Saturday, December 30, 2006

Making advertising accessible to the visually impaired

In the United Kingdom, there are currently around 380,000 people who are registered blind, and a further 2 million people who have sight problems or are visually impaired.This may only be a small percentage of the UK's population, but can advertisers really afford not to target this percentage?With today's technology and internet standards, XHTML and CSS are perfect for designing accessible websites for users who are blind or are visually impaired.

By following the W3C guidelines, it is possible to develop a website that is accessible to all users. A major problem in the internet marketing world that hasn't been addressed is accessible advertising There are many forms of advertising on the internet e.g. adsense, banners, buttons, sky scrapers etc. But are they accessible? The answer in most cases is no.Google Adsense is not accessible due to the fact that it uses the iframe tag and JavaScript, which prevents many screen readers and accessibility software from reading and interpreting the content. This is evident on Google's Accessibility Search, which is designed specially for disabled users e.g. visually impaired.

If you do a search, you will find that there is neither AdSense nor Sponsored Listings. Organic search, therefore, represents one very good way at reaching this audience.Not having accessible advertising inevitably means potential users are excluded from witnessing the adverts. It may be only a percentage of potential users but it represents a non-trivial demographic with appropriate spending power and the rights to the same web experience as any other web user.Banners or other forms of advertising which use graphics tend not to be accessible to visually challenged users.

Most information displayed in the graphic is completely lost when viewed by a text only browser. You can in some cases assign an alt attribute, but how effective are alt attributes? The correct way would be to provide a link to a long description of the graphic with the longdesc attribute. It may be provide to be impossible to convince sufficient publishers and merchants to alter their websites and media plans to include this longdesc tag.

Many sites still refuse to adopt new standards such as XHTML and CSS.So what is the solution for advertisers who care about that small but important percentage?At the moment, there is a form of search advertising which has blossomed and it consists of users registering and selling text link adverts on their website. This is of course against Google's Webmaster Guidelines and should never be performed. Google sees link buying akin to vote buying.

However, the technology behind the practise could be developed further and into a form of accessible advertising. Currently, publishers place a small piece of code onto their webpage where they would like the text links to appear. This piece of code then queries a database and displays links for the merchant who purchased the links.

This method allows automated user agents – such as search engines – to detect and follow the links whereas JavaScript or iframe alternatives would fail to be readily accessible.A possible solution to the advertising accessibility problem would be to use this methodology but make sure the links, or adverts, were detectable to Braille browsers, screen readers and other accessibility software while excluding the links from search marketing.In January 2005 Google, Yahoo and MSN Search (now Live Search) introduced a new link attributed designed especially for excluding links from search algorithms.

The "nofollow"attribute is added to anchor tags specially to tell the search engine that although the site is linking to another site (the publisher site is linking to the merchant site) it is not a "vote"which the search algorithms should consider. The "nofollow"attribute was introduced to battle comment spam on blogs but is easily adapted to "algorithm free"text advertising. In fact, the code could also be used to display graphic links with the longdesc attribute in place from an advertiser who took the time to add it.

As the adverts would not being used to gain PageRank or manipulate search algorithms then tracking code could be added to them and their success could be measured. Metrics like ROI and CPA could be factored in.This method of advertising may be a cure for some of the advertising accessibility problems.

There would still be obstacles to over come. For example, the "small piece of code"added to the publisher's websites is almost always a PHP Include or the equivalent. Sites unable to publish content in this way could not participate. There are also security concerns for the publisher to mull over.

Now free statements offered in braille

Monthly energy bills in Braille are now available to all visually-impaired customers for free, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. officials announced. "It makes me feel more independent," said Josephine Beach of Santa Maria, who plans to call and request the service. Beach, who was born blind, lives with husband Tom, who has congenital glaucoma.

The Braille bill will allow Beach to feel more secure, and avoid situations such as the time a caregiver didn't tell Beach about a late notice and the gas was nearly shut off.

"We get our telephone bill and our bank statement like that too," said Beach, 48. "Until I get the electric bill (in Braille) I have to have someone read it to me."

The Braille bill is designed as a supplement to the regular print bill, and does not include late notices or other legally-mandated announcements.

The bill includes the billing date, payment amount, and information about energy use. The bill also compares the current month's usage to the previous month. To sign up, call 866-743-5000.

