Thursday, November 10, 2005

On Senior Bloggers

Very interesting headline - obviously blogging has created not only a wave but a stereotype. Take this story, for example: and check out the first line. Bloggers are typically "alienated adolescents and middle-aged pundits" - huh??

Obviously the stereotypes in our world still hit the extremes but with the blogging wave so strong and so popular, that description really surprised me. Blogs have been publicized so often and in such positive lights (the Iraq war bringing blogs to the forefront due to soldiers communicating this way; the hurricanes, mainly Katrina, bringing blogs to the forefront as "first-hand reporters" blogged their experiences - to name 2), the stereotypes have long since been banished.

But the story is interesting nonetheless. And I think it's written to not only show that blogging by seniors is breaking stereotypes but also that computer usage itself (especially the internet) is doing the same.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Online Relationships - when they work

By now, I'm sure everyone is aware that I not only sanction the validity of online relationships, I have a few of my own. Close friends whom I would invite into my house if they lived in the same city. People with whom I have talked with on the phone, online, in voice chats and in emails. People with whom I have made plans to meet (one was foiled but I have met others) and people whom I definitely believe I WILL meet - someday.

I wanted to tell of a relationship I had the pleasure of watching grow, and culminate in the ultimate of relationships. It began, for me, when I joined a large list group of rubber stamp artists. Linda was a "main character" on the list, someone who posted often and who was well-known and well reputed. Her posts were funny and poignant, informative and friendly and she welcomed me to the list when I posted a "newbie here" intro. Linda's nickname was "Giggles" - and I soon found out why: it personifies her bubbly self.

I soon found out the Linda had been undergoing treatments for leukemia and was posting from inside a plastic isolation bubble - unable to have visitors as the chemo had wiped out her immunities, she found solace in the company of others - online. Not only that, she is a very talented artist and I soon found out, firsthand, how talented she was when I participated in a swap of cards in which she also participated, and was lucky enough to receive a "Giggles original".

I found out that there had been a card-a-day campaign - unbeknownst to Linda, one of her friends had organized a round-robin where those who signed up sent her a card on their promised date, and that would ensure that she would receive mail every day of her isolation. The spirit on this list was awesome and inspirational and I did sign up and sent her a card of my own.

Then came Don - aka Peter Pan. Don had his own story - divorced, having lost a 13-year-old child to a tragedy (I never found out what, and never asked), he was NOT a rubber stamp artist. He and Linda "met" while she played trivia online, and he was usually in the virtual room in which she played. Don and Linda began to chat, began to talk on the phone, and became closer. It was a safe observation that they were becoming a couple.

Don moved from California to New Hampshire when he found a new job and a new life. On his way across the country, he stopped in Ohio - and stayed for a few days with Linda. Their relationship was cemented on that visit. But he had to go on, and she had to stay. Until she was diagnosed with a secondary tumor, a liver tumor, caused by all the chemicals in her body, and told that there were experimental treatments in Boston. She moved in with Don - who lives 45 minutes from Boston - and that was just the beginning.

I had the honor of attending their wedding in 1998, which took place at a rubber stamp artists' convention just outside of Boston (an annual convention at which I had met a myriad stampers from the online list). I not only attended, I was a bridesmaid and acted as their publicist. They knew this story was going to hit the news - the wedding took place DURING the convention, on the floor, and stopped the house in its tracks.It was truly an emotional happening for those of us who knew Linda and what she had been through, but the feelings were palpable in the convention center itself. As their publicist, I sold an article about the wedding to an international rubberstamping magazine, and it was one of their top-selling issues. The wedding had become a happening throughout the artistic community and across the 'net. When I talked with Linda and Don about this article, I asked what they wanted my perspective to show. Linda was very specific.

She said, "I don't want this to be a cancer survival story. I want it to reflect how I found friends and family on the Internet and how I met my husband online."

