As I write my first blog post for the year, I am aware that it is already March and lots of things are now starting to happen which wil be important this year in the disability world.

As I write my first blog post for the year, I am aware that it is already March and lots of things are now starting to happen which wil be important this year in the disability world.

The first concerns New Zealand being examined later this year by the United Nations. All Governments that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Convention) must submit regular reports to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on how the rights enshrined in the Convention are being implemented in their country. The CRPD is a human rights treaty body tasked with monitoring the implementation of the Convention. Governments must report initially within two years of ratifying the Convention and, thereafter, every four years. New Zealand ratified the Convention in 2008 and the NZ Government submitted its first report on it to the UN in March 2011. The UN CRPD will examine New Zealand’s progress on the CRPD in Geneva in September this year.

Some time before a country is officially examined by the CRPD, they prepare a list of issues and questions for the Government of that country to focus on. A country’s Government usually, but not always, submits its response in writing and written answers to the list of issues are posted on the UN website. A List of Issues has already been submitted for New Zealand. Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) have had input into that List of Issues.

The CRPD now wants to hear from DPOs directly about barriers faced by disabled people in New Zealand. This kind of report is often referred to as a shadow report or alternative report. Right now the DPOs including Blind Citizens NZ are preparing our shadow report. This is our opportunity to comment on New Zealand from our perspective as people with disabilities, where we think the Government is doing well and where we feel more progress is needed. This work is being led by Victoria Manning on behalf of DPA. It will be completed and submitted to the CRPD by early June.

Chances are there will be a number of shadow reports sent by various organisations and groups of organisations in New Zealand. This is not unusual as the CRPD welcomes additional information from United Nations agencies, national human rights institutions and civil society, in particular non-Government organisations (NGOs), professional associations and academic institutions. Such information is considered alongside the country’s official Government information and is taken into account when the CRPD examines that country’s implementation and progress.

So when the official delegation from the New Zealand Government goes before the CRPD in September, the questions the CRPD will ask of them will have been influenced by these shadow reports, including the shadow report written by DPOs on behalf of disabled people. I am confident our shadow report will be a fair reflection of the most important concerns shared by disabled people in New Zealand. I am sure it will be taken seriously by the CRPD as it prepares itself to closely scrutinise how New Zealand is meeting its obligations under the Convention.

The Mighty River share float is now history. I followed the process with some interest. I was quite impressed with the steps Treasury had taken to make the share offer document accessible, including providing descriptions of some of the graphs and pie charts. Probably this was one rare occasion in which blind people interested in investment opportunities genuinely had equal access to the same information as sighted people.

The Mighty River share float is now history. I followed the process with some interest. I was quite impressed with the steps Treasury had taken to make the share offer document accessible, including providing descriptions of some of the graphs and pie charts. Probably this was one rare occasion in which blind people interested in investment opportunities genuinely had equal access to the same information as sighted people.

If you wanted to buy these shares, there were I think two ways to do it. One involved requesting that they post you a printed form which you could fill in and return. The other involved applying online.

If I had wanted to buy these shares, I would have preferred the online option. After all, to fill in a form means I have to ask a sighted person to do that for me. Blind people more and more these days are able to do a lot of things for ourselves with complete independence, because more and more things can be done online.

But blind people who wanting to buy these shares through the online process came face to face with a rude shock in the form of a visual CAPTCHA. This is a test where something is displayed in the form of distorted letters which you need to identify and decipher. You then enter these letters into the form. If you get it right, you can go on to the next step. If you get it wrong, you are blocked and you can’t go any further.

CAPTCHA is commonly used by websites to guard against abuse by computerised systems. Since only a human can supposedly pass the test, it means it is very hard for people to abuse the website with spam and other malicious software.

However, CAPTCHA, by its very nature, is discriminatory. Essentially it attempts to determine that the entity responding to a challenge is a human, but it can only really do this by looking for a certain attribute that only humans have, such as the ability to recognise visual images. A disability by its very nature robs a human being of certain attributes. If a particular CAPTCHA test relies on a human attribute, such as being able to see or hear, that the user does not have, the CAPTCHA test may well conclude that the user is not human. Imagine the anger you would feel if you are a genuine human being, but a given website basically says you are not.

In my view, any website that uses CAPTCHA in the context of delivering goods and/or services to the public risks breaching the Human Rights Act 1993, because it acts to prevent people with certain disabilities from accessing those goods or services. Then, under the Act, the obligation falls on the owner of the website to justify that it would be an unreasonable or undue burden to provide an alternative system for disabled people unable to pass the CAPTCHA test. But that assumes CAPTCHA is necessary in the first place. I accept that there is sometimes no alternative other than CAPTCHA in some situations. One example might be certain blog sites where comments are automatically published once they are submitted.

But I often find CAPTCHA is used in situations where it seems to me it is not really needed, and this is one of those situations. Think of all the bits of information in this case that would be checked before the transaction can actually go ahead. You would need your name and address, IRD number, a bank account number, and optionally your shareholder number. It would be relatively easy to validate such information, and that must happen anyway just to avoid mistakes. It would be extremely difficult for any automated malicious process to submit information that would pass all the tests, so I think it would be easy to quickly filter out any bogus information entered maliciously. And think of all the forms that came back through the post. Someone has to enter all that information into the database, so that must also be checked for validity and to guard against mistakes. And finally, let us not forget that this is a binding commitment, so if the Government is going to enforce its rights, it really needs to be sure this information is correct.

So CAPTCHA really doesn’t add anything in a case like this to the tests already available to check that each transaction is valid. Furthermore, there are a number of other techniques web developers can and do use successfully to guard against malicious submissions. I believe CAPTCHA is often used simply because it can be implemented in just a few lines of code – the developer can paste that in to the form and quickly go on to the next problem. I have already stated that CAPTCHA is discriminatory by its very nature. Anyone who uses it risks breaching the Human Rights Act, and may not have a defence if they can’t show it is justified.

I raised this with the Treasury people. They quickly replied to advise that the “accessible” version of the application form was now available. When I checked this out, I found it had a new type of CAPTCHA with an audio option. Most people seem to take the view that providing an audio option satisfies the requirement of accessibility. Actually it doesn’t for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the person might be deafblind or just may have a hearing impairment that prevents them from hearing what is spoken.

Now have you ever actually listened to an audio CAPTCHA? There are some reasonably good ones, but of course the whole idea of CAPTCHA is to distort the audio otherwise it defeats the purpose because computers are getting pretty good these days at understanding speech. But I found this one to be pretty impossible. If CAPTCHA is just too distorted, then maybe that also defeats the purpose, if people genuinely can’t decipher it. I tried a couple of audio tests on this website but I couldn’t get it. I also downloaded a sample and sent it to the Treasury people. I was pleasantly surprised when they replied to say nobody in the office could figure it out either, and they would look more into this problem next time. Now we know it will be the turn of Meridian Energy to be sold later this year. We’ll wait to see what happens.

I should point out that I indicated to the Treasury people that I would not be buying any shares, so I can’t say the CAPTCHA test actually prevented me from completing my transaction. It would have been interesting to find out if they were in any position to give me a way forward had I been keen to buy them.

Blind Citizens NZ has now adopted a policy document on CAPTCHA that will be published later this year and will be available on this website. It explains in some detail the most significant problems inherent in CAPTCHA. It makes the point that people who deliver goods and/or services through websites that use CAPTCHA must stop and consider the human rights issues. We also make the point that website owners probably rely on their developers to give them good advice, but we suspect developers do not fully understand the human rights issues involved.

CAPTCHA works like a road-block. It’s like someone in a wheelchair is navigating their way through your building but then comes face to face with a staircase they can’t get up, and there is no way around it. First we challenge website owners to think carefully before using CAPTCHA because in many cases it won’t actually be needed at all. But then we say if you must use it, then you must also consider whether you can provide a clear alternative to someone who, for whatever reason, can’t pass the CAPTCHA test. A simple idea might be to still use the other techniques well-known to developers to filter out malicious submissions, then accept the submission but flag it for attention by someone in a call centre who can just phone the phone number and validate the submission over the phone in much the same way banks do. Under the Human Rights Act 1993, you are expected to take reasonable steps to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities. Putting in a road-block and doing nothing to help people with disabilities get around it is no longer acceptable.

Blind Citizens has added its voice to the call for the current Auckland Disability Law service to be “saved” and developed into a true national disability law service. The issue arises because the Ministry of Justice is reviewing funding for all community law centres in New Zealand and this includes Auckland Disability Law. The Ministry’s proposal to replace specialist law centres such as Auckland Disability Law with a “capacity building” service, would result in a lack of specialist disability legal services.

Blind Citizens has added its voice to the call for the current Auckland Disability Law service to be “saved” and developed into a true national disability law service. The issue arises because the Ministry of Justice is reviewing funding for all community law centres in New Zealand and this includes Auckland Disability Law. The Ministry’s proposal to replace specialist law centres such as Auckland Disability Law with a “capacity building” service, would result in a lack of specialist disability legal services. The Board’s approach therefore, is not just about saving Auckland Disability Law, it is to ensure it remains and that other specialist disability legal services around the country, are available.

The following comments come from an address I recently gave at a gathering hosted by Auckland Disability Law to discuss this issue. I make the case for a national disability law service. I believe I can share this with you now in my President’s Blog since Blind Citizens has decided to add its voice to the call.

Probably all people with disabilities know that deep feeling of pain that comes from being discriminated against by people who misjudge us because of their misconceptions of our disabilities. We are not alone of course; life is full of hard knocks for almost everyone. But it cuts deep into your soul when someone else misjudges you as a person because you are in a wheelchair, or you have a major speech defect, or you can’t make eye contact, and so on. I can recall such instances in my life dating back to when I was a child. Sometimes these things are deeply painful, certainly they are character building, and if we are to survive at all in this world, we must chalk them up to experience and keep boxing on.

As a qualified lawyer, although I am not currently practising, I am aware of just how much our adversarial system of justice relies on the assessment of credibility of the person, whether that person is an accused party, a litigant in a civil proceeding or a witness, and whether or not that assessment of credibility is by a judge or a jury. This became particularly apparent to me during my two years as a Judge’s Clerk in the Auckland High Court. This gave me the opportunity to closely watch many cases as they went through the Court system. I learned to appreciate at first hand the immense power in the hands of judges, because once that judicial order is signed, the full power of the state is then unleashed and may have a profound impact on the parties. During my time at the High Court, I got to know some judges on an almost personal basis, and I got to appreciate that they do deeply feel the need to make the right decisions, but at the same time they are under a lot of pressure to quickly understand all the evidence put to them and make a decision. Then they must quickly clear their mind and move on to the next case.

This in turn led me to better understand the critical role lawyers play in how our system of justice works. If a case involves disability in any way, we rely on our lawyer to fully understand how disability relates to the case and then articulate that clearly to the Court. Any failure on our lawyer’s part is likely to lead to injustice.

And let us not forget the possibility that a lawyer on the opposing side might deliberately play the disability card as a tactic to attack our credibility. We know only too well I think that when we become the focus of attention, it is our disability that people see first. For example, if you see a man has a stain on his tie or is wearing non-matching socks, you might just laugh it off as nothing more than an instance of a man’s absent mindedness. But if I stand before you as a blind person with a stain on my tie or odd socks on, your first instinct will be to conclude that this is because I am blind. Somehow we are not entitled to the same lapses of attention as other people. You can easily see I think how this way of thinking might impact on something as emotionally charged as, for example, a child custody case involving a parent who is disabled. We all know I think that children of all walks of life can be hit with a problem like head lice at least some time in their life. We all know I think that despite people’s best intentions, children can get into difficulty when a parent’s attention is distracted even for a moment, and in some cases the consequences are tragic. But imagine now that such instances involve a child where the primary caregiver is disabled and is seeking to have on-going custody. It is easy to imagine I think how a lawyer on the opposing side could try to have a field day with any such instances involving the disabled parent, arguing that they prove the child is simply not safe in that person’s custody because of their disability.