Funds from dance competition will help the visually impaired

Cine star turned Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Shatrughan Sinha, on Tuesday at Bhartiya Nritya Kala Mandir in Patna, inaugurated the three-day all-India dance competition sponsored by the Bihar Netraheen Parishad in association with the state art and culture department by lighting a candle at the event venue.

"Before we create temples or mosques, we should build temples to honor human beings," Sinha said in his inaugural speech while urging people to continue to work hard for the welfare of the blind people in the nation.Meanwhile, dozens of participants, several with complete visual deficiency, from across the nation took part in dance competition impressing the judges as well as the audience.Bihar Art and Culture Minister Janardan Singh Sigriwal said the NDA government in the state was sensitive to the needs of people with visual impairment.

Noted eye specialist Dr. Ajit Sinha, in his speech, said this was the first time such competition was being held in Bihar.Sinha, mingling with the artists, said he would soon arrange to have an all-star night in Patna to raise money for the benefit of the blind people.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

First internet café for the visually impaired opens in Pakistan

The World Bank granted Rs 1.5 million (US$24,679) to the project in order to close the technological gap between the visually impaired and those blessed with eyesight. The cafe will help create communication among national and international blind communities. It will also help the visually impaired to improve their computer skills and meet other people.

During an interview, Salma Maqbool, chairperson of the PFFB, said that this is the Information Technology era, and that the Internet Cafe will prove helpful for blind students who want to study. She added that we should all take responsibility to do whatever we can to facilitate special persons. We should not treat them as invalids and we must recognize their concealed potential. She has also been blind since birth.

A blind man Mr. Iqbal, a teacher by profession, came from Peshawar some 160 miles away to laud the effort of the PFFB for launching this Internet cafe. He remarked that the project would be a milestone not only in the history of PFFB but also in Pakistan's history. Amara Amber, a young and energetic BBA student surfing the Web at the cafe said:"If we cannot see the world then we must do something so that the world can see us."

The cafe uses the JAWS software. This wonderful technology provides voice output for every command given to the computer, enabling the visually impaired to know what their fingers are doing. The cafe is totally free and is equipped with the latest computers, scanner, printer, and DSL connections for fast Internet browsing. Officials said that the facility would remain open from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Aqil Sajjad, the first visually impaired Pakistani to study for a PhD at Harvard, introduced the software in Islamabad in 1999.

It was developed 20 years back in America.Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) disease is common in Pakistan. It is a genetically transmitted disease that causes the progressive loss of vision. The PFFB was the pioneer of research on this disease.After the foundation of Pakistan in 1947 the first ever department for special persons was established in 1985, and it was in 2002 that the first ever strategy for special persons was sketched.

According to the World Bank report 10 percent of the total population of Pakistan is comprised of disabled persons, including the visually impaired. Children and older person in particular make up their number.Facilities for blind people are very rare throughout the world, but these special people have a particularly hard life in countries like Pakistan.

Mostly blind people need to beg to fulfill their needs, and others are sent to religious schools where food is not a problem. Only a few visually impaired people from good families can get an education. In the light of this situation this Internet cafe is nothing less than a ray of hope. There is no doubt that we have started too late but we must do what we can to help these people.

Downtown Jacksonville get freshened up to help the visually impaired

A simple thing like crossing the street isn't always an easy task, especially when you can't see what is out there. "I had to change my whole mind set and learn how to do things differently," says Dan O’Connor, president of Jacksonville Council for the Blind.Dan has been legally blind since his early twenties. He gets around fine with his cane, but soon there may be an extra voice of help for him and others that are visually impaired.

The city is working on a new pilot project to install automated pedestrian crossings at downtown intersections."It helps people that have vision impairment to be able to navigate and be able to get around more independently like anyone else would," O’Connor says.Right now, there are only four automated crosswalks in the city. The new systems would replace regular push button crosswalks. When pressed, you would hear a series of beeps that warn you not to cross. When the way is clear the automated voice says the name of the street and will let you know it's okay to cross; for example, "State Street walk sign is on to cross State Street."

