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Disability Meets Digital / 10 April 2013

Disability Meets Digital March 21st 2013 – Aidan Moesby

Sometimes when I don’t know where I’m going I follow someone who looks like they know where they are going. Coming out of Piccadilly Manchester there are absolutely no signs to point the way to Future Everything so I start following someone with a Future Everything tote bag. My hunch pays off. Successfully navigating the not particularly accessible rotary doors I find myself in a throng of people. Everyone is connected to a digital device. It is a little overwhelming. I ask if this is the queue or are we just randomly standing in a line. I was assured it was a queue. But then after a few moments I ask what am I queuing for because I wasn’t sure, the lack of signs and helpers who knew saw me stand in 3 separate queues before I successfully registered. My first impressions were of somewhere and something not very accessible and not very equal. The irony was not lost.

The main thrust of the unconference was ‘how do we ensure that disabled people are not left even further behind in the digital world?’. The proceedings opened with a brief introduction from Alison Smith from Pesky People before Brad Gilbin from Film Victoria talked via skype about Accessibility in Gaming. This theme was echoed by Lynsey Graham from Blitz Games Studio. I’m not much of a gamer but both speakers were accomplished enough to hold an audience and keep it entertaining and engaged. I also learned a lot which was an added bonus.

The story from Victoria, Australia is really positive. State funding is tied into accessibility yet it has surprisingly been an industry lead initiative. In fact it makes sense on so many levels. Placing accessibility at the front of the design process is a no brainer, retro-fitted adaptations that increase accessibility rarely work seamlessly. As an industry professional said ‘We just want people to be able to use our game – it’s good design.’

Solutions around accessibility include being able to alter colour and contrast (colour blindness), remappable controls, difficulty levels that cater for those with Learning Difficulties to have an authentic experience, subtitles – colours, fonts, sizes and separate tracks for audio and video and sound effects. Cues within the game should be both visual and aural. Publishers Ubisoft do it as standard but surprisingly seizure testing is not mandatory.

Lynsey was talking from a similar viewpoint. However she introduced an additional aspect to gaming – that of community. Many games operate on global levels, where you meet, collaborate or battle with people or characters from other countries. Communities are created, socialising occurs in the virtual world which can move into the real world. Gaming also offers opportunities for relaxation, escapism and role play. Indeed play is often over looked or neglected once we enter adulthood. There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence where gaming has been successfully used in rehabilitation, for example word games for people experiencing early onset dementia or stroke. These games seem to enhance the activity of pathways within the brain or partially arrest some of the degenerative processes affecting the brain and cognition. 

We then explored how digital media can be used to challenge bad practice or discrimination for those with disabilities. There are assumptions made in the wider population that blind people do not go out, or disabled people do not have friends and why on earth would ‘they’ want to go and see *place your own cultural event here* anyway?

Samantha Chisnall writes for Pesky People and takes people/organisations to task when they get it wrong but also issues praise when it is due. For example some venues do a two for one deal so the PA (or helpful friend) can go for free, others don’t. Some venues offer dedicated seating or space, yet even at those that do the availability is sometimes appallingly low.  Very often the problem lies with the fact that it is rarely anyone’s specific responsibility so invariably it just doesn’t get dealt with.

Social media offers an opportunity we haven’t had before. We can highlight and campaign like never before. We do have a voice. However, good as it is to advocate best practice, we also need to think that in the wider society people tend to get paid for their knowledge and expertise. When we highlight bad practice and suggest a ‘different’ or ‘better’ way are we not being a consultant and don’t they usually come at a hefty cost? Being disabled does not make us unprofessional, nor should there be an expectation that we are always the volunteer and never the paid expert.

Chris Hammond from Full Circle Arts treated us to a whirlwind tour of the diverse activities that the team are involved with. Full Circle have a Tinkerer in Residence who has been making the digital world very real. I would like to point you to their website because that would do much more justice than the limited space here. They have been working on real life design projects that impact on peoples lives in an immediate way. They have been working with Hack Labs and Fab Labs utilising open source and wikis to affect positive change. Again the disparity of digital take up and accessibility of digital media for disabled people was highlighted. At this point someone ‘outed’ themselves as being from the DWP and a sharp intake of collective breath was heard.

Finally for the morning speakers a representative of Talking Birds presented their ‘Difference Engine’ which was essentially an app for text captioning on a mobile phone screen. It has live editing and audio capabilities. For me however, this was much more of a sales pitch and tweaking opportunity for the developers and I had difficulty engaging with this within the wider context of the day.

The afternoon was going to be the Unconference part of the day, which for me represented the majority of the reason why I had wanted to attend. I like Open Space Technology and provocations. It seems a much more natural and relaxed way of meeting people in a semi structured space and talking round a subject of interest. This has taken the sting out of ‘networking’ as you are meeting in neutral environment without the schmooze factor.

After introducing ourselves within the large group several provocations were put forward. However as the morning had overrun several of the afternoon sessions were cut short. In another oversight the sessions were not time managed so there was only one ‘rotation’. Unless you were a ‘butterfly’ this limited the number of discussions you could sit in on and the subjects you could explore.

Topics discussed included
• ‘Museums and Galleries – Accessibility’ which explored the provision to make venues accessible within the constraints of finance and pragmatism.
• Accessible Events – looking at applications which provide information on accessible events and information on venues
• Applications – exploring some apps in development around accessibility
• Making the web accessible – what do you need to consider when building a site.
More information on these will be available on the Pesky People website if you want to explore them further The day ended with a collective feedback and verbal evaluation session. The consensus was that it had been a successful day with lots of new connections made and many people feeling inspired and empowered.

As a first conference of this style, within this context, it showed that we still have much to do about accessibility and equality in the digital world. Perhaps it highlights the limitations of trying to cover too much ground in a single day, though the optimism of the organisers cannot be faulted.  

The over arching event is billed as ‘Future Everything is a summit of Ideas and Digital Invention – Exploring the interface between technology, society and culture, it is the crucible that allows artists, technologists and future thinkers to share, innovate and interact.’ From a purely personal viewpoint, though also there blogging for the Art House, I felt that there was a lack of art and creativity represented in the Disability meets Digital 13 day conference. I would have preferred less speakers and a keynote in the morning and after lunch with the majority of time dedicated to the Unconference. This way you can self select who and with what you engage – you are much more an active participant rather than a passive viewer. Surely this is what the day was, after all, advocating.
Aidan Moesby