G4S are big. They are the ‘largest secure solutions company in the UK and Ireland’* Formerly a merger between Securicor and G4 Security services, G4S are now bidding successfully for a number of government contracts which have nothing to do with security but everything to do with the provision of social services, in particular the governments Welfare to Work Programme. This is like giving the multinational food processing industries responsibility for health. In the same way that MacDonalds, Coca Cola and Nestle have nothing to do with fresh fruit, salad and vegetables (other than to process them) G4S cannot possibly replace the small organisations like Latitude in Hull who are working at grass roots level right in the centre of communities with the highest unemployment figures. The government calls Welfare to Work supporting families with multiple problems saying it’s issues like ‘drug and alcohol dependency, debt and literacy difficulties’* which are creating barriers to employment and costing £8billion in welfare which neatly ignores the real causes of social exclusion like inadequate access to fundamental resources such as housing, education, health care, decent food and a safe place to live. Local organisations have insight into these issues in a way that no company on the stock exchange with a ‘turnover of more than £1 billion and over 40,000 employees managed from over 80 offices’* can begin to understand.
I visited Latitude to look at the role of the Internet in applying for work. Of the fifty cards on the wall, the vast majority asked for an emailed cv or gave a website address. Those with telephone numbers were all answerphones. Retail companies such as Boots, Asda and Tesco demand online application as do the council. All with tiny print and compulsory requirements like email addresses and telephone numbers, many also include online aptitude tests with pages which have to be completed sequentially. These applications go on for ever demanding high levels of computer skills and confidence. Latitude (whose services are being taken over by G4S) go out of their way to support people; filling in forms, giving guidance on cvs and letters, trying to narrow the digital divide but there are not enough of them and too many people who need help. There is no way online application measures individual ability to do a job; it just shows you can operate a keyboard and with the government moving towards digital by default services and large companies coming in to deliver government welfare programmes, it will not be long before existing marginalisation increase on an exponential scale. The worry is that in an increasingly digital society, increased social exclusion will simply become as invisible as most digital exclusion already is.
My iphone looks great. I love the easy access to the Internet. But I’m not a great App user and am uncomfortable with the Apple closed shop philosophy. You could say the same about the Kindle in relation to Amazon but I bought one for similar reasons. I wanted the experience for myself; in this case the shift to electronic reading. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved books. Turning the pages, turning the corners, pencil annotations; books and their contents have always been important to me. I didn’t expect the transition from paper to screen to be easy but it was – and I love it!
The tipping point was the announcement Julian Barnes had won the Booker Prize for a Sense of an Ending. I’d only used the Kindle on Project Gutenberg but wanted to read this book before the weekend so I looked at my options.
- Walk into town, pay the shop price, read straight away.
- Order online and pay less but wait for delivery knowing if it doesn’t fit through my letterbox I’d have to go to the Post Office which is only open 7.00 – 1.00 and I’m away 6.30 to 6.30 most days…
- Download onto the Kindle from where I’m sitting for half the price and read immediately – or to be accurate – within two minutes.
There’s no competition. Add the size, easy reading and portability of the Kindle and its win win all the way to the Amazon bank. The Kindle cover even makes it feel like a book. The only problem is I’m so used the iphone’s touch screen, I feel the Kindle should respond in the same way and still automatically reach for the screen rather than the keyboard. It’s an interesting example of how behaviour change quickly embeds itself into our unconsciousness.
We are all being seduced by the reality of cut cost and instant access; whether to real world events through Twitter, the happenings of friends via Facebook, or working on content with a variety of collaborative tools, all at the time and place of our choosing. We are either up front or at the back as digital communication and access to information carries some on and leaves others behind. If social equality is about the means of participation then digital environments, in spite of their potential to be democratic, are becoming increasingly and alarmingly divisive.
Universities must rethink their approach to student digital literacy in the Guardian Higher Education Network puts digital literacy training and critical reflection together in the same sentence. The word ‘training’ is a bit Pavlovian but applying critical thinking to Internet content and behaviours is an increasingly essential requirement. I’ve worked in higher education since 2000 and witnessed a growing need to be more proactive in addressing the digital literacies of students and staff, for example in the development of both graduate attributes and teacher education programmes.
