I wonder how I would feel if….
I was chugging along nicely in my own little world, having raised a family who were doing all right, paid my bills on time and stayed the right side of the law – maybe I’ve got a garden or an allotment – a social circle of like minded friends and am enjoying a slower pace of life – then along comes yet another government initiative telling me I have to get online. What if I’ve visited one of those online centres and tried a computer but didn’t like it – what if I don’t have relatives abroad so don’t need emails and webcams – what if I avoid supermarkets anyway – and prefer to shop on my high street where I can get everything I need – what if my budget won’t stretch to a monthly increase for internet access never mind the setup costs of the hardware and then the maintenance and upgrades and virus software etc – what if I don’t want my life digitally transforming – what if I like being the ‘wrong side of the digital divide’ – what if I just don’t want to be online….
Blogs are fast moving and transient worlds. I didn’t agree with Martin Weller’s post about online academic identity – but by the time I’d reflected on a response he had also agreed it was too simplistic a definition – although for different reasons to mine. “Rather than suggesting your online and academic identities were one and the same” Martin writes, (here) “Your online academic identity will be a subset of your online identities.” Now the ways in which virtual environments allow us to play with and explore alternative identities have fascinated me since the days of MUDS and MOOS. If I were on Mastermind my specialist subject would be gender – a fundamental identity characteristic yet possibly the one we think about the least. So multiple online identities – along with awareness of danger and good management of risk – is where I’m at and I wondered if the risk of linking academic and online identity is that it both privileges and marginalises. Also when related to education it comes close to Fischer’s suggestion that the technologically illiterate teacher should be equated with a failure to read and write. Technology is only that simple to the technologists themselves.
The danger with conflating academic and digital identities is the assumption that one size fits all. We are currently awash with reports that promote digital environments; Digital Britain , the Edgeless University, The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age and assumptions that connection is the way forward. None acknowledge the difficulties of digital universalism. Sometimes I feel that in 10 years time I will still be saying ‘don’t forget diversity!’ I support virtual environments for the opportunities to widen participation across all aspects of life but many people need additional time, inclination, resources and assistance in access. In conclusion:
* I’m less concerned about the kudos attached to having an online presence.
* I’m slightly more concerned about negativity being attached to those who chose not to have one.
* I’m concerned most of all about those who are unable to participate in the first place.
The PM in his ”The Internet is as vital as water and gas..” article in the Times says in his final paragraph that ‘Digital Britain cannot be a two-tier Britain – with those who can take full advantage of being online and those who can’t.’
Considering this is where we are now, I watch the for the government’s next move towards digitising Britain with interest.
If you’ve ever tried to use an e-book you’ll know there are serious limitations; you need a reader, preferably portable; you can’t easily flick through the pages to go back to a specific sentence or idea, you can’t annotate the pages. E-books are increasingly being adopted across the sector and hyped as a cost effective solution to issues of space and availability. But let’s not forget that e-books are a visual medium and increasing digitisation of text is also increasing the digital divide and putting in place yet more barriers to participation.
Under the DDA public bodies are meant to enusre reasonable adjustments (so those with disabilities are not discriminated against compared to those without the same disability) in terms of access to services including libraries and information resources. But academic e-book publishers have no such requirements. As libraries increase their subscriptions to electronic resources so they are moving away from their duty to ensure equality. This issue was raised in a recent post on the JISC Mail Disabilities and Technology forum for Tech-Dis [TECH-DIS@JISCMAIL.AC.UK] where Simon Ball, Senior TechDis Advisor, describes improving the accessibility of ‘e-book and e-journal delivery software’ as a ‘priority area’. With no disrespect to TechDis, the words ‘horse’, ‘ stable’ and ‘door’ inevitably come to mind. It’s good to see that they are working directly with the RNIB on this. Rapid adoption of e-books across the sector reinforces the invisibility of accessibility legislation and how addressing the issues continues to be a ‘bolt-on’ exercise rather than integral to new developments.
As a society we seem to be increasingly failing our more vulnerable members. The recent statement by the PM (following the publication of the Digital Britain report), that that a fast internet connection is now seen by most of the public as “an essential service, as indispensable as electricity, gas and water” and the proposal to tax telephone lines to provide it, is a classic example of running before walking. Weakness in provision of the fundamentals is then compounded by public institutions such as the British Library whose digitisation of newspapers project has resulted in commercial ‘pay-as-you-go’ access to the nations history. Instead of climbing up towards greater integration and awareness of the need to cater for diversity, the needs of the socially vulnerable seem to be sliding back down into invisibility.
The Digital Britain Report was published on 16 June; the 245 pages necessitating some form of summary version. The BBC ran an At a Glance page and Comments from Experts, none of which addressed this missed opportunity to ensure those to whom affordable, efficient Broadband connection could have the greatest impact in terms of quality of life were given priority.
The RNIB response was a lone, but essential, voice.
“We are concerned however that neither people with sight problems nor disabled people in general are specifically mentioned at any point in the interim “Delivering Digital Britain” report.”
I’ve extracted some quotes that have particular resonance for the work I do supporting people with visual impairment to use computers and access the Internet.
In response to Action 17: Unless a service is affordable, it cannot be deemed accessible. Affordability is a particular concern for blind and partially sighted people, many of whom are among the poorest of the UK’s citizens.
In response to Action 19: This means that the issue of equipment accessibility has to be tackled. Too often inaccessible equipment, that assumes that the user can read on-screen information without providing a voiced alternative is the main barrier to uptake of services by blind and partially sighted people.
In response to Action 21: Many disabled people rely even more on public services than their non-disabled peers, for a variety of reasons. A blind person might well have greater difficulty in visiting their council, for instance, and would therefore benefit greatly from being able to access the council’s website. However, a recent EU wide survey found that only some 5% of public websites are accessible. RNIB therefore urges the government to take urgent action to improve the accessibility of public websites.
The need to address the accessibility of cost, equipment and content is a triple whammy that yet again fails to support the needs of some of the most vulnerable members of society. I struggle to understand how those with sight can so totally ignore the reality of those without this most fundamental of human rights.