Examination of Witness (Questions 325
WEDNESDAY 8 MARCH 2000
325. Good afternoon, Mr Twitchin. It is very
good of you to give us your time and come before us. We will run
for just over half an hour, if that is all right with you. Thank
you for the paper which you have supplied to us in advance, which
we have all had time to read. We also have a paper from the RNIB,
to which you made reference, so it is possible you may want to
pick up on some of their points as well as some of your responses.
Turning to the eEurope paper and their activities in Europe, I
wonder if you would like to prioritise for us, as you see it,
the major issues which should be pursued.
(Mr Twitchin) I find it very hard to
pick out priorities but I think there are three which really strike
me as being absolutely key. One is the issue of taking account
of the requirements of older people. I think that is a very serious
omission and perhaps I can come back to that in more detail. The
other top priority I would see is making sure that the requirements
of students with special requirements or disabilities are taken
account of in a project about young people. The third one I would
say would be the making of websites, the adoption of the website
and accessibility criteria. Those would be the three.
326. Thank you very much. May I take your third
one first of all and ask if you could develop that a little bit
further, because I spotted it in your paper and in the RNIB's
paper. I am not fully conversant with all the aspects of it.
A. This is one particular project. The Web Accessibility
Initiative has actually done a lot of work in looking at the criteria
that enabled people with sensory and mobility problems, obviously
particularly people with visual impairment, to be able to understand
the information that is being presented on a screen essentially.
One of the problems is that recent research on the World Wide
Web, which was done in America, suggested that probably only about
10 per cent of sites were reasonably intelligible to somebody
who was actually having to use a reader to interpret what is on
the screen, which they are not able to see. This is a difficulty
for people being able to understand the information and being
able to bring it up in a format which they can read; the possibility
of putting things into large print and so on.
327. Has anybody tried to do any work on this
either in America or Europe?
A. Yes. The WAI, which is referred to in the
RNIB paper and which we have quoted, there is a lot of work being
done on this. There are some very good standards which are being
produced and guidelines for web compilers, but there is a great
need for the sites to be looked at and revised to come into compliance
with those standards.
328. This is a topic which we might explore
ourselves as a possible area to support.
A. Very much so. Yes.
329. Could I, before I open it up to my colleagues,
move on to the issue of accessibility and standards for disabled
people. At present, most access is through PCs. The word is that
increasingly we will be using mobile telephony and also using
TVs for going on to the Internet. My eyesight has deteriorated
in recent years at about the same pace as the size of mobile phones
has decreased. If this is to be possibly the major modem of entering
into the Internet in the futurefor most people certainly
it is a way in which people across all classes can probably get
easier access to the Internet than having to buy PCshow
will this affect the disabled people, unless there are standards
laid down there which make them easier to handle?
A. There are two issues. There is the issue
of standards, which is absolutely key: that it is possible for
the information, which is being presented in these formats, to
be then reinterpreted and produced in other formats. Perhaps the
obvious one is that output which would have come out in text.
There is an interface so that this is able to be printed in braille
to put to a braille reader. That is one example. So there has
to be those protocols to enable that to be done. There is another
issue, which is a very great weakness at the moment, which is
the availability of suitable terminal equipment for people, particularly
people with sensory impairment, to be able to access these services.
It is a great weakness of all the current provision that access
seems to stop at the socket in the wall for fixed services. There
is no powerful requirement for there to be equipment (within the
range of terminal equipment) which meets the needs of disabled
330. What about mobile phones then, about the
size? They are very much fashion items these days. Has any work
been done to try to ensure that they are user-friendly for people
A. I would not say that no work has been done
but certainly I do not think that satisfactory results have been
obtained. Take one example. There are only a very small number
of mobile phones which have keyboards, which would obviously be
of tremendous assistance to people who use text phones. With one
of those mobile phones with a keyboard it was possible for that
to inter-work with the text phones, which are the normal means
for people with severe hearing impairment communicating, but you
had to buy software for this phone which cost another £250
in order to be able to inter-work with text phones. There is a
real gap here which is not being met. Could I perhaps expand on
that slightly because an argument, which is often used, is that
if there is a niche, the market will exploit that niche; will
meet that need. But I think the problem with mobile phonesand
this applies to quite a lot of parts of information technologyif
the market is expanding so fast there is no need to go for difficult
areas of the market unless there is an obligation to do so. We
are going to be in that situation for some while. So I distrust
arguments that there is no need for regulation. There is a considerable
331. This is an area where we might spent a
little bit of time thinking about it; where there might be some
case for lines being laid down for manufacturers.
A. Yes. One of the difficulties in the way in
which current European legislation has been put together is that
it has separated out the provisions of terminal equipment from
the provision of telecommunications services and so it has been
very difficult. A large number of groups have been trying to work
to get provision made, but it has not been possible. We have been
doing a lot of work with the DTI and so on, but the work we have
done so far has not extended as far as mobiles. Mobiles have been
excluded from the current area but even in terms of the fixed
line communications we have not yet been able to sort out the
332. But mobiles are supposed to be the coming
thing, are they not?
A. Yes, absolutely, and are particularly important
in terms of security links. I think if you were trying to identify
groups of the population for which mobile phones could be very
important indeed, disabled and elderly people would be those groups.
333. You have already started to answer my question.
Having a partially sighted, computer-literate brother-in-law,
I am well aware of the problems of blind and near blind people.
