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Digital exclusion is everyone's problem

Thursday, November 27th 2014 by Gareth Duggan
In our hyper-connected world those who cannot get online are often the least free. This includes people who are poor, elderly, disabled or physically isolated, as well as people who, for whatever reason, simply lack the skills to use the internet.

Being excluded from the internet makes life a little harder. Some choose this, but most do not, and they suffer as a result. Their freedom is compromised.

By this definition, many people who have a physical or mental disability are less free than able-bodied people in general. We all live in a world which communicates quickly and with little in the way of consideration for those with additional needs.

In our enlightened age, we like to think we are better at extending a helping hand to those with disabilities. Less crass stereotyping, no more Bedlam. More access ramps, more equality.

But the online world is lagging behind, largely because the simple act of going out of our way to help others is seen as too difficult and, crucially, not profitable.

So those with impaired hearing will look in vain for subtitles outside the mainstream broadcasters. People with speech problems struggle to make themselves understood by voice recognition. Every physical disability implies its own challenge in getting online, and most are catered for either poorly or not at all.

These are sins of omission rather than commission, but that fact does not help. Everybody who is involved in developing technology for the online world needs to take more responsibility, because that’s how things get better.

The lack of willingness to all do our part is what makes it OK to have websites which are not accessible. It’s what leads to content streaming companies deciding that it’s fine to not include subtitles, because to add those subtitles won’t make them money.

At Cable.co.uk we are in the process of making our own website pages more accessible. That’s not an easy process, and it certainly isn’t quick or cheap, but it is important.

It’s too easy to just look at the bottom line, protect your own interests and not make the effort to do something helpful.

The world is about change fundamentally (again), as homes become better connected and the internet of things becomes more than just a clunky phrase. It will mean that everything is connected, from your fridge to your wall clock, your GPS and your home security system.

I like to think of this exciting new world as being like the original New World. The immigrants who risked their lives to get to America’s shores were often born into poverty but wanted the opportunity for success on their own terms.

For disabled people facing daily hurdles in their physical environment, the internet can be like the New World; it is only fair and sensible that it is welcoming to as many people as possible.

It’s also good for us. Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that increased social connectedness could actually improve the responsiveness, or “tone”, of a person’s vagus nerve. The better toned the vagus nerve, the lower the risk for cardiovascular disease and other major killers.

We must do better in our efforts to make the online world more accessible. Not because it is profitable or because it is good for us as individuals (although it can be both), but because it is the right thing to do.

If we work together to help each other, then we make virtual and real life better for everybody.

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