One Switch Mouse

Today we can make available a program for people with significant physical impairments, such as muscular dystrophy. One Switch Mouse was developed by Claro Software in 2010 and has generously been made available by them for free download from the WebbIE site.

Most of the WebbIE software has been based around screenreader users – typically visually-impaired or blind people. However, there are switch users of the WebbIE programs, and a few of the programs have been specially customised to work with switch access: using a dedicated single-clicking device instead of a mouse or keyboard, like a joystick or customised button.

Switch users typically have very limited movement. Progressive muscle wasting conditions like Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) can leave people only able to make very limited, very weak movements – perhaps only a head move, or finger, or toe, or mouth puff.

However, many of these conditions leave the user’s cognitive functions intact – you’re as smart and aware as ever, you just can’t move, or talk, or write. This is incredibly frustrating, of course.

One Switch Mouse tries to help. The mouse is controlled by using one switch, and timing how long you hold it down to control direction of movement and mouse clicking. You can move the mouse around the screen and left-click, right-click, double-clicking, and even hold down and select. In conjunction with an on-screen keyboard for typing you therefore have complete control of a standard Windows computer – and all using one switch. It even works on the Windows login screen and the secure desktop!

One Switch Mouse is free: if you or someone you know or support might benefit, do please download it and try it out.

Creating switch-accessible menus

The One Switch site, dedicated to creating accessible games for switch users, has written an article about how to create a switch-accessible menu.

A particularly interesting tip is “start one-switch scanning, then switch to two-switch scanning if the user operates a second switch”. This makes your program one- or two-switch agnostic – you are handling both use cases with a simple detection of a feature, rather than requiring another setting screen.

Of course, some of the tips might be detrimental for screenreader users (such as the typical WebbIE users). For example, many switch users benefit from menus or lists that loop – when you go off the bottom of the list you start again at the top. But screenreader users generally like to know when they are at the end of a list (WebbIE programs tend to play a sound to help identify the beginning or end) because it provides orientation, since they can’t see the screen, and jumping up and down the list is easier for them (usually by pressing the initial key for a menu item – which is a reason to alphabetically-order your lists). The key thing is to identify your audience.

Markdown

 

Many people with visual impairments (i.e. screenreader users) find it hard to use WYSIWYG word processors like Microsoft Word. One slip of the finger and SUDDENLY YOU’RE TYPING ALL IN CAPS OR ITALICS OR WORSE.

Sure, screenreaders can announce boldness and font and italics as you go, but given every character can have dozens of attributes and you need to get on with your writing Рthat is, you want to work on the actual text, not what it looks like Рthat quickly becomes unfeasible. But you want to work with more than plain text: you want to use font and bold and other rich text formatting, because people expect that and it can help with understanding for sighted users.

A better solution for at least one blind user is Markdown. This is a plain-text way of writing formatted text: you write in plain text, but you use a special subset of HTML to add formatting like tables to your text. Then it converts from your Markdown to valid full HTML documents, which look great in Word or can be easily converted to another format.

It’s not for everyone: many users would probably be better with some way of restricting the formatting they can apply so that they can’t go wrong. But for technical screenreader users it might be a way to create attractive formatted text far more easily.

WebbIE 4.2 – response to feedback

I’ve had some great feedback on WebbIE 4 – thank you all. This has resulted in two things:

First, it turns out that the USB stick versions of WebbIE have some strong supporters who use them in various teaching and support environments. I had anticipated the death of versions of WebbIE designed to run solely from a USB stick for what I thought were good reasons:

  • Microsoft Windows has made it increasingly hard to run software from a USB stick. It used to be that you could write some simple code and a program would launch just by inserting the USB drive. Now you’re likely to see nothing at all, and have to navigate to the drive – if you can find it – and launch the program by hand from Windows Explorer. There are excellent security reasons for this downgrading of the experience, but I perceived that it made the USB sticks significantly less usable and hence useful.
  • More generally, corporate and institutional security is getting better, so being able to walk up to a random computer, shove in a USB stick, and run a program off it is surely something of the past.
  • Having people run USB versions means that when a user runs into trouble I can’t be sure that they have the latest, bugfixed, working version. Sure, that’s fine for savvy technophiles. But often people with USB stick versions are the least technical: the system has been set up with the USB stick versions by a friend or support worker. The user has no chance of updating the USB version, and I have no way to trigger an update, even if I can identify that they need one. Very messy.
  • The new rewrite of WebbIE into the .Net programming language means that I can’t guarantee, as I could with Visual Basic, that the programs will run on any Windows machine as a user. You have to be an administrator to install the necessary .Net Framework. So the development of the WebbIE USB versions are stuck at version 3, so it will be increasingly hard to support them.

