Digital divides had some publicity this week – the Guardian Professional Housing Network Blog (so if you’re not online you’re unlikely to have read it) ran a piece by James Grant from Joseph Rowntree Foundation called Housing should take the lead on digital and social exclusion. It calls for housing associations to empower tenants by providing internet connections. Great idea. It would certainly be useful and shame the comments are so few. Where are all the advocates for digital inclusion???? But once again, the answer to digital divides is being seen as access. While the article says almost half of those not online are disabled this is merely a statement with no solution. Anyone operating outside the standard MEE-Model of Mouse, Eyes and Ears soon comes up against the triple barriers posed by assistive technology; too expensive, too steep a learning curve and a WWW which is too reliant on visual access.
Yesterday I met the New Media Director and Web Content Developer of a local web design company, Strawberry, who have won the role of redeveloping the HERIB website. It’s a fantastic opportunity for them to get an up-front understanding of inclusive digital design which looks great while still being fully accessible to users with sight loss who operate a wide range of assistive technology. Broadly speaking, this divides into screen magnification and screen reading software – each available in multiple formats and all with a range of pros and cons. I was encouraged by their genuine interest but saddened by how new the concepts of people with visual impairment accessing the Internet were and how far the world of web designers is removed from the reality of digital exclusion.
Lest we forget – in 1997 at the very start of the WWW, Tim Berners Lee called for equity of access and participation.
“As we move towards a highly connected world it is critical that the web be usable by anyone regardless of individual capabilities and disabilities. The W3C is committed to removing accessibility barriers for all people with disabilities – including the deaf, blind, physically challenged, and cognitive or visually impaired. We plan to work aggressively with government, industry, and community leaders to establish and attain Web accessibility goals.” (Berners Lee, 1997)
My hope is that partnerships between organisations like HERIB and Strawberry, alongside the advocacy of those calling for greater awareness of the impact of a digital society and its subsequent digital divides, will prove to be the answer; a case of better late than never.
Berners Lee, T. (1997) World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Launches Web Accessibility Initiative. WAI press release 7 April 1997. Available at http://www.w3.org.