sue watling

Treatment for a recurrent sight condition renders me temporarily visually impaired; a situation that can last for weeks, even months. Details get blurred and out of focus, there are no sharp lines or clear distinctions. Because it affects one eye more than the other I can manage but the lived experience of being denied access to text and images and video – albeit instructional, informative or for fun – is both challenging and informative. I realise at first hand how short term simulations may give a temporary insight but can’t replicate the unified whole – it’s the gestalt principle in action. Computer simulations show the part but they can’t show the sum of the parts. They can’t represent the levels of tiredness and the exhaustion of trying, the frustration of not achieving and the isolation of missing out on what everyone else is sharing. You think you know what something is like but to adapt the adage – it’s no good wearing someone else’s shoes – you have to walk in them too.

I suspect that with visual information; in particular digital data, we design following a ME Model (MEM). If we can access it then we assume others can too. We also resist change in practice. Habits get engrained. I’ve listened to a screen reader repeat file names for a pictures that tell the user nothing about their content yet if I know that if I’m in a hurry then I’m equally guilty of not adding meaningful alternative text to digital images.

There is a paradox in educational technology where the potential to widen access is undermined by a dependency on inclusive design. As the use of virtual environments increases, so the gap between public policy and private practice grows wider. Digital data reflects social and cultural norms and lived experience. Those who create and upload content are often influenced by their own needs and requirements rather than anticipating those of their audience. Access to this information is then limited by the forms in which it is made available. This approach disadvantages users who are unable to access electronic data available only in single or fixed formats. Legislation alone is not enough to outlaw discriminatory attitudes. Promoting inclusive design involves challenging perceptions in order to make explicit the rationale behind the need to alter existing practice. As Jane Seale says in eLearning and Disability in Higher Education (2006) if the responsibility to be proactive is not more widely adopted then the same educational technology that is used to widen participation will in itself become a restriction.



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