Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Breaking Barriers: The Disability Rights Movement in Russia

When I first crossed the doorstep of an American high school as a 17-year-old new immigrant from Russia, my jaw dropped, kids in wheelchairs were playing tag in the wide hall, a cute teen-age couple was communicating animatedly in what appeared to be sign language; a blind boy was walking next to a classmate laughing at some kind of a joke. I turned to my American cousin and asked in still rudimentary English, “Immigrants here sent to special school for persons with disabilities?”

He stared at me unc saomprehending, not realizing that in my 10 years of Moscow schooling I never had classmates with disabilities. In fact, until I went to the United States in the early 90’s I hadn’t seen many people with disabilities. Back home they were next to invisible, confined to special institutions or their homes, as the concept of an inclusive society didn’t exist.

Certainly, over the last 20 years, conditions for people with disabilities in Russia have improved. In Moscow and other large cities, you can actually see ramps – well, at least in the city center  – or come across traffic lights equipped with a sound signal for people who are blind, or even find a few accessible kindergartens and schools. However, people with disabilities are largely cut off from society and have very limited choices.

So, Russia’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in May signaled a great moment for the country’s more than 13 million citizens with disabilities. In practical terms, this long-awaited ratification means that Russia must now translate the guarantees in the convention into domestic legal reform and overcome the pervasive discrimination against people with disabilities. That is far from an easy task.

People with disabilities in Russia face a range of barriers that limit their participation in society. Public buildings and transportation are often inaccessible. People with mental disabilities are often forcibly confined to institutions for long periods of time. Pregnant women who have disabilities are coerced by medical professionals to have an abortion. Parents who give birth to a child with Down syndrome are still encouraged to give up their baby.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, only 2 percent of Russian schools have an inclusive education approach, in which children with and without disabilities attend school together. The government pledges to expand inclusive education to 50 percent of schools by 2015. But reaching that goal will require a comprehensive plan to improve school infrastructure, train teachers, and – last, but definitely not least – educate parents and the community as to why this is important and beneficial for society as a whole.

“So many things need to be done and you just cannot accomplish it all in one day,” said Denise Roza, an American who has lived almost half her life in Russia and runs the country’s leading disability capacity-building and advocacy organization, Perspektiva (Perspective).

“In addition to changing legislation and introducing all different kinds of concrete, tangible measures, one has to work on changing people’s attitudes. If I were given the power to do this one thing right away, I’d go for accessibility – make streets, offices, transportation, shops, cafes, schools, universities, entertainment centers, apartment buildings, all kinds of facilities and services accessible for people with disabilities. Not only will it release people from the confinement of their homes or institutions, but they will also become visible and the climate in society will gradually change. Others will eventually start viewing and treating people with disabilities as their neighbors, classmates, colleagues, just like other people in their community.”

A champion for the rights of parents with disabilities, Natalia Prisetskaya, recalled that when Russia  signed the Disability Rights Convention  [OK AS IS] back in the autumn of 2008, she was in fact suing a local air-carrier for refusing to let her on a plane. Earlier that year, Natalia had gone through registration and security in one of Moscow’s airports and was ready to board when the airline’s representatives told her that passengers in wheelchairs could not travel unaccompanied. “They just said, ‘You’re disabled, you can’t fly!’ ” Prisetskaya recalled. “This was open discrimination.”

With support from Perspektiva she successfully fought the airline in court and secured extensive media coverage. Natalia thinks that the publicity they managed to raise for her case might have actually pushed Russia toward signing the convention that year. Signing was the first important step in the right direction but it took over four years for Russia to proceed with ratification of this international treaty, undertaking specific obligations to ensure equal rights for people with disabilities. It will also take Russia some time to introduce all the necessary changes to its laws and practices.

The Olympics in Sochi in 2014 will certainly be a major test, as Russia will host a large number of people with disabilities as guests of the winter games and then as guests and participants of the subsequent Paralympics. “The entire infrastructure needs to be prepared, but if there are some acts of discrimination, that will really hurt Russia’s image. Well and frankly, why should people have to endure so much degradation?” said Prisetskaya, the woman who proved to her country that she can fly big time, wheelchair or not.

It is now up to Russia – its government but also its citizens and advocacy groups like Perspektiva – to make sure that its millions of people with disabilities don’t have to fight legal battles to travel, study, work, go shopping, play sports, go out with friends– in other words, live a life just like anyone else.

Tanya Lokshina is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and deputy director of its Moscow office. She writes a column for the Russian current affairs website Polit.ru. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, Lokshina headed the prominent Moscow-based human rights think-tank Demos.

