Calling all web developers….

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 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 

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.

Michael Hart

Michael Hart has died. I heard this via Twitter last night but so far there appears little recognition in the news. This should be a level 1 headline. Hart founded Project Gutenberg  which is dedicated to ensuring equitable access to online content. Named after the Gutenberg Press from the late 15th century, which made possible the mass distribution of printed materials, Project Gutenberg aims to do the same with digital text. Books which no longer have copyright restrictions are digitised and made freely available in a range of formats enabling users to search, read and quote content. The project also invites users to participate. Become a Gutenberg volunteer and be sent digitised pages to proofread and check for errors. Volunteers are also invited to burn cds for people without Internet access. Project Gutenberg espouses the principles of open access while remaining focused on content rather than appearance; a philosophy we are in danger of losing in our current celebrity obsessed culture. It is a fantastic free resource; a legacy from the early days of mergence between the Internet and the World Wide Web and the founding philosophy of democratic access.

“As we move towards a highly connected world it is critical that the web be usable by anyone regardless of individual capabilities and disabilities.” (Berners Lee, 1997)

“…if we succeed making web accessibility the norm rather than the exception, this will benefit not only the disability community but the entire population.” (Dardailler, 1997).

The death of Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, is an ideal time to remember these principles. I hope Hart will be both remembered and celebrated not only as someone who recognised the potential power of digital data for democratic access, but who actually did something about it too.

project gutenberg logo

Berners Lee, T. (1997) World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Launches Web Accessibility Initiative. WAI press release 7 April 1997. Available at

Dardailler, D. (1997) Telematics Applications Programme TIDE Proposal. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Available at

exclusion by language…

I’ve been sent a link reporting on an Accessibility Hack Event at Birmingham. This is a great idea – put together the people who are interested in accessibility. We should do this at Lincoln. Here’s a few comments on the blog post.  

The affordances of digital data have never been utilised effectively – it’s the optimum opportunity for ensuring equality of digital access but too often the theory gets privileged over practice and the opening promotion video by GPII is typical:

e.g. user is recognised at public access point and now sees large print on ticket machine = one happy user  but…. magnified text requires increased screen size – other wise you need navigational devices which then mean all the information can’t be seen at once… another e.g…..back of seat monitor on aircraft customised to suit user preferences – you can hardly see (or hear) these in the first place – so increased text size is not going to assist…

The ratio between content and monitor size is so relevant but easily overlooked.  I’m working with someone with macular degeneration whose family have bought them a new widescreen Acer laptop all set up to display large tools and text. But email via Windows Live is almost unusable because the screen size doesn’t support the chosen display size. Sounds obvious but unless you’ve tried it….

The idea of providing accessibility rather than having to  adapt to a standard environment has long been a dream of Assistive Technology users. This is why I’m so interested in the idea of ‘intuitive digital data’ which knows how to adapt to the device being used or ideally can provide itself in the appropriate file format as requested – something I believe we are working towards.

A keynote speaker at the event was correct in saying accessibility should be a right for all, and whereas most people see accessibility as about disabled people, it is actually about everybody – then they spoiled it saying the aim is to deliver the best website that is ‘accessible to as many people as possible, a website that is accessible to everyone would just be text, which would be ugly’.

This second statement is both contradiction and backwards step – accessibility is not about as many people as possible – it’s about everyone full stop – and a website which is accessible to everyone does not have to be plain text – that’s the reason text-only alternatives were dropped. A fully accessible website can have pictures and multimedia and interactive forms – it just needs to include the information to be given in alternative formats,  and all content to be correctly and appropriately labeled for screen readers.

An Accessibility Hack Day is a great opportunity to bring people together to talk about important issues. It’s in the nature of digital exclusion to be invisible. But the key issue the blog post raised for me is how the language was indicative of the current cultural shift away from the social model of disability – which sees the external environment as disabling by not recognising and providing for a diversity of requirements (digital disability is an ideal example where we have the technology to ensure 100% access but all the barriers are economic, political etc) and back to the old medical model of disability which saw the reason for lack of participation as being caused by individual impairment – be that physical, sensory or cognitive. It’s concerning how the language of disability is changing with references to disabled people rather than people being disabled by society – you may think this is being pedantic – but it isn’t.

The GPII video says ‘those of us with disabilities often run into a situation where the technology doesn’t work well enough to meet our abilities’. Another presenter refers to ‘people who are severely disabled with motor neurone disease’  These are examples of language use which need to be challenged. The Social Model calls for disability to be seen as something imposed on individuals by society – motor neurone disease is an impairment – and to call someone disabled by it is an example of the old medical model in action. I worked with someone with motor neurone disease whose used a computer for years. But the disease is reducing ability to move fingers and keyboards are designed with the assumption that we will only hit one key at a time.  With a keyguard in place, the computer can be used again (although it means a laptop remains inaccessible). 

The solution lies first and foremost in the external environment where the limitations of the technology are the disabling factor. Subscribing to a social barriers model is an essential prerequisite to enabling independence and social participation – in particular with ensuriong digital inclusion.  Technology can be empowering but the problems begin when perceived solutions derive from the viewpoint of the technologist – not the user – we have to step outside of our world and into the life-world of other people in order to experience the barriers to know how best to help remove them.

Finally – the disclaimer at the end of the GPII video sort of says it all.

The contents however do not necessarily represent the policy of the funders and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.  It would have been more encouraging if it had said Accessibility is the policy of the funders and you can assume endorsement!

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.