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Should fines be issued for inaccessible websites?

The Norwegian government can issue fines if a website is inaccessible. Should the UK do the same? Is the Bird Box challenge good or bad for the public's perception of blindness?

In 2013, Norway's equivalent Equality and Human Rights Commission was given the authority to fine both public and private sector organisations if they didn't make their websites usable to a certain standard. There are suggestions from campaigners in the UK that the same approach should and could be adopted. Robin Christopherson from AbilityNet believes it is something that would work in the UK. Malin Rygg from Difi, the Norwegian organisation tasked with auditing websites, says they haven't fined any companies yet, but they have issued warnings. While Arnt Holte from the Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted thinks while accessibility is slowly improving, he is concerned that new EU legislation only governing the accessibility of public sector websites, and soon to be law in Norway, will water down the powers of Difi and only see them being able to enforce accessibility on public sector websites.

The Netflix film, Bird Box, is its biggest hit to date, having been downloaded 45 million times since its release last December. It's a post-apocalyptic story where characters must wear blindfolds or they will contract a deadly disease. The film has spawned a social media craze called the Bird Box challenge where people are donning blindfolds and performing tasks and taking part in activities such as driving. Journalists Emma Tracey and Lucy Edwards discuss the film, and concerns raised by some blindness organisations, that the craze will have a negative impact on the public's perception of blindness.

Presenter: Peter White
Producer: Lee Kumutat

Available now

19 minutes

In Touch Transcript: 08-01-2019

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.


PRESENTER:          PETER WHITE

PRODUCER:            LEE KUMUTAT


White

Good evening.  Tonight, should we adopt the Norway option?  No, don’t panic, it’s not yet another Brexit debate but an approach by the Norwegians which could make websites much friendlier to visually impaired people than they are at the moment.  And why this new horror film:

 

Clip – Bird Box

 

That peaceful little film has triggered a craze for people walking around wearing blindfolds.  Well, as well as its obvious dangers, we wondered what effect it’s having on the public’s attitude to blindness.

 

But first, few would now argue about the way in which the internet has vastly opened up our ability to get information and that includes visually impaired people.  But even the most tech savvy blind and partially sighted web user would say it could be so much better, if companies and organisations would use techniques readily available which would make their websites much easier for us to use. 

 

One of those tech savvy users is Annie Rimmer.  She told me what happened when, using the synthetic speech facility voiceover on her smartphone, she tried to access the National Lottery’s app, designed to make it easier to buy tickets.

 

Rimmer

A couple of buttons weren’t labelled, so all I could hear with voiceover was just the word “button” “button”.  But you can kind of by trial and error work out what they’re supposed to do.  The main problem, I found, was when I was trying to get out of where I was back to the home screen and I couldn’t find any way of doing that.  And asking a sighted friend I found that there was apparently a picture of a little house at the top left of the screen, which usually means home, but web voiceover wouldn’t work at all.  When I turned voiceover off and asked someone else to press it, it worked perfectly.

 

White

So, what did you do about it?

 

Rimmer

Well I called the National Lottery customer services and explained the problem and they said – Oh, there’s nothing we can do about that.  But I persisted and they said they would report it to their technical department and they’d get back to me. 

 

White

And did they?

 

Rimmer

They did, they got back to me after about a week and they didn’t ask me at all what the problems were, they simply said that the app was never designed with accessibility in mind, that I could go to use Safari and go on their website and purchase tickets that way, if I wanted to.  That if it – because it was an Apple iPhone and it was voiceover that it wasn’t their problem and they were under no responsibility or obligation to do anything about it.

 

White

What do you feel about their attitude and how does it compare with what you’ve found elsewhere?

 

Rimmer

I was really shocked because they make much of the good causes that the lottery supports and giving help to people who wouldn’t otherwise have help.  And to deny visually impaired and blind people the opportunity to use that app it seems so hypocritical, quite frankly.

 

White

Well we’ve put Annie Rimmer’s points to the National Lottery.  At the time of recording the programme we’ve had no response so far.

 

So, why isn’t more being done to ensure that visually impaired people aren’t excluded when websites are designed?  It’s a question AbilityNet has been asking for many years.  Now AbilityNet’s an organisation which monitors the performance of websites and over the years has produced reports on many sectors – airlines, banks, sports venues, charities, newspapers – the list goes on.  We have anti-discrimination legislation of course but you have to bring a legal case in order to have any sanctions against a company or organisation with an inaccessible website.

 

So, what’s wrong with the system we have in the UK?  I put this to AbilityNet’s Head of Digital Inclusion, Robin Christopherson.

 

Christopherson

By our reckoning, by reviewing different sectors, we think that less than 10% of websites meet singularly compliance and that’s to the world recognised standards for website accessibility.  And doubly, the middle level of compliance, is actually what’s required under the Equality Act.

 

White

So, should we be taking a more proactive approach as they seem to be doing in Norway?

 

Malin Rygg is head of their equivalent to our Equality and Human Rights Commission.  They have more powers to act directly.  She told me about their approach.