A fundamental principle of justice is that All people are equal before the law. But if we accept that disabled people can be misjudged by others because of our disabilities, you can see why having a disability might lead to an unfair assessment of our credibility, or of a critical issue in a proceeding, whether this be by judges, lawyers or a jury. Unless something is done to address this possibility, there is a real danger that our right to fair justice is compromised.

At the same time, disabled people are more and more claiming our rights as citizens. This is reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which New Zealand has ratified. We can therefore expect a trend towards more disputes and possibly litigation involving disability as a central issue, as we challenge Society to uphold our right to the same equitable access to goods and services as is enjoyed by everyone else.

A well-established disability law service can address such concerns in at least the following ways:

  • It can raise awareness of disability amongst lawyers and judges. This will help to ensure that people with disabilities will not be misunderstood but will be correctly assessed by courts in a legal proceeding. It will also help Courts to correctly assess the true impact and relevance of disability in cases where it is argued that disability is a key issue.
  • It can also raise awareness of disability amongst people involved in the general administration of law. This will help ensure disabled people can have full access to the supports we may need as participants in a legal process, such as legal documents in accessible formats, sign language interpreters, other supports related to physical accessibility of facilities, and so on.
  • It can give us direct access to lawyers who have made it their business to focus on disability in law. If a disabled person has to face a significant legal issue in their life, and if disability is or could be a significant factor in that case, then in my view that person has the right to be represented by a lawyer who is experienced in this field, a lawyer who can confidently address arguments concerning disability and how disability might relate to the other legal issues in the case.
  • Finally, it can create a body of knowledge in the field of disability law itself. Although it is argued that some 20% of the population has a disability, if we focus on serious life changing disabilities of the type that could require a special accommodation or could impact on a person’s access to fair justice, the percentage is much much less. Given also that very few cases actually reach a court of law, it can be easily seen that disability law is a very specialised area. We need to build up a body of knowledge concerning disability law and we need to encourage lawyers to specialise in this field of practice.

It is well established in New Zealand, both by convention and by legislation such as the Bill of Rights Act 1990, that everyone enjoys the basic right to justice and to be treated fairly and equally by our courts. Under Article 13 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, there is an obligation on New Zealand to (and I quote from the Convention) “ensure effective access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others, including through the provision of procedural and age-appropriate accommodations, in order to facilitate their effective role as direct and indirect participants, including as witnesses, in all legal proceedings …”

A disability law service is vital if New Zealand is to meet its obligations under the Convention. Such a service must not only focus on raising awareness of disability in the legal profession, but it must also address the other outcomes I referred to earlier. It is not enough to just provide advice to lawyers. It is well established I think that cases involving particular issues should be handled by lawyers who understand those issues. I’m sure for instance that if you were to find yourself in hot water with the Inland Revenue, you would want an experienced tax lawyer to look after your interests. Likewise, when disability itself may be a key issue in a case, New Zealand must meet its obligations under the Convention by providing access to lawyers who specialise in the field.

I hope these are persuasive arguments for why New Zealand needs a truly national community law service that meets the needs of disabled people by being properly grounded in modern disability philosophy and giving us access to lawyers who specialise in disability law. We look forward to the outcome of the review currently being carried out by the Ministry of Justice.

These last two to three months have been really busy for me and the Association generally. As I turn to the blog to bring you all up to date on what we’re doing and perhaps more importantly to give you some ensight into what lies behind what we do, I realise there’s a lot to get through. This entry will pick up a number of items in brief and then I’ll deal with some topics in more detail.

These last two to three months have been really busy for me and the Association generally. As I turn to the blog to bring you all up to date on what we’re doing and perhaps more importantly to give you some ensight into what lies behind what we do, I realise there’s a lot to get through. This entry will pick up a number of items in brief and then I’ll deal with some topics in more detail.

One major focus over the last few months has been Total Mobility and public transport in general. The scheme is found in most regions, but in reality the effectiveness of the scheme varies considerably from place to place and we believe the scheme needs to be consistent throughout the whole country.

Another major focus has been telecommunications. This includes domestic and mobile phones, the internet etc, and deals with the many ways modern society is changing as a result of new technology. We make the point that blind people risk being shut out of our own society if modern telecommunications services such as texting, touch screens and the internet overlook our needs. But we also make the point that often our needs can be met at little cost if the right decisions are made in the early stages as services are developed.

Back in July, we were privileged to meet personally with the Government’s Ministerial Committee on Disability Issues. Such meetings are scarce and you only get a short time. We had about twenty minutes, in which we gave formal presentations and answered questions on accessible public transport (including Total Mobility), Accessible Information and Accessible Telecommunications. Amongst those present at the meeting were Hon Tariana Turia (Minister for Disability Issues), Hon Pansy Wong (Associate Minister for Disability Issues), Hon Tony Ryall (Minister of Health), Hon Nathan Guy (Associate Minister for Transport). Officials and Chief Executives from some of these government departments were present also. We were told that Ministers would follow up on the various issues raised, thus outcomes are keenly awaited.

This year’s conference was very successful, despite being a little down on numbers due to current economic constraints. The theme was “life is for living”, the idea being that whilst we do spend a lot of our energy educating the community about our needs, in the end the reason why we do that is so we can all live a full and productive life. We were all captivated by some inspirational speakers who are doing just that, doing their bit and getting the most out of life.

Last year our Conference endorsed the idea of creating a Memorial Hall of Honour so people that have made a lasting positive impact on the lives of blind people can be remembered forever. All that remained was for nominations for inductees to commence. This year Conference appointed the first three people to the Memorial Hall of Honour: Cyril White, Terry Small and Lionel Voice. All three are founding members of the Association and have made considerable contributions over their lives that have shaped the lives of blind and vision impaired people and this Association. An attractive display cabinet will now be set up at our National Office to collect appropriate items and information to honour the memory of these and other people as they are added to the Hall of Honour.

Another area receiving a lot of our attention is strengthening branches and creating ways for our members to participate in areas which don’t have a branch. Recently the Waikato Branch was disestablished because it just hasn’t been able to function. Several other branches are finding it more and more difficult to find the people willing to come onto committees and do the work of a branch. Yet we know that in all of these areas members are still willing to meet from time to time to have their say. We are giving a lot of attention now to how we can find ways to ensure as many of our members as possible can be heard so our policies truly reflect the aspirations of our members.

The Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind is making good progress in rolling out its new digital talking book service . Our recent Conference passed a resolution congratulating the Foundation on the progress it is making but calling for a download service to be introduced as quickly as possible for people who would rather not rely on receiving CDs in the post. We have heard that the Foundation may consider a download option as part of an “enhanced” service that blind people might be asked to pay for. We will be strongly opposing this approach as we believe a download option should be a standard component of any 21st century talking book service.

The Association has congratulated the Foundation on the introduction of its Simply Touch and Read (STAR) Programme initiative for teaching braille. The innovative way Braille can be learnt using this programme is generating a lot of interest around the world and brings a great deal of kudos to the Foundation.

The Foundation recently published best practice guidelines on accessible signage . This explains how to create signs, particularly in buildings, that are most beneficial to blind people. There was good consultation and the Association was pleased to add its endorsement to these guidelines.

More news coming soon.

Earlier this month I posted an entry giving my initial reactions to the recent announcement by the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind concerning major changes it is about to make to its rehabilitation services. If you read that entry, you should know that I am generally pleased with what the Foundation says it will be doing but I also drew attention to a number of questions the Association still has which remain unanswered.

Earlier this month I posted an entry giving my initial reactions to the recent announcement by the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind concerning major changes it is about to make to its rehabilitation services. If you read that entry, you should know that I am generally pleased with what the Foundation says it will be doing but I also drew attention to a number of questions the Association still has which remain unanswered.

At that time, the only information I could go on was an email message sent by the Foundation’s Chief Executive on 27 May to various email lists operated by the Foundation, together with information I had obtained through informal communication. In my blog entry, I mentioned that consumer organisations had asked for a comprehensive briefing paper on the proposed changes, but given that an announcement had already been published, ultimately I decided to publish my comments on 13 June although at that time we had not received the briefing we were waiting for.

Now, just for the record, I can tell you that we received the briefing paper this week. At this stage I haven’t had time to read it. We also have a Board meeting in a couple of weeks time. I’ll post an update on this subject therefore later this month when we have digested the information we’ve now received.

I have to admit that I rather hit the wall towards the end of last year and the blog has been a casualty. I don’t want to make a lot of excuses, except to say that the blog got pushed out of my mind altogether as a result of the work involved in the governance working group, Conference of course, and then there were some rather vexing ramifications I had to work through that arose as a result of the governance working group report and my President’s Report. All this stuff gets done after hours at the end of my normal working day and I just ran out of energy for the blog.

I have to admit that I rather hit the wall towards the end of last year and the blog has been a casualty. I don’t want to make a lot of excuses, except to say that the blog got pushed out of my mind altogether as a result of the work involved in the governance working group, Conference of course, and then there were some rather vexing ramifications I had to work through that arose as a result of the governance working group report and my President’s Report. All this stuff gets done after hours at the end of my normal working day and I just ran out of energy for the blog. You’ll be hearing more very shortly about the governance working group report, what it’s all about and as much as I can tell you about the ramifications it caused.

But I did get to have a good break over Christmas and I do think I see things a lot clearer now in my own mind and I’m sure that will start to influence how I approach the issues we are working on.

The main purpose of the blog is to keep you up to date with what we’re up to. I can tell you we’re well and truly back into it for this year. The Board has met once already and we’re meeting again this weekend. This weekend we’ll be putting time into some strategic thinking. I’ll have more news on the outcomes of these meetings in the next couple of weeks. Suffice it to say that the blog is back and you’ll be reading a lot more very shortly about some of the serious challenges we are having to face.

Remember that old folk song “rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham”? Yes go ahead and Google it if you’re too young to remember. I wonder if boy scouts sing that song today around the campfire like we used to. The words that come to my mind at the moment are “so high, I can’t get over it, so low I can’t get under it, so wide I can’t get round it…”. That’s what it’s like when you come up against a barrier. Right? Well, yes, but only if it is a physical barrier.

Remember that old folk song “rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham”? Yes go ahead and Google it if you’re too young to remember. I wonder if boy scouts sing that song today around the campfire like we used to. The words that come to my mind at the moment are “so high, I can’t get over it, so low I can’t get under it, so wide I can’t get round it…”. That’s what it’s like when you come up against a barrier. Right? Well, yes, but only if it is a physical barrier.

The thing about physical barriers is that they are easy to see and understand. When the disability movement really took off in the late sixties and seventies, it built on the gains won by earlier movements that fought for racial equality. The first focus of the disability movement was to claim our right to live in the mainstream of society, to fight against discrimination in areas such as employment and access to public spaces. In this regard we have been largely successful I think, with many countries now having legislation to ensure that public spaces are basically accessible to people with disabilities and to prevent discrimination on the grounds of disability in various aspects of life.

It was easy for Society to confront the need for places like schools to be physically accessible, so people with disabilities could have equitable access to education. It was also easy for Society to understand what to do. You build buildings more appropriately, with ramps and other facilities for people with disabilities, and over the last thirty years I guess that has become pretty much an established practice for a lot of public buildings. Sure there are always arguments over resources and it’s not a perfect world but I think no one can deny the progress we have made in that respect.

I can recall writing an article in the early 1980s I think. It was in the early days of mainstreaming blind students in ordinary schools in New Zealand and I commented that now the school library was physically accessible it would mean that people with disabilities could physically go to the library, browse the shelves and read the books there. Right? Well not blind students. Blind students have always been able to physically get to the school library but we have never been able to read any of the books there. Our problem has never been one of physical access.

The problem with what we call the information barrier is that it isn’t physically there; you can’t actually see it. It can take a while for the penny to drop. I can recall comments from those earlier days like “we’ve done so much and still you’re not satisfied”. No we weren’t satisfied because, basically, stairs are not a problem to us. Those comments came from people who just hadn’t stopped to think about accessibility in terms of the final outcome. They only thought of it in physical terms. That was why I painted the picture in that article of the blind student in the “accessible” library, surrounded by books she can’t read. And I’m not sure it’s that different today, with many schools running their own intranet and e-learning centres which are still largely inaccessible to blind students.

