captcha by golly wow – another boob by the beeb

Captchas have always been exclusive; firstly it took time to convince  designers an alternative to the visual code was necessary and secondly when audio options were finally provided they were next to useless. If you haven’t tried an audio captcha then you should. They are typical of the tokenistic attitudes which underlie the majority of web design and development. I don’t know what’s worse – content provided in a single fixed format or an alternative version which doesn’t work.

The BBC has come up with the worst alternative yet. Try emailing an article (I tried with an article about pulling the plug on the NHS e-records system after 9 years of failures – I thought the synchronicity was apt!)  To complete the email link process you need to use a captcha. When you select the listen option a QuickTime file opens and initially it sounds good; for once you can actually make out what is being said – but once you’ve listened you realise file has taken over the window with no way of return to the original page where the captcha was in the first place. Nice one BBC. Did you not think to try it out on anyone first?

Better late than never?

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

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.

JISC World

Income generation has become the new job criteria and on the line between Desirable and Essential it feels closer to the latter. The JISC Digital Literacies Call4 was my first experience of seeing through a bid application from start to end – or should that be ‘start to send’ – when the final process is an irretrievable click. Pressing the send button on an email is the digital equivalent to dropping the letter into the post box – something else from the analogue world to tell our children about! A colleague said the other day there’s no excitement about the post arriving any more and they’re right. Another human activity has been replaced by a virtual one. Communication defines us as human yet we are using more and more inhuman ways of interaction.


But back to JISC World and the business of ensuring we engage effectively with increasingly digital ways of working. JISC use the definition of digital literacies as the capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society. We added ‘constantly changing social practices’ to this because digital literacies are more than digital activities. They’re about who we are and we are work in progress. We never quite finish being who we could be. Instead, we’re continually evolving,  living mostly in a state of getting there rather than arriving. After two weeks of living with a JISC Bid I still see digital literacies more as unique individual characteristics than sets of skills or abilities (although of course these are component parts). What has become clearer is the enormity of a whole institution approach to what our bid describes as ‘enabling enhancing and embedding digital literacies’ at Lincoln. A strategy for digital inclusion will be a challenge but I’m confident it can be done. Defining digital literacies as social practices brings in the key higher education attributes of critical thinking and reflective practice. To be critically digitally literate is to be socially responsible. I see this as a real opportunity for an integrative approach across the university, not just computer science and social science coming together but for all disciplines to find common digital grounds supporting genuine cross-departmental partnerships.

Giving by HM Government; a fairy tale

Government is promoting cultural change. They’re calling it social action. Otherwise known as giving. They have ‘new technologies at their disposal’ and ‘insights from behavioural science’ with potential to show how ‘obstacles to giving can be overcome’ and ‘tap into our motivation to give’ (p7).  Giving is government’s green paper designed to make givers of us all.

Government recognises it can’t compel people to social action – no, it has to be built from the bottom up (p7) a reference it’s hard to take seriously.  Social action is what local organisations and communities do already –have always done – and will continue to do regardless of the latest government smokescreen for cuts – known colloquially as the Big Society.

Back to the giving report. Don’t worry if giving isn’t your thing. Government recognises that some groups ‘face different barriers to participation’ for example barriers ‘associated with health or disability’ or ‘a lack of time due to caring responsibilities’ (p10). If you identify with these barriers, please don’t think you’re being excluded from any extra-curricular ‘social actions’ on top of your day to day struggles. Government will ensure ‘opportunities to give that are accessible for all’ and what’s more they’re ‘excited by the potential for this created by new [Internet] technologies’ (p10)   

Don’t have the Internet? It’s not a problem. But don’t get too excited. Government won’t provide it, you’ll stay digitally excluded. They’re just going to use more ‘traditional methods of providing information’ (p11) about opportunities to give. And don’t go worrying about any lack of ‘organized social action’ in your neighbourhood. Government will ensure those living in less active communities receive the support they need to ‘galvanise’ that social action into happening.

Not yet convinced that giving is for all and all are for giving?

Government has saved the best till last. They tell us (and you can feel the smugness seeping off the page) ‘Spending money on others, including charities, makes us happier than spending on ourselves; we get something back – the ‘warm glow’ that comes from giving.’(p15)

So you heard it here first. Get out there and get giving. Regardless of your personal situation, your health or your lack of facilities, giving will make you make feel good about yourself. Why? Because ‘evolution has endowed us with a social brain that predisposes us to reciprocate acts of kindness (p15).