However, I’ve had various messages from people asking for the USB stick version, and making a reasonable case. They say that they use it for independent access, for (indeed) walking up to machines, especially in libraries and running WebbIE and for distributing easily around organisations. My worries about support are still valid. But if people find it useful, that’s great.

I’ve therefore linked directly to a zip file containing the WebbIE USB stick version on the front page of the website. This is WebbIE 3 and all its associated programs. I hope that’s useful for people.

The second thing is an update to WebbIE, now to 4.2. I’ve done lots of bugfixing, and tried to address the perennial problem of recognising when the page is loaded so it can be processed and the ticking noise turned off. More interestingly, I’ve made some changes again based on user feedback:

  • Print has always been in WebbIE, but I’ve never been quite sure what to print out when the user hits it: the text view, in large print and little decoration, so it can be read by someone with limited vision? Or the web view, so it looks like the web page as seen in Internet Explorer and can be shown to ticket inspectors and filed away as bank statements and the like? In WebbIE 3 I tried to print whatever the current view was, web or text. In WebbIE 4 I decided on printing the text view, but after user feedback it now prints the web view. This lets you get a perfect printed copy of the page for reference. Users can print the main text view by copying and pasting in Word or Wordpad, which saves me having to write code and keeps the number of printing applications down to keep things simple.
  • Favorites or Bookmarks have always been an important feature of WebbIE. These are shared with Internet Explorer. In WebbIE 3 they would appear if you opened the Favorites menu (Alt and A) and you could cursor down them. In WebbIE 4 I created a new “favorites homepage” that shows quick links to main WebbIE functions, like “open a web page” or “search the web”, followed by the favorites. The idea here was that you could just start WebbIE and cursor down to hear your favorites, without having to do an Alt key combination to get a menu up. That’s been very popular with some people, especially novice users. However, people usually expect web browsers to go to their online home page. Also, you can’t type letters to select favorites in a text area, because it isn’t a list: many screenreader users know to start typing the list entry they are looking for and it will be selected, which means they need some sort of list control. I’ve therefore allowed the user to select whether the home page is my favorites WebbIE page, or the Internet Explorer web page. I don’t like adding new options, but this is a generally known and understood one, and there are important different use cases. I’ve also added a new function, Show Favorites, on Control + B (for Bookmarks) that brings up a new window with the favorites in a list (actually a treeview to cope with folders) so a user can press B (in QuickKeys mode) and they cursor or type to get their favourite with ease. I hope the hybrid approach suits most people effectively: new users can use the WebbIE home page, more advanced users can use their familiar page and the bookmarks list.

Finally, a new beta version of R.S.S. News Reader is also up on the site, so do try it out and let me know how you get on! Soon I’ll be able to write new programs again, which will be fun.

New versions of PDF Reader and BBC iPlayer Radio

As part of the massive WebbIE re-write into .Net, I now have online new versions of PDF Reader and BBC iPlayer Radio. These are pretty much the same as the existing programs, of course. PDF Reader uses a different third-party tool to convert PDFs into text, but otherwise they are the same.

It’s taken me longer than I hoped, not because the programs themselves were too tricky to write, but because I had to change installer mechanism again. I had hoped that ClickOnce would give me what I needed: a simple per-user installation mechanism with built-in update mechanism. Most technical queries I get are resolved by updating to the latest version. But ClickOnce does not allow for handling file extensions (except for a narrow and unhelpful scenario) nor registering as the default browser. That means I had to rewrite the installer for WebbIE, again (it must be able to make itself the default web browser) and use the same techniques for PDF Reader.

So, making progress: RSS News Reader and Podcatcher next since they share so much code. I may have to pause and make per-program installers from the existing single-installer MSI, so that people can still get programs I haven’t moved to .Net if they really want them.

Updates to WebbIE too: you can make WebbIE the default web browser, and password inputs no longer show the passport (just the customary asterices.) Thanks to everyone for their feedback.

New WebbIE Development

Over the last two years I have been working to move the WebbIE programs from the old programming language they have been written in (Visual Basic 6) to the newer .Net. Users of NVDA and Thunder will find that the programs are easier to use and controls are better-labelled. The software will run more smoothly and reliably on modern machines, and be easier for me to manage.

