The nature of the work undertaken by DA2C has evolved over time, as computer systems have themselves evolved. The original collection, collation and dissemination model was developed and augmented to meet the needs of our clients, eventually morphing into a full support model. We are now changing yet again, shifting the emphasis onto the production of teaching and training materials both for our own use and to be passed on to other organisations.
The Early Years
DA2C started life when one of the founders, Ian Mackay, who was at the time working in the education sector, developed health problems which hampered his use of a computer. Ian researched the available hardware and software (programs) that would allow easier use of computers and built up a library of programs as well as a great deal of expertise on the subject.
Internet Based Services
Ian was approached by several disabled individuals and was able to offer them advice and copies of software to assist with their use of computers. At this time the educational establishments were linked by JANET (UK Joint Academic Network, set up using x.25 in 1984), however JANET was not accessible by the general public. The files were distributed by floppy discs, originally the new double-sided 5.25 inch (holding 360k).
Realising that the growing resource represented a potential asset to disabled people outside the educational establishment, Ian set up a dial-in bulletin board system called DaBBS (Disabled Access Bulletin Board System) in March 1992. Computer based Bulletin Boards were a popular way of making data more widely available using the standard telephone system. The bulletin board software was set up on a computer connected to a telephone line to which users could connect via a telephone modem (at that time the high speed modems ran at up to 1200 baud, roughly equivalent to 0.1 MB/S, on a good day). Ian was soon handling downloads from all over the world, many users dialing in at full telephone rates from as far away as the USA. The three most common locations for contacts were Stockport near Manchester (a 'local call' for the BBS), Scotland and the USA.
The commercial Wildcat BBS software was replaced by the freeware 'PC Board' BBS system in late 1992, since when we have maintained a bias toward open source and freeware as this most closely matches the requirements of our client base.
Direct Support Services
The Internet was made available for Public Access via commercial ISPs from the mid 1980s, individuals could pay a subscription fee to ISPs such as the US Compuserve and the UK based CIX (1988) and use a telephone modem to connect. At this time the Internet was mainly text based, broadly similar in use to the dial-in bulletin board systems. Usenet, a text based information exchange system based on topic specific 'newsgroups' had been developed in the 1980s, unlike the BBS and more recent web forums Usenet is a distributed model with no dedicated server, making it very robust. Usenet was soon developed to handle binary files such as pictures and programs and became the most common way of distributing software amongst the academic community.
The World Wide Web was developed by physicist Tim Berners-Lee to allow academics to more easily exchange information, this went live in a limited version in 1991, a year later they had re-written it using the C language, so it would run on many different types of computer. Berners-Lee had written the first 'browser' called libwww but at this time use of the Internet still required some technical knowledge. In 1993 the Lynx text mode browser was released (it is still in use today), at the time many computers did not have the ability to display graphics. Also in 1993 the NCSA Mosaic browser was released, the first 'point and click' graphical web browser, and the first browser that would run on many different types of computer. It was some time, however, before the Web replaced Usenet as the primary system for distributing free and open source (F/OSS) software on the Internet.
The release of Windows 3.1 in 1992 caused problems for bulletin boards and the Internet as it used Unicode in place of ASCII, however the 'winsock' method of connection to the internet made the process of connection much easier. Ian began experimenting with the use of the Internet as a distribution and contact channel in 1994, using the name Disabled Access to Computing (DAC) as a public internet-based service. The change in name was to clarify the separation of the residual work on DaBBS from the new internet based services. Initially the service was operated mainly via Usenet (responding to requests from other users by posting the program files to binaries newsgroups) but DAC began offering web based services on an experimental basis from late 1994. DaBBS (which had required a dedicated telephone line and number) was wound down and ceased operating toward the end of 1995.
By this time several people were involved with the DAC, most of them disabled individuals or carers with technical knowledge and experience to contribute. Ian had long been advising on hardware and at about this time we began collecting redundant computer equipment, allowing us to re-build the systems to suit our client's needs. This enabled us to provide bespoke computer systems to people who would otherwise not have been able to afford them.
DA2C (Disabled Access to Computing), the World Wide Web based service was launched in the Summer of 1996, coinciding with the establishment of DA2C as a charitable trust. This required us to establish written constitution and a bank account, which proved useful, as people were by this time insisting on making financial donations. This web based service allowed greater interactivity than the old Bulletin Board Systems, for instance we no longer needed to keep an actual copy of a program available for upload, we often only needed to provide a link to the original source.
In September 1996 Ian published the final edition of 'The DAC Guide', the comprehensive listing of useful software and extensive notes on disability related hardware issues. An abbreviated version was for some time available as a single downloadable text file, containing the complete listing of all the utilities and programs that had been available through DAC.