We’ve also evolved to recognise bullshit when we see it…

Hat-trick – all talk and no action?

It’s been a busy few months for e-accessibility. You could be excused for missing the Single Equality Act  October 1st because the media seemed to miss it too. The Act significantly increased responsibility on information providers to ensure their online content is accessible for disabled people; so it can only be a matter of time before a successful exposure of the inaccessibility of 99% of public websites to access technology – can’t it?

Next: the e-Accessibility Action Plan: Making Digital Content Available to Everyone on October 12th. This reminds us e-Accessibility is essential as the government delivers more and more services online  (Universal Credit anyone?) and will ‘ensure accessibility, affordability and equal participation for disabled users in the digital economy’

Final player in this triptych: BS 8878:2010 Web accessibility – Code of practice on December 7th.  The BSI says it’s the first British Standard to address the growing challenge of digital inclusion Hurray… but then identifies the excluded as being the disabled and older people Boo…..

Two issues here. Firstly the government appears to be moving further away from Labour’s explicit linkage of digital exclusion with existing categories of social exclusion. The UK National plan for digital participation included low income households, people with no formal qualifications, single parents, new immigrants and those living in geographically remote communities alongside older and disabled people (2010:13) as groups likely to experience digital exclusion. Secondly the new trend of linking disability and older people is worrying; it’s a blanket expression that implies ‘not part of the workforce’ therefore not contributing to the economy. The message that inclusive practice benefits all is missing.

The social model of disability was a giant step for individual rights to participation but the original meaning (an individual disabled by society not by themselves) is being diluted and the ‘society’ part forgotten. Slowly but surely we are moving back to a deficit medical model. Boundary lines are being redrawn and the label ‘disabled’ continues to imply exclusion through unwelcome difference. We need to fight this discriminatory mergence. The Papworth Trust write 83% of people  disabled by society acquire their disability in life; they are not born with it. All of us however, will get old.

and another gear…

All year I’ve been talking to anyone who’ll listen about government plans to discriminate against non-internet users. About how the words ‘online-only’ services appear in very small print inside the coalition’s Digital Manifesto. Following last week’s announcement (and blog post)  that Universal Credit will be managed online, further plans have been revealed.  BBC News reports Martha Lane Fox saying  “Government should take advantage of the more open, agile and cheaper digital technologies to deliver simpler and more effective digital services to users, particularly to disadvantaged groups who are some of the heaviest users of government services.”

Yet the previous government’s Digital Inclusion Action Plan  recognised that groups already socially disadvantaged and marginalised are also likely to be digitally excluded. “…the dividing lines of social equality are closely aligned to those associated with digital exclusion; age, geography, educational attainment, income, motivation and skills, disability, ethnic minority” (DCMS 2008:12).

The Guardian reports Cabinet Office officials saying “.. the full savings will only be felt if everything is moved online. Leaving even a small percentage of print registrations would be “prohibitively expensive”. Then they say not only will “getting rid of all paper applications… save billions of pounds” but “insist that vulnerable groups will be able to fill in forms digitally at their local post offices.”

No doubt they’re thinking of those  ‘vulnerable’ groups living in residential care who have lost the mobility allowances which enabled them to get to the post office in the first place.

It’s possible that if the government is serious about seeing “bridging the digital divide as a key economic priority.” something might be done about the barriers to access; namely the cost of assistive technology, the need for appropriate training and support and the inclusive design of digital data. But they’ll need to be quick. The Internet is fast becoming an increasingly visual medium with reliance on mouse navigation the default. This discriminates against a multiple diversity of those already trying to engage with digital living never mind the 9 million identified as yet to go online. 

Money saved is less likely to come from the switch to online transactions and more from people being unable to claim in the first place.

Digital exclusion steps up another gear…

I used to worry about landfill. I still do. The long term consequences of poisoning the earth with plastic and polystyrene are still unknown but can’t be good for our future. However, that’s a different subject. I worry as much these days about digital exclusion. I worry because the Internet is an increasingly visual environment and designers are ignoring diversity more than ever; as in the abandonment of text only/alternative websites and the move towards having one website for all. Tesco is the prime example. They quietly dropped their ‘accessible’ site in the summer. The result has been frustration and disappointment for users of assistive technology, used to shopping online, who are now struggling with an ‘inaccessible’ environment. The issues escaped mainstream media. That so few people know about this is indicative of the veil of invisibility that surrounds digital exclusion issues.