 

Rygg

We try to find companies that have a lot of users, big user groups, that have services that are important to everyday life, for instance transport or banking or public services, but also sectors that we know that will have a risk at not or failing at the requirement.  For instance, we did a big survey in 2014, right after the requirements or the law went into effect, and then we saw that the banking sector and the transport sector – airlines and trains and so on – had bigger problems than other sectors.  So, we went then for controls in those sectors.

 

White

So, what then happens if organisations don’t come up to the standards that you think are necessary?

 

Rygg

Well the first thing we do is that we test them and we do a preliminary report and then they can come up with a correction plan.  And if that correction plan seems valid and good we tend to stop it there.  Most companies, luckily, do correct their errors within the timeframe.  If they do not come up with a correction plan or they don’t meet their own deadlines we can fine them.

 

White

How many fines have you actually given?

 

Rygg

Well luckily, we haven’t – we haven’t been in need of giving many fines yet because we…

 

White

Have you given any?

 

Rygg

No, we have given a warning for some because of this last deadline most companies get to their finish line in time, which I think is a good thing because that means that their websites get better, which is our ultimate aim, not the fines themselves.

 

White

You have, I think, come fairly close to fining, can you just explain the circumstances in which you’ve come closest?

 

Rygg

Yes, well we did an inspection on a big airline company in Norway last year and they did not meet the deadline and got then 10 working days of correcting the errors that were left open.  They also made it to the finish line, luckily, which we’re very happy too but if they hadn’t, they would have been looking at daily fines of about 15,000 euros.

 

White

That’s Malin Rygg.

 

So, just how effective is this proving to be and are the visually impaired people of Norway noticing a difference?  That’s the question I put to Arnt Holte, he’s the Chief Executive of the Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted.

 

Holte

We made a kind of research, I think it was two years back, and we examined about 278 websites and we found that about 60% had accessibility more or less, most of them less, from 30% up till 90%.  So, I think we have a lot to do, even in Norway, and also in the future.  And when you’re talking to people in the business not very many are aware of what is demanded by the legislation. So, we have a lot to do in the future and I think also a lot of the blind and partially sighted persons in Norway really think it is difficult to use several websites.  We don’t see a lot of increase of accessible websites.  What was interesting about the SAS case was that we have been waiting for years, maybe two years, that this website should be accessible and then the threat was there about the fine, it took only 12 days.

 

White

So, actually, this was a problem and it did take at least a couple of years before there was action and the threat did really make a difference?

 

Holte

Yeah, I think it’s about attitudes because you don’t think it’s important enough and this is a very interesting case because they had the solution actually and it was just to implement it into the website but they didn’t do that and that was the problem.

 

White

Now you mentioned forthcoming legislation, legislation which is about to come into force, tell me a bit about that and what effect you think that might have.

 

Holte

Yes, we have this EU directive about accessible websites and the difference between the EU directive and the Norwegian legislation is that in the Norwegian legislation it is also an obligation for private sector to make their websites accessible.  That is not the reality in the EU directive, it’s only official websites that should be accessible, there’s no demand to the private sector.  And of course, we are – we think it is a bit risky that the Norwegian legislation will be harmonised to the EU directive and they will drop the demand about the private sector.  We hope that that will not happen but the Norwegian legislation is a bit more effective than the EU directive, so we hope we can also keep the private sector in when also we have the EU directive implemented in Norway.

 

White

 

Arnt Holte.

 

So, are there any signs that the UK might be moving in this direction too?  Robin Christopherson thinks there is some cause for hope.

 

Christopherson

One thing that makes this particularly timely now is that there is now extra EU legislation, the recent directive that covers public sector, including public sector broadcasting, for example, which has provided more clarity on what accessibility should look like for those sectors.  And in that report, it has said – it has named, for the first time, the EHRC – the Equality and Human Rights Commission – as the body that the government has tasked with making sure that websites are accessible.  So, monitoring and reporting on the inaccessibility of public sector websites.  So, let’s just broaden that remit out and get the EHRC to start acting as we’ve seen with the Norway example, let’s get things moving.  People say that life, death and taxes – that’s the level of fear or certainty that the HMRC will be after you if you don’t pay your taxes, let’s see a similar level of seriousness that people will take the EHRC in coming after you if you don’t make your websites or mobile apps easy to use for every user.

 

White

Robin Christopherson.

 

And now to one of the odder crazies to have taken over social media over the past month or so.  It’s called The Bird Box Challenge and it involves making videos of yourself donning a blindfold to carry out varying tasks, including, rather terrifyingly, driving apparently.  It all stems from a hugely successful Netflix horror movie, starring Sandra Bullock, called Bird Box and that involves having to protect your eyes from something which if seen will kill you.  You know the kind of thing.  So, only genuine blind people are immune.

 

Well the film, and the subsequent behaviour, is causing quite a stir.  The National Federation of the Blind in the US has condemned it as giving negative images of blindness.  So, what’s all the fuss about? 