Source: Human Rights Watch, GAATES

Sochi 2014 Departs for London to Preapre for Russia's First Paralympic Games

A Sochi 2014 team, composed of Organizing Committee’s employees, volunteers and representatives of organizations involved in the Sochi 2014 preparations, has traveled to London to gain experience of how to stage the Paralympic Games.

Sochi 2014 logoIn total, a team of over 100 will visit the capital of Great Britain to build a unique knowledge of how best to stage the world’s greatest sporting event featuring Paralympic athletes.

The preparation for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games has already led to a growth in the attention of Paralympic topics in Russian society. Russian channels “Russia 2″ and “Sport 1″ will be airing programmes during the London 2012 Paralympic Games that explain the Paralympic competitions throughout the entire period of the Games.

With Russia hosting the Paralympic Winter Games for the very first time in just over 18 months, the experience that the organizers will bring to Russia after London 2012 will be highly valuable. The Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games will take place from March 7th to March 16th and is already a catalyst for positive change in the region, with the construction of a barrier-free environment and the drive to fully integrate people with disabilities into society.

The Sochi 2014 participants traveling to the Paralympic Games under the “IPC Observer” Program have a range of observing and learning planned, including working visits to all the key venues and seminars on areas such as Games Management, the Organization of Client Services at the Games, Brand Management and Protection, Operation of the venues and Paralympic Villages, Ceremonies, Communications and Press Operations, Legacy and Sustainability.

A number of Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee employees will also be working for the London 2012 Organizing Committee through an internship as a part of the International Paralympic Committee team. The internship in the London Organizing Committee will last between 2 to 5 months, including both the preparation and the direct staging of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the important Post-Games period.

A total of 24 Sochi 2014 volunteers will also participate in the Paralympic Games, joining the team of organizers. All the volunteers were selected by the organizers of the Games in London and undertook training for the Games at a specially organized training seminar, which the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee staged in cooperation with representatives of the London 2012 team. After they return to Russia, the volunteers will pass their invaluable experience to their colleagues who will travel to the Games in 2014.

The legacy of the Paralympic Games in Sochi is already being seen in the city. The barrier-free environment is already taking shape across Sochi. Of the 1,800 venues that should receive an accessibility certificate by 2014, over 500 have already been recognized at this standard. Everything that is being constructed for the Games – transport, roads, sports venues and public infrastructure – is being developed while taking into account the needs of people with a disability. An accessible city model is being created in Sochi which is set to become a new standard for the whole country.

In 2008, Russia signed a UN Convention on the rights of people with disabilities, which was ratified in May 2012. In Russia, the Convention will be a framework to protect the rights of people with a disability and ensure they do not face discrimination, making it possible to significantly improve the lives of over 13 million people with disabilities in Russia.

Source: Sochi2014, GAATES

Monday, August 27, 2012

Heathrow Airport Improves Accessibility for Disabled Passengers

Heathrow on August 22 announced a package of permanent accessibility improvements for passengers with mobility disabilities as it welcomed 2,100 Paralympic athletes.

The airport said the Paralympics would pose a “different operational challenge”, one of complexity rather than volume, with some flights having a far higher numbers of passengers with mobility and vision disabilities.

The charity, Whizz-Kidz, has audited Heathrow’s terminal facilities and suggested a number of improvements. Heathrow has increased the number of specialist lifts used to help passengers board aircraft.

The airport now has 13 scissor lifts and is installing 100 new ramps to help load and unload wheelchairs.
BAA has upgraded its fleet of buggies for transporting passengers with mobility disabilities through the airport to a total of 60 vehicles

Other improvements include an onsite wheelchair repair service and new accessible toilets.
The new facilities and staff training are part of BAA’s $30 million investment in the London 2012 Games.

Big Launcher Helps Make Android Easier for People with Visual Impairment

The Big Launcher App is a fast and simple Android home screen for people who are blind and low vision.

Big launcher Android AppThe app replaces manufacturer’s small and sophisticated default interfaces, and features large icons, large fonts and uncluttered options.

Access all the basic functions of the phone via a simple interface, where no one can get lost. Large texts and color icons help user to easily distinguish important items.

There are three different color schemes available, as well as three font sizes and whole interface can be controlled by hardware cursors and everything is read by Talkback.

BIG Launcher is available in 34 languages and can be downloaded from the Google Play Store.

Watch the video below showing the app in action.




Source: GAATES

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Government of Canada Launches Call for Proposals to Improve Accessibility


Organizations can now apply for funding for projects that will create or enhance accessibility for people with disabilities in Canadian communities through the Government of Canada’s Enabling Accessibility Fund.

Dr. Kellie Leitch, Parliamentary Secretary to the Honourable Diane Finley, Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, today invited organizations to submit funding applications for small projects. These may include renovations, construction and retrofitting of buildings, modification of vehicles for community use or enhancements to make information and communication technologies more accessible.