But let us not forget though that in those days it was before the computer, well to be more precise, before computers became commonplace, because I recall I did have an Apple IIE in those days. In those days there was no practical solution that would give us access to that whole wealth of information on the library shelves. Blind people would have to wait, in the meantime relying on specialised blindness agencies such as our own Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind to help us get the information we need.

Now let’s fast-forward to today, some 25 years later. You might think that in today’s electronic world, blind people should at last be able to access all the information we could want. Surely, we blind people should at last be satisfied. Well the answer is no, I’m afraid we aren’t yet satisfied, and for good reason.

Over the next week or so I will be publishing three articles on this blog on the subject of overcoming the information barrier, and I hope these will help improve understanding of why this is still a fundamental issue for blind people. Actually I would say it is probably now the single most important issue for us.

The first will give you my take on the recent outcry that occurred when Amazon released its Kindle II e-book reader that has built-in synthetic speech. Synthetic speech is a major access technology for blind people, but for those of you who don’t know what happened, you will learn how Amazon had angered the publishers of information, what they chose to then do about it, and how that caused outrage in the blind community. I will give you my commentary on what I think are the implications of that episode for blind people.

The second article will look at the issue of copyright and why copyright exemptions are needed to ensure that materials in formats blind people can use can be readily moved from one country to another. It used to be for instance that blind people in small countries like New Zealand could readily borrow books on cassette from the big producers in the USA, the UK and other countries. This was a great way for blind people, particularly students, to obtain more specialised reading that we couldn’t expect to get from a local source such as the Foundation of the Blind.

But that’s all history now everyone has gone digital. I’ll be telling you why in this second article. The matter was recently discussed at a meeting of the World Intellectual Property Organisation. So did New Zealand behave itself when the matter was discussed? You’ll find out later this week.

The third and final article in this series will give you my take on where to from here. Why is it that as we progress more into the digital age, it seems to be harder for us to confront the issue and get over the barrier. It is sometimes said that there are none so blind as those who will not see. Is that the problem here? Is it just that the world still just doesn’t get it? Maybe, but I suggest also that our problems are to some extent of our own making and we really need to make sure we send a clear and consistent signal to the world to let them know what we want. I will be suggesting there is some conflict in the signals we are currently sending and we need to get our own act together.

This Association continues to call for effective and accessible public transport so people with disabilities can participate fully in all aspects of society. This week in the news we heard that the Government is now not going ahead with a regional fuel tax that we were told would have funded critical developments in Auckland’s public transport infrastructure. The Government has instead opted for a lower nation-wide fuel tax.

This Association continues to call for effective and accessible public transport so people with disabilities can participate fully in all aspects of society. This week in the news we heard that the Government is now not going ahead with a regional fuel tax that we were told would have funded critical developments in Auckland’s public transport infrastructure. The Government has instead opted for a lower nation-wide fuel tax. Not surprisingly, people around the country have not been slow to express their outrage at having to, as they might put it, pay for Auckland’s roads, but the more important point about this decision is that the funding from this new tax will be directed more to roads than to public transport. It seems to signal that the Government does not consider public transport to be strategically important.

Government and local authorities have an obligation to ensure that the urban environment is accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. I recently blogged about how people with disabilities have moved out of an era dominated largely by living in institutions to today’s world in which we live in the community. Living in the community means working, studying, shopping, socialising, enjoying entertainment, playing sport, and doing everything else that comes with being part of modern society. Without an effective public transport system, a city designed largely for people who drive cars is, frankly, likely to seriously impede the mobility of people with disabilities and other transport disadvantaged groups, preventing us from participating to our full potential in the community.

It is actually that simple. Think about the way life has changed in our larger and even our not so large cities. There might have been a time when we were content to just live and socialise in the neighbourhood, maybe get the bus to and from work and just shop at the local shops. Now we must travel much further to larger mega-centres to do even basic shopping. Now we are encouraged to attend large events such as shows and concerts held in big stadiums and events centres that might be many kilometers away. Cities are getting larger, and often it is economic pressure that forces people to live further away from the city centre. It is not unusual now for people to drive forty or more kilometers each way every day to get to work, which might be anywhere in the metropolitan area. Social networks now extend right across the metropolitan environment and are not simply centred in the local neighbourhood. Now it is not unusual for people to travel right across the region just to meet for dinner. People with disabilities have the same right to socialise and participate in the community as everyone else.

People with disabilities have always been much more dependent on public transport than people in general. Many of us just have no choice other than to use public transport. But as the urban environment changes, the public transport system is not keeping up. There once was a time when it was simply enough just to take the bus to town every so often. But not any more. If all of us are to go to cricket games, or to support our local rugby or league teams, if we are to go to concerts and other big events, if we are to support our kids when they play in inter-school sports, if we are to buy the things we need, if we are to meet up with friends, and so on, then all of us need to be able to travel comfortably and with dignity to all these places scattered throughout the urban environment. Social mobility should not be something enjoyed only by people who drive.

Society in the end controls how our cities develop, where the roads go and which areas are dedicated to which activities. People can’t just build what they like where they like. Government and local authorities are primarily responsible for how our urban environments develop. The city planners who continue to expand and change the urban environment without ensuring public transport keeps up are failing in their obligations to people with disabilities and other segments of the public who can’t drive. In fact they hav let everyone down because they have created an environment in which people are really forced to drive if they are to do most things. They have created a self fulfilling prophecy: if people have no option but to drive if they can, then most people will have cars and they will expect to be able to use them all the time.

I don’t know to what extent politics has entered this issue, why National has now overturned Labour’s initiative, and while I do have my political views, this blog is not the place for me to air them. But in the end it comes down to this. There has been disinterest in and devaluing of public transport by successive governments and at both national and local levels for decades. We thought perhaps the recent sudden rise in petrol prices, the general economic crunch and increasing awareness of the environment had led people to recognise the true value of public transport to everyone, not just people who can’t or don’t drive. For those of us who depend on public transport, there was a real sense that at last things might be moving in the right direction. In fact, some of the initiatives that were to be funded by the regional tax were directly relevant to people with disabilities and would have improved the overall accessibility of public transport.

