Category: Technology

Coolest gadgets and tools in assistive technology.

For Fun And For Free

I am writing this on behalf of Accessible Twitter and Dennis Lembree.

In The Beginning

I was consulting at Cornell University in 1991 when I saw the first Web pages on a NeXT computer. The first pages were rather accessible but there wasn’t any assistive technology on the NeXT computer at that time. JAWS for DOS was originally released in 1989 by Ted Henter but as far as I know it never existed for NeXT.

Though Tim Berners-Lee is supposed to have said that he never intended for pictures to be displayed on the Web, in 1992 he apparently went out of his way to load this first Web picture.

Uploading that picture brought on the beginning of inaccessible Web design. People merrily went about “designing” pages filled with pictures with no alternative text. Pages with black backgrounds, yellow slanty text, and the tiled rings of Saturn. It was mostly academics, scientists, military people who had accounts. The Web grew out of their sensibilities.

A very common sensibility on the early Internet that carried over to the early Web was that it was for fun and for free. The people who regularly used the Internet back then might not have described their modality as for fun and for free but they sure lived it. I remember incendiary flame wars over the very mention of a commercial product in a Usenet newsgroup discussion. Contrast that with Blackboard claiming they own a patent to deliver courses over the Web. Sheesh.

Tim Berners-Lee himself did not patent the Web. While CERN was certainly a very serious enterprise, you could easily say that he gave the world the Web for fun and for free. Think about that for a second or two. This enormous economic development engine that is the Web was given to us for fun and for free. Wow!

Big AOL Bang

Now I come to the Big AOL Bang. When all those AOL pukes were set loose on the raw wild Internet in 1995 they destroyed it. They went right to GeoCities, also vintage 1995, and made pages that look like this.

Sorry Ms. Hagen. I do really love your music though. I even have your vinyl! Vinyl? Well, records used to be relea… Records? Well records were…

Alright, so that page isn’t on GeoCities… but it should be. And what’s up with 1995 anyway? OMG!

From the beginning of the Web I was called on to “make a Web page” for places I worked, or lived, or friends, or politicians, or artists. I made Web pages. I tried to make plain pages with logical navigation. I was admonished. The client wanted black backgrounds with yellow slanty text, animated gif sparkle ponies, and a picture of their cat. And that was for a course syllabus. Of course.

Section 508 Saves The Day

In the USA in August 1998, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was signed into law tasking the General Services Administration with providing technical assistance concerning the requirements of the law. Accessibility was now mandated by law, and it was good. And order was imposed on the Web. NOT!

As recently as this past week, on July 29th, 2009, the NFB – National Federation of the Blind – gave the online retailer newegg.com some recognition. “The NFB’s Gold Level Certification is awarded in recognition of commitment and innovation to help ensure equal Web access to the visually impaired individuals.” The ironic thing is that I read the press release on a page without a skipnav or headings, with endless navigation and inline CSS; in short a rather inaccessible page.

Let’s review: 508 goes into effect 10 years ago. 10 years later, the NFB finds it necessary to note that an online retailer is doing something about accessibility. Boy oh boy.

I haven’t done extensive accessibility testing of newegg.com, but here’s the first text (hidden) at the top of the mainpage: “If you are visually impaired and are having difficulty navigating this site, please call our Customer Support line.” Hmmm… I’m confused, if I can’t see the invisible text I should raise my hand? Of course!

What they are doing of course is putting that text there for those with screen readers, a vital but small portion of those with disabilities. They’re trying, but newegg.com probably doesn’t get the whole picture.

They should read this article titled Don’t Just Tick Boxes.

Accessible Twitter

Now, after a lengthy digression in which I partly laid out the history of the inaccessible Web, added in the Big AOL Bang, took a potshot at Nina Hagen, and poked newegg.com in the eye (Doh!) I come to Dennis Lembree and his remarkable construction of Accessible Twitter.

I believe that there are others involved in creating and maintaining and upgrading and generally futzing with Accessible Twitter. Dennis is to be lauded, as is anyone else who is contributing including:

Dennis has poured what looks to be his every waking moment into Accessible Twitter. And it is truly accessible. I can even navigate with the keyboard. I get an audio cue when I’ve reached milestones in my character count. It is semantic, and there are proper headings.

Oh, about that audio cue. Erm… do NOT leave your speakers turned up most of the way when using Accessible Twitter. Makes me jump every time I hear “30 characters” loudly proclaimed. You’ll want to wear headphones if anyone else is trying to sleep.

