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Activities (continued)

The web development team promoted the site extensively online, using optimised search engine submissions to full advantage, individually contacting over 150 organisations both online and offline to explain the project and inviting feedback, displaying the site prominently on their own website, and requesting links from other relevant websites that would be used to generate further interest from their own user groups. We also used cluster groups mainly from university managed e-groups set up for specific user groups.

The most prominent links on external websites to the Self Direction website were from:

· European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP)
· Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB)
· Royal National Institute for the Deaf (RNID)
· Department of Education and Employment (DfEE)
· Disability Rights Commission (DRC)
· Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC)

Although these organisations did add links to their own sites directing their users to the Self Direction site, it should be noted that the most useful links that generated higher interest leading to valuable feedback came from smaller, specialist organisations some of which were from as far afield as Singapore, Sierra Leone and Canada.

The Self Direction website was accepted as an entry into the Stockholm Challenge - one of the highest ICT awards for innovation, and described as the Nobel Prize for IT. Although the project was not actually selected as the Challenge winner, the Director of the Stockholm Challenge stated:

"I find your online project most worthwhile, and I can only encourage you to continue the work you are doing. In time, you will move forward from the research and the impact of your project will grow as anyone would expect from the motivation you communicate."
Professor Alfonso Molina - Director, Stockholm Challenge

The Project was also one of the packages that North Devon College took to Sweden as part of a mobile display at the end of April 2001, which was also funded by ADAPT.

As a direct result of the innovatory aspects of the website being recognised by Eric Fries Guggenheim, Director of CEDEFOP, the Project Manager of the Self Direction Community Project, Gaye Hutchison, was invited to speak at a European Conference. The Agora (as the Conference was called) examined the issue of Vocational Training for people with mental impairment and those with learning difficulties, and was held in Thessalonika, Greece. It also examined future European funding for initiatives that serve to create inclusion for people with impairments wishing to become employed. This conference was attended by European economic advisers and policy makers, MEPs, a representative of the European Disability Forum, an internationally acclaimed film maker highlighting inclusion for the severely mentally disabled, and other project managers and workers throughout Europe who all have an interest in creating a fully inclusive society.

Jeremy Hurst, the Business Director of Slightly Different Ltd., was also invited to speak at an ICT Industry Conference in London by Francis De Larringa, Director of the Internet Society of England regarding the subject of Internet Accessibility.

Findings

This project, although innovative, did not result in as much feedback as anticipated. Many organisations were keen to see this research progressing, and were encouraged by the project that was underway, but were unwilling to become directly involved. Some organisations were protective over their own research into the area of online accessibility, while others were affronted that a small grass roots project could consider undertaking such a task as Self Direction is not a large academic institution and as such does not have a large academic budget.

One difficulty which was not foreseen was the negative impact of the online marketing being carried out by the Internet development team. Many disability related e-groups saw this as 'spurious advertising' although after one such comment in the early stages of the project the mention of the company behind the scenes was removed from all e-mails and also from the website. This feedback was as a result of many other unscrupulous companies deliberately targeting disabled Internet users and misleading them into visiting sites that were not only inaccessible but were purely just vehicles for the merchandising of their own products. It proved extremely difficult to encourage anybody to visit the site on the strength of an informative e-mail without any endorsement from other 'trusted' Internet sites.

Internet Accessibility is promoted by a number of major institutions and organisations throughout the world but many just provide lip service to this in a transparent attempt to be seen to be politically correct. This is both detrimental and damaging to the Internet and disabled communities who both seem to regard accessibility as a subject that has been something that is worked towards rather than ever achieved. Our claims of achieving true accessibility, while true, were met with scepticism, derision and, on one occasion, public hostility which was unjustified but understandable given the so-called accessibility of many organisations that should know better. This detrimental feedback caused a fall in the morale of the project teams, and at one point the project was in danger of being suspended because sufficient interest could not be generated from the major target group that it had set out to assist.

One side effect of the project was that many institutional and organisational websites were found to be inaccessible, even though they were displaying the WAI and/or Bobby accessibility logos. All of these organisations were contacted and informed of the confusion that they caused by displaying the logos, not least of all among the visually impaired community who use this system in conjunction with screen reader technology to navigate around the Internet. Not one organisation amended their website as a response to our comments which provided an indication of how little online accessibility is regarded by such people as the Disability Rights Commission, for example.

Some feedback was extremely positive. A few large organisations were enthusiastic and showed reserved support in our research, presumably because they were unwilling to be seen to support something which may not have worked, therefore many expressed an interest that they would become more publicly supportive in the future if the project eventually resulted in success.

The most positive feedback gained was from small grass-roots level organisations who were enthused by the ability of a project in the same state of development as themselves to achieve global recognition for the research carried out on online accessibility. The majority of these organisations were not based in the UK which was an interesting statistic, and would indicate that the UK is not regarding online accessibility as seriously as it should. Part of this problem lies with the UK Government, who have not addressed the issue of online accessibility to date, while the US Government on the other hand have cited the WAI guidelines in official Federal legislation.

The majority of the links from external websites to the Self Direction website were made from small companies and organisations, the most notable of which was undoubtedly the Disabled People's Association of Singapore that generated the most traffic to the research site.

Individual support was also evident, although it became apparent early on that the login procedure, while being accessible according to the online verification systems, was not accessible by virtue that individuals, regardless of whether they have a disability or not, are guarded about providing personal details online. The login procedure was implemented to allow the project team to collate statistics and gain more valuable information including age groups and types of disability, which would then have enabled a projection of the level of interest and ability of the population as a whole amongst specific target groups as listed in the ADAPT guidelines. The login problem was identified, and it was decided to remove the login barrier which in itself was proving inaccessible, in order to invite wider participation, although it was recognised that this was at the expense of a full statistical analysis of the project target group.

A much better response was generated amongst individual site users after this change was undertaken. Many people visited the site and left positive remarks, with the average 'mark' for the site being a resounding 9 out of 10 both for content and accessibility of information. The majority of site users re-visited the site on semi-regular occasions leaving their continued feedback regarding the latest site changes, which improved the morale of the project teams, and provided encouragement to implement new ideas some of which were suggested by the site users themselves.

Some internal evaluators with severe learning difficulties and low self esteem were enthused by the positive reaction to their comments resulting in visible changes to the website. Two people from this client group underwent training at external venues with the intent to improve their communication skills and widen dissemination about the website to other groups within the community.

In order to reach the target group locally, traditional training workshops were used providing modules of Disability Awareness issues to obtain feedback about those modules that could be converted to online interactive training packages that could then be purchased by companies for training their employees in the future. It was necessary to provide training for the trainers who will go on to provide training to the target group as identified in ADAPT guidelines.

The hard copy feedback received was very supportive and indicated that training packages placed online would need to be user friendly, succinct and humorous to be effective and maintain trainee interest.

In order for the future development of online training modules it has been necessary to identify appropriate sources of funding. Applications are currently underway to develop the content, to enhance the project through progressive research into the use of advanced assistive technology, and to mainstream the project through the use of e-commerce.

The work initiated under the pilot project has the potential for replication in the field of online training. The needs of the market have been measured and these findings are of value for taking the project further. The mainstreaming of online training will provide a more cost-effective way for employees to receive training without the necessity for them to leave their place of work for extended periods of time, ensuring productivity that would otherwise be lost to the employer.

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