Does digital help make our world more inclusive and accessible?

A grey spiral stairway with a gold handrail

Does digital help make our world more inclusive and accessible?

Last month was the Impact Hub’s #CityCampBrum events. I went to a number of the events and thought about the questions they posed throughout the festival. Unsurprisingly the question that I’m still thinking about most is ‘what is the role of technology in building a better Birmingham?’.

The prevailing opinion is often that digital makes things more inclusive and breaks down access barriers between people. For example, a great project run by Warwick University involved young people with disabilities using 3D printing technology and computer aided design software to design tools and accessories to their requirements. To give you a sense of the kind of things we’re talking about, one of the items made was an iPhone mount with an attachment designed specifically to fit on one of the young people’s wheelchair.

To see other examples, you only need to look at the list of Tech4Good Awards finalists and winners, announced mere days ago. Arnav Sharma’s AsthmaPi helps children manage their asthma, Wayfindr uses audio to help visually-impaired people to navigate the world independently, and the Great British Public Toilet Map is exactly what it sounds like and helps give the 3-6 million people managing reduced continence the confidence to leave the house knowing there is sufficient toilet provision to meet their needs. I am seriously blown away by all of the amazing work highlighted by the Tech4GoodAwards.

But, is digital inclusive? Sometimes, yes, but not always. Digital and tech, to me, seem to remove some barriers and introduce others. For example, any social media marketer will tell you that including images in a post will increase engagement. In fact, Twitter themselves did a blog about this saying that “Research has shown that Tweets with photos get 313% more engagement”. And the first tip in this blog is to use images with text on as a cheeky way to extend your character limit. This seems like great advice, but what about people who are visually-impaired? Screen-readers can’t read text on images, meaning that anything you’ve said in an image rather than in the tweet itself, is lost. I’m using this example in particular because there is a happy ending of sorts. In March this year Twitter built in the ability to add alternative text to images, so you can provide a description which can be understood by everyone (although, I do still have a slight grumble that you have to turn this feature on, when really I see no reason for it not to be standard).

This is equally true of the prevalence of video shared online. There is always that stat being bandied around that “video traffic will be 82% of all consumer internet traffic by 2020”. But what about the 18% of the UK population who use closed captions? Of course, if you upload video through a source such as YouTube you can add subtitles (YouTube’s subtitles are actually very good, and it’s easy to correct them line by line so you get it exactly right). But even this isn’t perfect. Just because you can add subtitles doesn’t mean everyone does, and it’s a particularly pertinent issue with the rise of live video, in which it’s simply not possible to add subtitles. The way that we increasingly share content online, be it images or video, has had to be altered later when we’ve realised that it doesn’t work for everyone. In these cases, digital has created barriers that weren’t there when we were all just sharing text based content.

So, here’s my point. When we ask the question ‘what is the role of technology in building a better Birmingham?’ or ‘does digital increase accessibility?’ we can’t lose sight of our own role in this. So many fantastic projects have been created to work on breaking down barriers and making everyday situations more accessible for everyone, and that’s great. But, at the same time, just like with everything else, when you leave people alone with digital, like social media, we’ll share content that works for us and forget about making it accessible. Digital is a tool – it can be used for good but it is not inherently good or bad. As with all work on equality, it is on us to think about how we build our world, who we’re including, and who we’re excluding. We all have a part to play in building a fair and equal world.

Impact Hub Birmingham

Impact Hub Birmingham (31st May – 18th June 2016) City Camp Birmingham

Warwick University (October 2013) Assistive Technology

Tech4Good Awards (July 2016) Finalists 2016

Jane Stecyk, Twitter (28th January 2015)  #TweetTip: use photos to drive engagement

Todd Kloots, Twitter (29th March 2016) Accessible images for everyone

Cisco (2015) Cisco Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Methodology, 2015–2020

Emily Griffin, 3PlayMedia (28th August 2015) Who uses closed captions? Not just the deaf or hard of hearing

Gosia Letki, Brand24 (15th February 2016) Why Live Streaming Video is The Next Big Thing for Business (and How to Use It)

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