On 14 June 2018, BrailleNet welcomed old and new friends to a celebratory event to mark its 20th anniversary at Microsoft France’s headquarters in Issy-les-Moulineaux. Guests were welcomed by Bernard Ourghanlian, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft France, and Bruno Marmol, President of BrailleNet. Microsoft has been a long-standing supporter of BrailleNet’s work, and its conference centre provided a fitting location to look back and take stock of achievements over the past 20 years in BrailleNet’s core areas: the web, digital reading and R&D.
BrailleNet: 20 years of digital accessibility
Dominique Burger, one of the founders of BrailleNet and its president until 2016, was invited to the stage to give a brief account of BrailleNet’s 20 year history. The idea for BrailleNet germinated just as France was embracing the new universal communication protocol known as the internet. Guests learned how BrailleNet grew from a small research project focused on developing an accessible web browser in the late 1990s, into France’s recognised authority on digital accessibility. Alongside professional training and support, BrailleNet provided the official translation of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and the AccessiWeb framework and methodology which became the basis of the French national web accessibility standard, the RGAA. In parallel, a number of initiatives were launched to improve access to reading through digital technology, first through the Hélène server and in 2012 through the BNFA digital library. Over time, BrailleNet became increasingly involved in European and international bodies (DAISY, W3C) and research projects, and through its regular workshops and annual European e-Accessibility Forum, gave shape and a voice to a growing digital accessibility profession. With a very small team at its core, BrailleNet’s success has relied on the development of solid partnerships across borders and agile cooperation between public and private stakeholders who firmly believe that digital solutions must be inherently inclusive.
R&D in the field of digital accessibility
There followed the first of the thematic sessions: Digital accessibility and R&D. Klaus Miesenberger, Professor of Computer Science at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, gave a dizzying account of the technological advances that we have witnessed over the past years. Going back a great deal further than 20 years, Klaus demonstrated that finding ways to support disabled users through technology has led to the development of many mainstream solutions that improve the lives of all (from Graham Bell’s telephone to more recent predictive text, speech recognition, and personalised interfaces). He also traced the genesis of a number of assistive technologies such as Braille display devices and the role that Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and user-centred design increasingly play in developing accessible solutions.
Pascal Guitton of the University of Bordeaux and INRIA and Philippe Trotin of Microsoft were then invited to join Klaus to discuss what the next 20 years might hold. Artificial intelligence and quantum computing were hallmarked as areas that hold great promise for digital accessibility. Inbuilt captors and automated tools will grow in performance and increase access to content and functionality, and new cognitive services provided by bots and personalised interfaces on fully inclusive devices are set to greatly improve user experience. R&D teams are also investigating the potential of inclusive gaming and mixed reality solutions designed to increase autonomy for people with disabilities. However, ensuring that technologists have access to sufficient accessibility training was flagged as one of the major hurdles that must be overcome over the next 20 years. Security, data privacy and ethical considerations will also be key challenges for companies and organisations working in this field.
Building a universal web
The second session of the afternoon focused on digital accessibility and the web. Shadi Abou-Zahra, Accessibility Strategy and Technology Specialist at W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) was invited to look back at the steps taken over the past 20 years to ensure that the ever-evolving web is as universal and inclusive as originally intended. Through the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG), the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) and additional solutions such as ARIA, WAI has provided digital professionals with the tools needed to build, publish and process accessible digital content from the get-go. The Web is continuing to converge with different technologies, devices, and industry sectors and people with disabilities are increasingly using mobile, web-based apps and connected objects in their day-to-day lives. Web standards and protocols need to accommodate the seamless connectivity that users now require to take advantage of the opportunities that an increasingly digitised environment offers.