It is also perfectly obvious that if you have sensory impairment
in your fingers, it will be difficult to use keyboards and mobile
telephones. Nonetheless, voice recognition input is very much
a fact of life although, of course, it is expensive because you
need to have much more capacity in your machine. But voice recognition
outwards, as yet, I have not come across. Does it exist? It obviously
A. It exists in embryo. There is a lot of work
being done. I would say we are still some years away from getting
a really flexible system. There are systems now which will recognise
a small number of words from different voices, or a large number
of words from one voice with training. This is something that
this is developing fairly rapidly, but I would say it is medium
rather than very short term.
334. In the meantime, what other problems are
there, either with software or hardware, for the groups of disabled
persons that you and I have not mentioned?
A. The one glaring one we have not mentioned
so far is the interference between hearing aids and mobile phones
and also, we ought to say, digital cordless phones, which are
becoming more and more frequent in office environments and so
on. The current digital cordless causes a lot of problems. There
is only one model of mobile phone I am aware of which has addressed
this issue. You can purchase an induction loop to wear round your
neck to enable you to use this model mobile phone, but the loop
is £50 on top of what is a relatively very expensive model
mobile phone, so it is expensive. One of the things which is quite
frustrating is that if a mobile phone has the aerial at the other
end, away from the ear piece, the interference is much less. There
is one model which has the aerial at the opposite end from the
earpiece. Apparently, hearing aid users find that is usable by
them, but this seems to have been just a matter of a design fad.
The needs of hearing aid users were not taken into account when
this model was created. So it is serendipitous.
335. The problems are principally hardware rather
A. I think apart from the problem we have spoken
about earlier, this compatibility between the technology of keying
on mobile phones and text phone working, I would say, yes, hardware
is the main problem.
Lord Cavendish of Furness
336. I wish I knew more about this area. Does
your organisation deal with mental disability when it coincides
with physical disability?
337. I am simply relying on some experience
I had once with the mildly mentally disabled, combined with physically
disabled, who always seem to lose out in society. Is there a case
for saying that a great deal could be done for the mentally ill
and, if so, can you expand on that.
A. I do very much feel that is true. Perhaps
I could just briefly say that DIEL has a responsibility to advise
the Director General of Telecommunications on the needs of all
disabled and elderly people, which does very much include people
with learning disability as well as people with all kinds of physical
disability. Yes, there is tremendous opportunity for structuring
both equipment and the way in which information is provided to
help people with the learning disability actually to interact
and get the information they need and to obtain the services they
want. This is perhaps a slight digression but in one of the areas
that is mentioned in the communication is smart cards. There is
a tremendous possibility here for a smart card, which defined
the kind of requirements of an individual, so that when the smart
card was introduced to the system it realised that they needed
a simple interface, or large print, or whatever it waseven
down to symbols, perhaps, in some cases. I do think this is one
area where there is tremendous potential. One of the points which
has come up though, which is fairly basic, is a need for people
to be able to access a human being easily if they need to. I think,
just from the example of the kind of phone-in systems which are
employed by organisations at the moment for elderly people, people
with learning disabilities, people who have difficulty with communicating,
people with manual problems in punching buttons, it is so frustrating
when there is no option in your first half a dozen menus to speak
to a human being.
338. Leading on from that, rather as I remember
the enormous difference which was made when the word "ineducable"
came out of the language, it really had a dramatic difference,
is this the same also with this category of mildly disabled who
could, in one's own experience, probably have useful civilian
lives but also be employed. A lot of these problems we are dealing
with, e-commerce in this whole world, the problems we are talking
about are not new. They are old ones. Is this category recognised
as such? A group of people who seem to fall between two stools.
A. In practice, yes. Certainly there is a continuum.
That is an interesting point. It is an area probably that has
not had an enormous amount of attention. In terms of using computers
for education and training packages, a lot has been done to cover
the whole spectrum, and particularly computer based learning can
be very good for people who need more time to go through a process.
So in that area quite a lot of work has been done, but one of
the difficulties is linking it into this tremendous movement and
making sure that what has been learned in those areas is picked
up and applied in this whole area.
Lord Cavendish of Furness: Very many thanks.
339. Thank you very much, Mr Twitchin. I think
this is absolutely fascinating. There are two things I want to
ask you. First of all, there is this Web Accessibility Initiative,
which was referred to by my Lord Chairman in his opening comments,
the WAI. Obviously this is in the category "a good thing".
There are lots of things which are in that category "a good
thing" and nobody does anything about it. If you had the
ability to do something about it, what would you do? Instead of
throwing buckets of money at it and making it available to everybody,
do you in your work and in all the research you have done have
a wonderful idea of what Governments or the EU or somebody or
something could do to help on this WAI? If the world were your
oyster, what would you do?
A. First of all, I think one would make sure
that all Government and Government-related sites adopted these
principles. I would like to have, taking you at your word, something
on the lines of American compliance ideas, that Government would
deal only through sites which had these standards.
1 The witness subsequently added the following:
On consideration, I think my first priority should have been that
the requirements of disabled and elderly people should have been
specifically included in all the key action areas identified in
the Communication. Targets for the inclusion of disabled and elderly
people in the initiatives planned should be included in all the
key action areas. This is the only way in which disabled and older
people's needs will really become part of the main stream of e-commerce
development rather than an afterthought.
There should, however, also be more specific and inclusive targets
set for the specific action area targeted at disabled people.
These targets are listed in my written evidence and that submitted
by the RNIB. Back