 

Two blind people have “watched” the film and I have put watched in quotes, and who know their way around social media, are Lucy Edwards and Emma Tracey.  Lucy’s a freelance journalist and YouTuber and model and Emma’s a journalist with Ouch!

 

Emma, first of all, just give us a bit of context, I mean tell us more about what this film’s all about.

 

Tracey

The film is about an ominous presence that if seen by the naked eye will cause you to have suicidal feelings and to basically take your own life.  So, only a certain number of people have managed to dodge it, it’s a worldwide thing, and some of those people are Sandra Bullock’s character and two small children that she has charge of.  So, five years after this initial thing happens Sandra and her two small children have to make a journey to a safe place without using their eyes, so with blindfolds on.

 

White

So, the sort of thing that happens to you everyday really.  What did you think of it?

 

Tracey

I actually enjoyed it, it was a good story, I was on the edge of my seat all the time and it was fairly interesting.  I mean there’s actually very few blind references in it at all, it’s more about not being able to show your eyes and therefore having to cover them and the consequences of that.

 

White

And Lucy, what do you think has given rise to the Bird Box Challenge craze in that case?

 

Edwards

I think there are so many crazies that take off and this is just the new thing that’s happening.  I mean there was the Tide Pod Challenge, where everyone was like eating detergent and getting really sick.  It’s just the thing to do – blindfold yourself and go in a car – which I don’t really agree with but it’s nothing to do personally, I don’t think, with blind people and disability.

 

White

I mean you say that but indeed the National Federation of the Blind in America, as I said, they’ve condemned it, they say it presents these negative images.  Emma, you say it’s got no relevance but presumably people are going to get the impression seeing people wandering about with blindfolds on, they are going to get some kind of impression of visual impairment from that aren’t they?

 

Tracey

No, they’re going to get an impression of seeing people walking around with blindfolds on, having their eyes covered.  Being blind – being blind and having your eyes covered are very, very different things, Peter, I’m not sure if you realise that.  But you know it’s not about being blind.  The film, itself, is interesting, there’s a couple of mini blind references in it where Malorie, Sandra Bullock’s character, tries to teach her kids echolocation.  But I mean Malorie could have just seen Daniel Kish on YouTube, you know the famous echolocator, before this whole apocalyptic thing happened and decided to do that.

 

White

We should explain that echolocation for those who don’t know is this whole business of flicking your fingers and getting a bounce off a wall or an obstacle or something like that.  You rather mocked at me there, Emma, as if I didn’t understand what simulation was but the point is serious organisations use it and tell people that that is the way to understand what blindness is about.  So, clearly people do think that it’s got some sort of relevance.

 

Tracey

I’m not a fan of simulation, I think making people pretend to be blind and showing people how different visual impairments work by using glasses, I’m going to get probably lynched for saying this, but I think it’s a bit lazy, I think it’s good for helping to raise money because it gives people an awful fright, suddenly they get their eyes covered and they’re like oh my goodness, I don’t know how to even function right now.  Because of course if a sense is taken away in a sudden way, you’re not going to be able to function because you’ve not had the years and years of learning that most blind people have had.  So, if I put on noise cancelling headphones, I get the heebie-jeebies, I get like the horrors, I’m like urgggg.  But I know deafblind people who have full and active lives and aren’t in the horrors all the time but it’s just – it’s the sense I use potentially most often and suddenly it’s taken away and that doesn’t make me know what it was like to be Helen Keller, it just makes me know what it’s like for me to not have hearing or sight for a short period of time and I don’t think the two experiences co-exist at all.

 

White

Lucy, what’s your take on that?

 

Edwards

Yes, I do agree, if I’m honest.  I think silly people on the internet will always be silly people on the internet.  Having a blindfold on for five seconds doesn’t make them blind.  I think it is becoming quite big in mainstream media that blindness is coming to the forefront of Hollywood, it’s certainly, with this Netflix show, at the end there were lots of – spoiler – VI people.  And I think it’s budding actors and actresses ready to make their career well known and I think disability is becoming more acceptable.

 

White

So, if the Bird Box Challenge has nothing to do with blindness why are the NFB in American bothering to condemn it?

 

Edwards

Because I think some of the community may get a bit upset about it, about the challenges may be, because may be in some people’s minds it does show that you can’t do something, may be, when you’re blind because people are getting in cars and not being able to drive and may be pointing out the things we can’t do.

 

Tracey

I think I’d be a lot more upset if I was part of the blindness organisation – I’d be a lot more upset if 45 million people who are the number that were supposed to have downloaded Bird Box downloaded a film where a sighted actor was pretending to be blind and doing a really bad job of it.

 

White

Lucy Edwards, Emma Tracey – thank you both very much indeed.

 

And that’s it for today.  You can call our actionline with your comments for 24 hours after the programme on 0800 044 044.  You can email intouch@bbc.co.uk.  Or click on contact us on our website from where you can also download tonight’s and previous programmes. 

 

That’s it, from me, Peter White, producer Lee Kumutat and the team, goodbye.

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