Digital and Accessible Information: Accessibility for All
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Hertfordshire
Unit of AssessmentComputer Science and Informatics
Summary Impact TypePolitical
Research Subject Area(s)
Information and Computing Sciences: Artificial Intelligence and Image Processing, Information Systems
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Summary of the impact
Human-computer usability research within the university's Sensory
Disabilities Research Unit (1993-2002) led to the construction of
accessibility guidelines that are widely used, with an estimated reach to
a maximum of 30 million people in the EU. PAS 78: Guide to Good Practice
in Commissioning Accessible Websites and BSI BS8788 Web Accessibility Code
of Practice met 2010 web accessibility law in the UK and subsequent EU
legislation. Similarly, BS EN 15823:2010: Braille on Packaging for
Medicinal Products met UK, EU and International Standards for Braille on
medicine packaging. Further research resulted in award-winning guides for
blind users of Windows software that improves accessibility to work.
The Sensory Disabilities Research Unit (SDRU) was set up at the
university in 1993, with Professor Helen Petrie (now Professor of Computer
Science at the University of York) as Research Director until 2001. Its
high reputation resulted in the National Centre for Tactile Diagrams
(NCTD) moving its base into the unit from 1999 to 2002; Professor Petrie
directed both until 2001, with Dr Sarah Morley Wilkins (research
assistant, then PhD student, and latterly NCTD assistant director,
1993-2001) taking over as director 2001-2. Between 1993 and 2002 Professor
Diana Kornbrot (Research Advisor, 1993-present), five PhD students, a
research fellow, a technical officer and several research assistants
contributed to a series of accessibility/disability-related research
An EU-funded programme of research started in 1993 with the GUIB10, which
investigated access to general computer-based systems for older and
disabled people. The ACCESS11 project on web accessibility included the
first, and still one of the only, evaluations of the usability of the
international guidelines for Web Content Accessibility. MOBIC12 (Mobility
for Blind and elderly persons Interacting with Computers) and PAM-AID14
(Personal Adaptive Mobility Aid for the Frail and Elderly Visually
Impaired) both examined mobility aids; other Europe-wide projects
investigated common enhancement by touch or speech of common devices:
SATURN13 for smart cards and terminal usability requirements and needs,
and VISTEL15 (Visual Impaired Screen- based Telephony) for telephony.
Understanding the needs and capabilities of potential technology users is
a key component of any development process — a particularly difficult task
when the users have disabilities or belong to a different generation from
the developers. Our research employed behavioural investigations of how
both visually impaired and sighted people used technology to accomplish
their goals. People's actions when using technology `in anger' was the
main source of information for the development of evidence-based
guidelines. This performance information was supplemented by
self-reporting and focus group discussions.
The pioneering research with visually impaired people and its subsequent
findings therefore made a substantial contribution to understanding the
specific requirements for technology users with disabilities, particularly
visual disabilities, and older users of computer systems and the Internet.
Development using an iterative user-centred design lifecycle was another
key component of a successful design process. Our research articulated
this design lifecycle with older and disabled users, and provided a wealth
of examples of how to apply user-centred design methodologies with these
user groups. The methods were first applied to general web uses and
extended to the specific needs of museum visitors, followed by effective
Braille and tactile labelling of commercial products.
Several UK projects employing our methodology investigated other aspects
of technology use, including auditory, tactile and Braille aids, thus
providing a comprehensive picture of the needs and abilities of visually
impaired technology users. These included an evaluation of COMPAS, a
groundbreaking website developed by the British Museum.
Providing a comprehensive non-visual guide to complex software was a
further target of our user- centred research. Originating in Morley
Wilkinson's doctoral work, this research culminated in the first
non-visual guide to Windows software. The guide has been updated for every
new version of Windows, and is now in its seventh edition.
