Digital disconnection

For a week I experienced digital disconnection. In the Lecrin Valley in rural Spain with no electricity, and only a log stove to fight the cold, even my mobile roamed for data in vain. It was a short-term experience of digital exclusion. The area was remote, full of orange, lemon, olive and almond trees. The closest I got to digital technology was the petrol pump at the garage seven miles away. It was a different pace of life, one where digital exclusion appeared to be the norm. The village is on Google maps  but life is lived in a traditional style far away from retail centres and the ‘education, information and entertainment’ buzz of a 24/7 Internet. I thought I would miss being connected but I didn’t. It was a timely reminder of how pervasive digital technology is becoming in my life. At a time when government policy is moving towards creating an increasingly digital society, touching base with nature isn’t a bad thing. They say you don’t know what you’ve lost ’til it’s gone. Last week was a good reminder not to lose sight of the values still to be found in an analogue world.

Repetitive but needs to be said…

In 1994, the UK government made the decision to use technology to deliver ‘improved’ public services via the Internet. In 1995 and 2005 Disability Discrimination Acts were passed. In 2009 the Digital Britain report made explicit the needs of those who are digitally absent. The report highlights links between digital and social exclusion. These links are pertinent but there is a danger of creating a mutually exclusive binary where the real issue escapes attention. The Governments newly published ICT Strategy is evidence that this is happening.  

Section 2  UK Public Sector ICT in the 21st Century states how “Technology can be used to provide access to citizens who might otherwise be excluded from services delivered using traditional methods.”  So far, so good.  What better use of technology than to enable those unable to see text to listen to it instead? But the document doesn’t even go there. Instead the two examples it gives are ‘using websites to inform teenagers/children about the dangers of drugs (FRANK –, or providing online learning for young people excluded from mainstream education through”  What about the needs of those already excluded from analogue text who continue to be excluded from digital equivalents. In 5.2 Strategic principles there is one mention of the word ‘accessibility’. The concept, so crucial to the Internet, doesn’t even qualify for a tag.  From Gutenberg to Google, access continues to be denied.

Twice in one day

Examples of the invisibility of digital exclusion issues is, paradoxically, all around us.  Today I’ve read the Independent Review of ICT User Skills by Baroness Estelle Morris (June 2009) which under the chapter ‘Who are the Digitally Excluded?’ says: An analysis of this data suggests the digitally excluded tend to be:

  • older 
  • socially excluded – often through unemployment, living in social  housing, having low incomes or being single parents. 7.2m (15% of the UK adult population) are both digitally excluded and socially excluded. 
  •  with few or no qualifications

No recognition of digital exclusion through impairment and the inadequate availability of the appropriate assistive technology.

Also today I’ve seen the BBC’s online article on training blind people to take photographs. Apart from my linguistic objection to labelling people through a sensory impairment, as though that was their sole defining feature, the BBC tells the story using video. Listening to it doesn’t give adequate descriptive information about the content of the images, or what is happening on the screen, and the captions (for people with hearing impairment) only tell you the name of the photographer. Needless to say, if you are using the low graphics version of the website there is no alternative text.

The exhibition Sights Unseen runs from 19 – 23 January at The Association of Photographers Gallery, 81 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4QS.

Digital Inclusion Commentary

The Digital Inclusion Commentary site uses the Write to Reply format. Part of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (under the Technology Enhanced Learning strand) Digital Inclusion  led by Dr. Jane Seale University of Southampton  is looking at i) Definitions of digital inclusion ii) Why is digital inclusion important? iii) Where does digital inclusion happen?

Definitions of digital inclusion

As the affordances of technology are increasingly accepted as having major social significance, so attention is being paid to those who are excluded from participation but through a lens of inclusive (rather than exclusive) practice. The definitions of digital inclusion here recognise a complex array of factors at play but there is little focus on the role of the content creator. If digital resources are not ‘inclusively’ constructed then their creator, who is often several times removed from the user both through both location and time (in particular if resources are reused) may be uploading barriers to access, albeit inadvertently. All the pieces of the inclusion conundrum can be present but a poorly constructed resource, one that is not ‘personable’ i.e. open to customisation, can result in denied access. An example is when, setting aside the cost and availability of assistive software for visually impaired users, the appropriate screen reading software is in place and working, a poorly constructed web resource remains inaccessible.

Why is digital inclusion important?

This section links social exclusion with digital exclusion. Socially excluded groups identified as benefiting from technology include ‘older people and people with disabilities’. The phrase ‘people with disabilities’ bears no reference to the range of sensory, motor and cognitive impairments it covers. ‘People with disabilities’ can be found in every other social group identified here (the young, parents, adults, offenders and communities). They are also ‘digitally excluded’ in groups not identified as being socially excluded; arguably ‘people with disabilities’ are the most digitally excluded group of all. Not only does the category permeate every social strata, their digital exclusion contains multiple layers such as cost, availability, training and support of the appropriate hardware and software and the widespread inaccessibility of the majority of digital content.  Any online forum concerned with technology and disability will testify this is one of the most excluded groups and, already living with multiple restrictions, one that may well have the most to gain from digital participation.

Where does digital inclusion happen?

Under ‘locating digital inclusion in digital spaces’ there is the first reference to exclusion through inaccessible digital content; in this instance a learning experience in higher education but  should by no means be seen as an isolated incidence. The technical, economic, social and cultural tools of inclusion can be in place, but access to participation be denied through poor quality digital resources constructed with no attention to inclusive design. In these cases the location and source of digital inclusion is almost impossible to pin down and identify. The social model may locate digital exclusion in the built environment as opposed to within the individual but it also needs to be emphasised that the responsibility for ensuring accessible digital data is something that belongs to us all.