When the first virtual learning environments arrived, the sector focused primarily on embedding technology rather than investing in the management of the cultural shift to virtual pedagogic practices. Today, the user-generated content and file-sharing nature of Web 2.0 style technologies, has increased the broader social impact of the Internet, while higher education is currently subject to market forces creating increased interest in online learning, for example the Collaborate to Compete Report to HEFCE. Research findings have raised concerns about levels of digital competence as in the JISC/British Library CIBER Report into the Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future at and the NUS report to HEFCE Student perspectives on Technology. Key areas are still missing like enhanced quality assurance with regard to digital learning (covered in this blog post) and the means of ensuring the appropriate digital literacies, including awareness of the parameters of inclusion, are embedded into both the student and the staff experience.
Good checklist from WebAIM – worth printing and keeping as a reminder of the basics for digital design and development. Text version available here http://webaim.org/resources/designers/
“Don’t only do accessibility testing with content; do usability testing with users with disabilities.” I picked up this Tweet via Nomensa and on the surface the link looked interesting. The principles are great. Don’t adopt an accessibility tick box approach to online content, and rely on automated code checkers, use real people; in particular those who are web users rather than web designers or developers. It’s not rocket science or rocket surgery as described by Steve Krug author of Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems.
However, on closer examination, the word disabilities is missing from the original source materials, as are assistive technologies, screen readers, impairment or sight loss. Neither the 23 minute video nor the sample chapter mention disability. I think Nomensa added the word because it is integral to their philosophies but in doing so they’ve misrepresented the core message of the book. Steve Krug’s focus is on too narrow a range of access criteria. He is assuming the user is a mouse user and can see the screen.
The concept of usability testing deserves recognition, but the concept of the user has to be broadened to include – in Nomensa’s words – users with disabilities – or in my words – users disabled by society; in particular one which doesn’t recognise a broad enough range of diversity or difference. This failure to look outside the box is the stuff of which digital divides are constructed. ‘Test User Usability’ (TUU? too? Two? the possibilities for a neat acronym are endless) should be a stock mantra for the web world. But the concept of ‘Users’ must representative and has to include everyone if the true meaning of accessibiltity is to be achieved.
The proposed model for ‘digital by default’ services has been described as revolution rather than evolution. (Directgov 2010 and Beyond: Revolution Not Evolution) Driven by the search for efficiency savings, the proposal is to merge disparate government services into a single point of delivery at the Direct.gov.uk website with all content being produced by a single government department.
“…we believe its time to move onto a new phase of convergence, by rationalizing and converging all departmental websites and their content…onto shared web services, supported by a set of common web standards.” Directgov Strategic Review (2010: 2)
This reinvention of the government online publishing system is estimated to significantly reduce their web expenditure. Presumably in order to afford the cost of the new system being set up to support the application, award and management of Universal Credit next year. This in spite of the recent System Error report from the Institute for Government Think Tank which documents “too many high-profile and costly failures” (2011: 2) and where “Most attempts to solve the problems with government IT have treated the symptoms rather than resolved the underlying system-wide problems. This has simply led to doing the wrong things ‘better’”. (ibid p9).
On the surface, the language of single site delivery is encouraging; documentation refers to functionality, quality, common content standards and building services around people’s needs. It is technically possible to design and deliver content in a way which allows people to choose their preferred mode of access and these plans to achieve digital-only services by 2015 offer a real opportunity for bridging digital divides.
However, there is also the issue of conversion to ‘digital by default’ services. Called ‘channel shift’, this is a massive exercise in behaviour modification. Persuading people to move from face-to-face to digital ways of working is reminiscent of the arrival of virtual learning environments, and the adoption of digital pedagogies, over a decade ago. In 2011, not everyone across the sector can demonstrate confidence and competence with digital ways of working, and this raises questions about the reality of the government plans. While they are likely to achieve their ‘digital by default’ ambitions by 2015, it is unlikely they will have achieved a state of digital inclusion as well.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission have published their inquiry into disability-related harassment. This is what the media call ‘hate crime.’ It is violence perpetrated against vulnerable members of society who are unable to stand up for themselves or have friends or relatives to protect them. The inquiry highlights ten cases where people died or were seriously injured and the EHRC are calling this harassment.
