nonprofit (NPO) Kickoff – Join the webinar as a Guest

Date / Time: Wednesday, 9/18/2013, 6:00 PM – 7:30 PM (CST)

Training Type:  Webinar

Audio:  Voice Over IP – You will need headphones with a microphone to talk.

Questions:  Email openair2014 at yahoo dot com

Knowbility’s Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) program evolved last year. What started in 1998 as a local or regional one day hackathon is now a several week volunteer program through which teams of web developers create fully functional sites for nonprofit organizations. Renamed OpenAIR since the competition is now open to NPOs, NGOs and arts and performance organizations from all over the world, it is an amazing opportunity for charitable and public service projects to get the professional support that they may not otherwise be able to afford.

I always hesitate to use the word “free” when urging NPOs to sign up for the program, however.  There is a minimal cost (a $100 registration fee so we know you mean it)  and more importantly, there is a commitment of time and attention.  Developer teams are willing to commit their time and talent to your project and your nonprofit will need to make a similar time commitment.  So if you are not sure about making the commitment, this webinar is 100% free and will help you decide of OpenAIR is right for your dot org.

Join us online to learn more about what the commitment will be and how to help your team win the OpenAIR competition and make web sites that are beautiful, that serve a nonprofit mission and that are fully accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

Here’s the detail. Join us to get the full scoop.

Event:  Nonprofit (NPO) Kickoff – Join the webinar as a Guest

Date / Time: Wednesday, 9/18/2013, 6:00 PM – 7:30 PM (CST)

Training Type:  Webinar

Audio:  Voice Over IP – You will need headphones with a microphone to talk.

Questions:  Email openair2014 at yahoo dot com

 

E-Book Access For stem Success

I didn’t walk into math classes worried about whether the homework would be hard or what the tests would be like. Instead, I was anxious about how as a student blind from birth; I would access the book, take tests, and access diagrams. What if I had trouble in the class? With few external sources on which to rely, would I find a tutor or instructor who could convey information to me non-visually? In most cases, the answer to these questions was a resounding no. My high school heavily emphasized math and science, so I always felt more behind and less capable than my classmates. The difficulty I had with math also limited me from taking several Advanced Placement science courses that many of my peers were able to take without a problem. However, as a college student, I have come to realize that rather than inaptitude, my struggles primarily stemmed from a lack of resources and positive societal reinforcement that my peers did not experience.
It is common knowledge in the blindness community that fully accessible math textbooks are hard to come by. While many papers, abstracts, and articles detail the problems with accessibility, reliable research involving a population of adequate sample size does not exist. However, based on the fact that very few blind students find success in math despite having comparable intelligence to their sighted peers, we know this is a common problem. Books in hard copy Braille are expensive and timely to prepare, not easily brought between destinations, and can sometimes make for difficult navigation. The logical solution for the blind population is to turn to electronic textbooks because students can receive auditory and refreshable Braille output, and in some cases, the student can run a Braille cursor under an unidentifiable symbol to read a literary description. Further, electronic texts are portable so students can take the entire book with them wherever they want as well as write notes inside the book. However, I currently know of only two sources that offer such books in a usable format. They are called Bookshare and Learning Ally, web based services dedicated to providing accessible EBooks to populations who require alternate means of accessing the printed word. In addition to the fact that they are not updated on a regular basis, these specially prepared books can contain errors and lack text descriptions of diagrams and images necessary for blind users to understand the content.
Sighted students have access to abundant stashes of electronic mathematical materials including eBooks found on commercial sites like Amazon, ITunes, and My Math Lab as well as countless articles, tutorials, power points, and YouTube videos detailing any mathematical concept you could ever imagine. Blind students do not enjoy this same access, and this could be detrimental to the learning process. Let’s take for example a common occurrence that took place during my career as a student. Let’s say I am doing a worksheet that requires me to simplify different types of exponential expressions, but I can’t remember how and I don’t have the volume of the hard copy Braille textbook with me that explains how to do it. I need to have this work in by tomorrow, so getting help from a teacher at school isn’t an option. I try to use the internet to find the information I need, only to find that information to be in graphics or flash content that I can’t access. I call a student in my class to ask for help, only to find that I still can’t understand because the student only knows how to present the information visually. By this time, I have spent hours on this one worksheet, and still don’t have it done. An accessible electronic textbook would have helped solve this problem.
To understand the access issues other blind students and I face, you need to start with a basic understanding of how blind people read and process this type of information. Again, I am unable to locate outside research on this topic, and this might be due to the common beliefs that Braille cannot adequately represent complex mathematical equations and that equations have to be written multidementionally. However, I believe that when jumping to these conclusions, sighted people aren’t willing to explore the possibility that they process information differently than their blind counterparts. It has been scientifically proven that blind peoples’ brains can rewire themselves to operate differently than those of sighted people. Though there are several scientific studies with adequate sample populations to represent this fact, the research and case studies depicted in a book called Crashing Through were what most interested me. The book uses personal accounts and outside research to tell the true story of Mike Mae who was blind since the age of three and got a surgery to restore his sight near the age of 40 only to find that he still could not process visual information. After several brain scans researchers learned that this was because his occipital neurons had reassigned themselves to do other tasks.
Now, let’s turn our attention back to how other blind students and I process information in a mathematical context. Based on my personal experience and the experiences recounted to me by other blind students, the main problem with electronic material is that blind people read math linearly whereas sighted people don’t. In most cases, we read math from left to right and top to bottom to make sure we are getting all the information on the page in a layout that our brains don’t have to reorganize. This is especially true for congenitally blind students whose brains have rewired themselves to process and manipulate tactile and auditory information rather than visual information. This means that blind people read fractions from left to right with parenthesis or special symbols to differentiate the numerator from the denominator, use replacement or special symbols to eliminate sub and superscripts, and employ various other linear representations for even the most complicated of notations. For sighted people, this method might be tedious or impractical, but for me and other blind students, this logical linear representation makes much more sense than a multidimensional representation. Even manufactures of screen readers will tell you that rather than create an exact auditory replication, they have to make programs that reorganize information into a more linear format to increase usability. Furthermore, we have difficulty interpreting graphics and flash content unless alt text is present. Alt text is information you can add to your content that only screen readers can access. This alt text can provide a blind user verbal or text descriptions of visually formatted equations and other graphical information. In this way, sighted users can access mathematical content visually while blind users can access that same content non-visually.
The low societal expectations for blind people in the math arena and the lack of awareness of the needs of blind classroom participants could take decades to fix, but providing accessible electronic textbooks is something we can do in the more immediate future to forward the success of blind students in math classrooms as well as lead them to financially stable and fulfilling Employment. As a student in the information technology field, I am looking forward to that day.

