Some experts argue that disabled people should be given computers to avoid a digital divide between those who have access to IT and those who do not. Brian Layzell, chairman of BCS Disability Group, looks at the issues.

Free computers?

Digital inclusion is a concept much talked about these days, but what systems and services do people really need if they are to take part in our information rich society?

First of all we need to define what we mean when we talk about providing kit to disabled people. Do we mean a computer in every home? Do we mean everyone at work having a computer to use? Or, do we just mean access to email and the web?

As far as computing at home or at work is concerned, it is not necessary to provide the most expensive state of the art PC. For about 99% of the population a basic off-the-shelf system will suffice, the cost of which is falling and will continue to fall. It is around £500 plus VAT at the moment.

If we really mean access to email and the internet - which I suspect we do - then we need to address these needs differently.

At a very basic level, it is possible to provide communications without a conventional computer system at all. You need a telephone, a TV and a set top box, and since most homes have the first two, the actual cost of giving all who need it the third item is very small indeed.

The real cost lies in the connection and dial up charges. Here is where wide scale broadband roll-out becomes more important, in terms of speed, ease of connection and lower costs. So any form of central provision needs to address what is actually necessary at a lowest common denominator technical level.

There are also the problems with device convergence and miniaturization. This is the philosophy of combining things like mobile phones with computers, PDAs, cameras, camcorders and so on. But how may of us actually need all of those features as a necessary part of our daily lives?

Added to which is the design element of making such devices smaller so that they are elegant to carry, make good conversation pieces, but conversely are a difficult to use for almost anyone, not just those with limited finger dexterity.

If we ensure people are digitally included, does that automatically make them socially included? Not necessarily, because unless they are competent in using the technology, they will probably be worse off than before.

If social inclusion is affected by digital inclusion, then it follows that the information and communications technologies industries, and the relevant professional bodies, have to encourage the practice of inclusion by design.

If inclusion by design is practised as well as being preached, we should see the related issues of accessibility and usability being properly addressed. But they are not the same and should not be confused with each other.

It is perfectly possible to achieve near perfect accessibility - as defined by national and international standards - yet offer poor usability.

There is a simple bottom line to all of this: for information to be usable it has to be accessible, and thus it has to have some joined up thinking on how it is designed, presented and delivered. The kit has to be there and be affordable.

The communications technologies have to be there and be affordable, and the services have to be coordinated. It just needs joined up thinking.

Better services?

Norfolk County Council is the first local authority in Britain to use software that enables staff to talk to deaf people in sign language.

Screens at Norfolk County Council's information centre in Norwich have been equipped with a system called Vanessa which uses an animated figure known as an avatar to translate English text into British sign language.

Clerks at the centre can respond to enquiries about council services by selecting one of 200 pre-recorded replies that is then signed onscreen. British sign language, whose constructions are very different from English, is a first language for many deaf people.

'People with disabilities are very high on our list of priorities,' says Alan Tidmarsh, Norfolk's eservices and efficiency director. 'Although we can book (human) signers for specific services it is not possible to provide a signer for every information centre.'

The introduction of Vanessa could herald wider use of avatars to communicate in British sign language.

If trials in Norwich prove successful, the council will introduce the system at six other information centres around the county and at local schools, libraries and offices where the public interact with council staff.

The avatar, called Guido, is also being used on a website run by the charity Deaf Connexions to help visitors fill in forms.

Guido was developed at part of an EU-funded program called e-Sign which involves eight research organisations across Europe, including the University of East Anglia, which developed a notation to describe the avatar's signing movements; Televirtual, a Norwich firm that the designed the figure itself; and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People.

The avatar, which comes complete with five o'clock shadow and a tight fitting T-shirt, was created by filming a human signer and translating the gestures into a series of symbols.

Researchers converted the symbols into a computer language that animates the avatar. Signing gestures are complex because they not only include arm movements but posture and facial expressions as well.

'Traditional methods of animating virtual humans involve dressing people in cumbersome body suits and can be very time consuming.

With our sign language notation, experts can use a standard PC to prepare and fine tune the animation,' says John Glauert of the University of East Anglia's School of Computing Sciences.

So far, the research team has produced a vocabulary of some 500 words and phrases, each of which can take up to 20 minutes to create. A similar German project has a vocabulary of 5,000 words.

Scientists have not been able to create a system that translates English text directly into signing by an avatar. This means that avatars cannot sign website text on the fly so for the moment esigning has to be pre-recorded.

However, many applications of the technology are still possible, for example to provide signing translations of public announcements at train stations and airports.

The Post Office has already used a system called Tessa to provide information in its branches.