Please read this…

Blogging again with more examples of digital exclusion – this time about the continual need to update. Many people are using computers with Windows XP and Office 2003 and there’s nothing wrong with that –  if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But browser software is different. We are recommended to upgrade for security reasons but Microsoft are not considering users of JAWS screen reading software. JAWS is the market leader. In proficient hands it offers the potential for ‘as good as it gets’ access to the Internet; the only barrier being the design of the websites – and your browser. The latest version of JAWS is 12.0 It’s been out for some time and there’s a known incompatibility with IE9. Last week I upgraded someone to 12.0 and phoned the supplier’s support desk for the latest information – still incompatible. That’s a discrimination against users of JAWS. But it gets worse. I also upgraded someone from IE7 to IE8 because their antivirus software recommended it. This is a user of an older version of JAWS 8.0. Result? Jaws stopped working. You could get to a webpage but then got the message ‘page has no links’. Answer? Jaws 8.0 is incompatible with IE8. This is where the discrimination becomes exclusion. To upgrade from JAWS 8.0 to 12.0 costs £330. How affordable is that when you have no sight and no employment?

Access to the Internet is an integral part of our daily lifestyles and working practices. If you are isolated at home then email and websites become a vital source of communication and information. The problem is digital inclusion is related to social capital and no one cares if you are digitally excluded if you are already socially marginalised and disempowered. Assistive software should be free. The argument which web developers use to excuse their lack of attention to accessibility – it’s only for a small minority of the population – should be extended to people with sight loss – who have the most to gain from being digitally included. If it’s such a small proportion of the population then it won’t be a big deal to ensure they have the software they need to get online – will it?

lest we forget….

While protests are in the news there’s another – more invisible – coalition led disaster which is causing exclusion and distress on a daily basis. This is the government’s attitude towards people with sight loss who are struggling to operate in digital environments because of insufficient action to ensure digitally inclusive practice and accessible web design. As the government moves towards the online-only provision and management of welfare it’s doing nothing to challenge the increasingly visual nature of the Internet and digital designers assumptions of a narrow range of access criteria (i.e. everyone uses a Mouse, their Eyes and Ears – the MEE-Model). This is making it difficult to impossible for users of assistive technology, in particular screen readers, to have equity of digital access. At the same time it also ensures denial of participation in the public sphere where the platforms for debate and dissent are increasingly digital ones.

Digital discrimination is already a serious problem and will become even more critical as more services look to online provision believing it will increase efficiency and cut costs. Assumptions about access need to be challenged; not everyone can operate an out of the box laptop bought from a local supermarket or a high street retailer and the way in which the government is choosing to ignore this is an issue which needs to be made more public.