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Don’t tech no for an answer

by Adrian Higginbotham

8th November 2010

Some recent advances in access to technology for disabled people would suggest that we are at long last seeing real progress, not just in the use of technology itself, but also the use of appropriate software and hardware to massively improve access to other services. But on discovering two examples of digital exclusion which contradict this picture, I got to wondering. Should we disabled people be following the example of other interest groups in attempting to protect our digital future?
An e-book reader
Back in March of this year I wrote about a court ruling in the USA blocking 3 universities from recommending the use of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader to its students because it was not accessible to visually impaired learners and staff. Since then Amazon has produced a new edition of the Kindle, complete with much improved access, including a self-voicing user interface. So the product is now accessible right?

Not quite. A recent review by a blind user points out one incredible access irony.

A VI person can independently load books to the Kindle and have them read aloud. However, what they can’t do is buy titles direct from the device (for this you must switch to your PC). If that same VI person has an iPhone, they can use the Kindle app to browse and purchase titles, but can’t read them aloud.

For a second example of backward progress, look no further than the accessibility of satellite navigation.

This technology, which cross-references your current position in relation to a number of satellites with electronic maps, has broken free of the car and can now give you audio and visual turn-by-turn instructions from door to door, irrespective of your chosen mode of transport. Handheld satnav can - and does - give many disabled people the confidence and independence to travel freely without being forced to ask passers-by for assistance.

However, satnav has become a fiercely competitive sector and in order to grab the biggest share of the market, operators including Nokia and Google are now giving away these services for free with phones running their Symbian and Android operating systems. The upshot of this development, which on the face of it seems positive, is that commercial competitors are being forced out of business.
An in-car sat nav
One such competitor is Wayfinder Systems, which includes the only off-the-shelf satnav package fully accessible to visually impaired users. Wayfinder was bought up by Vodafone back in January 2009, which probably suggested to many visually impaired customers that the service would be safe. But in a surprise and disappointing move, support for Wayfinder has recently been withdrawn.

Vodafone have offered all Wayfinder Access owners a full refund. Not much compensation for a loss of independence.

From April 2011, many people for whom accessible satnav is a key independence tool, will be forced to rely on outdated bespoke technology, a dependency on technical know-how, a product which is only partially accessible or the kindness of strangers .

But how can we disabled people be protected from this sort of digital exclusion in the future?
In September, Age UK and FACT the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, presented Pensions Minister Steve Webb with a manifesto to end digital illiteracy by 2020 by (among other things) addressing the fact that, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics 60% of people over the age of 65 have never accessed the internet.

Age UK and Fact are not alone in recognising the perils of digital exclusion. RaceOnline is the campaign to get as many of the 10 million people who don’t have access to the internet, online by the end of the year of the London Olympics. Spearheaded by Government digital champion Martha Lane Fox, it's slogan is: “we’re all better off when everyone’s online.”
A talking dartboard
I’m writing this piece just a few weeks after the publication of a special study by Ofcom's Advisory Committee on Older and Disabled people (ACOD). It found that people who have faced exclusion from important online services, could overcome this if there was universal access to high speed internet connectivity. And in a future where we hear more of our public services are to be pushed online to save costs - including local council services and benefits - full access becomes even more important.

I welcome the huge advances in access to technology for disabled people over the last year or two, even if personally I'm not sure that the talking dartboard I found recently is worth $500. Its existence really brought home to me the failings of a world in which you can’t buy technology that would help you travel independently but can spend all that money on a talking toy.

Let us not forget that, as in the cases of Kindle and Wayfinder, every step forward can leave someone behind, and it is our duty to ourselves, and each other, to join Race Online and others in making a song and dance about it when it happens.

If you’ve got a story about how so-called technology advances have left your access needs behind, tell us in the comments below.

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