I’ve been reading an account of the life of the Russian psychologist Vygotsky, written by his daughter, in 1994. Gita describes how her father worked with physically handicapped and mentally retarded children, how he founded a laboratory to study the psychology of abnormal children and how the laboratory was upgraded to be the Experimental Institute of Defectology. In a sad sentence, Gita writes:
“Vygotsky was always able to establish an atmosphere of trust and rapport with the children, he always talked with them as though they were equals, always paid attention to their answers. In turn, the children opened up to him in a way they never did with other examiners.”
Vygotsky was 37 when he died of TB in 1934. Gita wrote her account in 1994 with no apparent self-consciousness about using language that would be considered inappropriate in this country but still reflects social and cultural attitudes in Russia today. Language is key; if we were to substitute disability for difference and accessible for inclusive, we might have more success in changing attitudes.
Supporting visually impaired people using the internet highlights how little attention is paid to ensuring websites are accessible. It’s frustration overload; as if finding your way around the keyboard isn’t difficult enough you are then reliant on ‘listening’ to a disembodied electronic voice reading out the html sitting behind the website. It can’t make assumptions or use previous knowledge; it can only read what the designer has put there.
Online information is still designed primarily to be a visual experience. There are standards and guidelines galore but wouldn’t it be easier to ask a visually impaired person what works and what doesn’t work?
A leading supermarket has done some work on making its online shopping site accessible to the visually impaired. BUT there are still problems. It’s 2009. What happened to compliance with disability legislation that started over a decade ago? Why is it that the most vulnerable members of our society – to whom internet access can offer opportunities to re-engage through digital data – are still being discriminated against?
It’s not a technical issue; it’s a human one – it’s a social, cultural and political one. The Internet could be fully accessible and it isn’t; and that reflects badly on everyone of us working with virtual environments.
In a 10 minute slot in a Raising Disability Awareness workshop I identified some key issues relating to barriers to online access.
Key issue 1: digital data can enable and disable. Online environments have the potential to be electronic equalisers; a digitally level playing field. With the appropriate assistive technology anyone could – and should – be able to access online information and participate in online communities.
Key issue 2: barriers to particpation are numerous leaving people struggling for digital equality. The biggest barrier is the ME Model. People design using their eyes, ears and mouse. They assume their users have eyes, ears and mouse. It goes downhill from there. We all do it. We look for the quickest way to get the job done. But scanning a text article as a pdf is really not a good idea – niether is providing multimedia files in a single format – or forgetting to structure Word documents using built in headings and styles.
Key issue 3: no matter how much we talk about the benefits of inclusive design; where changes for some are benefits for all, we are no closer to creating accessible and usable online learning areas. Together, we could make a difference but individually it’s a struggle. Changes in practice don’t come easily and old habits die hard. I don’t have the answer; I don’t think anyone does but I shall keep on trying to find one.
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On the BBC blog The Editors Peter Horrocks (19 Feb) tells how he asked TV news presenters ‘if they would please spell out URLs, e-mail addresses and phone numbers ….[as] a significant number of blind people use television news’. Commentators, and one reported “BBC insider”, have said: “This is political correctness gone mad.” Peter responds with ‘It is not. This issue is not about avoiding causing offence. It’s about information and how to access it.’
Here’s a selection of ensuing comments:
• How would a blind person be able to turn on a computer, open up a web browser find the navigation bar and type in bbc.co.uk or some other web address?
• How can blind people surf the internet anyway? If they can’t read the URL on the page, how are they supposed to read the page once it had loaded?
• Someone please tell me, how a blind person can navigate a mouse around a webpage when they can’t see where the mouse is and can’t see where they want to place the mouse cursor. If they could achieve that, then they surely could drive a car from one town to another! Not sure the Police would be too happy about it.
• while accessibility is indeed a noble cause, making things less convenient for the overwhelming majority of people to make things slightly easy for a very small few is not sensible.
• How useful is a website going to be to a blind person if they can’t even see the website in the first place!! So what value is there in reading out aloud the web URL to blind people if they can’t even access the website!
• Disabled people need to be given OPTIONS like subtitles, which they have already; we don’t need the concessions made to them to be imposed on the rest of us.
Some days the words disability and equality seem further apart than ever.
Within 24 hours I’ve had not one but two encounters with accessibility issues. Both demonstrated negativity towards the concepts of reasonable adjustment and alternative versions in relation to teaching and learning resources. This is my resulting rant and reflection – please check out the links at the end. You just never know, one day the thread of your reality may be cut without warning!
Some background: ten years ago I worked in community education and set up a number of computer training rooms for people with disabilities; the work was funded with short term project grants – which is indicative of the reality for the socially disabled – where support and training is dependent on charities and the kindness of strangers. I am continually reminded that the situation with regard to respect and consideration cannot be said to have significantly improved over the past decade.
Over a year ago the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) was subsumed into the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). There is growing debate over whether this has been in the best interests of people who struggle with seeing, hearing, mobility or cognitive impairments (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7643844.stm)
Why is this relevant here? Well, as a public institution, the University of Lincoln has a duty to ensure it can demonstrate proactivity in anticipating barriers to access. However, a recognised need to be inclusive is not enough to ensure institutional change. Across the HE sector, disability support units are rarely integrated into teaching and learning units and the locus of disability awareness continues to exist on the periphery. For me accessibility is about removing barriers to participation and engagement. That means a holistic attitude towards the creation of accessible content. It’s not something that can be bolted on either as an afterthought or because someone has had to request an alternative version.
All staff should be aware of this single page document produced by the JISC legal team Accessibility Law for eLEarning Authors
Staff should also visit Accessibility in Learning produced by JISC and TechDis in conjuction with the Quality Improvement Agency (QIA). This new online resource looks at eight categories of users; those who have difficulty seeing, hearing, understanding, concentrating, manipulating things, communicating with others, accessing text and who are dyslexic – and provides practical guidelines practical guidelines for making learning materials more accessible.
The information is out there; the responsiblity for acting on it is down to the individual.
If you still need convincing read some of these accounts from students accessing higher education. Go to ALERT (University of Bournemouth) and DART (Loughborough University) and the most recent JISC funded research at LExDis (University of Southampton) to sample the student experience first hand.
The message I took from Rethinking the Digital Divide is that the divide is increasing rather than getting smaller. It’s no longer just about access to the technology, its about what you do with it when it’s in your hands. Research may show that the majority of learners own mobile phones – but that their owners are confident with using them is still largely an assumption. Also some of the sessions I attended showed that access to education remains problematic for many, including people with disabilities, those in prison, in the workplace, in communities. In prison the technology disables rather than enables; the OU now delivers content via the internet. The majority of prisoners do not have the internet; education is the bedrock of rehabilitation and they are denied access.
The debate over accessibility of online resources and the use of assistive technology continues – yet there were no exhibitors at ALT-C from any screen reading or text to speech software companies, or organisations such as Ability Net or the British Dyslexia Association. I was disappointed that a conference on digital divisions appeared to have so little on inclusive design or holistic approaches to accessibility and the debate around alternative versions of multimedia and animation. It would have been good to have daily workshops on practicalities such as adding captions to video, demonstrations of assistive technology or what the open source movement is doing to support accessibility.
I wonder how much the learning technologists themselves are responsible for creating a digital divide; do we forget that those whose learning we believe we are enhancing are in a different place. They may not share the same level of access to the technical gadgets and wizardry, or the skills to use them to their full potential. Again, having the technology is not the same as being confident and skilled with using it and I do sometimes wonder if herein lies the roots of our digital divisions.