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

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 , 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.