This latest announcement tells us that the power still rests with people who have little regard for public transport, and who just want to jump into their cars whenever they feel the urge and drive on an ever-expanding network of roads which we all must pay for. Yes, in the end, we all pay for it, either directly or indirectly, even those of us who don’t drive. The region will now have to find an alternative source of funds or scrap some of the plans altogether.

Somehow public transport is expected to pay for itself in a way that nobody ever expects of roads. Because roads in general don’t come with any direct income stream, our only way of assessing their value is in terms of the general public good, the idea that we can all drive freely on them so we all benefit. But it seems investment in public transport is often seen as an optional cost which tends to only benefit the poor or disadvantaged. It is only ever measured in financial terms and we fail to value it in terms of the general benefit to the public as a whole.

As long as this attitude prevails, people who can’t or don’t drive will not be able to participate to our full potential as members of today’s urban society. People with disabilities may no longer be in institutions, but we will be spending more time home bound if public transport does not catch up with the needs of today’s modern urban environment.

Sorry if this post is a bit long, but this is a complex subject. It also explains why it is several weeks since I updated the blog; I have just had to do a bit more research and give a lot of thought to this before I felt ready to publish. So here goes.

Sorry if this post is a bit long, but this is a complex subject. It also explains why it is several weeks since I updated the blog; I have just had to do a bit more research and give a lot of thought to this before I felt ready to publish. So here goes.

It seems to me that as technology keeps “improving”, it is actually becoming more difficult for blind and low vision people to do our business on the net. It should be the other way around because the net, if well managed, offers huge potential for blind people to do business in a way that is more inclusive than ever. So why are we heading in the wrong direction?

First, I give some examples of situations that are typical and which I have recently experienced myself, and then I comment on why we need more regulation of business websites.

I recently went to Parris for the Louis Braille conference. I’ve already blogged about that. I paid my own way. A few weeks before I was due to leave, I logged onto the Air New Zealand airpoints site, as I have done many times before, only to find that they had updated it with “Flash” technology, and now it was completely inaccessible to me. I was no longer able to check my airpoints balance or check if I was owed any points on recent flights. I complained to Air New Zealand, as I know at least one other blind person also did. They told me this week that they are fixing it so maybe it will turn out ok in the end, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Imagine if it was my bank that suddenly made its website inaccessible. Now that really would make me angry, and it is scary to think that in today’s environment, that could easily happen.

In another example, a shopping site I visit from time to time works with one popular screen reader I have (I’ll call it reader A), but not with another reader which is also quite popular (I’ll call it reader B). Without getting too technical, the site uses a website coding technique that makes certain menu options invisible until you track the mouse over them. The irony is that the reason why this site works with reader A and not B is because reader A actually reads the text which is not displayed, but it is not always desirable for a screen reader to read text that is actually not visible. The more technically correct solution is that this site could be easily re-coded to follow accessibility standards, and it would then work with both readers, with no detriment to sighted users.

In another example, the organisation where I work has a payroll kiosk that all staff are meant to use for checking payslips, applying for leave, etc. It has a main menu of categories, and within each category are a number of functions or things you can do. But for whatever reason the functions within each main menu option don’t display with screen reader A, ironical really since this is the same reader that displays text on the above shopping site that doesn’t work with reader B. However, by using yet another screen reader (reader C), I was able to see the functions I need, like access payslips. So now I know more about how this system works, I can now use reader A and advanced screen reading techniques to access these functions even though the reader doesn’t actually bring them to my attention.

At the risk of boring you, I will mention one other situation. I typically use Internet Explorer 7, but I sometimes need to use the latest version of Firefox. Sometimes a website has what they call a “capcha” screen in which you need to see an image on the screen, identify the distorted letters in that image and then enter those letters. Some websites do this to avoid automated programs from logging in. Sure, some sites offer an audio equivalent that some blind people can use, but this is not common and there are a number of technical problems inherent with that approach. There is a technology that helps blind people handle visual capcha screens but so far to my knowledge it only works on Firefox.

So what does this all mean? It means that no longer can I just rely on one combination of screen reader and browser to do my everyday business online. Carrying out my business on the net nowadays is increasingly dominated by hitting unexpected obstacles, and having to switch between browsers and readers to see if a given combination might work with a given website. Most of us have a clear preference for a given browser or screen reader, but there seems to be more situations now in which another browser or reader, which may be less preferred, actually performs better. I have two popular browsers and three screen readers at my disposal, but that’s just ridiculous.

We’re having to jump through more and more hoops just to get our business done. I say, enough is enough. Let’s get back to some basic principles. The internet is no longer for geeks. It is now a place in which many different people expect to do business. It is also increasingly expected that everyday people will do their business on the net. Think of all the TV ads nowadays that refer you to a website. How people manage these days if they don’t use the internet, I don’t know.

It is time now to regulate the behaviour of businesses on the net. Now I immediately hear people arguing that one of the greatest strengths of the internet has been its lack of regulation. I agree. But is it really true to say that the internet is unregulated?

The internet has not been regulated by legislation, but it would be wrong to think of the internet as unregulated. It has for a long time been controlled by the link World Wide Web Consortium often known as the W3C. This is the group that sets standards for the various languages that are the very foundation of the internet. The fact that your browser, developed by one group of developers, can go to a web page written by someone else entirely separate, and display it, is directly the result of the standards set by the Consortium. It is the fact that both can access the publicly available rules that can be found in one known place, and follow those rules, that makes the internet work. So yes the internet has been largely unregulated in a legislative sense, but its very success has been the result of a form of public cooperative regulation.