Dennis Lembree is a pioneer, a magician, a dedicated soul who is the heart of the real Internet, the Internet I have come to love so much. The Internet that helped me for free when my daughter was born with severe disabilities in 1992. The Internet that freely helped me heal a RAID array on Christmas Eve 1997 so our thesis students could resume their work. The Internet of thoughtful individuals giving their time for fun and for free so that others may benefit, thoughtful individuals like Tim Berners-Lee. That’s who Dennis is. And that’s why he deserves our support, because he’s giving it away, for fun and for free, expressing love one Tweet at a time.

You might also want to read Accessible Twitter: how it should have been done to start with.

@csunwebmaster

Siobhan, the Soundbeam, and Disablism

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day brought to you by Diary of a Goldfish.

“We that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak…” Romans 15:1 - motto of Clipped Wings, a national organization open to all former, retired, and current United and Capital Airlines flight attendants.

In 2003, my family had the privilege of attending the family reception sponsored by Clipped Wings at theSpecial Olympics World Games in Dublin, Ireland. At that reception an award was given to Eunice Shriver and we heard a wonderful musical presentation that fully integrated musicians of all abilities. The orchestra was using traditional instruments alongside a Soundbeam 2 MIDI performance controller activated by switches and beams. When we saw the Soundbeam equipment being used by  musicians of all abilities we knew that our daughter Siobhan, a student with disabilities, could participate in mainstream instrumental music.

On YouTube there are some video resources to help you understand the Soundbeam. Though they focus more on music therapy than on mainstream music class and performance, you should get a clear picture of what the Soundbeam is and what it can do: Welcome to Soundbeam Part 1 and Welcome to Soundbeam Part 2. On YouTube you can also see Siobhan.

Since 2003, we have been unsuccessful in getting our schools to include our daughter in music. We even got our school to purchase the Soundbeam equipment, but it sits there, year after year. No one seems to have the imagination to understand what it is we saw in June 2003.

It is still our hope that Siobhan be included in mainstream music classes and performances. There is a music goal in her Individual Education Program (IEP) calling for the use of the Soundbeam. We have a four page timeline listing our begging, pleading, cajoling, demanding, asking, suggesting, interposing, meeting and otherwise chipping away at the goal month after month, year after year. For 6 years.

We’ve invited music teachers to each of the yearly IEP meetings. We had one music teacher actually sneer when we asked him to implement Siobhan’s music goal. This is Disablism at its finest. Because Siobhan doesn’t make verbal speech, because she has poor balance, because she lacks fine motor skills, she must not be able to participate. Have you ever heard a beginner violin orchestra performance? Sounds just like cats. Siobhan could have actually helped at those performances.

Disablism has been very much a part of our lives since Siobhan was born in 1992 but you know the strange thing? Out in the world people generally take Siobhan at face value. They take her order in restaurants though she uses assistive technology to “talk.” She’s known at the Saturday farmers’ market we go to each week. One farmer keeps the good grapes for her because he knows she likes them so much. The strange thing is: we usually only encounter out-and-out Disablism when interacting with school people. Now why is that?

Enable full keyboard tabbing on Firefox for the Mac

I was very frustrated that Firefox for the Mac didn’t seem to work properly when I wanted to use the tab key to move through a web page. It was frustrating when filling in forms. The tab worked to move from one text field to another but would just skip over select lists. It was also annoying because it never seemed work when I wanted to test keyboard access to tab through link content and do a basic check for accessibility. I finally found the solution. There is a setting in both Firefox Preferences AND Apple System Preferences that need to work together. Continue reading

Advocates for Disabled Praise Metro-North

Published: July 27, 2008
Metro-North has added elevators to eight renovated Westchester stations in the last 10 years, and 32 of the county’s 43 Metro North stations will be wheelchair-accessible by 2010.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/27/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/27elevatorswe.html?ex=1374811200&en=879e17e8a7450803&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink

A Breakthrough in Rapid Emergency Alerts for the Hearing Impaired

COLUMBUS, Ohio, July 25 /PRNewswire/ — A series of tests by Twenty First Century Communications (TFCC) has confirmed that they are the first and only major hosted (Software as a Service, or SaaS) notification vendor to provide true TDD/TTY delivery of emergency notification and messages without pre-registration. Continue reading