The Prime Minister: Back to school on digital inclusion

In my last article ‘Helping government push digital inclusion during COVID-19’ I wrote about the busy time the various committees and groups across all parties that advise the government have had in recent months. COVID-19 has continued to create challenges for so many when it comes to working digitally – and in particular for those with a disability or impairment whose needs are often out of the ordinary and often overlooked. 

Now, as we move into a possible second six months of home working as the norm for many, and as schools across the UK attempt to get back to some sort of normality, it’s worth a quick focus on how the government’s own report card is fairing when it comes to digital inclusion.

The Prime Minister’s response to an all-party plea to prioritise digital inclusion

At the end of my last article, I left you on a bit of a cliff-hanger. Towards the beginning of lockdown, The All Party Parliamentary Group on Disability (APPGD) wrote to the office of the Prime Minister asking him to provide assurances that, during these unprecedented times of social and economic upheaval, disabled people across the UK would not be forgotten and that their unique needs (including effective access to remote support, new systems for home working and online food shopping etc) would be adequately addressed. 

What was the response? How long did it take to arrive and what was the ironic twist in the tale? 

Well, we (the APPGD) initially sent our communication to the Prime Minister calling for a disability-inclusive COVID-19 response on 29 April.

Image of Boris Johnson speaking at lectern saying 'Hands, Face, Space'

Prime Minister response - 9 July 2020 (inaccessible PDF)

It arrived on 9 July – over two months later – and, whilst noting many very valid steps already taken towards ensuring that disabled people aren’t unduly disadvantaged by the crisis and including many important reassurances, the letter itself arrived as an inaccessible PDF (linked above). 

That’s right. An official response from the Prime Minister himself, sent to a group comprising largely disabled members and aimed at reassuring them that the UK government is on top of digital when it comes to the needs of people with disabilities, is sent in a format that is inaccessible and strongly indicative of quite the opposite. 

This letter is a series of scanned images of pages of text. To me as a blind person, for example, it’s a bunch of pixels that the ‘screen reading software’ built in to my computer, phone and even watch isn’t able to interpret. 

Moreover, being pictures of text, someone with dyslexia isn’t able to choose their preferred font or colours, someone with low vision can’t easily increase the text size without losing half the document, and someone with a learning difficulty or English as a second language can’t readily listen to the spoken text or translate it to their preferred tongue.

In summary, this document doesn’t just include some minor accessibility misdemeanours (such as poor choice of font size or style, insufficient colour contrast or improper use of headings), it actually represents the laziest approach and worst possible offense when it comes to accessibility in digital documents – i.e. let’s take that piece of paper and photograph the thing. And the first point the Prime Minister chooses in his response?; “Turning firstly to accessible communications…”

Oh, and of course this is illegal under UK law, by the way. The irony is so thick, you’d have to cut it with a hacksaw.

Dealing with some very official digital exclusion

Faced with such an inaccessible official document from the office of the Prime Minister, I had to resort to software that attempts to recognise the text within the image of each page. If you need to have text read to you, if you need to make any of the above adjustments in your digital documents, or if you’re just interested in knowing what the letter looks like when run through such text recognition software, this is the resulting Word document below:

Prime Minister response - 9 July 2020 (Word document)

You’ll see it contains mistakes. Not many, but you never know when meaning may be lost or crucial information mistranslated with possibly grave consequences. A wrong digit in a telephone or account number, for example, or an incorrect date for an interview or hospital appointment, which no amount of spell-check built in to the scanning process could second-guess.

Moreover, if this letter contained images, charts or other visual data then they would all be completely lost by such text-recognition technology. This particular document may not have contained any such info (I’ve no way of knowing myself) but a PDF from the bank or electronic leaflet emailed from your local doctors’ surgery may well have. 

Unsurprisingly, there are clearly defined and globally agreed methods of making all types of digital information accessible regardless of disability or impairment – and this obviously includes digital documents of all kinds, their text, images and charts and so on.

Governments across the world have made it a legal requirement to follow such guidelines. In the UK, it’s been law since 2003 when a clarification to the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) confirmed that the digital world was as important as the physical one with regards to accessibility. Since then the Equality Act (2010) reinforced this requirement – so the law is unequivocal.

A commitment to inclusion

Let’s finish off with the closing comment of the Prime Minister’s letter – albeit delivered in an inaccessible format to the very people it’s intended to address:

“Our resolve to ensuring that disabled people can play a full role in society is steadfast and unchanged, with a manifesto commitment to publish a National Strategy for Disabled People. The Strategy's significance is even greater as we rebuild the UK's economy and society after COVID-19, and I am determined that now, more than ever, it must be the most ambitious and transformative endeavour for disabled people in a generation.”

Let’s await that strategy’s publication and hope that all the hard work and input into government policy done by so many is fully reflected. Let’s also hope that government policy translates into action and actual, real-life accessibility experienced by disabled people at home, at work and in education … and let’s hope that the inaccessibility of this response isn’t indicative of the opposite being the case.

Image of students socially distanced sitting at separate tables in a classroom setting

There’s no doubt that government is both engaged and committed to digital inclusion, but slips like this are frankly inexcusable and may reflect the fact that their commitment to a fairer online world is more for others than themselves. School report card says; “Could do better.”

There’ll be some hard times for everyone in the months and years ahead. The concern is that those with disabilities – those who rely on digital more than most – may find them much harder still.

Related information

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