But what has changed is that there is increasing use of proprietary end to end technologies such as Shockwave and Flash to deliver business content over the internet. These are the technologies that require you to install a “plug-in” to make them work. Such technologies fall right outside the regulating influence of the World Wide Web Consortium. There is a very important difference between this new proprietary approach compared to the traditional standards based approach to the internet. The traditional approach effectively says: I have some content for you, and if your system follows these publicly available rules, you can read and interact with that content. You have the choice of using any browser that follows the public standards. In fact, if you have the skill, or access to someone else who has, you can create your own browser that follows the standards and access this content. The proprietary approach essentially says: I have some content for you, and if and only if your system has this proprietary software (the plug-in), and provided we use the proprietary tool to develop our website, you can read and interact with our content. You may have access to a crash hot programmer but you won’t have the information you would need to develop your own software to access this content. You can only access it if your system runs this plug-in. Sure it may be that popular browsers will be able to install the required plug-ins; after all, people wouldn’t develop such technology if it couldn’t be used by many users. But not only are plug-ins not always available on all systems, but also, at least initially, they almost always don’t work with screen readers. So this is not just a question of accessibility for people with disabilities, this issue can impact on users of less common browsers such as those that run on PDAs or even home televisions. Websites that use these technologies gamble that they will deliver a better experience for the majority of customers, and thus improve their bottom line, even if they end up locking out some other customers altogether.

To be fair, some technologies such as Flash (as I understand it) publish information to web developers to help them ensure their websites are accessible when using that technology, and they make information available so screen reader developers can make their readers work with them. But experience tells us that the developers of new technologies like this do not consider accessibility from day one. They come to it later, even if reluctantly, by the time many websites are already using it. Each new proprietary end-to-end technology that comes along just adds to an increasing multiplicity of separate protocols that our screen readers need to understand, and it is still up to the screen reader vendors to decide if they will invest in unlocking any given technology for blind users. So when a new technology is unleashed on the net, there is generally a significant time lag before the technology vendor builds accesibility features into it, before website developers learn to use these features, and before the screen reader developers even think of catching up, and during that time blind people are generally locked out of any website that uses that technology. Developing screen readers is not cheap, and we the end users of screen readers end up paying for that in the end.

The new technologies might deliver a great new web experience for some, but each one generally locks blind people out, and leads to its own set of considerations if business websites are to be accessible. The W3C on the other hand is the most well established standards setting body for the net, and it is committed to ensuring accessibility is built into their standards and guidelines. Even that doesn’t ensure that all websites are accessible, but at least we should only have one place to go to find such standards, and these standards are non-proprietary and freely and readily available to anyone. In theory they can be implemented by any browser on any system.

Now let’s draw an analogy to the physical accessibility of public buildings to people in wheelchairs, something that is very much taken for granted now and backed by legislation in many countries. These standards are the cornerstone of how people with disabilities expect to have full access to the urban environment. They typically define accessibility in terms of physical measurements that can be independently verified, the maximum gradient of a ramp, the minimum width of a doorway, etc. You actually don’t determine whether a building is accessible to people in wheelchairs by finding someone in a wheelchair who can or cannot access it, you determine it by independently verifying whether the building complies with known standards. Imagine where people in wheelchairs would be if we could build public buildings with extra steep ramps, but deem them to be accessible because someone somewhere makes a particularly powerful chair that can get up them. The person with an average wheelchair would be left outside in the cold.

And that is what is happening on the net. As a blind person, if you can stumble on the right combination of technology, you might be able to use a given website when it uses a proprietary technology that does not comply with the W3C standards. But is it fair to expect us all to have that magic combination of technology, or even to know what works and what doesn’t? You can see from my earlier examples, based purely on my own experience, that the right combination that works can be different for different sites. And given my long career as a software developer, I am probably amongst the most technically competent, so what must life be like for blind people who don’t have my level of technical knowledge? Well for many blind people, their negative experiences on the net have pretty much turned them off using it altogether, or they may only use it for the most basic tasks.

There is another important reason for standards. Suppose I take a human rights action against the owner of a website that I feel is inaccessible. Would it be reasonable for the other party to defend the action by demonstrating that the site is accessible if you use a particular combination of operating system, browser and screen reader? And then, even if that is true, and I don’t have that equipment, has the site still discriminated against me personally? Is any given site accessible or not accessible purely because some arbitrary person (expert or not) says it is or it isn’t? It seems to me that in the end, any argument over accessibility can only be settled fairly by a process of independent verification rather than someone’s personal judgment. If I am to argue successfully that a site is inaccessible, and hence that the owner may be breaching human rights law by discriminating against me on the grounds of disability, then I should have to show that a particular standard is breached. Ideally, this should not be a matter of opinion but a matter of independently verifiable fact. If the standards are met, then the website should be deemed accessible.

Let me be clear hear: I am focusing only on how we as citizens do our everyday business on the net. I don’t care if you put your personal diaries, blogs, photos etc up on the net in a way that is inaccessible. The issue to me is that people with disabilities need to be sure that we can do our banking, buy our groceries, pay our tax, and carry out all manner of other transactions on the net, if this is what people in general expect to do. If the net is now a mainstream place for people to do business, then businesses and entities that use the net in this way need to be regulated to ensure that everyone can carry out everyday transactions regardless of the equipment people have and whether or not they use a screen reader. These organisations are serving us as members of the public, and they are already bound by a host of rules and regulations that control how they do their business. Why should the net be any different?

The W3C publishes guidelines on accessibility, which is an attempt to assist website developers to ensure maximum accessibility of their content. In particular, link guideline 4.1 deals with maximising compatibility with current and future browsers, including assistive technologies. Developers are urged to not display “content that relies on technologies that are not accessibility-supported when the technology is turned off or not supported”. Although this statement is unfortunately a double negative, I think it means essentially that a technology should not be used if the content would be inaccessible without it.

But I would go further. In my view, no technology should be used on a website offering business or public services unless the standards that make it work are authorised by an agreed single body such as the W3C, are publicly available and readily implementable in any browser, and are inherently accessible to assistive technologies, or, perhaps, unless the technology is only used to provide an ancillary rather than a core function of the site.

There are those who argue that such an approach will kill innovation. One reason why technologies like Flash come along from time to time is because people feel there is a need for a web experience that the traditional standards can’t deliver. I don’t know how much merit there is in that, but the cynic in me says that one motivation for companies developing proprietary technologies like this is the hope of earning royalties from their use. They sell the tools to the website developers who expect to improve their bottom line by using such tools. But I say “Too bad”. I am experiencing more and more frustration on the net, and if that is the result of innovation, then let’s not have innovation. But actually, all I am calling for is agreement on some rules that will guarantee that people with disabilities can access public business websites as I believe we are entitled to do as citizens of society. In the environment I am proposing, I am confident that there will still be room for innovation; it will just be more controlled and thought through before it is unleashed on us, and hopefully it will be open and not proprietary.