The OED says to harass is ‘To wear out, tire out, or exhaust with fatigue, care, trouble, etc.’ and the act of harassing is to ‘To trouble or vex by repeated attacks.’
Surely crime towards people disabled resulting in serious injury and death is far more than harassment? By diluting the language in this way the EHRC are diluting the effectiveness of the message. This is not harassment; it is aggravated assault and murder and those who have lost their lives and been injured in these dreadful ways deserve much better than this.
I’ve just been asked this question from a web developer who identifies standard arguments against accessibility as including “too expensive, and takes too long for such a small percentage of users” He then goes onto ask if I’m aware of any kind of figure regarding users who have accessibility requirements when using a computer.
Here’s my reply.
There are some contentious and deep rooted issues here about attitudes to diversity and difference (too expensive, and takes too long for such a small percentage of users????) in a digital society in particular where government is moving towards ‘digital by default’ services underpinned with the perception that communication and information technologies save time and money. Digital divides are the inevitable result if design and delivery favours a narrow range of access criteria rather than principles of inclusive practice.
With regard to users of assistive technologies, no one knows how many there are – or would be – if it were less expensive and more supported – but here are some facts and figures:
- There are around 11 million disabled adults in the UK, this includes limiting long standing illness. This is equivalent to 20 % of the population
- 17% people are born with a physical, sensory or cognitive impairment – 83% acquire one in later life.
- At 2009, there are over 6.9 million or 18.3% of working age people (one in five) who are disabled
- There are about 2 million people in the UK with significant sight loss. There are an estimated 25,000 children with sight problems.
- It is estimated that there are almost 9 million people with hearing impairment http://www.papworth.org.uk/downloads/disabilityfactsandfigures2010_100202152740.pdf
- It is estimated that 130,000 people have a stroke in the UK each year, resulting @ 67,000 deaths leaving a potential of 63,000 people with a physical, sensory or cognitive impairment. http://www.thestrokesociety.com/
- There are 10 million people (1 in 5) living with arthritis in the UK; arthritis can cause severe restriction of movement making it difficult to use a computer. http://www.arthritiscare.org.uk
- Then there are issues around learning disability. Acquired Brain Injury is the largest cause of disability amongst the working age population. There are about 1.5 million – nearly 3 in 100 – in the UK who have a learning disability. Just 1 in 3 people with a learning disability take part in some form of education or training. About 200 babies are born every week with a learning disability http://www.papworth.org.uk/downloads/disabilityfactsandfigures2010_100202152740.pdf
These figures relate specifically to ‘disability’ but I think we need to take a broader view. Inclusive design/accessibility is not only about ‘disability’; inclusion is about accepting the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender and age. Society promotes increasingly digital lifestyles and ways of working and web developers are in the unique position of being able to make a real difference – we need to ensure that difference is about ensuring equitable digital access rather than being discriminatory.
Michael Hart has died. I heard this via Twitter last night but so far there appears little recognition in the news. This should be a level 1 headline. Hart founded Project Gutenberg which is dedicated to ensuring equitable access to online content. Named after the Gutenberg Press from the late 15th century, which made possible the mass distribution of printed materials, Project Gutenberg aims to do the same with digital text. Books which no longer have copyright restrictions are digitised and made freely available in a range of formats enabling users to search, read and quote content. The project also invites users to participate. Become a Gutenberg volunteer and be sent digitised pages to proofread and check for errors. Volunteers are also invited to burn cds for people without Internet access. Project Gutenberg espouses the principles of open access while remaining focused on content rather than appearance; a philosophy we are in danger of losing in our current celebrity obsessed culture. It is a fantastic free resource; a legacy from the early days of mergence between the Internet and the World Wide Web and the founding philosophy of democratic access.
“As we move towards a highly connected world it is critical that the web be usable by anyone regardless of individual capabilities and disabilities.” (Berners Lee, 1997)
“…if we succeed making web accessibility the norm rather than the exception, this will benefit not only the disability community but the entire population.” (Dardailler, 1997).
The death of Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, is an ideal time to remember these principles. I hope Hart will be both remembered and celebrated not only as someone who recognised the potential power of digital data for democratic access, but who actually did something about it too.
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.
Dardailler, D. (1997) Telematics Applications Programme TIDE Proposal. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Available at http://www.w3.org.
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?