My letter to the FCC regarding waving basic accessibility standards for e-readers

In an effort to share with the accessibility community; below is the letter I sent to the FCC regarding the petition filed by Amazon, Sony, and Cobo to exclude their e-readers from meeting basic accessibility standards.
The story I share is true. I think it highlights the dangers that arise if certain companies are allowed to be excluded from meeting accessibility standards. As a blind person in the technology field I rely on digital reading materials to access the thousands of mainstream books, magazines, and other materials to keep pace in the work place. Currently, I have to read e-books and other electronically produced materials on my iPhone or on a very expensive proprietary device designed for the blind. I cannot use the e-readers. This means, I often have to wait longer than my peers to read materials that are not yet available for my special device. /Some of these books and materials never become available. This puts me at a disadvantage in my career. This could all be changed if these companies are expected to comply with meeting basic accessibility standards.
A portion of my letter, not part of my story, was taken from a general letter provided by the National Federation of the Blind http://www.nfb.org/. It was made available as a template for use in submissions to the FCC to uphold the basic accessibility standards and ensure that they are followed by all companies.
Re: Reply to the Coalition of E-Reader Manufacturers’ Petition for Waiver from CVAA Accessibility Requirements, CG Docket No. 10-213

Dear. Mr. Monteith:

I am a blind professional working in the technology field. I have worked in this field for over twenty-years. I use digital books to keep up with my profession, learn about new technologies, learn to use new operating systems and software. Like many Americans I also enjoy using digital books for pleasure reading as well. I believe blind people are finally entering a time when we have access to many books, magazines, articles and other forms of reading materials on level with our sighted peers. Thanks in large part to the advent of digital publications and the ability of blind persons to use e-readers to access digital material. If the coalition is allowed to exclude their e-readers from meeting basic accessibility standards this would absolutely be a loss for me as a blind person, who relies on the ability to use an e-reader for my employment and to read with an e-reader on the go.
I strongly oppose the Petition for Waiver submitted by the Coalition of E-Reader Manufacturers’, requesting that e-readers be exempt from the Twenty First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA).
The spirit of the CVAA is to increase the accessibility of mobile advanced communications services (ACS) and e-readers have ACS functionality. Most e-reader users I know post to Facebook and exchange books with friends. It would not make sense to grant a waiver for a class of products that are clearly intended to be covered by the CVAA.
I want access to digital books. As a person working in the ever growing ever changing field of technology it is crucial to employment that I am able to read the same books at the same time as others in my field or I will be left behind in the job market. Currently, if I want to read a Kindle book, I have to buy a very-expensive Apple iPad or iPhone. Then I can download the free Kindle app, but that application is not fully accessible. I want to be a mainstream user and would happily buy an e-reader if one was accessible, but the manufacturers continue to exclude me from their customer pool. I reject the Coalition’s notion that to make their product accessible would not provide me with any substantial benefits. In reality, it will give me options as a consumer and equal access as my sighted peers.
The Coalition suggests that the waiver only apply to e-readers that do not have ACS capabilities, but then says that the products may have browsers and social media. It is my opinion, that this is not a meaningful limitation. The CVAA requires that ACS be accessible, and the FCC should not allow some services to be more important and others worthy of a waiver.
The Coalition fails to provide any details on the lifecycle of its products or a potential time frame for the waiver. I believe an indefinite, blanket waiver would harm the public, is inconsistent with the CVAA, and should not be granted in the face of these omissions.

