CT Consults
14 June 2024

Access Denied

Let’s put accessibility on the agenda!

As part of Volunteers’ Week, Sean Graham, our Digital Project Coordinator, reflects on recent experiences of using his skills to support his local community. 

Our offices are in the heart of Manchester city centre. A place where ‘Baby’ (the first electronic stored-program computer) was born, where Alan Turing developed the ‘Manchester mark 1’. Manchester has a close connection with the birth of Technology and continues to lead the way in the world of digital technology. More recently, the discovery of Graphene and its potential in revolutionary technology by the two researchers Professor Andre Geim and Professor Kostya Novoselov who subsequently won the Nobel peace prize for their discovery. 

‘Baby’ is a far cry from the technology we use today. Digital technology now controls how everybody manages their day to day lives. But is it truly accessible to everybody?

I recently started volunteering at ‘PCrefurb’ a local charity in High Peak. It began as a volunteer group refurbishing donated IT equipment to give to people in need, and that work continues. With funding from the National Lottery Community Fund, they have recently been able to develop spaces where people can go for help with digital skills, from the basics of learning to use a device to setting up a website.

On the first day, I sat down to observe – sitting at the side of a couple that managed to log into their laptop on their 4th attempt. In conversation, they informed me that they only wanted to develop their digital knowledge so that they could create an email address, which they needed “to apply for anything these days… and maybe check the news and weather”. I sat with them for an hour whilst I tried to explain what Outlook was, what the ‘Start’ button was used for and what ‘Files’ were and so on. The language of digital was mostly foreign to them; ‘Accounts’, ‘Files’, ‘Emails’ – they vaguely understood bits of the conversation, but whether they retained any of the information and could go on to practise any of that knowledge was another thing. 

Coming away from that hour, I thought about two things; whether all systems could be suited to people of different digital maturities, and whether I could have explained it differently? 

Most of the people I interact with live on the same digital landscape and speak the same digital language, so prior to the session I had naively expected that everybody lives there too. A landscape where your name includes an ‘@datacollectingcompany.com’, your cash is immaterial and photos, videos and emojis are how we communicate. Going back to basics with a digitally adrift community, made me reassess the approach I took when introducing the world of digital to others.  

Businesses and governments are starting to look into the accessibility of digital technologies, whether that’s captions on images, audio on videos, voice control etc. Fáilte Ireland (Ireland’s tourism board) for instance has been working with tourism businesses to develop the accessibility of their websites (https://supports.failteireland.ie/courses/accessible-tourism/). What isn’t addressed to its full potential is the development of accessible hardware and software for those who don’t understand the terminology and usability of digital technologies. One solution suggested by my couple during that hour would be the ability to have tailor-made digital maturity settings, so that people could add to their software based on their needs and objectives for purchasing the piece of hardware. 

It is important to remember that not everyone is at the same level of understanding when it comes to digital technology, and how we communicate with people needs to be inclusive of age, language, different abilities etc. Businesses and companies are starting to do their bit to support business websites to be inclusive but more can be done. In order to move forward, maybe it would be worth stepping back.

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