Training Packages and Support Services
At the time Ian set up DaBBS anyone using computers needed a modicum of technical expertise. By the mid 1990s computers were increasingly popular and the graphical user interface of the Apple systems had migrated to the Microsoft based machines in the form of Windows. This made computers (generally) easier to use and hence of greater interest to potential clients. The problem of the modicum of technical knowledge required for the absolute beginner remained however, so DA2C began building computer systems pre-configured for our clients and providing on-site ab initio training and follow up support. Ian produced the first NiMF (Non-installing Maintenance Freeware) CD in the mid 1990s, containing a range of tools and utilities with a user friendly front end (originally created in Delphi). These discs have proved very useful and 'pirate' copies have turned up in a surprising number of places. Over the years the NiMF discs have been constantly updated. We have had to evolve separate discs for different operating systems and update these when major changes occur in the operating system. The oldest branch is the Windows disc and we are currently using Version 9 of this disc, however NiMF is now a support disc for our DA2C Technical Support discs.
Workplace Support Services
The necessity for providing a basic introduction to the use of the machines, and providing on-going support for common tasks, was the origin of our training videos. Initially these were simple 'how to' clips created with the Lotus 'Screen Cam' software, however several of the DA2C staff are qualified and experienced teachers and we began developing our training packages to fully utilise the potential of computers. This has greatly reduced the one-on-one support required by our clients, although we realise the importance our visits have for some of our clients and we still offer on-site support if requested.
Internet Training and Support
By this time we were providing training and support for various charity organisations and some of our clients had found permanent employment, for whom we began providing support in their workplace. This assisted the clients (and often their employers) but it also allowed our disabled staff to keep abreast of developments in the commercial world and maintain their skills. The range of experience and skills we held allowed us to contribute some fairly innovative solutions.
Until the late 1990s most computer users did not require internet access, our clients were mainly trying to use computers to do productive work at home (for example one lady began producing paperback book cover illustrations). ISPs such as AOL charged a fee for internet access, and the actual use of the system was still fairly arcane. With the development of ever improving graphical browsers for the World Wide Web and the advent of low cost ISPs (starting with Freeserve in 1998, which charged only the standard price for a telephone call with no additional subscription fee), access to the internet rapidly became a standard requirement for home computer users.
The Internet was not originally designed with disabled people in mind and some aspects of its use by disabled people have required a distinctly lateral approach. For example, one client was requested to maintain a company web site, which they found a severe challenge. The site was little more than a catalogue however, with no on-line transactions required, so we built a version of their existing internal database to output the web pages directly. Our client then only had to master up-loading the revised pages to the server (avoiding the double-handling, or rather double entry of data, normally required by systems of this type).
One claim to fame in this area was establishing a methodology, using entirely free software, allowing a blind client to maintain a website for a disabled persons theatre company.
In the late 20th and early 21st Century more and more legislation has been introduced relating to the use of computers (The Data Protection Act, The Computer Misuse Act, The Copyright Act, The Freedom of Information Act and the Disability Discrimination Act). It therefore became necessary for DA2C to offer advice and guidance on these areas to our clients, in some cases we have been requested to provide full accessibility audits for client websites. A full audit requires a lot of staff time, the entire site is audited, problems identified and a number of optional solutions created along with notes on how these might be implemented (not all charities have qualified webmasters running their sites).
On occasion we have conducted audits for commercial or rather non charitable web sites in order to maintain our skill base. Normally we would make a charge for this work if done for a commercial organisation or educational establishment, however the client receives an extensive and well documented bound and extensively illustrated report with a CD containing a copy in accessible PDF format and any code elements required for rectification of the site.
The cost of computer equipment has fallen steadily and other organisations specialising in recycling computer equipment for charities have been established. DA2C are now much less involved in donated machines, maintaining a minimal stock of equipment and are no longer actively seeking donations of hardware or software unless of a high specification.
We have become increasingly involved in providing training and support for clients, and this is an area we feel is likely to allow us to best utilise our skill base. We are currently re-evaluating our training materials in order to re-deploy these utilising the features in HTML5 to provide a stable, standard and cross-platform service.
Our original Lotus 'Screen Cam' movies worked well on older Apple Mac systems and on Windows prior to XP, changes in those systems required a re-working of all that material. More recently we have had to monitor the changes made in Vista and Windows 7. The Linux operating system is increasingly selected by our clients, often on the basis of cost, occasionally for its more sophisticated features, but Ubuntu in particular is migrating away from the common Linux standards. All of this means we have an increasing requirement for cross-platform capability, hence the interest in HTML5.
We have a current research project into the use of computer based training by deaf and blind clients, who's requirements are often at odds with the current trends in computing. This has already thrown up a range of issues which we are seeking to address using our in-house psychology and teaching expertise in support of our computing skill-base.
At the moment we are concentrating on completing the restructuring of our training and support services and working with other organisations to make the fruits of our hard won experience as widely available as possible. Our current projects are more fully discussed on the Current Projects page.