The Digital Britain Report was published on 16 June; the 245 pages necessitating some form of summary version. The BBC ran an At a Glance page and Comments from Experts, none of which addressed this missed opportunity to ensure those to whom affordable, efficient Broadband connection could have the greatest impact in terms of quality of life were given priority.
The RNIB response was a lone, but essential, voice.
“We are concerned however that neither people with sight problems nor disabled people in general are specifically mentioned at any point in the interim “Delivering Digital Britain” report.”
I’ve extracted some quotes that have particular resonance for the work I do supporting people with visual impairment to use computers and access the Internet.
In response to Action 17: Unless a service is affordable, it cannot be deemed accessible. Affordability is a particular concern for blind and partially sighted people, many of whom are among the poorest of the UK’s citizens.
In response to Action 19: This means that the issue of equipment accessibility has to be tackled. Too often inaccessible equipment, that assumes that the user can read on-screen information without providing a voiced alternative is the main barrier to uptake of services by blind and partially sighted people.
In response to Action 21: Many disabled people rely even more on public services than their non-disabled peers, for a variety of reasons. A blind person might well have greater difficulty in visiting their council, for instance, and would therefore benefit greatly from being able to access the council’s website. However, a recent EU wide survey found that only some 5% of public websites are accessible. RNIB therefore urges the government to take urgent action to improve the accessibility of public websites.
The need to address the accessibility of cost, equipment and content is a triple whammy that yet again fails to support the needs of some of the most vulnerable members of society. I struggle to understand how those with sight can so totally ignore the reality of those without this most fundamental of human rights.
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.