The web can be liberating for disabled adults – but a lack of training, accessibility and funding means the online world is a step too far for many
Since then she has learned how to type, use a search engine, send emails, save photos and make birthday cards by following the Tinder Foundation’s Learn My Way courses. “My family lives in Scotland, but because of the computer I was able to see my nephew’s fourth birthday pictures the next day. It’s opened up a whole new life for me. If I go online I can lose myself for quite a while and it stops my mind wandering and thinking about myself.”
For 20 years, Cambridge Online has offered free courses to disabled and disadvantaged adults. Every year 300 new learners are referred to their centre where they deliver 4,000 one-to-one tutorials annually. “Most of the people who come here have never touched a computer before. Confidence that the whole thing’s not going to blow up when they touch it is what people struggle with in the beginning,” says Andrew Entecott.
There are 10 computers at the centre with adaptive hardware, touch screens, alternative keyboards and mice, and magnification and screen-reading software. “We try to sell the benefits of going online by explaining that learning how to use a mouse and keyboard can reduce the amount of time you spend on the phone speaking to the council.”
The ONS found that 27% of disabled adults had never used the internet, compared to 11% of non-disabled adults
However using a computer is still something many disabled people struggle with. According to the Office for National Statistics, in May 2015, 27% of disabled adults had never used the internet, compared to 11% of non-disabled adults. In 2013, Ofcom said that factors beyond age and income, possibly related to the individual’s disability, contribute to limited internet access.
The Extra Costs Commission, launched by the disability charity Scope, did a year-long enquiry exploring the extra costs faced by disabled people, estimated to be on average £550 more a month. In the report released in June 2015 they cite that disabled people could save money by learning how to use the internet, for example by using cost comparison websites, yet disabled people were not online because of a lack of training, cost of equipment and the accessibility of web content.
Web accessibility is something that Ian Macrae struggles with every day. As someone with a visual impairment he uses VoiceOver software. He doesn’t often recommend people simulate a visual impairment, but recommends that if you have a Mac, to turn on VoiceOver using the Command+F5 keys. “Don’t cheat and look, but try navigating a website. I use Amazon every day to find Kindle Daily Deals. To do that I have to go through every heading before I reach what I want, then I have to go through each element within that heading to get to the list of books. The whole process of navigating a website is a long and complicated process,” he says.
However Macrae still recommends that people with a visual impairment learn how to use the internet, saying that it can be a “liberating experience”, giving the example of doing a weekly shop online instead of the hassle of walking around a shop. He would also advise web designers to create websites that are accessible for everyone, for instance by labeling all buttons and refraining from using too much multimedia, such as Flash. “I’m not saying people shouldn’t use Flash, but they shouldn’t make their website reliant on it because if it is, the website is completely inaccessible to a [visually impaired] person.”
Some disabled adults will never see the benefits of being online. Jack lives in sheltered accommodation at Steve Woolley Court in Peterborough. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has no interest in the internet. “I thought it would be easy when I first heard about it, but I just get confused. I’m just so fed up with it all. Get yourself a television if you’re lonely,” he says. “If I was told the information I needed about my pension was online, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d have to get my scheme manager to do it for me.”
His scheme manager, Sean Siggee, disagrees with Jack when he says he’s not interested. “Jack is interested in the internet. He’s trying to get into it, but he just needs guidance.” Of the 34 residents living at the sheltered accommodation, 20 use a computer. “Jack doesn’t like to ask for help. He feels like he’s a burden and doesn’t want to bother me. It’s the same with everyone. They’re afraid to keep asking, but they need to because everything is going online.”
The Extra Costs Commission suggest that web accessibility for disabled people isn’t an area the Government’s Digital Inclusion Strategy has addressed directly, nor does it offer clear accountability for improving digital accessibility. They’re calling for a review of the impact of the Equality Act in improving web accessibility and taking action when service providers fail to meet their obligations.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We’ve put accessibility at the heart of our award-winning gov.uk website, which is compatible with a variety of accessibility tools. But we recognise that not everyone is online. That’s why we’ll always provide assisted digital support for people accessing government services. We’re also working with the private and voluntary sectors to ensure that everyone in the UK has the basic digital skills needed to benefit from being online.”
One of these partners is Go On UK. The charity was set-up in 2012 by Baroness Martha Lane Fox. Their goal is to help people realise the benefits of being online. Its Chief Executive Rachel Neaman said: “It is the combined responsibility of government, the public, private and not-for-profit sectors to help close the digital divide. 10.5 million adults, 1.2m small businesses, and over half of all charities in the UK lack the basic digital skills they need to succeed in today’s digital society.”
Neaman says this represents “tens of billions of pounds in losses to the economy; billions more in efficiency savings for government and businesses; and the loss of countless benefits for individuals”.