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Inclusive Public Activities for ICT: Information and Communication Technologies

A black and white photo of Ben

Ben Watson

This blog series features personal stories shared by the EPSRC-funded INPACT (Inclusive Practices in Assisting Collaborative Technologies) panelists, who will shed light on the challenges of disability inclusion and showcase the transformative power of accessible AT. By sharing their experiences, the panelists emphasize the crucial role of co-design in ensuring successful technology adoption for everyone.

I must have been about 11 years old in a Physical Education (PE) class in the sports hall at my middle school. The PE teacher asked me what the time was and I remember staring at the analogue clock on the wall and it making no sense to me. I felt a creeping sense of dread and the eyes of my classmates all looking at me wondering why I was taking so long to do something so simple as tell the time. I had been found out. The truth is, analogue clocks had never made sense to me, and I was completely unable to read it. I remember trying so hard—trawling back through memories of how people had tried many times to make telling the time understandable to me—that it hurt my head, willing the information to make sense. Even in memory, I still feel the anxiety. It seems like a scene in a movie where time stood still and the ticking of the clock sounded thunderous in the surrounding silence. This was punctured only when the teacher asked another, better, 11-year-old in our class who quickly offered the correct time. How I wished I was wearing the simple little digital watch my Dad had given me.

Time and time management have been issues throughout my life. 'Ben being late' became something of a trope among friends and family growing up and continues to the present day. Despite my best intentions, I always seem to get in a muddle with times to meet people or when events are starting. Missing the school bus was a regular occurrence. I always seem to think I have more time than I do, and judging time allocation is something I continue to struggle with. In addition, directions, and any tasks reliant on working memory are difficult. I am unable to keep instructional or directional guidance in my working memory for anything longer than a few seconds and unless it is written down at the point of delivery it is soon gone forever. Forgetting things often leads to a horrible sense of letting people down.

Like a lot of people do, I internalised a lot of my worries and concerns about processing and developed coping mechanisms. Setting alarms to remind me to attend meetings, take medication, send emails etc. and Post-it notes! So many Post-it notes! For everything! Post-it notes became my analogue alternative to a working memory.

Yet, although I was able to survive, I don't feel like I thrived. Everything seemed more difficult for me than it did my friends. Deadlines were always last-minute things that caused an enormous amount of stress and, even when they were met, I always felt it was by the 'skin of my teeth' and in spite of. The result was that I felt that I was pathologically disorganised and beyond help.

Fast forward to when I was 38. Although I was working in accessibility in education, I had never actually turned the focus on my own difficulties with accessing information, time management, and organisation. One summer I was speaking with a student wellbeing colleague at the university where I was working, and this led to further investigations related to specific learning difficulties which identified particular issues for me around working memory. Through this journey, helpful techniques were suggested to help me understand and work better with the way I approach the world and over many months, a weight of many years of worry and frustration began to be lifted. It was ok. I was ok. I felt like I had found an instruction manual for how I worked.

My work as the Head of Digital Accessibility at UCL (University College London) revolves around putting in the digital equivalent of ramps and lifts to information. I get out of bed every day to work to make information easier to access for everyone. Accessibility, for me, is about choice. Giving everyone the widest range of options to find the ways that they consume information best. This could be having a computer read aloud text, which is important for blind and partially sighted people but can be also useful for anyone proofreading their own work. Changing background colours to make things easier to read means that information delivered in one format can serve the purposes of an infinite range of presentation and display choices. If information is designed for everyone its applications can be limitless.

Providing a range of options for consuming information is a great way to not only ensure access but to also improve the academic impact of information. If you maximise your audience, you have the potential to maximise the impact of your message.

I am haunted by the thought that if we don’t make information accessible to everyone, we risk losing academic advancements that can only come by full availability and access. The documentary ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’ which explores the life of internet activist Aaron Swartz, and the circumstances that led to his early death, traces how Swartz’s pioneering and aggressive approach to information access – one of the first real examples of Open Access – gifted scholarly research to a generation that had until then been denied access. Swartz’s efforts to make state funded research available to everyone for free resulted in an amazing discovery that would not have been possible without access to the material. In the documentary one of Swartz’s friends recounts a story highlighting the direct impact of his actions:

So, there was a kid, back in February from Baltimore, 14 years old, who had access to JSTOR, and he had been spelunking through JSTOR after reading something. And he figured out a way to do early tests for pancreatic cancer. And pancreatic cancer kills the shit out of you because we detect it way too late. By the time we detect it, it’s already too late to do anything about it. He sent e-mails off to the entire oncology department at Johns Hopkins, you know, hundreds of them...And most of them ignored it, but one of them sent him an e-mail and said, "This is not an entirely stupid idea. Why don’t you come on over?" This kid worked evenings and weekends with this researcher and, in February, I heard him on the news, just a couple of weeks after Aaron died, when Aaron was in the news a lot...And he said, the reason he was on the news is because they had done it. They were shipping an early test for pancreatic cancer that was going to save lives. And he said, "This is why what Aaron did was so important." Because you never know, right? This truth of the universe is not only something that policy makers use to figure out what the speed limit should be. It’s where the thing that’s going to keep, your kid from dying of pancreatic cancer comes from. And without access the person who might come up with the thing that’s got your number on it, may never find that answer.

Making information available to everyone in the way that suits them best is simply the right thing to do. No legislation needs to tell you that. Imagine the discoveries that could have been lost by denying full information access to generations of people with print disabilities.

Access in a digital world is no longer a hard thing to achieve. Simple features of accessible information (digital accessibility) include making sure there is basic navigational structure and that visual materials and multimedia have alternative means for communicating their meaning built into them. The best bit is that these are features that everyone can use to improve their enjoyment of information. What we are talking about is not anything ground-breaking but accessible design as a central tenet of good design to maximise the technological capability available to everyone.

If you design for everyone, then you include everyone, and that 11-year-old in the sports hall, all those years ago, would be able to tell the time in the way that works best for him too.