"That message is continually repeated as long as the walk signal is showing. When the walk signal goes off then that message goes off," says Rick Ball with the city’s traffic engineering department.Once traffic begins to move again a series of beeps would sound to caution the pedestrian from crossing. A raised arrow on the push button also points in the direction of the crosswalk.Six intersections near the Hemming Plaza area would receive the first installments."It’s not going to be something that's going to solve all the traffic issues that someone with a vision impairment has but it can be an added tool," O’Connor says.

Each intersection would cost around $5,000-$6,000 for the equipment. The automated systems will be installed around the end of February and beginning of March.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What are the challenges of a visually impaired person?

Courtney Maddocks was 22 and working at Starbucks when she started losing her vision. Now 31, she's blind and the hardest adjustment at first was giving up driving.

"Because [it meant] I wasn't independent any more," Maddocks said.

"It's not the driving. It's the fact [when you can drive] you don't have to plan. You can just do things on the spur of the moment.

"Now I have to plan everything."

But Maddocks lives alone, loves her job at RBC Financial Group and has a new best friend -- her guide dog Piper.

"I do everything anyone else can do, I just do it differently," Maddocks said.

Maddocks lost her eyesight as a result of diabetes, one of the most common causes of vision loss in younger people.

But the majority of vision problems are age-related. In its most recent fiscal year, more than 80 per cent of new clients at the B.C. and Yukon branch of CNIB -- formerly called the Canadian National Institute for the Blind -- were over 65.

The incidence of blindness and vision loss is on the rise, but only because of the aging population, said B.C. optometrist Elaine Kerr. Diseases that cause blindness in younger people, such as the diabetic retinopathy that claimed Maddocks' sight, are fairly rare.

According to Statistics Canada, more than 600,000 Canadians live with a serious vision problem that cannot be corrected with glasses. This number is expected to increase dramatically over the next 10 years as Canada's population ages.

The most common cause of vision loss among seniors is age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in which the macula deteriorates and causes loss of central vision, limiting the ability to read or recognize people.

Glaucoma, which can strike at any age although the risk increases with age, is caused by an elevation of pressure within the eye which if untreated can cause permanent nerve damage and a loss of peripheral vision.

While there is no cure for vision loss, it can in some cases be prevented or at least limited in scope, Kerr said. The key is to get your eyes checked regularly.

"Because you can have glaucoma and it just slowly erodes away little bits of your peripheral vision [and] by the time you notice it, that damage is permanent," Kerr said.

A lot of age-related eye diseases such as AMD and cataracts result in part from cumulative damage caused by ultraviolet rays, Kerr said. So wearing good sunglasses or incorporating UV protection into your regular glasses is another simple way to try to limit the damage, she said.
"People really really value their sight," Kerr said. "It's one of the senses they rate the highest. Yet people are still not of the mindset of, 'Oh gee, I should be getting my eyes checked.' Because they assume that if there was a problem they'd notice. And I don't think a lot of people realize that's not always the case.

"Everybody thinks about getting their teeth cleaned every six months but people don't always think about getting their eyes checked."

A healthy lifestyle, including eating carrots and foods containing antioxidants and not smoking, can also help prevent vision loss, Kerr said.

Brad Hooge, a counsellor with CNIB, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, more commonly known as RP, when he was 10 years old and he has been slowly losing his sight ever since.
At first, Hooge tried to hide his vision loss, especially in high school.

"I wanted to be sighted," Hooge said. "I wanted to fit into that crowd."

So Hooge refused to get a talking watch because he didn't want others to hear it. And he didn't start using a cane until he was in his 20s.

"It was extremely stressful trying to hide vision loss," he said.

Now Hooge works at CNIB counselling individuals and groups on how to deal with vision loss.
Some people reach out to CNIB right away for help, but many are grieving, he said.

In fact, of the 600,000 Canadians suffering from some degree of vision loss, only 105,000 are clients of CNIB. Ninety per cent of those have some vision.

When people start losing their vision, "initially there is just an overwhelming feeling of being lost and sad," Hooge said.

"It's easy to sit back and say there is a light at the end of the tunnel and there's all these things you can do," Hooge said.

"You're not going to be able to drive your car again, but from every other standpoint you can get so much back in your life. Really you can just about basically get yourself fully back on track and be fully independent and happy again.