“The Government of Canada recognizes the abilities of all Canadians and is committed to removing barriers for people with disabilities,” said Dr. Leitch. “Through the Enabling Accessibility Fund, our Government is improving access to facilities, activities and services to enable all Canadians to participate more fully in society.”

Eligible organizations can submit applications until October 5, 2012, and can receive up to $50,000 per project.
Dr. Leitch also highlighted four Enabling Accessibility Fund projects in New Brunswick that were selected for funding through the 2011 call for proposals: Community Industries Employment Vocational Association, in Woodstock, to construct an entrance vestibule to increase safe access at their facility; Restigouche Community Business Development Corporation, to install an elevator at their facility; Club d’├óge d’or de Shemogue, to replace a ramp, widen a door and improve lighting for their recreation centre; and Le Phare des services communautaires, in McIntosh Hill, to install an exterior ramp, automated door openers and accessible door handles and to create an accessible washroom.

To find out how to apply for funding or for more information about the Fund, visit www.hrsdc.gc.ca/disability or call 1-866-268-2502.

Source: GAATES

Monday, August 20, 2012

Verizon Introduces Mobile Accessibility App for Users with Visual Impairment

Verizon Wireless on August 17 announced a suite of services for Verizon Wireless Android™ smartphones running Android 2.2 or higher to help customers who are blind or have low vision perform ordinary wireless tasks in a simple, intuitive way.  Mobile Accessibility is a suite of 10 accessibility apps, from speech recognition to text-to-speech technology, and offers customers who are blind an innovative way to use their smartphones.

The Mobile Accessibility suite, running on the nation’s largest 4G LTE network and largest, most reliable 3G network, features intuitive touch screen navigation, speech recognition and voice synthesis powered by Nuance’s Vocalizer® text-to-speech technology, as well as Braille output.  Customers get automatic access to all of the features once the app is downloaded and do not have to launch each app individually from within the suite.

To experience the full functionality of their Android smartphones, customers can use the touch QWERTY keyboard with voice synthesis or the voice recognition technology to perform a variety of tasks, including:
  • Phone: Make calls, answer calls, hear the caller ID and manage call log
  • Contacts: Manage contacts, even those from social networks
  • SMS: Compose and read text messages
  • Alarms: Set alarms
  • Web: Full Web-browsing experience with the ability to navigate faster to content of choice (links, paragraphs, headings, forms, etc.) and bookmark favorite webpages
  • Calendar: Create, edit and delete a calendar entry
  • Email: Compose and send emails
  • Where am I?: GPS app that gives updates on current location
  • Settings: Change ringtone; configure feedback and notifications (vibration or audio); configure keyboard echo, punctuation verbosity, speech pitch and rate, etc.
  • Quick access: Locate date and time, phone status information such as battery level and network coverage, number of missed calls and unread messages, etc.
Customers can download Mobile Accessibility in Verizon Apps under Productivity and Tools > Utilities on Android smartphones with operating systems Android 2.2 or higher.  There is no charge to download the app, but a Verizon Wireless data plan is required and usage may count towards a customer’s data allowance.
For more information about Mobile Accessibility, please visitwww.aboutus.verizonwireless.com/accessibility/index.html.

For more information, visit www.verizonwireless.com

Source: GAATES

Call for Proposals for Accessible Mobile Applications

The Wireless RERC is now inviting experienced developers to submit proposals for 2012-13 financial support to develop assistive and/or accessibility apps for mobile platforms (e.g., Android, Blackberry 10, iOS, Windows Phone).

Developers may also request partial funding for apps that already enjoy partial support from other sources, or for adaptation of existing apps to additional platforms.  Completed apps will be released through the appropriate mainstream marketplace (App Store, Blackberry App World, Google Play, Nokia OVI Store, or Windows Phone Marketplace), or through the RERC’s App Factory.

For more information, visit App Factory 2012-13.pdf

Source: GAATES

Friday, August 17, 2012

Accessible, Affordable Housing Steadily Out of Reach for Disabled Persons

Persons with disabilities face a significant problem – the lack of affordable, accessible housing. Approximately 54 million Americans have at least one disability, constituting the largest minority group in the nation. And persons with disabilities often spend a disproportionate share of their income to secure housing that is both safe and suitably accessible.

Federal guidelines define housing as “affordable” if total costs, including rent/mortgage, utilities, insurance and taxes, don’t exceed 30 percent of a renter’s or homeowner’s household income. Individuals currently eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in California receive $854.40 per month, while couples receive $1,444.20. Under the 30 percent housing affordability guidelines, an individual living solely on SSI should pay no more than $256.32 per month for housing and a couple no more than $433.26. With this in mind, affordable housing is nearly impossible for people with disabilities to find and thousands and thousands of names are on waiting lists throughout the state.