References to the research
All publications are based on Professor Petrie's or Dr Morley
Wilkins' work, some in collaboration with Professor Kornbrot, at the
University of Hertfordshire. The top three publications are indicated by
1. Petrie, H., Morley, S. and Weber, G. T. (1995). Tactile-based direct
manipulation in GUIs for blind users. Paper presented at the Companion on
Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '95 Conference), 428-429. doi:
10.1145/223355.223769 ACM ISBN 0-89791-755-3
2. Colwell, C., Petrie, H., Kornbrot, D., Hardwick, A. and Furner, S.
(1998). Haptic virtual reality for blind computer users. Proceedings of
the Third International ACM Conference on Assistive Technologies,
92-99. doi: 10.1145/274497.274515 ISBN 1-58113-020-1 **
3. Morley, S., Petrie, H., O'Neill, A.-M. and McNally, P. (1999).
Auditory navigation in hyperspace: Design and evaluation of a non-visual
hypermedia system for blind users, Behaviour and Information
Technology, 18(1), 18-26. doi: 10.1080/014492999119219 **
4. Ramsay, A. I. G., & Petrie, H. (2000). The tactile depiction of
visual conventions: The advantage of explicit cues. British Journal of
Visual Impairment, 18(1), 7-14. doi: 10.1177/026461960001800103
5. Colwell, C. and Petrie, H. (2001). Evaluation of guidelines for
designing accessible Web content. Computers and the Physically
Handicapped (70), 11-13. doi:
6. Kornbrot, D. E., Penn, P., Petrie, H., Furner, S. and Hardwick, A.
(2007). Roughness perception in haptic virtual reality for sighted and
blind people, Perception & Psychophysics, 69(4), 502- 512. doi: 10.3758/BF03193907
EU Commission (Telematics Applications Programme)
Six separate grants totalling £580,192 for work on the GUIB,
ACCESS, MOBIC, PAM-AID, SATURN and VISTEL projects. Collaborators included
the RNIB, NCR, MA Systems and Control Ltd (UK); Stuttgart University;
Trinity College Dublin; Phillips Consumer Electronics (Netherlands);
CNR-IROE, Telecon Italia (Italy); and other institutions and organisations
in Belgium, Finland, France, Greece, Norway and Sweden.
Three major awards totalling £165,700 to support UK higher
education students, including the Tactile Diagram Centre; and Higher
Education Reach-Out to Business and the Community.
The SRDU was awarded eleven smaller non-higher education grants,
totalling £158,500, from UK organisations including: the British
Museum; the Library and Information Commission; British Aerosol
Manufacturers Association; IT and Disability Alliance/National Disability
Council; and Microsoft Corporation (New Discoveries Award).
Details of the impact
The number of people with disabilities in the UK is estimated as 10.8
million, and the RNIB estimates that over 2 million people in UK have
sight loss. The beneficiaries of Professor Petrie's and her colleagues'
research are individuals with disability, predominantly but not
exclusively visual impairment. The impact of this work falls into one of
three categories: protective legislation and guidelines; producers of
goods and services creating better and more accessible products; and
products put into immediate use, such as the widely used Windows . . .
Explained guides. The impact reaches beyond Britain, as UK and EU
guidelines influence guidelines worldwide, and some of the resources
described below have been translated into many languages.
1. Web Accessibility Standards
The 1998 SDRU research on both the nature of accessibility and the
methodologies to be used in investigating accessibility later resulted in
Helen Petrie (by then at City University) being asked to undertake the
first Formal Investigation for the Disability Rights Commission into web
accessibility. The resulting highly influential report, The Web:
Access and Inclusion for Disabled People (2004), in turn led to the
Equality and Human Rights Commission with the British Standards Institute
developing PAS 78: Guide to Good Practice in Commissioning Accessible
Websites (2006) and subsequently the BS 8878:2010 Web Accessibility Code
of Practice (2010). Both of these documents continue to be widely used to
ensure that websites and services are accessible to disabled people — in
this context, `disabled' includes hearing-impaired, mobility-restricted
and dyslexic, as well as visually impaired. These standards are EU- as
well as UK-implemented.
