A new phrase has appeared in JISC World. Print impairment. It describes difficulty with accessing text-based resources. Alistair McNaught writes ‘Between 10-13% of people in the UK … have difficulty accessing text-based resources, varying from dyslexia through to visual impairments and motor difficulties.’
The source of this figure is uncertain. 2020 Vision is cited but they have no reference. The RNIB estimate over 2 million people experience sight loss while Dyslexia Action say approximately 10% of the population is thought to be dyslexic with a total of two million people severely affected. There will be cross overs between these estimates and also all those who’ve not been counted. Print impairment is likely to be more prevalent than we realise.
The JISC post is about digital exams. Rather than extra time, extra readers, extra rooms or DIY digital versions of exam papers, the Ofqual (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) now requires ‘awarding bodies to offer digital copies of exam papers for print-disabled learners’. Here the language reverts to the D word which is a shame. More on this at later.
Digging through the literature the initiative appears directed at schools but the JISC paper Making the most of accessible exam papers highlights potential problems which are applicable anywhere technology is used for education. The files provided by awarding bodies will be available as PDF so the onus is on the institution to ensure compatibility with assistive reading tools and support for the accessibility features of Adobe Reader. As with all things digital, this is not without complications. Laptops used during exams must meet the security requirements of awarding bodies and staff who teach and support learning will need confidence with operating in assistive technology environments. While JISC suggest ‘Extra time taken in updating staff skills and giving learners good technology training should be outweighed by the reduced support needs of learners.’ anything which involves additional work load plus digital engagement is likely to be unpopular. The paper recommends disability support teams ‘train learners to make the most of examination papers in PDF format.’ The term ‘train learners’ is terrible. What happened to educate? But aside from the pedantics, this suggestion replicates and reinforces what has always been wrong with disability education – the responsibility for accessible practice is seen as belonging elsewhere. It’s something which is done by a few for a few rather than inclusion being a mainstream philosophy and practice. The term print-impairment offers hope but print-disability takes us right back where we started from.
At least the post re-acknowledged the value of digital environments. It isn’t possible to over emphasise these. Digital text provides the ability to change colours, magnify text and images and navigate swiftly through a document – things that significantly reduce the barriers for people with print impairments. What isn’t mentioned is content has to be designed inclusively for this to happen!
These are key messages which are still largely unheard and unacknowledged. As always the message from JISC World looks good on the surface but dig deeper and the potential for inclusive practice risks erosion from a lack of understanding about the inclusive value of digital resources and the wider – even greater – challenge of resistance to change.
In February 2012 the RNIB held a Hackathon event. Android, iOS and HTML5 developers came together to find out more about the importance of accessible apps and to talk to blind and partially sighted users to find out what really matters to them when it comes to mobile apps. The developers worked through the night to collaboratively build programmes and applications that could make a difference in the app market. Watch this video to see some of the outcomes. As Steve Jones from the RNIB Innovation Team says – for people with visual impairment the outcomes of events like these are life transforming.
The Web Access and Inclusion for Disabled People A Formal Investigation was conducted by the Disability Rights Commission in 2004. Amongst its findings were 81% of sites failed to satisfy the most basic Web Accessibility Initiative category and website designers had an inadequate understanding of the needs of disabled users and how to create accessible websites. Many websites had characteristics that made it difficult, if not impossible, for people with certain impairments, especially those who are blind, to make use of the services provided.
Not much has changed. Working with people with sight loss I would say all the websites we try to access are, if not fully inaccessible (like iTunes) have sections (such as payment pages) which remain inaccessible to screen readers. In 2005 the RNIB issued this statement
“A disabled person can make a claim against you if your website makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult to access information and services. If you have not made reasonable adjustments and cannot show that this failure is justified, then you may be liable under the Act, and may have to pay compensation and be ordered by a court to change your site.”