There were upwards of 40-45 people who came to Boston specifically for this wedding. We were from Canada (2 of us - myself, and someone from B.C.), all over the USA, and one person came in from New Zealand to witness this event. Linda wanted that reflected in the article, and I believe I did just that. The comments that I got on the article after it came out (via emails and the list) were all along the same lines: those who were there relived it; those who were unable to attend felt that they'd been there. And though the article was definitely a contributor to that, it was based on everyone who had watched this friendship become courtship, love, and marriage, via the exchanges online between Don, Linda and the rest of us.

This is only one incidence in which the 'net has brought two people together. It is by no means the sole example. In my own experience, I have been witness to many successful online relationships as well as those which have NOT worked. I have more to tell...but that will be in another entry (saving something for your suspense factor *g*).

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Community - The Definition

In (at least) one of our classes, and then individual group discussions, the notion of community came about. It was a stated concern that we are redefining the word along electronic lines, and somehow devaluing the face-to-face community sense that has been so longstanding.

This week's reading - the Markus article - defines community thusly:

A community is a group of individuals with some common interest and stronger communication flows within than across its boundaries

I'm heartened by this definition because though I see the concern of expanding the word "community" into electronic terms, I have felt the sense of community as a part of online groups. Traditional groups and communities are seen as such but so was "communication" seen as a traditional sense before the computer and even telephone lines overtook the old fashion pen-and-paper communications.

I think that as the world and technology continue to evolve, so will our definitions have to be broadened to accommodate the new abilities and standards we set for ourselves, whether or not we choose to partake of them.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Showcase - Part IV

Fictional Narrative To Illustrate Usefulness

The tools described here (and even those left out – the myriad tools available for the cognitively disabled as well as computer users with challenges in motor skills) would be very helpful in a school setting, whether that school were to be an elementary, secondary, or post-secondary setting. The practicality of this is not as feasible, however, due to the high cost of tools such as the Braille Readers and the implementation of screen readers into labs which might contain technology older than today’s standards (and we all know that school computer labs do not always hold the most cutting-edge technology). Instead, I have chosen to showcase the accessibility tools in a distance education setting.

Distance education is catching on as a palatable, viable and popular choice for those pursuing higher education. While not as widely available in primary or secondary education, there were numbers available for schools in the U.S. offering distance education for such students. The numbers were low (in 2002-03 approximately one-third of public school districts in a given region, where the number rose in rural areas) but no such numbers could be found for more recent years or Canadian statistics. However, distance education is prevalent for post-secondary studies, on into adult education, with major universities offering asynchronous instruction for full-fledged programs, selected course studies, or even some websites of major corporations offering modular courses “for fun and instruction” (as in the case with Hewlett-Packard’s Online Learning Center found at or even Barnes and Noble’s Online University which offers everything from book clubs to courses on computers, liberal arts, and life improvement – some paid, some free for the asking).

With the increasing popularity of distance education, the disabled computer user can now learn from the comfort of one’s home with the tools s/he needs in order to take full advantage of the offerings which are available. There are multiple advantages to computer-mediated communication and distance education for the disabled user. In an article by Margaret Debenham (2002*) she quotes H. Rheingold’s 1993 study where he cites two major reasons for CMC to benefit the disabled:

o Remove the initial challenge of having to explain a handicap to able-bodied people, thus enabling disabled people to be treated as thinkers and sharers of feeling in the same way as able-bodied people are

o Enable those with disabilities to join in a conversation with no greater delay in communication than other computer users. (Rheingold 1993)

She goes onto quote Coombs’s finding that in a CMC setting, disabled users were more likely to share personal information than if they were face-to-face with able-bodied users. It can be concluded that CMC removes the emotional barriers of perceived stigma in a disabled user’s world when s/he can communicate via the computer.

Distance education also means that a disabled user would have no transportation worries to compound the educational experience. Learning from the comforts, and safety, of home would remove the need and expense to travel to a campus or community center.