Last year a week before Christmas, I was volunteering as a gift wrapper for a charity organization. The charity hosts the gift wrapping event at local book stores. Our table was next to the shelves full of e-readers available for sale. Many customers assumed I worked for the book store because I was wrapping purchases for those who wanted the service. Many customers tried to discuss the functions and usability of e-readers with me. I could not join in the discussions. Instead, I was faced with explaining that I could not use the devices or engage in discussions of which e-reader was the better choice. I, as a blind person could not use the e-readers that the store was selling. This got me to thinking that I probably couldn’t get a job at that book store as a real employee because I could not assist customers with the store’s big selling Christmas item. I also felt left out and isolated from the mainstream of shoppers because all the talk was about the different e-readers on the market and how much reading content was available on each platform.
I strongly urge the FCC to reject the Coalition’s petition and uphold the spirit of the CVAA. E-readers and the ACS features found in that equipment must be made accessible and granting a waiver would perpetuate the digital divide and discrimination in the marketplace that I face every day.

Sincerely,
Jeanine K. Lineback

Accessibility in the National Day of Civic Hacking

Participating in the National Day of Civic Hacking

The first national Hackathon for Change was held on June 1st and 2nd and was every bit as exciting as I anticipated.  The event had much of the same energy, idealism, and enthusiasm that we see each year in our annual Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) competitions. If you’re familiar with AIR, you know that since 1998 Knowbility has fostered teams of tech volunteers to donate time and talent by building accessible web sites for nonprofit groups.

Similarly, this last weekend of civic hacking brought more than 10,000 volunteers out within their own communities to participate in more than 95 separate hackathon events.  Data sets from dozens of government entities were made available to the hackers with the challenge to use  publicly-released data, code and technology to solve problems relevant to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states, and our country. If the energy at Austin’s ATX Hackathon for Change was any indication, people of all ages and skills actively and joyfully embraced the opportunity to use technology to make a difference in the lives of citizens – truly awesome!

St Edward’s University hosted the local event and Open Austin was the primary organizer.  What distinguished the Austin Hackathon from the others is this:  alone of all the programs I surveyed, Austin had web accessibility prompts in the orientation materials for all volunteers and included on their Expert Panel an accessibility advocate – me! It is always exciting to watch coders, designers, and planners respond to the accessibility challenge.  The experience led me to examine once again the nature of the field of digital accessibility and what is currently needed to truly advance and bring into the mainstream the practice of accessible design.

Mainstreaming digital accessibility

Some have been calling for the creation of an International Society of Accessibility Professionals.  But here is what I wonder:  What exactly will the establishment of a separate organization for these professionals do to integrate accessibility into the practice of smart, eager, engaged developers and designers such as those who participated in the National Day of Civic Hacking?  Does a professional organization really capture the imagination and fire of those for whom development is a calling and who respond to challenges like gaming and mash-ups?  I truly do not know the answer.

But I do know from participation in AIR and again this weekend that when accessibility is integrated as part of a broader community engagement, it is easy to “get” it.   I see lights go on and accessibility embraced on a community level by bright entrepreneurs, designers, gamers, and developers. I know that when accessibility is integrated into a lively practice, it is more likely to be accepted and improved upon than when it is siloed off into a separate category.

Accessibility practitioners are no different than any other specialized discipline.  If kept in isolation, the echo chamber effect creeps in, bad practices can be institutionalized, and adaptive change becomes more difficult.  Including accessibility along with other design considerations, integrating accessibility into iterative processes, ensuring that accessibility is part of the tumble of the development process – I believe THAT  is the way to keep accessibility ideas and practice fresh, innovative, and truly relevant.

What would John Slatin do?

Participating in the National Day of Civic Hacking was big, fat, super happy fun.  Let’s find more ways to integrate accessibility.  I challenge advocates out there. Instead of (or in addition to) submitting your papers to disability conferences and speaking to the singing choir, why not submit to wild and wooly design and tech conferences – like Big(D)esign and SXSW Interactive – that have nothing in particular to do with accessibility?

Dr. John Slatin was an English professor, a poet, and a lover of technology who happened to be blind.  He inspired students and colleagues as he fostered art, language, and technology-related research projects that were not easily described or pigeon-holed. John was an effective accessibility advocate precisely because his imagination was fired by the potential of technology to bridge gaps of language, culture, geography, and yes – disability.  Let’s get out there and truly demonstrate the truth of John Slatin’s words…Good design IS accessible design.  Onward!