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.
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.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11728546
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?
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.?
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).
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.
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.
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.
I also give up and find something less frustrating to do instead.
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 hate labels and the label I hate the most is ‘disabled people’. I hate it because people with impairments are disabled by society’s failure to recognise categories of difference and reduce subsequent barriers to participation. This is the social model of disability. It’s society that disables individuals; you don’t disable yourself.
Today the BBC and the Guardian have reported on a poll commissioned by Scope from ComRes, where 91% of people stated they believed disabled people should have the same opportunities as everyone else (it doesn’t say what the other 9% thought). It then goes on to tell us how ‘disabled people are largely hidden’ away and socially excluded. Richard Hawkes, Chief Executive of Scope, said: “This is shocking evidence that shows that disabled people are still relatively invisible in day-to-day life. We are deeply concerned that the Government’s spending cuts will end up pushing disabled people even closer to the fringes of society.”
Note the label’ disabled people’ throughout. When problem with labels is they’re seen first and accompanied with all the stereotypical images and cultural attributions associated with them. If these are predominantly negative then the reader or listener experiences them first. Labels reinforce and reiterate. When you see the label disabled people, add socially in front of every occurrence of disabled and see how the radically the meaning changes.
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.
10 quick and easy steps to inclusive practice with digital documents.
- Text in capital letters
- Text in italics
- Underlining text (except for hyperlinks where it’s a convention)
- Right, Centre and Full Justification
- Patterned backgrounds
- Poor colour contrast
- Text over images
- Fancy fonts
- Text less than 12 pt in size
- PDF with no alternative version (eg Word, rtf, html etc)
Finally, Section 20 of the Single Equality Act, ‘Duty to make adjustments’ (page 24 of the act) expressly references the provision of information in accessible formats. The EQU guide to implications of this act for higher education uses the example of providing lecture hand outs only in paper format where a reasonable adjustment would be to provide lecture notes in alternative formats such as on a virtual learning environment. Students can then access them independently and, designing them with the 10 steps above in mind, should help ensure they are accessible.
As the LGBT community celebrate 40 years of Pride, Peter Tatchell looks forward to a society that is beyond Gay and Straight; to the end of homophobia. I’m not sure that’s possible. Social phobia have deep roots. We absorb socially constructed identities and ideas. They are tenacious, almost impossible to remove. Like attitudes towards disability. The language has moved on. The words cripple and handicapped are no longer socially acceptable. The medical model, where impairment was blamed for non-participation, has been replaced with a social model. This acknowledges society’s failure to recognise and cater for difference of need. But underneath I wonder how much has really changed. We may have statutory equality of opportunity but negative attitudes are still there. They maybe invisible, even subconscious, but access is for the majority and this is not changing. Take the recent move towards street furniture and shared surfaces, where the distinction between road and pavement is removed. This suggests the built environment is becoming less rather than more accessible. What about technology where the flexibility of digital data means it can be made accessible to everyone. The furore over the Tesco online shopping website this week clearly demonstrates how little the needs of visually impaired shoppers are taken into account. What’s that? You haven’t heard anything about the Tesco online shopping website? Then I rest my case.