"But when you're first diagnosed with that eye condition, that is not what you're thinking. You don't want to hear about talking books and you don't want to hear about BC Blind Sports or any of these other things that are out there. You just are feeling sad and you don't want to be thinking about alternatives. You're thinking more about what you are losing rather than what can be gained."
Hooge's group sessions let people know there are others going through the same fears and changes they are.

"They get to know each other and trust each other and share their experiences," he said. "And that works very effectively to be able to share those losses with each other and know they are not alone."

Once people start to feel they can tackle things, CNIB can help them move forward with mobility lessons or rehabilitation workshops that re-teach daily chores such as cooking and how to be independent around the home.

CNIB also has a store that sells "products for independence," according to its catalogue. Large-print cookbooks and dictionaries can help low-vision people, while braille playing cards, tactile board games and kitchen aids, like a liquid pouring alert that is hung on the side of a container and buzzes when liquid reaches a certain level, can help all levels of vision loss.

One of the biggest challenges is for working-aged people, some of whom have to give up their career and retrain because of their vision loss.

"It's funny how many people I've met that are in their 20s, 30s and 40s that are in such highly visual jobs that start to lose their vision," Hooge said. "There's photographers and artists and graphic designers, people in the medical profession. And those jobs they obviously can't do anymore."

But most jobs are still within reach, Hooge said.

Hooge also counsels family members on how to handle the changes.

No matter how tempting it may be, family members should not rush to do everything for loved ones who are losing their vision, Hooge said. Because doing things for them, like driving them whenever they want to go out, takes away their independence, he said.

"One of the hardest things is to watch your family member go travelling in the city when you know they don't see very well."

But that is exactly what you have to do, he said.

In addition to counselling and rehabilitation, the CNIB provides public awareness and education and funds projects that focus on ways to cure, treat and prevent eye disease and improve the quality of life of those living with vision loss.

The organization also operates the Bowen Island Recreation Centre, where children and adults can be taught braille, computer skills and just have fun.

Last year, the total bill for these services in B.C. and the Yukon totalled $5.6 million. Less than 30 per cent of that money comes from the government. The rest is through the generosity of private individuals, organizations and companies through wills, gifts and fundraisers.

That's one of the reasons that after 88 years of operating as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the organization changed its name in June to the acronym CNIB.

Joy Yorath, provincial director for fund development with the BC and Yukon Division, said having the words "Canadian" and "national" in the title made people think CNIB was federally funded, which it isn't. Nor is it an "institute."

In addition to what they give directly to the CNIB, the provincial and federal governments also provide funding for equipment to help visually impaired students, veterans and people entering or adapting to the workplace.

Computers are key to getting and keeping blind and low-vision workers on the job, said Stephen Heaney, adaptive technology specialist with CNIB. Through computers and software, documents can be converted into braille or read aloud to the user.

There are even portable note-takers that can do the same thing. And the newer versions have e-mail and Internet capabilities as well as a global positioning system that can work with a map and speaker software to tell users where they are.

They have all the functions of a personal data assistant, Heaney said.

For low-vision workers, closed circuit televisions that come in both desk-top and hand-held models use a camera that can be zoomed in to enlarge print and make reading possible. There are also software programs that can zoom text or read the text aloud.

Some current technology doesn't have to be adapted for use by the visually impaired, such as cellphones, which can already be operated through speech alone, Heaney said.

Heaney goes to worksites and advises employers on what needs to be done to make the workplace accessible to a current employee who is losing his or her sight or someone the company wants to hire who is blind or partially blind.

"The point is there are actually ways of doing it and there is funding in place to assist companies with that process," Heaney said.

The funding is important because the equipment can be expensive, said Steve Barclay, vice-president of sales and marketing at Aroga Marketing Group Inc., a private company that distributes technology for people with disabilities.

"It's the economy of scale that's the big killer for this kind of equipment," Barclay said. "It's not like Sony coming out with a Walkman where they can expect to sell a million of them. I think the most successful product ever made for the blind was a hand-held note-taker called the Braille n Speak. And I think they only sold somewhere around 20,000 of them.

"So there's a lot of research and development that goes into designing these products and they get sold into a very small marketplace. So it does tend to be quite expensive," he said.

Aroga's store at 5055 Joyce Street, at the Joyce SkyTrain station, is in the same building as the CNIB, and that's how many people find out about it, and its products. Advertising is limited, as television and radio ads are expensive and people with low vision don't read newspapers, Barclay said.

