Nearly as mad as this: a two way table top device for enabling communication for a some who is deaf blind allows one person to key in text which is converted to a Braille readout for the other person to read. They then key in their braille response which is converted to text. So simple and so enabling.
How disabling is that?
Careless I know but somehow I missed last Friday when the Single Equality Act became law, in spite of a daily scan through the BBC News, Guardian and the (shhh) Daily Mail online. I don’t know how that happened. Is it possible the media missed it too?
I have mixed views over this legislation. With my digital head I welcome the provision of accessible formats, being anticipatory, not waiting for someone to experience difficulties before instigating change. Reasonable adjustments were required where service was ‘impossible or unreasonably difficult to access’. This has changed to where service causes ‘substantial disadvantage’ and sounds the first warning bells. It implies an increase in the need to be proactive. If it wasn’t happening before, how will compliance be reinforced? If the Commission for Equality and Human Rights is to be abandoned then (quite apart from its controversial existence) who is left to take on discriminatory activity and attitudes?
I doubt the effectiveness of this extended legal protection. Digital exclusion is becoming increasingly blatant and customisation to suit individual preference more of a challenge. Take away the flexibility of digital data to adapt to the user requirements and you remove the potential power of the Internet for democratic access. History shows prohibition drives practices underground. It disguises them in imaginative formats which replicate and reinforce the continued existence of what was originally banned. So it is with discrimination. Fuelled by predjudice or unawareness, it’s not going to vanish on the strength of a single act; structural systems of inequality are too deeply buried in the social fabric. It’s nearly a decade since SENDA yet exclusive digital practices remain the norm rather than the exception. I worry this is the wrong direction; that the legislation on its own is hollow and weakened by inreasingly complex notions of discrimination as direct and indirect as well as associated or perceived. As soon as you introduce something as subjective as perception and replace ‘being treated less favourably’ with ‘being treated badly’ you problematise interpretation. Maybe, instead of penalising the behaviour, we should be addressing the fundamental reasons for the segregation of difference in the first place. Maybe this is why the act appears to have become statutory with a quiet whimper rather than a noisy bang and a clatter. Maybe it knew it was tokenism before it even arrived.
I’ve got restricted vision again and ‘seeing’ the Internet differently. Tokenism, surface allegiance to accessibility legislation, is common. My pet hates include those little ‘A’s increasing in size but not to any useful extent; clicking them isn’t as easy as you might think; they are small, and where they only increase the text frame navigation and other peripheral content remains the same.
I can change my Browser settings to Largest and increase everything that’s scalable but this highlights the amount of content that isn’t. More frustration as text gets cut off or wraps on top of itself.
I need to re-set to Largest when I change sites and incidently, Largest isn’t Large enough. I know there’s the Ctrl and mouse wheel trick that zooms in and that’s how I’m operating but it takes two hands and a degree of manual dexterity, not to mention a mouse with a wheel and knowing about it in the first place! Without screen magnifying software, nothing affects the size of the menu bars and buttons. The brain tries to adjust but the combination of large and original text is difficult to interpret especially with menus such as Save and its drop down lists of options. The contrast is marked and the original text size appears even more tiny. Headaches and additional eye strain is never far away.
Onto my blog. With Browser set to Largest I find my posted text isn’t responding and I need the mouse trick. The main Dashboard then becomes a touch problematic as it appears very wide. I have to scroll or arrow backawards and forwards from left to right to see it all. The drop down menus have become separated horizontally from each other. I can’t seem to get into them with keyboard commands, making it quite a fun game to try and jump across the gap to hit the Dashboard for my blog.
Adding images is a bit of a nightmare; zoomed to a workable size the menu gets stuck and becomes unusable for example the image below shows how I can’t scroll down any further.
As you can see I made it but the whole process has taken much longer and is more complex and instead of enjoying working online it’s frustrating. I’ve achieved far less than I normally would have done in the hour and doing less causes additional problems. I’m currently looking at Dragon Naturally Speaking for times like this; I think it would be useful on lots of different levels so watch this space – if you can.
Here’s a question – if you’re not digitally active then how do you know you’re being digitally excluded? The irony (or deliberate discrimination) of the government’s Race Online 2012 Manifesto is its invisibility. If you don’t do technology you’re probably unaware of the extent of government plans to move to online-only services. Their focus on broadband access as the answer to digital exclusion is not enough; it’ll do nothing to tackle existing structural inequalities; if anything it will exacerbate them.