“The reality is that most all of us will experience a disability within our lifetime, which may prompt the need for affordable, accessible housing,” said Bob Hand, Executive Director of Resources for Independence, Central Valley. “However, for people with permanent disabilities, the need is “now” and affordable housing resources simply aren’t available.”

Affordability is just one problem. Accessibility also is a challenge. Several California communities are trying to address the lack of accessibility by, among other things, adopting the state’s Universal Design Model Ordinance. The intent of the ordinance is to increase opportunities for persons with temporary, developing or permanent disabilities to “age in place.”

“Trying to decipher the maze of information and resources can be overwhelming,” said Hand, “and that’s where independent living centers (ILCs) come into play. ILCs provide a number of services to persons with disabilities, including educating them about housing options as well as assisting them in negotiating rents and working with landlords. But more needs to be done.”

According to experts in the industry, education is the key to making a difference. Individuals need to be made aware of programs and agencies that are working with lenders, housing authorities and service providers in creating innovative housing options, such as “smart-home” technology, within their locale. Experts also believe it’s imperative for persons with disabilities to talk to elected leaders about their real-life experiences and the need for policies that improve affordability and accessibility.

“We are committed to supporting people living with disabilities in getting their voices heard,” said Elsa Quezada, Chair of the California State Independent Living Council. “By providing people with timely and pertinent information, training and education, we can arm them with the tools they need   to live independently and not take “no” for an answer.”

The California State Independent Living Council is an independent state agency which, in cooperation with the California State Department of Rehabilitation, prepares and monitors the State Plan for Independent Living. SILC solicits continual public feedback on the effectiveness of independent living services and coordinates with similar agencies and councils at the state and federal levels to increase communication and help assure that services to persons with disabilities are delivered effectively.

Source: California State Independent Living Council, GAATES

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Robotic Suit Helps Poeple with Disabilities Walk Again

Ekso Bionics on August 9 announced that it has begun shipping an upgraded version of Ekso™, the bionic suit that powers people with spinal cord injuries and pathologies up to get them standing up and walking again. Each Ekso now comes equipped with three new walking modes for progressive rehabilitation options, in addition to EksoPulse™, a wireless networked usage monitor.

Ekso, the battery-powered robot suit.
Ekso, the battery-powered robot suit.
Ekso is a ready-to-wear, battery-powered bionic suit – or exoskeleton – that is strapped over the user’s clothing.

The device transfers its 45 lb. load directly to the ground, so the patient doesn’t bear the weight. Each Ekso can be adjusted in a few minutes to fit most people weighing 220 pounds or less, and between 5’2” and 6’2”, with at least partial upper body strength. The patient provides the balance and proper body positioning, and Ekso facilitates walking over ground with reciprocal gait.


“With this upgrade, clinicians using Ekso can now empower their patients even more by teaching them to control the suit autonomously, thereby giving them greater independence,” said Eythor Bender, Ekso Bionics’ CEO.

“As the patient gains confidence and familiarity with walking, Ekso now permits them to graduate to a next level, and then another,” explained Darrell Musick, clinical director at Ekso Bionics. “This comfortable experience-based progression allows for sequentially- increased freedom and better control. The patients love it.”



Ekso Bionics – headquartered in Richmond, California with offices in London, UK – is a designer and maker of bionic suits.

Source: GAATES

Adobe Released New Standard for PDF Accessibility


Adobe releases new standard for PDF accessibility after many years of work on August 7, 2012 publication of ISO Standard 14289-1, better known as PDF/UA, marks one of the most significant developments in the evolution of the popular and widely used Portable Document Format (PDF).
Adobe logo
The publication and availability of PDF/UA will encourage the production of PDF files that are more consistently accessible to persons with disabilities.

Initially referred to as PDF/Access in 2004 by the AIIM standards committee, PDF/UA was conceived in response to the proliferation of PDF documents that were valid according to the PDF specification, but were insufficiently accessible to persons with disabilities. To meet the needs of the widest possible audience, the producers and viewers of PDF content needed a common standard.

The main PDF standard, ISO 32000, already defines the format’s accessibility features. What PDF/UA does is to clarify and demonstrate how those features should be used, for both producing and consuming PDF documents.Also, any features which are allowed in ISO 32000 but which inhibit accessibility are prohibited in PDF/UA.

It’s important to note that PDF/UA is neither a spec to measure PDF content, like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), nor an everyday authoring guide. It focuses on giving developers of PDF authoring tools and viewers, as well as vendors of assistive technologies that support PDF, critical information on how to build and present PDF content more accessibly. The goal is to make accessible PDFs easy to author and use, however they are produced. While PDF/UA contains great information for authors on how to meet the needs of users with disabilities (and also to address most WCAG success criteria), much of that work should really be done by tools and read by assistive technology, so PDF/UA support will mean authors do less work and get more accessible content.

