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July 25 2011


Voices from the TechSoup Community: Accessibility

This is part of an ongoing Voices from the Community series of blog posts culling popular topics of interest from the TechSoup Community Forums and other online channels.

In response to NetSquared's July Net2 Think Tank on the topic of Building a Culture of Accessibility, I've compiled some of the suggestions and discussions from TechSoup's Accessible Technology and Public Computing forum.

Opening Hearts and Minds

As our community discusses the topic of building a culture of accessibility, an important distinction arises. Beyond -- or, perhaps more properly, before -- the nuts-and-bolts business of making accessible technology and making technology accessible, comes the foundation for such. As community member and Executive Director of Knowbility Sharon Rush points out, a culture of accessibility requires "open hearts and minds, the ability to listen and look in new ways, the willingness to lay aside basic assumptions, and a true commitment." Jayne Cravens, host of the TechSoup Volunteers and Technology forum, echoes Sharon and notes that too few IT managers and web developers make accessibility a priority.

While some web developers may feel that meeting accessibility standards is too large an effort, Rush holds that the time is right to take that very effort on. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of People with Disabilities "has recognized access to technology as a foundational right in today's world," while the United States Department of Justice has begun looking at extending American Disabilities Act protections to the Internet.

A Plethora of Resources

Luckily, resources abound for anyone wishing to learn more about how to develop more accessible technology.

Sharon Rush weighs in again, this time with some of the best resources for learning about web accessibility methods. At the top of her list is the Web Accessibility Initiative of the W3C, the group responsible for official standards, web protocols, and practices.

Peter Cheer, host of the TechSoup Accessible Computing and Public Technology forum, grants that the wide array of information about web accessibility standards might seem overwhelming. But he goes on to offer a nifty resource that is aimed at a more general audience while not attempting to be comprehensive. This e-book from the OneVoice for Accessible ICT Coalition outlines the first measures a web developer should take toward making a site accessible. Entitled The First Seven Steps to Accessible Websites, the book answers the question: Where do I start?

In addition to online resources, there are also on-the-ground events and conferences organized around the topic of accessibility. Peter Cheer shares the upcoming 3rd Annual CUNY Accessibility Conference slated for August 4, 2011. There is also the Accessibility Unconference in Boston on September 17, 2011, and the 2011 da Vinci Awards on Sepetember 22, celebrating global excellence in assistive technology.

Tools for Free

Free tools are another great assistive technology resource that our community shares information about on the forums.

Peter Cheer notes that the Verbally app for iPad offers useful features: an onscreen keyboard with word prediction in combination with word/phrase choices, as well as male/female speech synthesized voices. And it's free, to boot.

Another recent free tool that Peter brings to our attention is the new release candidate version of the Open Source MS Windows Screen Reader from the Non Nisual Desktop Access (NVDA) project. Highlights include automatic reporting of new text output in a variety of clients, support for global plugins, additional key bindings for braille displays, and more. Community member and TechSoup Web Content Developer Carlos Bergfeld agrees that it's a great tool, although it doesn't play as well with Google Chrome.

Perhaps this is not surprising, as it seems that Google's apps are also not working well with screen readers and other accessibility tools. As Jayne Cravens points out, this is particularly a shame because some of the institutions that have led the charge in compliance are the same ones outsourcing certain functions to Google -- most likely without knowing how this impedes accessibility.

A Place to Start

This lack of knowledge again raises the fragmented nature of information available on accessibility, as well as the difficulties in enforcing standards. It's an ongoing issue that will need continued discussion and examination, but entities such as TechSoup and NetSquared highlighting the challenges and fostering dialogue with the community is one place to start.

March 02 2011


Guest post: Do we need moderation guidelines for dealing with mental health issues?

Last month the Press Complaints Commission made a judgement in a case involving discriminatory comments on a newspaper article. The case highlighted the issue of journalism on mental health and how it is treated by publishers alongside similar considerations such as sexuality, gender, religion and ethnicity. The complaint also led to a change in The Guardian’s moderation rules.

In a guest post for the Online Journalism Blog the person who brought that case, Beatrice Bray, writes about her experiences of comment abuse, and the role she feels publishers should take in dealing both with comments relating to mental health, as well as writers with mental health issues.