2. Provision of Resources to Support HEIs, Businesses and
Initial University of Hertfordshire work conducted with the former Anglia
Polytechnic University on tactile mapping symbols produced the most robust
research evidence yet available on their use. This, together with work on
tactile graphics standards, resulted in the following impacts: an
invitation to Sarah Morley Wilkins to act as consultant and contributor to
the Braille Authority of North America and the Canadian Braille Authority
in 2010 on the development of major guidelines; her acting as lead UK
consultant on EU implementation of an International Standard for Braille
on medicine packaging; and a European standard being published in the UK
by BSI as BS EN 15823:2010 Packaging. Braille on Packaging for Medicinal
Products (2010). It is now in the process of being implemented as an
International Standard, with Dr Morley advising as the UK expert.
Morley Wilkins also led the creation of the UK Association for Accessible
Formats (UKAAF), a unified charitable company formed in 2009 and
responsible for accessible format standards. Heavily informed by the
SRDU's research, the association exists for the benefit of everyone with
print-disabilities. It has around 150 institutional and individual
3. Guidance for Non-Visual Information Systems
SDRU research has helped thousands of blind and visually impaired
computer users to make effective use of their PCs at home, in education
and at work. It has done so via a series of five internationally
successful books for users and trainers, authored by Morley Wilkins and
published 1995-2009: Windows 95 Explained, and subsequently Windows
. . . Explained guides for Windows 98, XP, 7 and Vista; and Window
Concepts: An Introductory Guide for Blind and Visually Disabled Users
(1995). These have been translated into Dutch, French, German, Hungarian,
Japanese and Russian. The RNIB website displays a comment from Rob
Sinclair, Director of Accessibility at Microsoft, that Morley Wilkins' Windows
7 and Vista guide is: `An invaluable resource for PC users who are
blind or visually impaired and a source of greater insight for readers
looking at the screen.' This sentiment is echoed by `DN', of the British
Computer Association of the Blind: `With the major changes to the
interface Microsoft has introduced into Windows 7 the need for such a
well- described guide is even more important for visually impaired
Morley Wilkins also delivered train-the-trainer Window Concepts courses
for many prestigious organisations in the UK and USA, and for overseas
blindness agencies setting up courses in their own countries, among them
Switzerland, Ireland, and Eastern European nations. Consequently, she has
become a world leader in the training of blind computer users.
In 2010, Sarah Morley Wilkins won the National Federation of the Blind
Grimshaw Award (2010) for her work on accessibility in a wide range of
settings, having earlier been awarded the SAP/Stevie Wonder Vision Pioneer
of the Year Award (1998) and the National Information Forum Getting the
Message Across Award (1998).
Sources to corroborate the impact
Reports and Supporting Publications
1. Web Accessibility Standards
BS 8878: 2010 Web Accessibility Code of Practice. (Arising from The
Web: Access and Inclusion for Disabled People (2004)
PAS 78: Guide to Good Practice in Commissioning Accessible Websites
- Copies of both are available on request
2. Provision of Resources to Support HEIs, Businesses and
BS EN 15823:2010 Packaging. Braille on Packaging for Medicinal Products.
Braille Authority website: lists Dr Morley Wilkins' role in US and
Canadian guideline formation,
PharmaBraille website: November 2012 announcement of Dr Morley Wilkins'
lead role in developing International Standard for Braille on medicinal
3. Guidance for Non-Visual Information Systems
Sarah Morley Wilkins and Steve Griffiths, Windows 7 and Vista
Explained: A Guide for Blind and Partially Sighted Users.
Peterborough: RNIB, 2009 (and later editions).
Reader comments about Windows 7 and Vista Explained, including
the quotes by Rob Sinclair and `DN' in section 4, can be found on the RNIB
and also on the `Feedback from Readers' page on Sarah Morley Wilkins'
website, along with a selection of other comments on her books: <www.winguide.co.uk/feedback/>
Corroboration from External Partners
Three individuals have agreed to corroborate aspects of the impact
outlined in this case study concerning British and International
Standards, and Braille packaging (names and contact details supplied