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.
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?
While protests are in the news there’s another – more invisible – coalition led disaster which is causing exclusion and distress on a daily basis. This is the government’s attitude towards people with sight loss who are struggling to operate in digital environments because of insufficient action to ensure digitally inclusive practice and accessible web design. As the government moves towards the online-only provision and management of welfare it’s doing nothing to challenge the increasingly visual nature of the Internet and digital designers assumptions of a narrow range of access criteria (i.e. everyone uses a Mouse, their Eyes and Ears – the MEE-Model). This is making it difficult to impossible for users of assistive technology, in particular screen readers, to have equity of digital access. At the same time it also ensures denial of participation in the public sphere where the platforms for debate and dissent are increasingly digital ones.
Digital discrimination is already a serious problem and will become even more critical as more services look to online provision believing it will increase efficiency and cut costs. Assumptions about access need to be challenged; not everyone can operate an out of the box laptop bought from a local supermarket or a high street retailer and the way in which the government is choosing to ignore this is an issue which needs to be made more public.
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.
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.
‘Digital Britain’ has survived the election and the drive to get us all online by 2012 has stepped up a gear. The strap line to the Race Online 2012 website now reads ‘We’re all better off when everyone’s online’ and David Cameron’s letter Martha Lane Fox to remains Digital champion includes the following: “…the Government is committed to increasing transparency and accountability through making information systematically available online…we need to encourage more people to go online and hence be able to access public information and services.”
So far so good – so long as we have digital equity. The Labour government made an explicit link between social and digital exclusion and while it didn’t go far enough, it was a promising start. Race Online 2012 has a new manifesto. and it increasingly clear there is a new agenda. Online, the manifesto is a visual horror. The 67 page 5.56 MB PDF offers no respite. This is a prime example of style over substance. The Manifesto for achieving for 100% digital inclusion demonstrates how to be digitally exclusive right from the start.
Putting the dreadful design to one side, what is Race Online about? The message is clear. The government is replacing people run services with online services. If you can’t access them then tough. The reasons for not going online are lack of motivation, access and skills. The government is going to sort out the access, then its up to you to get motivated and virtually re-educated. Its for your own good. The benefits of being online are obviously about economics, education, employability and improved efficiency of public welfare so how can you not see the benefits?
The Manifesto is glossy, in your face and totally inadequate. It recognises 48% of disabled people are not online but on its own that figure means nothing. Words like assistive technology, accessible design and inclusive practice are absent (in both text and the sub-text of the design). There’s no recognition of the issues of the cost of assistive software or even how with all the prerequisites in place, if digital data is not designed with the needs of assistive technology in mind then access will continue to be denied. Focus is on the transformative power of the Internet to create a new networked nation with no indication of how vulnerable citizens, already disempowered by inadequate access to welfare and barriers to social participation, are going to be supported.
The move towards virtual citizenship is alarming. Divisions between those with digital competence and those without are already creating new structures of power and dependency. The computer both connects us and isolates us. It supports a digital economy where nothing is real but we all pretend that it is. In the future, anarchy won’t be virtual it will be human. Science fiction won’t be about machines, but about people. The Internet can offer unparalleled access to information and opportunities to participate in the active construction of knowledge, but it can’t substitute for care and welfare. The greatest problem is that those driving the agenda don’t care about the impossibility of digital equity while those best placed to highlight the issues are being denied a virtual voice.
This expert blog post ‘Warning Social Computing could be good for your health’ led me to the speech by the Secretary of State for Public Health (who doubtless has to neither shop on a budget nor be restricted by the stock in his local Nisa). Most of the nine pages is typical government rhetoric about inherited problems and solutions that neatly bypass the source. With regard to social media, Andrew Lansley, actually says very little and the phrase ‘the power of new technologies and new media’ bypasses digital exclusion issues of which I have much to say. If you need a reminder of contemporary attitudes, here is some feedback on a funding bid to research digital exclusion and visual impairment.
“Readers said they were surprised about some of the statements about accessibility as there is special software for those with special needs and there is guidance for software developers related to meeting the needs of those with special needs.”
Ok, you could say ‘yes’ to both (ignoring for now the old medical model of disability that’s implicit here), but in the real world the industries who are responsible for each rarely talk to each other. As a result the more the Internet is used to communicate then the more people are being excluded. (If you doubt this click the digital divide/digital exclusion links under my blog categories.)
Back to public health – in a stunning display of political hyperbole, Andrew Lansley misses the point completely. Alongside education for behavioural change, policy should address the environmental issues too such as cut-price alcohol and the processed gunk that passes for ‘ready’ meals. The monopoly of giant food corporations like Coca Cola and McDonalds, and their cheap alternatives, has led to mass consumption of chemical concoctions designed to increase profit margins regardless of damage done to health. The people the government claim to want to help are the very same who are inadvertently supporting their own privileged and financially secure lifestyles. If you need more evidence try We are being ruled by a junk food government and Business Interests fight obesity
Yesterday the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt blamed ‘a lack of funds’ for the government’s decision to delay the roll out of 2MB broadband. Labour had set 2012 as a deadline, now Mr Hunt says he does not think there is “sufficient funding in place” to meet that goal.’
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in its recent report A minimum income standard for the UK raises the benchmark for an “acceptable standard of living” from a computer and home internet connection being essential for people with school-age children to essential for all working age households.
Steve Robertson, chief executive of BT Openreach, says “As a society we need to make our minds up about what is an essential element of our social fabric. Today not having broadband makes people feel deprived”
A letter from David Cameron appointing Martha Lane Fox as the UK Digital Champion (18/06/10) says (my emphasis) “…the Government is committed to increasing transparency and accountability through making information systematically available online. We also want to improve the convenience and efficiency of public services by driving online delivery….To make this happen, we need to encourage more people to go online and hence be able to access public information and services.”
Clear evidence here of digital divides and mixed messages while, maybe not surprisingly, no mention of the digital exclusions that exist even with a broadband connection in place.
Government digital plans are back in the news. Lack of media acknowledgment of digital exclusion continues to exist. It’s ok to mention exclusion through provision but not through access. The Guardian makes this distinction explicit. Unemployed/jobseekers to sign on from home and citizen personalisation of MyGov web services Quote GB “MyGov dashboard will … allow citizens to shape information for their own needs” and “… manage their pensions, tax credits and child benefits, as well as pay council tax, fix doctors or hospital appointments, apply for schools of their choice and communicate with children’s teachers.” No GB. This can only happen for those privileged through means of access.
Ofcom announced plans for superfast broadband. While government excludes mention of its own link between digital and social exclusion (Digital Britain), and the implication that those who would benefit most will be denied access, Ofcom make explicit the equivalent of digital exclusion through lack of service provision. “…large numbers of homes and businesses are in locations which cannot get any sort of broadband, either because they are too far from an exchange or because the lines are of poor quality.” I have family in rural Holderness with a half MB connection, yet still pay a similar amount as myself for their ISP connection. That’s inequitable but not as much as being denied access to the digital data itself.
Years of international standards designed to increase web accessibility still fall short of ensuring equal access for assistive technologies. Open Source, which the government plans to use, is less regulated than traditional ‘closed’ web environments. By definition, open source encourages repurposing. This may be for the common good but if responsibility for accessible content shifts from the designers to the users, then it effectively escapes regulation. Politics of freedom aside, the socially disempowered need support. Web standards were an attempt to ensure equitable access. They might not be 100% effective but remain a matrix against which inclusive design and practice can be measured. We are all living through a digital revolution. There needs to be much greater acknowledgment of the needs of those who stand to benefit most.