Last April I wrote a rallying cry for the Guardian for all who have endured taunts about mental ill health. In my reply article Cartoonists should be careful how they portray mental health (23/4/10) I reclaimed the word “psychotic”. Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson had used the word to abuse Mrs Thatcher. I put him right.

I am a long-standing reader of the Guardian newspaper but I did not know the website audience. Being a proud campaigner I told Guardian readers that I had bipolar disorder and had experienced psychosis.

I expected a civil hearing. Newspaper readers did oblige but many online readers were foul.

The Guardian’s managing editor Chris Elliott did not warn me about the impending abuse. That was a mistake. I think Mr Elliott knew I would face hostility but I do not think he realised how badly I would be hurt.

Those insults made me physically sick. My head was sore for many weeks. This was all so pointless. If Mr Elliott had given me a chance to discuss the risks involved we both could have taken precautions. Instead there was a row.

Guardian staff gave me an apology but told me to grow a “thick skin”. That jibe spurned me into going to the Press Complaints Commission. It is free. It is also less adversarial and less costly than a disability tribunal.

I was not asking for anything unprecedented. The BBC has guidelines on working with vulnerable people. We need to extend this to new media.

Working with vulnerable people

For example when dealing with discussion sites moderators need to deal swiftly with abuse. They also must facilitate discussions so that they do not turn nasty.

Staff should appreciate the reasons for this action. This is not prima donna treatment. This action is necessary because the writer and many of the readers share a common disability. They all have mental health problems.

Section 2 of the PCC Editors’ code promised fairness to complainants. I thought it only fair to ask for warning of abuse but in my PCC ruling the Guardian and the PCC disagreed with me. The PCC did not say why.

However, I did score other points.

Before the PCC ruling the Guardian at my request did add the word “disability” to its moderation rules.

The PCC and the Guardian and did apologise with regard to the abuse.

Guardian online readers called me, amongst other things, a “nutter” and a “retard”. Unfortunately both the Guardian and PCC refused to accept that this was discrimination as defined by the terms of section 12 of the Editor’s code of the PCC.

This is not just semantics. To me the word “discrimination” is a word with power. It holds the abuser responsible but the PCC fights shy of doing that online.

I now know that you can only complain to the PCC if a staff member makes a discriminatory remark about you. Comments made by non-staff members do not fall within the PCC’s remit. My abusers were not Guardian staff.

It is a shame. By being discrimination deniers both the Guardian and the PCC cut themselves off from a store of knowledge on handling disability and mental health in particular.

December 14 2010


When we can’t believe our own eyes: Balance, objectivity, or transparency?

Time magazine's Wikileaks correction

It’s been a good week for followers of that endangered beast objectivity. On Friday Glenn Greenwald reported on factual inaccuracies in Time’s Wikileaks article, and the ‘correction’ that was then posted (reproduced above). Greenwald writes:

“The most they’re willing to do now is convert it into a “they-said/he-said” dispute.  But what they won’t do — under any circumstances — is state clearly that the Government’s accusations are false, even where, as here, they unquestionably are.”

Meanwhile, the BBC is facing a viral backlash (described as “lobbying” by a spokesperson) over Ben Brown’s interview with Jody McIntyre (transcript here):

Kevin Bakhurst has responded to the complaints and the copious comments on his post are worth reading in full – not only because many of them flesh out the debate extremely well (and others would sit well in a textbook on interviewing technique), but because they provide a compelling story of how people’s relationship with the media is changing.

In particular, on the subject of balance one journalist comments:

“This story demonstrates the fallacy of ‘balanced reporting’. On the evidence of the video Mr McIntyre is almost certainly a victim of an assault and battery, he should sue, and if he does – he will almost certainly win. Even if were he found to be in some way contributorily negligent ‘for rolling towards the police’ as it were – the Tort will still have been committed by the police. The Law makes it clear there is no such balance, yet through this kind of aggressive cross examination, perpetrator and victim are reduced to the same standing in the eyes of the viewer: both are placed under suspicion. And – vitally – to begin with such suspicion is not sceptical, but cynical. There’s a considerable difference.”

Meanwhile Kevin Marsh makes a strong argument against the swing from objectivity towards “transparency” as “replacing one impossibility with another”.

I lay all these out as fertile ground for any discussion on objectivity, transparency and ethics.

August 30 2010


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