This means that there are now new Beta versions of the new WebbIE 4 Web Browser and the BBC Live Radio program, which you download from here:

This is a significant change: for geeks think “Netscape to Firefox”. I’ve recoded pretty much all of it, which means many features have disappeared – unused ones, I hope – and some new ones have appeared, such as the start of support for accessibility features in HTML5. I’ll keep the old WebbIE installers and code around for anyone who wants them, but new .Net versions of everything will eventually be created.

I have also chosen to change how WebbIE is distributed. Instead of one single installer file, from which you can install whichever program you want, I am moving to different installers for each program. The main benefit of this is that this allows me to use a different installation system that will automatically update everyone when there is a new version: this will be a great help (especially for the BBC iPlayer programs.)

I will also be dropping some of the WebbIE programs, those which I think are least used. My plan is to drop:

  • Disk Explorer
  • Google Podcast and RSS Search
  • Gutenberg
  • I.E. Appearance Editor
  • Web Directory

This will eventually leave us with:

  • WebbIE web browser
  • The BBC programs
  • R.S.S. News Reader
  • PDF Reader
  • Clock
  • Calendar
  • Podcatcher
  • Radio Tuner

However, this depends on my doing a lot of work, so it might end up that more of the programs disappear, or are never updated. Which is fine if the old versions keep work: I’ll just split them out as separate installers for anyone who needs them.

So, please do try out the new Beta of WebbIE 4 and let me know of any problems or comments. Next time, details of what’s new in WebbIE 4.

Free AbilityNet/Microsoft training sessions on UI Automation

From AbilityNet: Creating Accessible Applications with the User Interface Automation (UIA) Framework11th and 22nd June 2010.

This free course will discuss and demonstrate how to develop accessible applications using the User Interface Automation (UIA) framework.

This is primarily a developer-focussed course, since it will include coding demonstrations (using C#). However, it may also be of interest to a wider audience who is interested in understanding the capabilities of UIA.

The course format will be instructor-led, with a combination of slides and coding demonstrations.

The course is initially scheduled for the 11th June 2010 with a second run on the 22nd June 2010. Start time is 10am.

Lunch will be included, and the course will completed by 2pm at the latest.

The course will be held at the Microsoft Technology Centre at the Microsoft UK Campus in Reading, RG6 1WG. Directions.

The workshop will cover the following areas:

  • Introduction to Accessibility & Assistive Technologies
  • Why make applications accessible?
  • What is User Interface Automation (UIA)?
  • UIA and Windows applications UIA and Web (Silverlight) applications
  • Testing UIA

To register interest or to book a place on this course please email courses@abilitynet.org.uk or telephone 01926 464860 \ 0800 269545 with your contact details.

Group meet-up at BETT 2010, London, 13 January 2010

The Assistive Technology Specialist Group will meet up at the AT Fringe during BETT2010!

When: 4.30pm for 17:00h Wednesday 13 January 2010.

Where: Special Needs Fringe, Olympia Hilton, 380 Kensington High Street, Kensington, London. W14 8NL

What: The new BCS Assistive Technology Specialist Group is meeting over the road from the huge BETT Educational Technology show at Olympia in London. Come along to hear a presentation by a special Mystery Speaker and then meet your Group’s Chair, Alasdair King, and many other group members to discuss our activities for 2010!

You may like to spend most of the day in the massive BETT2010 Exhibition at Olympia which includes a big Special Needs section and hosts a BCS stand before coming over to see the specialist Assistive Technology stands at the Special Needs Fringe over the road. At BOTH exhibitions there are lectures on Assistive Technologies throughout the day on Wednesday. (and on other days!) Admission to the BETT2010 show and the Fringe Exhibitions is FREE. Refreshments will be provided before our meeting starts, courtesy of the BCS. Our grateful thanks to Inclusive Technology for the use of the room. Any queries do drop me a line on alasdair.king@bcs.org.uk or call me on 07983 244 131.

Assistive Technology Specialist Group Mailing List

You can now subscribe to the BCS Assistive Technology Specialist Group mailing list for discussing AT and technology. We’re using Google Groups. You can join in one of two ways:

  1. Go to the website and enter your email address:Sign up to the mailing list with a form.
  2. Send an email to bcs-atsg+subscribe@googlegroups.com

¬†Alasdair will approve your joining, you’ll get an email, and you’re off! You can then send emails to bcs-atsg@googlegroups.com and they will appear on the list and go in the archive.