I’m not a fan of diary blogs but this weekend I’ve revisited digital exclusion. A couple living with multiple health issues were donated a computer by a local organisation but the power lead for the monitor was missing. It needed POWER:12VDC 3A and the small print on the back of the monitor said ‘Only use with adaptor: see user’s manual’ which they didn’t have. They had no idea what lead was required, the organisation couldn’t help, the shops they’d tried all said ‘no’ and initial excitement was turning to frustration. I’ve never claimed to be adept with hardware but have the advantage of digital inclusion plus a son who told me ‘use the technology Mum’ so between us we did. I texted him photos of the back of the monitor; he went online, made some phone calls and sent me the location of a shop plus a picture of the transformer required. I found the second hand games shop, doubling as an electrical workshop, and operating a ‘cash only’ policy. It looked unlikely but on the back of a shelf covered in dust was the magic lead.
Currys, Comet and PC World 0 – Local Independent Retailer 100.
The computer was an ASUS52X, loaded with Office 2003, it was fast with a new keyboard and mouse. There was no Internet connection but the computer had capacity and the town has good reception. Sourcing the lead took a couple of hours but for this couple, even when they get their Internet connection, it’s just the beginning. Not everyone has the manual dexterity to manage a keyboard and a mouse and there are going to be access issues there. Then there’s the learning curve which incrementally increases; I began ICT training in Adult and Community Education in the 1990s, pre-Internet, and it was a challenge then, particularly with groups the government now define as socially excluded – in reality having been denied opportunities for participation. To operate with confidence and competence in digital environments today requires multiple skills and knowledge; to stay safe is to know about viruses, scams and phishing, about good online practice regarding payment transactions and being able to judge the authenticity of digital information – as well as the basics like naming and saving and file management.
The government’s focus on providing access is technological determinism – believing if you have the means the rest will follow. Those writing digital policy and procedure have the pre-requisite digital requirements and too little experience of being on the wrong side of the divide. As digital divisions are increasingly reconfigured as having complex multi-structural dynamics I worry the real issues will get lost; the reality of digital technology meeting analogue user, where the importance of the correct plugs and wires is only the starting point and after that comes the need for effective long-term training and support. These issues are not going to go away.
The National Centre for Social Research give nothing away. Lots of interesting sounding work regarding social issues but not freely available. The most I could find of Chapter 9, Report 23, Disabling attitudes? Public perspectives on disabled people by John Rigg was the first two pages at www.downloadit.org and a price tag of £8.22 for the full document.
The Centre describes itself as a not-for profit organisation dedicated to ‘making an impact on society and advancing the role of social research in the UK’ but clearly doesn’t subscribe to any democratic principles of digital data such as Creative Commons or GNU General Public Licensing. A bit ironic that a document about those who live most of their lives dealing with barriers to participation can’t even check out these public perspectives – in fact it’s not even ironic – it’s disgraceful.
‘Digital Britain’ has survived the election and the drive to get us all online by 2012 has stepped up a gear. The strap line to the Race Online 2012 website now reads ‘We’re all better off when everyone’s online’ and David Cameron’s letter Martha Lane Fox to remains Digital champion includes the following: “…the Government is committed to increasing transparency and accountability through making information systematically available online…we need to encourage more people to go online and hence be able to access public information and services.”
So far so good – so long as we have digital equity. The Labour government made an explicit link between social and digital exclusion and while it didn’t go far enough, it was a promising start. Race Online 2012 has a new manifesto. and it increasingly clear there is a new agenda. Online, the manifesto is a visual horror. The 67 page 5.56 MB PDF offers no respite. This is a prime example of style over substance. The Manifesto for achieving for 100% digital inclusion demonstrates how to be digitally exclusive right from the start.
Putting the dreadful design to one side, what is Race Online about? The message is clear. The government is replacing people run services with online services. If you can’t access them then tough. The reasons for not going online are lack of motivation, access and skills. The government is going to sort out the access, then its up to you to get motivated and virtually re-educated. Its for your own good. The benefits of being online are obviously about economics, education, employability and improved efficiency of public welfare so how can you not see the benefits?
The Manifesto is glossy, in your face and totally inadequate. It recognises 48% of disabled people are not online but on its own that figure means nothing. Words like assistive technology, accessible design and inclusive practice are absent (in both text and the sub-text of the design). There’s no recognition of the issues of the cost of assistive software or even how with all the prerequisites in place, if digital data is not designed with the needs of assistive technology in mind then access will continue to be denied. Focus is on the transformative power of the Internet to create a new networked nation with no indication of how vulnerable citizens, already disempowered by inadequate access to welfare and barriers to social participation, are going to be supported.
