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.
In a 10 minute slot in a Raising Disability Awareness workshop I identified some key issues relating to barriers to online access.
Key issue 1: digital data can enable and disable. Online environments have the potential to be electronic equalisers; a digitally level playing field. With the appropriate assistive technology anyone could – and should – be able to access online information and participate in online communities.
Key issue 2: barriers to particpation are numerous leaving people struggling for digital equality. The biggest barrier is the ME Model. People design using their eyes, ears and mouse. They assume their users have eyes, ears and mouse. It goes downhill from there. We all do it. We look for the quickest way to get the job done. But scanning a text article as a pdf is really not a good idea – niether is providing multimedia files in a single format – or forgetting to structure Word documents using built in headings and styles.
Key issue 3: no matter how much we talk about the benefits of inclusive design; where changes for some are benefits for all, we are no closer to creating accessible and usable online learning areas. Together, we could make a difference but individually it’s a struggle. Changes in practice don’t come easily and old habits die hard. I don’t have the answer; I don’t think anyone does but I shall keep on trying to find one.