exclusion by language…

I’ve been sent a link reporting on an Accessibility Hack Event at Birmingham. This is a great idea – put together the people who are interested in accessibility. We should do this at Lincoln. Here’s a few comments on the blog post.  

The affordances of digital data have never been utilised effectively – it’s the optimum opportunity for ensuring equality of digital access but too often the theory gets privileged over practice and the opening promotion video by GPII is typical:

e.g. user is recognised at public access point and now sees large print on ticket machine = one happy user  but…. magnified text requires increased screen size – other wise you need navigational devices which then mean all the information can’t be seen at once… another e.g…..back of seat monitor on aircraft customised to suit user preferences – you can hardly see (or hear) these in the first place – so increased text size is not going to assist…

The ratio between content and monitor size is so relevant but easily overlooked.  I’m working with someone with macular degeneration whose family have bought them a new widescreen Acer laptop all set up to display large tools and text. But email via Windows Live is almost unusable because the screen size doesn’t support the chosen display size. Sounds obvious but unless you’ve tried it….

The idea of providing accessibility rather than having to  adapt to a standard environment has long been a dream of Assistive Technology users. This is why I’m so interested in the idea of ‘intuitive digital data’ which knows how to adapt to the device being used or ideally can provide itself in the appropriate file format as requested – something I believe we are working towards.

A keynote speaker at the event was correct in saying accessibility should be a right for all, and whereas most people see accessibility as about disabled people, it is actually about everybody – then they spoiled it saying the aim is to deliver the best website that is ‘accessible to as many people as possible, a website that is accessible to everyone would just be text, which would be ugly’.

This second statement is both contradiction and backwards step – accessibility is not about as many people as possible – it’s about everyone full stop – and a website which is accessible to everyone does not have to be plain text – that’s the reason text-only alternatives were dropped. A fully accessible website can have pictures and multimedia and interactive forms – it just needs to include the information to be given in alternative formats,  and all content to be correctly and appropriately labeled for screen readers.

An Accessibility Hack Day is a great opportunity to bring people together to talk about important issues. It’s in the nature of digital exclusion to be invisible. But the key issue the blog post raised for me is how the language was indicative of the current cultural shift away from the social model of disability – which sees the external environment as disabling by not recognising and providing for a diversity of requirements (digital disability is an ideal example where we have the technology to ensure 100% access but all the barriers are economic, political etc) and back to the old medical model of disability which saw the reason for lack of participation as being caused by individual impairment – be that physical, sensory or cognitive. It’s concerning how the language of disability is changing with references to disabled people rather than people being disabled by society – you may think this is being pedantic – but it isn’t.

The GPII video says ‘those of us with disabilities often run into a situation where the technology doesn’t work well enough to meet our abilities’. Another presenter refers to ‘people who are severely disabled with motor neurone disease’  These are examples of language use which need to be challenged. The Social Model calls for disability to be seen as something imposed on individuals by society – motor neurone disease is an impairment – and to call someone disabled by it is an example of the old medical model in action. I worked with someone with motor neurone disease whose used a computer for years. But the disease is reducing ability to move fingers and keyboards are designed with the assumption that we will only hit one key at a time.  With a keyguard in place, the computer can be used again (although it means a laptop remains inaccessible). 

The solution lies first and foremost in the external environment where the limitations of the technology are the disabling factor. Subscribing to a social barriers model is an essential prerequisite to enabling independence and social participation – in particular with ensuriong digital inclusion.  Technology can be empowering but the problems begin when perceived solutions derive from the viewpoint of the technologist – not the user – we have to step outside of our world and into the life-world of other people in order to experience the barriers to know how best to help remove them.

Finally – the disclaimer at the end of the GPII video sort of says it all.

The contents however do not necessarily represent the policy of the funders and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.  It would have been more encouraging if it had said Accessibility is the policy of the funders and you can assume endorsement!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *