The digital “glass wall” for people with disabilities

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When you hear the word “barriers” online obstacles aren’t usually what first come to mind.

We may have often thought about the physical ones; such as a deaf person who reads lips facing difficulty when talking to a shop assistant who turns their face away; or a wheelchair user wanting to access a building with lots of steps and no lift.

Increasingly though, it’s the online world rather than the physical one in which disabled people are fighting against an overall lack of access. The content is right there; you know it, but you just can’t access it when you want it.

With our increased use and dependency on websites and technology, it is becoming apparent that this digital “glass wall” is having serious consequences in our daily work, social and personal lives.

Damon Rose, editor of the BBC’s Ouch! blog and podcast, recently told the Guardian that: “an equal society with equal job prospects is increasingly becoming all about technology as we build our lives more and more around the web.” He feels that the government needs to recognise that websites which do not take access into account could actually make people with disabilities less employable.

Many blind and partially sighted individuals already browse the web using screen readers that convert text into speech or Braille. However, they often discover that websites using Adobe Flash can cause big problems. Sometimes this will also include graphic labels that the screen reader just doesn’t recognise (think of the “Play” button on a video or audio clip).

Some totally inaccessible sites include those that use a Captcha, which is a completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart. These mashed-up letters and numbers that websites ask you to enter when you register for the first time can be very hard to read both for people and their screen readers.

Fonts, size, colours and backgrounds have also all proved a big challenge to blind people, but also for some individuals with dyslexia. They too need websites to work smoothly with their screen readers or offer voice activation so they can listen to the text.

The British Dyslexia Association advises web designers to make site navigation clear, break up text into shorter paragraphs, use dark print on a pale background, and allow users to set their own choice of font style and size.

For deaf people, the internet and the new forms of communication that were developed with it (such as web cameras, email, and instant messengers) gave access to communication for social, work and personal purposes like never before.

However, the rise in the popularity of online videos are not yet covered by the same regulations as television broadcasts. Deaf people are increasingly finding themselves on the wrong side of that digital glass wall.

On many of the live feeds for BBC channels, there’s rarely a subtitle to be found right now. It’s the same on other news websites, video-on-demand services such as Netflix and LoveFilm, and many more.

But there are some people out there who are helping to take a hammer to the glass. Earlier this month, Alison Smith, who set up Pesky People, a website that campaigns to improve access to digital technology (read her brilliant 10 digital commandments), launched a campaign on Twitter where deaf people tweeted videos that were inaccessible using the #subtitlesnow hashtag. The tweets reached over 13,000 people, and saw nearly 700 people join the event page on Facebook (check out the comments to get an idea of how they feel about it).

Speaking about the campaign, Alison said, “We are a silent minority locked out in the visual, moving world. I don’t want to be locked out.” She was compelled into action after discovering the lack of access on the Arts Council’s website, The Space. As she pointed out in her article launching #subtitlesnow, with 10 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK, that’s “one in six of the population that cannot access this new, free on demand access to the arts service.”

Anyone designing a new building would be expected to consider wheelchair access and the needs of people with a variety of disabilities in their plans, so Alison says web designers need to “work with consultants and individuals, engage with disabled and deaf people, budget for 5% of their budget for digital access and plan it from the start. Pay disabled and deaf people to be in your user experience testing – they are your experts.”

Some current legal challenges may also make web designers think about their intended audience and stop them putting up that glass wall in the first place. The RNIB recently issued a legal challenge to BMI Baby on the inaccessibility of their website and Netflix in the US has been told to put Closed Captions (subtitling) on all its US output by a Californian Judge. It will be interesting to see how this one impacts on their UK operations.

How digital access can change for the better

If you are a web designer or are involved in designing sites or content, there’s a lot of help out there.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has published a paper that lists the 10 principles of inclusive web design, and it is also spearheading the government’s current communication review, which will be considering, amongst other issues, adding subtitling to on-demand television.

The RNIB and Action on Hearing Loss (RNID) both offer information and advice on making your website accessible for people with sight problems, hearing, mobility and cognitive impairments.

Professor Jonathan Hassell, an accessibility expert, also has an informative website (Hassell Inclusion) website and leads the committee which produces the British Standards BS 8878 on embedding accessibility within an organisation’s business-as-usual policies and processes.

It’s time to start bringing that glass wall down!

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