The Act they were referring to was the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (now superceded by the Equality Act 2010). To date there have been two cases of website inaccessibility which the RNIB have taken to court – each one settled out of court and the names of the companies not revealed.
Last week the RNIB launched a case against Bmi-baby for their inaccessible website. It’s unusual for the company to be identified in this way – but it’s what needs to happen. Until there is a test case and inaccessible websites are shown to be illegal then people will carry on with bad practices and users of assistive technology will continue to be digitally excluded.
Last night I talked to the Hull Web Developers about digital inclusion. Here are the key points from the presentation.
For many people with limited mobility and/or sensory impairment, the Internet offers valuable opportunities to maintain independence.
Digital industry has adopted a ‘ME’ Model of computer access; this assumes everyone uses a Mouse for navigation and their Eyes to see the content on the screen. The result is digital exclusion.
In an increasingly digital society, exclusion from digital practices is by nature invisible.
As the government moves towards ‘digital by default’ delivery of information and provision of services, we need to promote ‘access for all’ where access is redefined as ‘quality of access’.
We also need to challenge the argument that inclusive digital design is not worth it. There are millions of people who could benefit from assistive technology if online environments were created with a diverse range of access in mind.
2 million people affected by sight loss; 80,000 of working age, 25,000 children (RNIB, 2008)
9 million people with hearing impairment; potentially excluded from podcasts without transcripts or video without captions or subtitles. (Action on Hearing Loss, 2010)
130,000 people have a stroke each year, @ 63,000 people develop physical, sensory or cognitive impairment and likely to be using assistive technology for accessing the Internet. (Stroke Society 2010)
10 million people living with arthritis; developing restriction of movement and likely to be using assistive technology for accessing the Internet. (Arthritis Care 2010)
The intention of the founders on the Internet was to create a democratic environment where everyone had equal access. This is still an achievable objective. Digital inclusion is worth fighting for and digital divides can be bridged.
Lots of publicity for the Give an Hour campaign. UK digital Champions on Facebook say it has really ‘caught the imagination of the nation’. There are lots of ‘celebrities’ talking about the benefits of being online and videos showing people being supported through their first encounters with the Internet.
Video clips are heavy emotion. There’s the full-time mum wanting the Internet for communication with her family and who cries with joy at an email and photographs from her sister. There is the grandmother who feels a technological divide growing between her and her 7 year old grand-daughter and wants to stop it getting any wider, and the 100 year old gentleman using a computer and the Internet for the first time and just loving it.
Stephen Fry has pole celebrity position and tells us that not being online is a ‘terrible shame for those who are left behind either through choice or fear or a dislike of new technology’. Fiona Bruce shows an older lady how to find herself (Fiona Bruce) in a programme about Buckingham Palace on iPlayer while Bill Oddie describes himself as computer illiterate and ‘feeling out of touch and lonely’ unable to ‘speak the same language or communicate with the world around him’. There’s lots of repetition of the phrase ‘alienated’ with the overall message being like it or not, the Internet is the language which is being spoken and if you are not involved, you are missing out.
Which is true. The problem, as always, is the narrow range of access criteria which is continually assumed. The videos show people using a mouse, looking at a monitor and having fingers flexible enough to manage a keyboard. There are no transcripts and no sub-titles provided; not even one ‘tokenistic’ acknowledgement of access diversity in either the design or the delivery of the content. Give an Hour is a great idea but is ignoring the heart of digital exclusion. In the same way the government’s latest publication Building the Networked Nation: the Last Leap to get the UK Online identifies four categories of exclusion: the Young, the Old, the Uncertain/Unpersuaded and the Traditionalists, without any reference to users of assistive technologies, so Give an Hour focuses on the mainstream without looking beyond it. Part of RaceOnline 2012, the massive government funded project which is tasked with getting the UK online, it is missing this target audience and showing true digital exclusion at its most unacknowledged and invisible.
“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.
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?
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?
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 http://www.w3.org.
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