As well, those disabled users who are equipped with the tools to assist computer usage could now engage in self-improvement as well as academic courses, even peer-tutoring with other disabled users. It is certain that a new computer user who is visually impaired would need guidance as to what works and what does not, what tips and tricks are “out there” in order to facilitate usage of a computer when faced with those challenges. With these tools, their ability to be integrated with all programs from utilitarian to chat-based software, the more experienced user can now become mentor to the less skilled, perhaps intimidated, user who needs that extra hand to show him/her that yes, it CAN be done – despite the challenges, and due to the assistive tools. With these hardware and software packages, web designers’ awareness of accessibility standards, and distance education opportunities, self-esteem, self-confidence, skills and renewed enthusiasm will all become benefits to the challenged user, courtesy of enhanced and technological advances. As stated at the beginning of this showcase, the computer is no longer a luxury merely for those who can afford to use it for functional purposes; the computer is a window and doorway to the world at large, with the advent of the Internet and the social elements which have become so much a part of today's computing. Education has taken a turn in that direction, embracing and addressing the social aspect of the student as well as the academic, the technology as well as the textbook. Combining all these factors - sociality, academia, technology and the will to overcome challenges - this medium can soon become the smooth path for all users to engage in all types of computer-mediated communication and learning.

*Debenham, M. 2002. Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) and Disability Support: Addressing Barriers to Study. York: TechDis (HTML version) or (PDF version).

Showcase Part III

(I'm not crazy about the backwards order of these posts...but it'll have to do - such is the nature of the Blog)

Braille Displays

A Braille display is a device which does exactly as its name says: displays input and output in Braille. Connected to a keyboard, there are pins which will rise up and down, displaying text line by line (also known as “refreshable Braille display). Found at, these do not come cheap: depending on the model, the price runs anywhere from $2000.00 to $7000.00 USD.

The visually impaired not only include those with limited or no vision, but also those who have color blindness. This particular condition cannot be alleviated for computer users on the user’s end, but rather on the site developer’s side of the equation. In fact, for the Internet to be made accessible to all users – disabled or not – there are standards and conditions which are prescribed and recommended in order to include all groups of users in the equation. This will be discussed in another section.

For color blindness in particular, there is a website which will simulate the appearance of any website according to a specified colorblindness (Deuteranope – a form of red/green color deficit, Protanope – another form of red/green color deficit, and Tritanope – a very rare blue/yellow deficit). The page is found at and if you go to “run images” or “run webpages” at the left, the simulation is easily done. The results are quite enlightening and very relevant, as will be illustrated later in this showcase.

There are pages which can test a site for accessibility, to be outlined further in this showcase.

The Hearing Impaired

While computers are fairly “more” accessible to the hearing impaired than to the visually impaired (i.e. the hearing impaired have no trouble using a mouse or navigating a screen) there are audio cues and enhancements which help the user identify errors, task completion or need for input (AbilityNet p. 1*) Built directly into Windows XP, Sound Sentry is an assistive tool which gives visual cues to the hearing impaired. Also in the Accessibility package of Windows XP is Show Sound which, when enabled, has the programs display captions for the speech and sounds which are output by the programs on the screen.

Web Accessibility

The Internet has much to offer in its guidelines on accessibility. If a page passes the accessibility test, it can be much more user-friendly to those with visual impairments and in some cases, makes the difference between a viable page and one that is useless. As mentioned before, given the high visual nature of computer use in general, this impairment is the one which faces the most challenges and thus is the one to which more assistive tools are addressed in this showcase. The W3C (Web Content Accessibility Guide) has a checklist which can be found at - it is recommended that all websites be checked against this list for accessibility of content.