Vincent Aniort of Orange and the Association des Paralysés de France and Eric Velleman, Technical Director of Bartiméus Accessibility Foundation, joined Shadi to discuss the future of web accessibility. They insisted on the need for robust guidelines, techniques and methodologies that support evolving technology, but also the need to design, build and test in close partnership with user panels that include people with disabilities. Virtual reality and 3D and haptic printing are likely to be game-changers in the coming years. But, again, the need for a solid grounding in digital accessibility is paramount if designers, engineers, developers, and ultimately users are to reap the benefits of evolving web technologies. At present there is a dramatic skills gap which results in accessibility being relegated to an afterthought.
Increasing access to books and reading through digital publishing
Jesper Klein, Project manager at the National Library of Sweden and Chairman of the DAISY Consortium Board was invited to open the final session on digital books and reading. Tracing accessible reading from the audio cassette, the magnifying glass and printed Braille books in 1998 through to the availability of natively accessible digital books, Jesper illustrated how far we have come over the past 20 years. The commitment and determination of George Kerscher, Chief Innovations Officer of the DAISY Consortium, was hailed as a driving force in this paradigm shift. The culmination of the work of the DAISY Consortium can be found in the EPUB 3 format, a feature-rich and mainstream format that makes provision for all accessibility requirements. Ensuring that, where possible, publishers produce born-accessible eBooks means that specialised adaptation agencies can concentrate their resource and expertise on making complex content accessible. There is, however, still some way to go, with only 5% of published books currently available to the print-disabled.
Jesper was joined by Françoise Fontaine-Martinelli who co-chairs the Accessibib commission at the national association of libraries and Luc Audrain, Head of digitisation at the Hachette publishing group. On the subject of libraries, it was noted that institutions are increasingly seeking to offer more inclusive services, but again a lack of sufficient training means that library staff are not always equipped to meet the needs of users with disabilities. Moving forwards, digital solutions must be simple, affordable, adaptable and discreet and take into account the needs of both individual and collective users by providing multiple points of access. Libraries have and will always have a social role to play and a duty to encourage dialogue. With regards to publishing, Luc Audrain reported that all of Hachette’s eBooks are now systematically checked for accessibility using the DAISY quality assurance tool (ACE), and that this will necessarily push other publishers and digital book service providers to follow their lead. Legislation has provided the much-needed incentive to push for this step change. Efforts must now focus on how to process complex content such as educational resources and text books. Guidance is also needed to ensure that the end-user understands what is available on the commercial market, and how to use technology to take full advantage of these publications.
And what does the future hold for BrailleNet?
BrailleNet will continue to build and maintain a solid network of national and international partners, in both the business and non-profit sector, and to provide user-centred tools and services based on the latest scientific and technological advances.
BrailleNet’s ambitions for the coming years
Accessible books and Reading
- Open the BNFA to people with learning disabilities
- Widen the network of contributing organisations to international partners
- Develop robust tools to improve productivity
- Concentrate on complex content to better meet the needs of students and scholars
- Support publishers in their efforts to create and distribute natively accessible digital books
- Support adaptation agencies in their work through tools and technical support
- Build a network around accessible digital publishing, with the creation of an annual event in partnership with Enssib (next event 17 January 2019)
International standardisation activities
- The WCAG 2.1 were published on 5 juin 2018 : BrailleNet is a candidate to coordinate the official French translation
- Integrate WCAG 2.1 into training courses and progressively into the certification scheme (AccessiWeb label)
Adoption of European directives
- Support efforts around the online public services directive
- Support efforts around the access to goods and services directive
Professional support through the AccessiWeb working group
- Develop collaborative tools
- Develop a knowledge base
- Open the annual AccessiWeb meetings to all digital professionals (next event 17 October at the Cité des Sciences in Paris)
Research & Development
Complete current research projects
Explore new areas of digital accessibility research
- Artifical intelligence
In France, digital accessibility remains a little-known field. The need to raise awareness, to bring professionals together around very practical issues and to provide effective tools and methodologies is acute. Providing quality training and opportunities to champion best practice will help to widen the circle and support efforts across sectors to build fully inclusive products and services.
There is much to be done!