In this, the European Year of the Disabled, John Lamb outlines the steps you must take to ensure that websites and internal company systems can be used by people with disabilities
Despite the potential of IT to help the UK's eight million people with disabilities to communicate and improve their quality of life, many of them are unable to take advantage of these benefits because their needs have been overlooked by the designers and operators of IT systems.
A recent survey of 1,000 government websites by the Office of the E-envoy, the body responsible for improving the usability of government IT, concluded that three-quarters of the sites needed rebuilding at a cost of millions of pounds to make them accessible to disabled, deaf and visually-impaired users.
Last year, a survey by Brown University in the US found that only 2% of 2,300 state-run websites around the world had even basic accessibility features. Just 13 of the 196 governments that were surveyed had made any attempt to cater for people with disabilities. Other surveys have given commercial websites the thumbs-down too.
It is not just operators of online services who have been found wanting. Suppliers of new technologies have also overlooked these potential users. Increasingly popular software, such as the operating systems Linux, Windows CE - for handheld devices - and thin-client systems, also lack accessibility features.
Terminal server systems, including Microsoft's Windows Terminal Server and Metaframe from Citrix, will not work with software such as screen readers, dictation systems and screen magnifiers which visually-impaired people need to operate PCs. Some organisations have had to develop work-arounds to cater for staff with disabilities.
Sales of terminal server networks are growing at 30% per year, so increasing numbers of disabled people are being effectively excluded from office work. The problem is that the host servers that supply data and applications to the dumb, thin clients do so by sending bitmap images that are not compatible with existing accessibility software designed to run on PCs.
Some major suppliers are now taking action. Leading IT suppliers such as Apple, IBM and Microsoft have either adapted existing products or developed new ones for disabled people. They also provide information on their websites about accessibility issues.
IBM has developed software that helps developers design sites that conform to disability guidelines. Microsoft is ploughing funds into a wide range of research into areas that include speech technology, natural language and computer vision. Apple's Mac OS X can be adapted to suit people with impaired sight, hearing or movement.
But there is a shortage of software developers who understand the requirements of accessible systems and can train programming teams to cater for the needs of people with disabilities.
Under the Disability Discrimination Act, passed in 1995, all organisations are required to make reasonable adjustments to systems to allow people with disabilities to access them. The Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people in employment and in the provision of goods, services, facilities and premises.
"Since the Disability Discrimination Act came into force employers have known that they need to provide reasonable adjustments to allow disabled people to work," points out Bill Fine, senior consultant at AbilityNet, a charity that promotes the use of technology for people with disabilities at work. "The main thing is the Act gives responsibility to employers. If anyone builds a system that cannot be used by disabled people they are contravening the Act."
However, there are no benchmarks for what constitutes a reasonable adjustment and so far nobody has been prosecuted for failing to adapt their IT systems.
Now that may all change. The European Commission is preparing a directive that will force member states to introduce laws covering online access by October 2004. And in the UK, the Disability Rights Commission, the body responsible for protecting the interests of people with disabilities, is launching an investigation of 1,000 websites with a view to finding out how accessible they are and to developing guidelines for web developers.
With the Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design at City University London, the commission will test websites in the public and private sectors. They will be checked for basic compliance with recognised industry accessibility standards. In addition, 50 users with a range of different impairments will carry out indepth testing of a representative sample of these sites for practical usability.
"There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that websites provide avoidable barriers to disabled people. It is not vindictiveness or malice," says disability rights commissioner Michael Burton. "They are just not putting it high enough up their agenda. It is appropriate to take a pre-emptive strike and to find out to what extent website [developers] are thinking about disabled people."
There are two prongs to the commission's probe. First researchers will make use of automated tools, such as Bobby developed by the Centre for Assistive Technology, and tools developed by the World Wide Web Consortium to test whether websites meet recognised standards. Second, the 50-strong user panel will test accessibility in greater depth. Some of this work will be done under laboratory conditions: the guinea pigs will have their actions and comments recorded.
Efforts to push accessibility further up the IT agenda call for a major cultural change in the way that access for people with disabilities is viewed in organisations. Accessibility will have to become a fundamental element in website design and systems development rather than a feature to be added if there is time and money in the budget.
Advice for site builders
The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines are the global standard for designing accessible websites. See also its Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines for software developers www.w3.org/WAI
The Office of the E-envoy has published the Guidelines for UK Government Websites and an illustrated handbook for web development teams www.e-envoy.gov.uk
Systems built to international guidelines can be tested online by the Bobby service, developed by the Centre for Assistive Technology in the US http://bobby.watchfire.com
UK Online's Easy Access system is intended to be used by government webmasters to build accessible sites www.ukonline.gov.uk
Case studies: people with disabilities find IT works for them
Ford drives ahead on accessibility
Ford Europe has given a high profile to accessibility. The IT department under director Richard Thwaite employs four people with disabilities and sponsors the British Computer Society's Ability magazine which is about the use of IT by disabled people.