There are other tools which will evaluate web pages for accessibility. One such tool is called WAVE and is a product offered by the WebAIM site (Web Accessibility In Mind). WebAIM ( is a site which provides articles and utilitarian sites and tools specifically for the accessibility of sites. WAVE’s output is a graphical interface of a submitted URL (if you enter any URL on their page at as it assesses the content and design for accessibility. Not only is it interesting to check pages against the criteria provided, it is vital to the future of web design if designers are to keep in mind the increasing number of disabled users flocking to the Internet, now made more accessible through the use of tools such as the ones described here. According to AbilityNet, " An accessible website is a staggering 35% easier to use for every visitor!".**

*AbilityNet Factsheet, March 2005, retrieved on October 27, 2005 from

**AbilityNet Homepage, retrieved on October 27, 2005 from and based on a report from the DRC (Disability Rights Commission) Formal Investigation Report: web accessibility, April 14, 2004; found at and retrieved on October 28, 2005.

Showcase: Part II

Visually Impaired

For the visually impaired there are tools which bring the computer to life. Screen readers do exactly that – they are voice synthesizers which read the page displayed. There are a variety of programs which are quite comprehensible, and some which are completely impossible to understand. Screen readers will read what is displayed and what is typed. Several examples include:

LookOut – found at; you can try the sample voices on this site, and these are the some of the best ones that have come to attention thus far. They are still not natural-sounding voices, but are good tools to be used to aid computing for the visually impaired. The company puts out a different software package which translates the screen output to a Braille display (to be covered later in this showcase).

JAWS – found at; the “virtual showroom” with a short flash movie on some of the features offered by this program shows that this is a more extensive program, offering integration of its voice synthesizer with every type of application available, including chatware. JAWS offers a very clear synthesizer capability as well, with voices provided by NeoSpeech, found at This company offers many different TTS (Text-to-Speech) functions and a demo can be found on their website. JAWS provides for output to refreshable Braille displays in its package.

Window-Eyes will provide you with a challenge if you go to their demo and try to understand what is being said. Their product is found at and was not the most effective TTS program found. You will understand why when you visit and try to listen to the sound clips (hint: do so with closed eyes).

Home Page Reader, an IBM product, is another similar software package. Found at, there is a 7.5-minute clip from a PBS show which featured this software in a segment. Home Page Reader is more of a browser than a software package but its developer promises future improvements, such as Adobe Reader capabilities, and even using it for Flash media.

(cont'd next post)

Showcase: Accessibility for the disabled computer user

This showcase will be presented in several posts, so as to break up the length of it. While it is rather extensive, I have barely scratched the surface of all that is available to research in this field. I am piqued, and will revisit the topic often. Without further ado...

Accessibility tools for disabled computer users

The computer is no longer a single-dimensioned tool to be utilized for functional purposes alone. It has become, as we are exploring in depth, a place for socialization and socializing to happen. The computer offers many different facets to the individual, from the functionality of word processing, spreadsheets, calculator features, and agenda/calendar/datebook aspects, to the social aspects of chatware and voice chat. The Internet has afforded computer users tremendous ability to reach out across time and space, make new friends, keep in touch with old friends or faraway family members, and enjoy the excitement of mingling with others even as they remain in the comfort of their own homes.

But for a long time, the disabled computer user was prevented these affordances due to the various limitations placed upon him/her. Visually challenged, the hearing impaired/deaf, quadriplegic, even color-blind users were left out of the new revolution, unable to fully take advantage of the web at its best. Now, though, there are a myriad tools and sites to bring the World Wide Web home to everyone. For the purpose of this showcase, the challenges facing the visually impaired – given the nature of computing in general – will be the bulk of the research, while accessibility on the web will also be covered, and a brief note on hearing impairment and computer users who face those challenges. It would be impossible to cover all challenges facing the disabled in this one showcase but has sparked the desire to go on and do the research for future projects or merely for the sake of the knowledge. Technology is a burgeoning field, and accessibility tools are being developed just as quickly as the technology moves. There is a lot out there, but much left to go.

Accessibility refers to the ability for many types of users to be able to access the web (or computer software/tools) including those with disabilities. Not only are there tools in order to help the disabled, but there are rules governing pages on the internet, where those pages are specifically government and educational sites; these sites must follow the guidelines of the W3C, to be covered in this showcase.