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Access to technology and barriers to digital inclusion

Posted April 21st 2020 by Leon Hamilton

Header image with title on an illustrated laptop screen

Access and online barriers

Internet spaces and digital resources open up so many possibilities for connecting, learning and working with others. But not everyone has the chance to move about easily, understand what’s going on, and feel included in online settings.

As a disabled person I am always aware of the barriers which affect me – for example stairs and loud spaces. If I’m moving through the city and there’s a staircase, I am stopped in my tracks and can’t keep moving to access whatever is beyond the stairs. Like a city filled with stairs and steep curbs, the internet is full of potential barriers.

At the moment I can take part in work, learning and social connection online using a laptop I got from Disabled Students Allowance. It has mind-mapping and text-to-speech software which help me as a neurodivergent worker, and it would be impossible for me to work without it. Just being able to watch some Prince music videos or email a friend (or, the high tech version: sing karaoke with a friend over Zoom) can make a huge difference for wellbeing. Access to digital technology is an important equality issue – during the lockdown and all the time.

Just as we can build more accessible cities (and add ramps and curb cuts to our existing landscapes), we can create more accessible and inclusive online spaces.

Barriers for families accessing technology

Cost is a key barrier when it comes to technology, as physical hardware (laptops, phones, chargers, Wifi routers) and access software can all be very expensive. For households without this technology the coronavirus lockdown and closure of schools and libraries can mean getting cut off from internet access.

The complexity of online platforms and software can also be a barrier. There are some good resources for improving your digital skills, but we shouldn’t expect everyone to become a tech expert. While online translation tools can be useful, language barriers also shape how people experience online spaces.

As well as these barriers, not all formats meets different peoples’ needs. When suitable formats are not available, people whose communication needs aren’t met are put at an extra disadvantage. For example, paper books can be a barrier to learning for dyslexic children.

One Mum in Perthshire talked to us about how her family has found ways to access the right support and tech, including around Dyslexia-friendly formats. She said her children would benefit from access to the same reading books as their peers, but in a digital format using text to speech. Currently, schools don’t have digital copies of all books, so children with lower reading ages (i.e. because of dyslexia) may only be able to access books written for younger children. This is a barrier to learning vocabulary and creative writing skills – and to enjoying reading – which doesn’t have to exist.

“I wish the whole school curriculum from primary through to secondary and beyond would be available in a digital format for children with additional support needs like dyslexia.”

Getting access to assistive technology

Assistive technology, from tablets to text-to-speech software can remove barriers and help people engage, in school learning and many other settings.

When her children can access the right technology, the parent we talked to said it “does make a difference to their independence with learning and therefore their confidence and self-esteem.”

She highlighted that other families will have a harder time dealing with these kinds of barriers. Living more remotely, having less information, and not having a formal diagnosis can add to barriers.

This is a particular issue during the pandemic, as many families rely on technology available in schools, libraries and other services. Dyslexia Scotland and Enquire’s online tools for access to learning may be helpful for families dealing with tech barriers at home. CALL Scotland’s information about assistive technology and software can also be a useful resource.

Ways to remove digital barriers

Thinking about these communication barriers is important for growing a culture of inclusion. Some very quick tips are to think about:

  • Images: If you share images online, include a text description.
  • Sound: If you share an audio or video clip, include a text transcript of sounds and what’s said.
  • How text looks: The font should be sans serif, size 14+. Read about Dyslexia friendly formats. If you can, provide an audio copy and a short version of long texts.
  • How text reads: Texts should be clear and simple, with short sentences and paragraphs
  • Technology requirements: What kinds of tech do people need to use to access the information or take part?
  • Format flexibility: Can people change the format, for example copy-and-paste the text to translate online or download it as a Word document to access with a braille display device?

Other things which help include raising awareness about the barriers people face, online and offline. Peer support networks also play an important role for people experiencing barriers. Many peer support spaces are moving online, like Enable’s online community for people who have learning disabilities.

Ideas for making tech accessible

People are working together in inspiring ways to make technology accessible. Wavelength offers free radios to people 70+, and some communities have re-distributed unneeded tablets so people self-isolating can stay connected.

Technology libraries might be a solution in the future. Tool libraries in Scotland are proving that sharing resources helps communities do more. At the moment we can borrow books and DIY tools for free in Scotland – maybe laptops and assistive technology should be next. We can definitely do more as a society to remove barriers to digital inclusion.

 “I would like to see more support for families with accessing assistive technology for home supported learning. There is the expense with buying a PC or tablet and then not all learning programs/apps or audio books are free for home use. I am grateful at present that during the Covid-19 pandemic access to some of these programs and audio books have been made available free for home learning. This should now be the norm and not the exception.”

Is unequal access to technology an issue in your community? (Hint: it probably is!)

What else can we do to make access the norm and not the exception?

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