If you are interested in PDF accessibility and PDF/UA, here’s two suggestions for you to learn more:
  • View our training materials for Acrobat and PDF accessibility. These resources offer information about how to use Acrobat to produce or repair PDF files for accessibility. WCAG Techniques for PDF are also available and provide useful information for authors looking to meet WCAG 2.0.
  • Check out the PDF/UA standard. The document itself can be purchased directly from ISO (You don’t have to buy this standard if you just want to author accessible PDF files. However, you should encourage authoring tool makers, PDF viewer makers, and AT vendors to buy it, read it, and support it.)
 Source: Adobe, GAATES

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Affordable Housing Becoming Less Accessible for People with Disabilities


Persons with disabilities face a significant problem – the lack of affordable, accessible housing. Approximately 54 million Americans have at least one disability, constituting the largest minority group in the nation. And persons with disabilities often spend a disproportionate share of their income to secure housing that is both safe and suitably accessible.

Federal guidelines define housing as “affordable” if total costs, including rent/mortgage, utilities, insurance and taxes, don’t exceed 30 percent of a renter’s or homeowner’s household income. Individuals currently eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in California receive $854.40 per month, while couples receive $1,444.20. Under the 30 percent housing affordability guidelines, an individual living solely on SSI should pay no more than $256.32 per month for housing and a couple no more than $433.26. With this in mind, affordable housing is nearly impossible for people with disabilities to find and thousands and thousands of names are on waiting lists throughout the state.

“The reality is that most all of us will experience a disability within our lifetime, which may prompt the need for affordable, accessible housing,” said Bob Hand, Executive Director of Resources for Independence, Central Valley. “However, for people with permanent disabilities, the need is “now” and affordable housing resources simply aren’t available.”

Affordability is just one problem. Accessibility also is a challenge. Several California communities are trying to address the lack of accessibility by, among other things, adopting the state’s Universal Design Model Ordinance. The intent of the ordinance is to increase opportunities for persons with temporary, developing or permanent disabilities to “age in place.”

“Trying to decipher the maze of information and resources can be overwhelming,” said Hand, “and that’s where independent living centers (ILCs) come into play. ILCs provide a number of services to persons with disabilities, including educating them about housing options as well as assisting them in negotiating rents and working with landlords. But more needs to be done.”

According to experts in the industry, education is the key to making a difference. Individuals need to be made aware of programs and agencies that are working with lenders, housing authorities and service providers in creating innovative housing options, such as “smart-home” technology, within their locale. Experts also believe it’s imperative for persons with disabilities to talk to elected leaders about their real-life experiences and the need for policies that improve affordability and accessibility.

“We are committed to supporting people living with disabilities in getting their voices heard,” said Elsa Quezada, Chair of the California State Independent Living Council. “By providing people with timely and pertinent information, training and education, we can arm them with the tools they need   to live independently and not take “no” for an answer.”

The California State Independent Living Council is an independent state agency which, in cooperation with the California State Department of Rehabilitation, prepares and monitors the State Plan for Independent Living. SILC solicits continual public feedback on the effectiveness of independent living services and coordinates with similar agencies and councils at the state and federal levels to increase communication and help assure that services to persons with disabilities are delivered effectively.

Source: California State Independent Living Council, GAATES

Monday, August 13, 2012

City of Iqaluit Plans to Make Buildings More Accessible

The City of Iqaluit plans to consider forming an accessibility committee that would look at disability and access issues in its current and future infrastructure.

This plan comes after presentations to council by the Nunavummi Disabilities Makinnasuaqtit Society, whose board members requested the city put together a committee to address things like wheelchair ramps, which the current city hall building and Arctic Winter Games arena don’t have.

“They’ve agreed, so that any new project that they take on well be vetted for accessibility,”  Makinnasuaqtit’s executive director, Wendy Ireland said.

That committee would result in significant and much needed changes, Ireland said, adding that most southern cities have similar committees.

The committee would act as a stamp of approval, and catch things liable to cause accessibility problems in the future.

These would be taken into consideration when planning new projects to make sure that they work for all citizens.
As for the AWG, Ireland, who uses a wheelchair,  said she “can only get to the canteen.”

Building is expensive in Nunavut, she acknowledges, but this is all the more reason to have a committee make recommendations before construction starts

“You just don’t want to miss your chance,” Ireland said, adding that it seems the city is committed to making Iqaluit more accessible.

“I’m pretty heartened by their positive response. I think they understood the issues before I brought them [forward].”