Over the past two years Ford has begun upgrading all of its websites to ensure that they comply with the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative standards for accessibility.
The process, which only applies to new developments, gives priority to external systems. "If you do it up-front the costs are negligible," explains Thwaite. "If you retrofit the costs can be astronomical."
The car maker has developed an internal website called Ford Ability Services for employees who have difficulty getting online. The site has information about setting up desktop systems and guidance on where to go for advice. Most Ford sites also have demonstration systems that employees can use to try out accessibility features.
And there is a programme to retrain injured production line staff in IT skills. Henry Collier, who uses a wheelchair, works in technical services for Ford Credit in Brentwood, Essex. He has been working for Ford for 15 years and is currently supporting the European roll-out of Windows XP. He says working with IT has got much easier over the years thanks to the accessibility features of Windows and other software. One of his tasks is to promote awareness of disabled people in Ford.
"I'm very much involved with disabled people, particularly since this year is the European Year of People with Disabilities," he says. Already a project specialist, Collier says his next big step is to become a team leader.
Collier requires remarkably little in the way of special facilities. Ford recently had to widen the door to his office when he bought a new electric wheelchair. His desktop has been equipped with a 21in screen so that he can have more applications open at the same time, but he uses a standard keyboard and mouse.
The Department of Trade and Industry confirms that Collier's modest requirements are typical of the investment required to enable people with disabilities to work. Almost half of workplace adjustments cost less than £50.
Sys admin with the help of Sticky Fingers
George Ransome works as a systems administrator at software communications company Triangle Computer Services.
Ransome, who suffers from Friedrich's Ataxia, a degenerative disease which affects his balance and co-ordination, was Triangle's first disabled employee.
The company installed a wheelchair ramp and rail and then called in AbilityNet to review his computing needs. After trying a variety of adaptations, Ransome chose a smaller keyboard, a tracker ball and was also introduced to two software modifications: predictive software called Finish Line and Sticky Keys. The adaptations cost about £100 in total.
Voice helps to make transport accessible
David Finnegan is employed by the Transport Executive, Merseytravel, and is responsible for ensuring that Liverpool's transport infrastructure is fully accessible to disabled people. Paralysed from the neck down, Finnegan has a laptop equipped with voice recognition technology and a tracker ball, as well as a desktop version for the office. He says of his computers, "I couldn't do my job without them.
They are an essential part of my life, both at work and at home."
Overcoming repetitive strain injury
As a market analyst with BT, Philip Hayden is highly dependent on his computer and spends much of his time writing reports, sourcing information on the internet and disseminating information by e-mail. When Hayden contracted repetitive strain injury in his forearms, he was barely able to use his hands at all. He got round this by working with voice recognition software, a more compact keyboard, which takes up much less room on his desk, and a static trackerball with a locking "drag" function.
Making job vacancies available
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the government department responsible for the Disability Discrimination Act, has set up a team to ensure its employees with disabilities can access the enterprise systems.
Jobcentre Plus, which is part of the DWP, maintains a critical piece of bespoke software called the Labour Market System that contains details of employers and their job vacancies. The system is upgraded four times a year and each time a specialist team has to carry out a parallel accessibility development which not only includes recoding screen readers and other accessibility software, but also updates disabled users on the changes.
"DWP staff rely increasingly on IT to perform their jobs. It is key to the department's diversity and equality policy that new systems and software applications must be accessible using the various types of assistive technology used by colleagues with disabilities," says Jenny van Tinteren, leader of the Accessibility Solutions Group.
Technology for users with disabilities
Keyboards The standard keyboard poses problems for people who have difficulties with their hands and arms. Software is available that will apply the shift and other control keys for people who cannot press two keys together. There are specially shaped keyboards for people who use sticks to touch the keys. Keyboards can be emulated on screen whereby keys are selected by small body movements such as creating air pressure changes via a tube.
Alternatives to a standard mouse Some people cannot use a mouse. There are alternative devices including pointer control via a keyboard, a tracker ball, joysticks and mice operated by head movement alone.
Assisted input There are a number of techniques designed to improve the speed and accuracy with which users with disabilities can input information. A computer can save up to 50% of keystrokes with techniques such as word prediction.
Speech synthesis This software reads the screen text to the user or presents it in Braille. Text written in advance can be read to an audience.
Voice recognition Computers can be operated by voice alone. The more sophisticated systems can take dictation at speeds of 40 words per minute or more and will adapt to an individual's speech patterns.