I’ve been talking about this; to staff,  students and colleagues. Few have heard of RaceOnline 2012, with its strapline ‘we’re all better off when everyone’s online’ or the government’s Digital Manifesto which promises to ‘do more for less’ and increase the provision of online information and welfare services. Registration for housing is already online with real implications for those classified as homeless who don’t have access to technology and may not have the confidence or confidence to use it effectively. Yesterday Iain Duncan Smith announced plans to bring in a single Universal Credit to replace work-related benefits.

“The new system will mostly be administered through the internet, with people expected to make claims online and check their payments like they would an online bank account – even though an estimated 1.5 million unemployed people do not currently have internet access, according to government figures. The DWP says a “minority” of cases will still be dealt with face-to-face.”

This worries me even more. How can 1.5 million people be considered ‘a minority’  to be further excluded by being ‘dealth with’ face-toface? How can this solve the social issues? Digital exclusion is the equivalent of digital disability; disablement by a society that fails to recognise diversity and disadvantages those already marginalised and disempowered. The strength of the identity politics of the 70’s and 80’s has become diluted and the digitisation of state provision of welfare will be a final blow to the aspirations of minority groups for equal rights. The arrogance of those who operate at ease within digital environments and don’t care about users of assistive technology needs to be challenged.  But how can you challenge when you are already denied easy access to public transport and are unable to participate in the communication channels of an increasingly digital public sphere?

Cut where it hurts…

The Home Access Scheme offered home internet access to school children. Launched in January this year, it aimed to ‘provide funding to over 270,000 households that currently lack Internet access by March 2011’ for all ‘low-income’ families with children aged between 3-9. A Home Access Grant bought a laptop including pre-installed software, wireless, technical support and internet access for a year. The scheme was managed by BECTA, axed by the coalition, and unsurprisingly the Home Access Scheme has similarly been cut. Although not without the prerequisite spin.

The main Home Access programme has been a runaway success. More than 250,000 families have already benefitted from Home Access Grants…… which are now no longer available – that’s 20,000 families who didn’t get to benefit. However,  the distribution of Home Access packages with Assistive Technology is ongoing. These aim to provide bespoke packages for up to 12,000 children with profound disabilities or special educational needs.

Apart from saying that’s 12,000 children who’ve fallen through existing assistive technology nets within the educational system, my maths is not good but isn’t that still a shortfall of 8000 children denied the opportunity for particpation.?

still inaccessible….after all these years….

Screen reader  software allegedly offers an alternative way to browse the Internet. It’s not entirely their fault that using them is so frustrating. If you can’t see the screen the Internet remains largely inaccessible. Still. After years of Web Accessibility initiatives and standards. After a decade of UK Disability Discrimination legislation. If you’re visually impaired then tough. Imagine you are new to the Internet. You search in your Browser for a recipe because the TV programme read out the website address (and blind people do cook). You get the page below (click on images to enlarge them).

google search results page

The fun begins. There are15 links to go through until you reach the first relevant URL; these include reading out your search criteria and the word Search. But you’ve just done that. Why would you want to do it again? It’s getting confusing.  And it doesn’t get any better. Here’s the relevant Channel four page.

channel 4 page

Up has popped a box. You don’t know this because you can’t see the screen.  You’re being asked to participate in a study. You don’t understand what the study is about because all the relevant information is in the graphic. You’re stuck. You can’t escape (even with the Esc key) so you give up – and find something less frustrating to do instead.

That was yesterday. Today I’m looking at the Comic Relief Grant Application web pages. I’ve got my graphics turned off because I’m testing the effectiveness of poor ALT text on BBC News. I’ve got my Browser Text size set at large because my vision is impaired.  The first thing I notice is that the links are graphics and don’t all have ALT text. The headings are also graphics with no ALT text. Unsurprisingly the graphics themselves have no ALT text. I’m finding the grey on white text difficult. My browser is set to display black on yellow but the website is not allowing me this flexibility.

comic relief grants page               internet colours menu

At the bottom on the page I find the link to Apply and am taken somewhere even more inaccessible. The text is fixed size and too small,  the form boxes and instructions overlap the content and the colour contrast is poor.

comic relief grant application page

I also give up and find something less frustrating to do  instead.