Coun. Mary Wilman said the committee is at the planning stages, because the current council’s term expires this fall.

“[So] starting up a new committee at this point may not be timely, but we have started discussions,” she said.
Councillors have already recognized the need for such a committee, said Wilman, adding that any new council chambers to be built in the future must be accessible.

Too often people take accessibility for granted, she said, so “it’s good to be reminded — that’s how I felt about the presentation. I support it wholeheartedly.”

Other communities will likely put together similar committees if Iqaluit moves ahead, Ireland said.
In Hall Beach, there is one person who advocates for increased accessibility, and even though it’s only one person “that’s pretty cool,” she said.

Minister Fletcher Celebrates Accessibility in Vancouver

As a result of the Government of Canada’s Enabling Accessibility Fund, four organizations in the Vancouver area are increasing accessibility for people with disabilities in their community. The Honourable Steven Fletcher, Minister of State (Transport), highlighted the completion of these projects today on behalf of the Honourable Diane Finley, Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, at the British Columbia Mobility Opportunities Society.

“The Government of Canada recognizes the abilities of all Canadians and is committed to removing barriers to participation for people with disabilities,” said Minister Fletcher. “We are proud to work with organizations that are helping Canadians gain greater access to facilities, programs and services in their community.”

Through the Enabling Accessibility Fund, the British Columbia Mobility Opportunities Society received $51,552 to construct an accessible trailer and install ramps at their facility. The Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre received $41,800 to install automatic doors, an accessible phone table and non-slip flooring and for the purchase of hands-free computer software and a multi-purpose ramp. True North Hostelling Association BC received $50,000 to create and promote accessible wilderness and outdoor activities that are offered through their hostels. The Silver Harbour Seniors’ Activity Centre Society received $35,298 to make improvements to an elevator at their facility so that more people will have access to it.

To learn more about the Enabling Accessibility Fund, visit www.hrsdc.gc.ca/disability

Source: GAATES

Access to High Tech A Challenge for Students with Disabilities

Anyone with an inbox has been there: navigating through cluttered emails, sifting through spam and newsletters, searching for a certain message. Few could manage with their eyes closed.

Necessary technologies such as email can pose a barrier for students with vision disabilities at Texas colleges and universities. For students with vision, hearing, learning or physical disabilities, keeping up with fast-changing Internet programs and new classroom protocol is a catch-up game made possible only with assistive technologies.

Screen readers, magnifiers and textbook scanners improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities and decrease dependence, but they’re being outpaced by popular innovations such as learning management systems, student email and directories, and massive amounts of new online information.

“There has been this monumental shift toward using the Internet and online content in the classroom,” said Rudy Becerra, an advocate for people with disabilities. “The problem is some of that is inaccessible for some students.”

Learning management and student information systems are standard on most campuses across the state. Colleges and universities typically require students to have Internet access to register for classes and to monitor transcripts and grades. Some even administer quizzes and tests online.

Dianne Hengst, director of disability services at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said most professors there supplement in-class material with online content, usually through Blackboard, a popular learning management system that allows users to interact with other students, view additional content such as online videos or text and submit homework or test assignments.

She said accessibility problems are not exclusive to students with vision disabilities. Technology poses different types of accessibility problems to students with hearing, mobility, learning and cognitive disabilities.

For example, a YouTube video assigned by a professor might not include closed captioning, which would cause a barrier for a student with a hearing impairment, she said.

“It is a matter of civil rights and basic inclusion,” Hengst said. “The highest unemployed population in the world is the disabled, so it is important to provide everyone with the same opportunity to be successful.”

Sandi Patton, director of disability services for the Lone Star College system, said its campuses in the Houston area also use Blackboard to supplement in-class material. She said accessibility to technologies, such as Blackboard, has progressed, but it is important for software designers to “build for accessibility” from the beginning rather than attempting to repair the product after its release.

Jessica Finnefrock, senior vice president of product development at Blackboard, said its products must meet industry standards, gain approval from people with disabilities through partnerships with entities such as the National Federation for the Blind, and pass analyses from outside testing companies before they are placed on the market.

Finnefrock said products designed by Blackboard, which partners with about 1,500 higher-education institutions in the United States, are designed to be compatible with assistive technologies such as screen readers.

Marti Hathorn, assistive technology supervisor at the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind, said assistive technology such as screen magnifiers, screen readers, closed-circuit television and textbook scanners allowed her to be independent in college. She earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from UTSA in 2008.

“(People with disabilities) don’t want to be segregated. We don’t want our own computer lab,” Hathorn said. “I didn’t want to be left out of anything or cut corners. I wasn’t (in school) to get by, I wanted to do better than everyone else.”

