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Disabled people just want access to the same kit and the same websites that the rest of us take for granted, writes Jo Verrent.

Wired for sound: Jo Verrent connected to her computer through her BAHA

Disabled people and adaptive technology? Most people think of large, complex pieces of expensive equipment. More usually, all a disabled person wants is to use the same kit as everyone else, so that they can operate on a level playing field. Is this always possible?

Sarah Pickthall and I are developing a new disability/ leadership initiative for the Cultural Leadership Programme. It’s called ‘Sync’, because we wanted it to make use of existing leadership development training material but with a unique emphasis on access, coaching and the experiences of disabled people in the creative/ cultural sectors. Our early planning has focused on studying material and existing processes, and exploring access and relevance. So how does this fit with adaptive technology?

Networking constraints

We wanted a Facebook group as a way of spreading the word. We were both using Facebook ourselves but we didn’t know how accessible it was for people who use adaptive technology when using computers. There are many disabled people who find the standard ways to input and gain data from computers impossible. For example, if your impairment means you cannot readily type or use a mouse, you might use a keyboard guard or overlay (a plastic sheet with finger holes), slow keys (discarding keystrokes typed in too rapid a sequence) or onscreen keyboards, or you might replace the mouse with a foot pedal, a trackball or even a straw-controlled switch. None of these require sites or content to have any specific features or options.

For people with sensory impairments, the requirements shift to issues that the site developers or content producers must consider. Some deaf people use amplified headphones or speakers (my lead goes from my computer straight through my Bone Anchored Hearing Aid (BAHA), which looks a bit sci-fi!). These are useful but don’t help everyone. Sites need to subtitle or offer transcripts for audio content and translate material into BSL (British Sign Language).

Some visually impaired people might be able to use screen magnification software but many rely on screen readers (programs that read aloud onscreen text, menus, icons, etc). These are now are sophisticated enough to use multiple voices and sound effects to interpret sites. To work, they rely on sites being coded correctly and images having one-line descriptions in place for the screen reader to access.

Beyond the keyboard

Some disabled people don’t just experience one form of impairment, but many. Damien Robinson is a deaf artist. “As a deaf person, new technology was initially liberating, but subsequently created some of the conditions which led to my developing a form of RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury),” she explains. “Most computer-based access solutions/ adaptations for deaf people focus on the use of text, creating an over-reliance on keyboard use: I get emails instead of phone calls, but even the phone calls I get are text-based. At the time I was diagnosed, I was using four different sizes of keyboard, all with different resistance levels and layouts. Many solutions to relieve RSI involve using voice technology so I was initially caught between incompatible solutions. Since I’m late deafened, I can partially use voice recognition software, but can’t use some of the most useful functions.”

Access evaluation

So how do Facebook and other social networking sites measure up? Can disabled people using even complex linkings of adaptive technology access them? We knew many disabled people used Facebook already (there are over 500 groups for disabled people including our favourite ‘Disabled Chicks R HOT’) and we knew many deaf people were using the sites as they could upload sign-based video content, but we needed to find out more.

Facebook itself has a desire to be truly accessible – a spokeswoman states that “Facebook is for everyone” and that access has been a key consideration in its initial design – but we wanted an independent perspective. AbilityNet undertook a survey in December 2007 to assess a number of social networking sites, including MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. The survey, which includes user-testing by disabled people, found the site to be surprisingly accessible, although the following were reported:

• Facebook requires the user to identify a CAPTCHA image when creating an account, a barrier for users with screen readers, visual impairments or dyslexia.
• Facebook requires JavaScript to be enabled for a user to create an account. JavaScript can cause difficulties for those using older browsers, some specific browsers, and those who disable JavaScript for security reasons. If an existing Facebook user logs in, yet has JavaScript disabled, there will be various functionalities unavailable to them.
• Text size has been ‘hard coded’, meaning it cannot always be resized. If a user overrides the default size, some of the content can overlap, making the text difficult to read.
• Screen readers often pull all links into a list to aid access. Some do not make sense when read out of context like this.

AbilityNet does not mention that many deaf people, learning disabled people and those with dyslexia experience barriers by virtue of their different use of language and communication. Similarly, those with impairments that are linked to fatigue or that affect concentration are not considered. A further barrier, again not mentioned by AbilityNet, is created by the very concept of social networking sites. Holding information on the Internet concerns some people, and for some within the mental health sector placing information about oneself in a public forum is just not comfortable.

One size fits few

So are social networking sites accessible? Not to everyone. Sync is using Facebook (please go along and join up if you are interested), but its lack of access should serve to remind us that there is never a ‘fits all’ magic adaptation. Individuals are by their very nature individual. For Damien, this has ultimately proved positive: “RSI has steered me to collaborative working, where more time is spent engaging with artists rather than sitting glued to a screen, and the work that’s been produced is to my mind better than previous work achieved in isolation. (see http://www.mediashed.org/damienrobinson). I do have a Facebook account, but people who know me know that I’m not going to waste energy by ‘throwing elephants at them’ [a Facebook functionality], if that is likely to mean I can’t open my own front door (turning a key in the lock is painful). Turn the computer off – there’s a whole world out there.”

Jo Verrent is Director of ADA inc.
To find out more about Sync, phone/text: 07504 794324;
e: sync@adainc.org;
Spring House, Spring Farm Lane, Harden, BD16 1BS.

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Photo of Jo Verrent