Another argument against my view is that standards on their own do not encompass all the problems that can impact on how usable a site is. So a site can meet all the standards, and yet it can still be so hard to use that it is practically inaccessible. I acknowledge this but the appropriate response is to develop better standards and guidelines that we can all see, rather than allow businesses to use an increasing array of new and inaccessible proprietary technologies that essentially lie outside the standards altogether.

Yet another argument is that standards are only as good as the people who enforce them. Experience with public buildings is that many new buildings exist today that clearly don’t comply with the standards, and yet have been given a certificate of compliance. Internet standards are even less enforceable because no body exists to enforce them. My response to this is, if we have standards, then we must advocate for them to be enforced. The fact that standards may not be enforced is not an excuse for not having standards at all, because without standards, our arguments merely descend into personal opinion.

We now live in an information age and people with disabilities now claim that access to information is a fundamental human right. This principle is now enshrined in the link UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. What we need now is a clear principle in law that websites that deliver business and public services must comply with the web accessibility guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium. The Association of Blind Citizens has a group of people interested in technology who are doing their best to monitor this ever more complex situation so we can better advocate for what we need if blind people are not going to be increasingly shut out of tomorrow’s technology-based world. We need to develop policies on what website accessibility really means. I’m sure we’ll have more on this subject on this blog before too long.

Cheers, and why not share your comments.

Here we are in 2009 and it is now time for me to ensure that I keep this blog fresh and up to date, keeping you all informed on issues of concern to blind people in New Zealand and what the Association of Blind Citizens is up to. I will try to update the blog at least every week or fortnight.

Here we are in 2009 and it is now time for me to ensure that I keep this blog fresh and up to date, keeping you all informed on issues of concern to blind people in New Zealand and what the Association of Blind Citizens is up to. I will try to update the blog at least every week or fortnight.

Sometimes the blog will be rather personal, and that is the case this time. For me, this year began with a personal trip to Paris to share in the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille. New Zealand was actually very well represented by something like eleven people, with a number of us paying our own way just to be there.

So why was this so important? Because prior to the invention of the braille method of reading and writing, blind people were essentially illiterate and generally unable to be educated. Even Louis Braille himself, when he as a small child was allowed to attend his local school in Coupvray, was denied the opportunity to move out of the first grade because he could not learn to read and write. Various attempts had been made in different countries to come up with a system for blind people to read and write. Some books were made where the printed letters were produced in a tactile form that could be read, even if laboriously, and one system of reading and writing even involved tying knots in string. But in the end, only the system invented by Louis Braille succeeded, primarily because it was the fastest for reading and also because it gave blind people the ability to write efficiently. The essence of literacy is perhaps the ability to quickly write down one’s thoughts and ideas so they can be readily retrieved and built on. It was a pity however that his system only became well established long after his death.

The braille system for reading and writing is deeply significant for people like me who use it, but it has wider significance for blind people because it was critical to the idea that blind people could be educated at all. Nowadays we pretty much take it for granted that we have the right to education, and some of us probably don’t care much about how this came about. But for me, I saw this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to connect with the past and to understand something about the man who in his own lifetime could not have foreseen the difference his invention would make. It was particularly moving to visit the relatively modest Braille family home in Coupvray, and picture the life that Louis would have had as a young blind child growing up in that village. I reflected on how the various circumstances of the time came together to give Louis the very idea that led to his invention.

In today’s technological world, there is a lot of debate about the very relevance of braille, even amongst blind people. It is easy to understand how, 200 years ago, without a system like braille, blind people were illiterate. But is it fair to conclude that blind people today who don’t know braille are illiterate? Nowadays we can use computers and other equipment to store and retrieve personal information, which gives us what some would consider to be a form of literacy. There is no doubt that a blind person today with good keyboard and computer skills can go a very long way in life without knowing any braille at all. Given this, and also that some blind people are simply unable to learn braille because their fingers for a host of reasons may just be damaged, it is easy to see how some blind people view braille users as elitist, particularly when we might sometimes be evangelical about it.

I personally want to avoid evangelising about braille, but I still ask myself what is it about braille that is so significant, even in today’s world? I answer the question this way. Mankind invented writing many thousands of years ago. The ability to write down thoughts and ideas, whether on the walls of caves, on parchment or on paper, is inherently linked with the very development of language and communication. This is the very foundation of modern society, the essence of what separates mankind from other animals. Despite today’s technology, the humble book and pen and paper are still as ubiquitous as ever. So if sighted people aren’t trading their books and pens for computers that you can talk to and which can talk back to you, then what does that tell us about reading and writing? Whatever literacy means to us today, there is clearly still something very fundamental in the way our brains can directly connect to the written word without any intervening technology. The most recent example of this is the braille signs that have been in our taxis since October. Now when I get into a taxi, I can instantly and almost subconsciously read the braille sign on the door that tells me the taxi number, etc. Sure, we could have developed a technology to do that; I could bring out my hand-held reader and an RFID tag in the car would give me all the information I could ever want to know about the taxi. But for years of course there has been a visual sign in taxis to tell sighted people this information, and I don’t see society in general wanting to change that in favour of a newfangled technology to do the same thing.

I can understand that some blind people will choose not to learn braille and people can live very happy and successful lives without it. But as long as mankind is turned on by the direct connection with the written word without intervening technology, it seems to me that braille will have a unique status for blind people. Print is inaccessible to us. Braille is our form of writing. Call us elitist if you like, but we are no more elitist than the millions of sighted people who read and write print and who wouldn’t have it any other way. I guess if Louis hadn’t invented the system of writing that bares his name, someone else would have. But he did, and we thank him sincerely for that gift. At the time, it was the gift of true literacy. Whether that is the case today is a matter of sometimes strongly held opinion. But whatever term we can come up with to encapsulate that essential connection between the brain and the written word, that is the essence of what braille is for blind people, and there is no alternative. That is why we must ensure that braille remains the fundamental tool of reading and writing for blind people, and that all blind people have the chance to learn to read and write.