Hathorn, who is blind, said raising awareness is one of the most vital aspects to increasing universal accessibility.

“When computer usage first took off, accessibility wasn’t even brought to the table,” Hathorn said. “Now it is starting to be a priority and is part of the discussion, and more people with disabilities are speaking up.”

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said awareness for everyone involved in higher education — from regents and administrators to students and instructors — is key.

Zaffirini, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said there is no law specifically directed at technology access for students with disabilities but that resources provided by the government are plentiful.
For example, the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services offers enhanced state funding for assistive technologies and devices: $1 million per year in the current biennium.

Hathorn said she received a $1,000 screen reader from the Division of Blind Services when she was attending college.

The Texas Technology Access Program, housed at the University of Texas and funded fully by the federal government, provides demonstrations of assistive technologies to people who use them.

Roger Levy, director of the TTAP, said the rate that technology changes requires all parties, including students, professors, legislators, software developers and service providers, to work together to achieve universal accessibility.

Hengst, of UTSA, said each link in the chain of accessibility is interdependent upon the rest.

“My head spins when I think about where technology will be in 20 years,” Hengst said. “We have a lot of challenges ahead of us, but I think it will be very exciting.”

Free High Tech Solution for Students with Print Disabilities

Elizabeth is a college freshman who has severe dyslexia that makes it impossible for her to decipher printed materials. Nearly every night for 12 years of school, Elizabeth’s mother would sit down and read her daughter’s school work to her because that’s the only choice they had.

But a few months before starting college, Elizabeth discovered an online library called Bookshare.org , run by a small non-profit called Benetech.

“My life changed as I entered the world of accessible literature,” Elizabeth wrote on Bookshare’s blog.
For Elizabeth and the millions of students who are “print disabled” — meaning they have trouble reading because of dyslexia or vision disabilities — many textbooks are not available in an audio format or in any other format that’s easily accessible. Bookshare converts texts into accessible digital formats–mostly audio and digital braille–for those who can’t decipher print.

“I would hear about a book and remember thinking, ‘I wish I could read that,’ knowing it might be available in a year and a half. Bookshare changed all that.”

It’s not that Benetech invented accessible literature. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), which is part of the Library of Congress, has 300,000 titles and close to 1 million registered readers. The library provides audio books, Braille books and digital files that communicate with electronic Braille notetakers. However, many NLS books must be requested by mail and wait lists for popular texts can be long. In the last few years, the NLS has started offering some texts for download.

A few other services, like the nonprofit Learning Ally which has been around since 1948, also offer accessible books for people with vision disabilities. But the difference is that neither of these organizations specializes in textbooks. In fact, the NLS refers users to Bookshare, for this purpose.

Currently Bookshare, which was founded in 2001, offers more than 150,000 titles, which can be downloaded in a file format that works with several different digital solutions. Membership is free for all students, including those in adult education, and $50 per year for everyone else, not including a $25 one-time set up fee. For textbooks that aren’t yet available on Bookshare, users can send in a request for those titles, which then take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months to convert.

“We want books in a format everyone can use,” said Betsy Beaumon, vice president of Benetech.

Benetech’s user-friendly software and its efforts to work with publishers to create accessible digital texts on the front-end have earned the small company a major grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Last month, the Department of Education awarded Benetech $6.5 million a year through 2017 to continue and expand its work to make textbooks, textbook images and software innovations for users more widespread.

Bookshare books aren’t just PDFs of print pages. Each page is scanned and processed through an optical character recognition program that translates the image file into a text file. That file is proofread to eliminate typos and ensure that things like odd page layouts haven’t damaged readability. Finally, the file is formatted so that it can be “read” in a digital voice by screen reading software — a computer program that reads what’s on the screen — or fed to a Braille notetaker.

Benetech engineers have also produced an iPhone, iPad and Android app that makes these files user-friendly in a variety of ways. For example, it’s easy to skip to a chapter heading or even a specific page just as a sighted reader could with a paper textbook by using a combination of aural clues and tapping of the touch-screen.

One of two specially created voices can be chosen to read the text. The voices can be sped up or slowed down without losing their pleasant tone. For Rob Turner, the head of customer service at Benetech, this means no more “chipmunk voices.” Turner is blind and in order to read texts as fast as sighted readers when he was in college, Turner would speed up the tape deck playback. With years of practice, he can listen to and take in aural information this way much faster than most people.

Since many legally blind people have some amount of vision and because dyslexic readers can see, the software also has a visual element. The size and color of the text can be changed. The background color can also be changed—this has been shown to help some dyslexic readers. A highlighter can be set to follow each word of the text as it’s read out loud.