The move towards virtual citizenship is alarming. Divisions between those with digital competence and those without are already creating new structures of power and dependency. The computer both connects us and isolates us. It supports a digital economy where nothing is real but we all pretend that it is. In the future, anarchy won’t be virtual it will be human. Science fiction won’t be about machines, but about people. The Internet can offer unparalleled access to information and opportunities to participate in the active construction of knowledge, but it can’t substitute for care and welfare. The greatest problem is that those driving the agenda don’t care about the impossibility of digital equity while those best placed to highlight the issues are being denied a virtual voice.
Yesterday the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt blamed ‘a lack of funds’ for the government’s decision to delay the roll out of 2MB broadband. Labour had set 2012 as a deadline, now Mr Hunt says he does not think there is “sufficient funding in place” to meet that goal.’
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in its recent report A minimum income standard for the UK raises the benchmark for an “acceptable standard of living” from a computer and home internet connection being essential for people with school-age children to essential for all working age households.
Steve Robertson, chief executive of BT Openreach, says “As a society we need to make our minds up about what is an essential element of our social fabric. Today not having broadband makes people feel deprived”
A letter from David Cameron appointing Martha Lane Fox as the UK Digital Champion (18/06/10) says (my emphasis) “…the Government is committed to increasing transparency and accountability through making information systematically available online. We also want to improve the convenience and efficiency of public services by driving online delivery….To make this happen, we need to encourage more people to go online and hence be able to access public information and services.”
Clear evidence here of digital divides and mixed messages while, maybe not surprisingly, no mention of the digital exclusions that exist even with a broadband connection in place.
Bored with the election coverage and debate? Here’s a variation on a theme. See how well the party website accessibility statements match up to the reality of use at http://blog.s3webdesign.co.uk/index.php/2010/03/wins-accessibility-election/
Government digital plans are back in the news. Lack of media acknowledgment of digital exclusion continues to exist. It’s ok to mention exclusion through provision but not through access. The Guardian makes this distinction explicit. Unemployed/jobseekers to sign on from home and citizen personalisation of MyGov web services Quote GB “MyGov dashboard will … allow citizens to shape information for their own needs” and “… manage their pensions, tax credits and child benefits, as well as pay council tax, fix doctors or hospital appointments, apply for schools of their choice and communicate with children’s teachers.” No GB. This can only happen for those privileged through means of access.
Ofcom announced plans for superfast broadband. While government excludes mention of its own link between digital and social exclusion (Digital Britain), and the implication that those who would benefit most will be denied access, Ofcom make explicit the equivalent of digital exclusion through lack of service provision. “…large numbers of homes and businesses are in locations which cannot get any sort of broadband, either because they are too far from an exchange or because the lines are of poor quality.” I have family in rural Holderness with a half MB connection, yet still pay a similar amount as myself for their ISP connection. That’s inequitable but not as much as being denied access to the digital data itself.
Years of international standards designed to increase web accessibility still fall short of ensuring equal access for assistive technologies. Open Source, which the government plans to use, is less regulated than traditional ‘closed’ web environments. By definition, open source encourages repurposing. This may be for the common good but if responsibility for accessible content shifts from the designers to the users, then it effectively escapes regulation. Politics of freedom aside, the socially disempowered need support. Web standards were an attempt to ensure equitable access. They might not be 100% effective but remain a matrix against which inclusive design and practice can be measured. We are all living through a digital revolution. There needs to be much greater acknowledgment of the needs of those who stand to benefit most.
For a week I experienced digital disconnection. In the Lecrin Valley in rural Spain with no electricity, and only a log stove to fight the cold, even my mobile roamed for data in vain. It was a short-term experience of digital exclusion. The area was remote, full of orange, lemon, olive and almond trees. The closest I got to digital technology was the petrol pump at the garage seven miles away. It was a different pace of life, one where digital exclusion appeared to be the norm. The village is on Google maps but life is lived in a traditional style far away from retail centres and the ‘education, information and entertainment’ buzz of a 24/7 Internet. I thought I would miss being connected but I didn’t. It was a timely reminder of how pervasive digital technology is becoming in my life. At a time when government policy is moving towards creating an increasingly digital society, touching base with nature isn’t a bad thing. They say you don’t know what you’ve lost ’til it’s gone. Last week was a good reminder not to lose sight of the values still to be found in an analogue world.