"We still struggle with awareness," Barclay said. "It's probably our biggest hurdle to overcome.
"We have this baby-boomer population that's aging and starting to run into vision problems and we still to this day have people who come into the CNIB and they walk into our store because we're in the same building as the CNIB, and they look at the equipment and they go, 'Why didn't my ophthalmologist or my optometrist tell me about this? I've been visually impaired for four or five years and nobody ever told me about this stuff.'

"There can be a real disconnect between when people get diagnosed as having an eye condition and finding out about the technologies that can help them maintain their independence," Barclay said.

Aroga's products range from CCTVs to screen-reader software that can be carried around on a USB memory stick, making all computers accessible. There are also simple things like keyboards with larger letters stencilled on them.

Maddocks has been using screen-reader software called JAWS, an acronym for job access with speech, to do her work at RBC, a job she got after she quit Starbucks and went to Vancouver Community College to train as an administrative office assistant. The software program translates all computer text, including e-mails, into speech that the computer reads to her.

It enables Maddocks to do her job completely independently.

For those going through vision loss, Maddocks has this advice:

"It's not the end of the world, although it seems like it at the time," she says. "There are so many people out there who are independent."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

New keyboard technology speaks for itself to the visually impaired

A Japanese company has invented a keyboard for the visually impaired.

The keyboard was developed by three researchers from Yazaki Electronics and it enables the visually impaired to take notes easily.

The keyboard can speak out the letters typed thanks to the Braille alphabet, an advantage that previous models did not have.

The keyboard can also store information typed and can divert it to email accounts and a printer if needed. The keyboard has also an MP3 reader. It weighs 500 grams, and is 10 centimeters wide and 20 centimeters long.

Visually impaired students receive help

Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi on Saturday sanctioned Rs.18,72,500 as assistance for 106 visually impaired students for higher studies.

The funds would be used for distributing cash awards to them.

An official release here referred to the announcement in the budget for 2006-2007 that the Government would provide cash awards, besides bearing the expenses for the higher studies of the visually impaired students who occupied the first three places in the districts and the State level in the public examinations for Standard X and Standard XII.

The Government announced assistance for 63 visually impaired students who scored the first three ranks in Standard X and 43 students belonging to Standard XII in the public examinations held in March and April 2006, the release added.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Gift ideas for the visually impaired

The Chautauqua Blind Association offers gift ideas for seniors and those with visual impairment. Practical gifts for people with declining vision:

- Phone with jumbo-sized buttons and memory
- Watches, wall clocks, alarm clocks, kitchen timers with large numbers
- Contrasting place mats (dark for light dishes or light for dark dishes)
- Super-jumbo playing cardsn Large-print books or calendar
- Large number remote control
- Subscription to a large-print magazine
- Magnifying mirror

- Improved lighting“Talking” gift items:

- Talking calculator
- Talking watch, clock or keychain
- Musical or talking toysn Computer software
- Talking outdoor thermometer

Homemade gifts:
- Large print pre-printed labels for kitchen items, such as spices or freezer bags
- Contrasting colored quilt or throw for the back of a favorite easy chair
- Personalized easy-to-read large print address book, phone directory or recipe book.

Assemble in page protectors and a decorated notebook.

Other useful items for entertaining or added safety:

- White railing inside or outside and grab bars
- Dark black flair pens
- Postage stamps or pre-stamped envelopes
- Cassette, CD or DVD player
- Favorite recorded music
- Fruit or other food basketn Ice grippers for shoes or boots
- Support cane with ice gripper
- Snow/ice melting substancen Smoke or carbon monoxide alarms
- Safety treads for stairs and outdoor mats
- Microwave oven with simple controls
- Radion Flashlight (rechargeable)
- Home fire extinguisher

Or give the gift of time. Consider tickets to an upcoming event or gift certificates to a favorite restaurant, with a promise that you will go with the person. Coupons for personal services may also be given to a loved one, including snow shoveling, lawn mowing, or for painting a room using contrasting color to outline doorframes and chair railings.

For the person who has everything, consider giving a charitable donation in their name.

The Chautauqua Blind Association is a United Way Agency located at 510 West Fifth St. in Jamestown.

To refer someone for vision rehabilitation services or for more information, call 664-6660.