Math equations have traditionally been a big stumbling block for this demographic of readers. The software that “reads” text from the screen cannot read image files and math equations are often in image files. Benetech has created a program that allows a user to type a math equation into a box that will translate the equation into code that works with its software or that can be fed into a Braille notetaker.

Rick Roderick, who has been blind since birth, has made a career out of teaching other blind people to use computers and Braille notetakers. As such, he’s stayed on the cutting edge of technology to help the blind. Bookshare, he said, is the best innovation yet.

“Bookshare has totally improved my quality of life,” he said.
The biggest change has been the speed at which he can access 
books, Roderick said.

“My frustration was I would hear about a book on Morning Edition or Fresh Air and I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could read that,’ knowing it might be available in a year and a half,” he said. “Bookshare changed all that.”

Now, Roderick said he can get new books within days or weeks of their publication date. As soon as it’s uploaded to Bookshare, he can access it. He can also get same-day news from print publications like The New York Times and a list of other big and small periodicals.

“I remember asking one of my teachers in first grade, ‘Will there ever be a Braille newspaper?’” Roderick said. “She said, ‘No, that would be impossible.’ That is now possible.”

Benetech leaders hope their recently awarded grant will continue to make even more content readily available to those who cannot decipher print. They have already begun conversations with publishers about how eBooks can be formatted for accessibility from the beginning of the printing process so the long process of scanning and changing file types can be eliminated.

Beaumon said she is especially excited about the work they’ve begun with a few textbook publishers in advance of the switch to Common Core standards. If digital files are created as “accessible literature” in the first place, Beaumon said there would be more high-quality content available more quickly.

“Now is the opportune moment,” she said.

Elizabeth is about to start her sophomore year of college. She’s developed the habit of figuring out exactly what books she’ll need for her upcoming semester and making sure they’re available on Bookshare months in advance. If they’re not, she buys two copies of the book, one for herself and one to send to Benetech for scanning. That way, everyone will have access to the information.
“I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to read every word,” she wrote on the Bookshare blog.

Source: KQED, GAATES

Friday, August 10, 2012

US DOL's Office of Disability Employment Policy Announces $950,000 Grant to Establish Accessible Technology Action Centre


The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy today announced the availability of approximately $950,000 to fund a cooperative agreement to establish and operate the Accessible Technology Action Center, a new national resource that will facilitate and promote the use of accessible technology in the hiring, employment, retention and career advancement of persons with disabilities.

“Accessible technology can have a significant impact on persons with disabilities when it comes to succeeding in the workplace,” said Kathy Martinez, assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy. “This new center will build on previous partnerships and focus on specific issues facing employees with disabilities and the technology industry.”

The ATAC will expand access to information and communication technologies in the workplace for persons with disabilities. The center will promote the knowledge, technical skills, tools and leadership strategies needed to address accessibility issues, and will seek to raise awareness of the impact critical accessible workplace technologies have on competitive employment opportunities.

The initial award will be for 12 months with the possibility of up to four optional years of funding, depending on the availability of funds and satisfactory performance. The full announcement for this grant opportunity can be found at http://www.grants.gov. Applications will be accepted until Aug. 31, 2012.

Source: GAATES

US Scientists Aim to Deliver Visual Images to People with Vision Disabilities


Humans possess the unique ability to form mental images of things that exist only in their minds, and U.S. scientists now believe there may be a way to harness this ability someday to give sight to people who are blind.

Neuroscientists at Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Medical School at Houston have recently advanced their understanding of how the brain conjures up images, and hoped to someday bypass the eyes to directly deliver visual images into blind people’s brains, according to the latest online edition of the Texas Medical Center News on Monday.

In studying three individuals and creating an illusion of the flash of light to stimulate the brain, the scientists discovered two regions of all the three people’s brains required stimulation before the individuals could generate mental images in their mind.

The occipital lobe, a part of the brain at the back of the head, is responsible for vision and mental images, but the scientists discovered the brain’s temporoparietal junction must be active and work in conjunction with the occipital lobe for individuals to “see” an image in their mind, at least in the three people studied.

“This new study is a step toward our goal of better understanding visual perception, which will help us make a useful visual prosthetic,” said Daniel Yoshor, the study’s senior author.

A visual prosthetic, Yoshor said, could work like this: People who is blind might wear a prosthetic consisting of eyeglasses containing a webcam. The tiny camera would film the scene before blind person’s eyes, then relay information to a computer chip implanted in the person’s brain, which would stimulate the brain to generate mental images.

“If successful, we would in essence bypass eyes that no longer work and stimulate the brain to generate mental images,” said Michael Beauchamp, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the UT Medical School.

However, Yoshor, also chief of neurosurgery at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, noted that a key obstacle to progress right now “is our limited understanding of how brain activity leads to visual perception.”