Lincoln blog 2010

Dyer Witheford writes about the organic nature of capitalism; how it is capable of self-regulation and perpetual shape changing; always looking for different markets and new opportunities for commoditisation; objects or people, it doesn’t care. Capacity for resistance is limited. Progress may look promising but rarely lasts. To exist outside capitalism’s access criteria is to be marginalised and disempowered.  The current attack on systems of welfare, in particular the Disabled Living Allowance, is one such example. There are glimmers of hope Disability benefit cuts ‘could breach law’   but they do little to disguise the reality where the hard fought, hard won, gains of the disability movement are being dismantled. It’s a ‘one step forward three steps’ back scenario and wrong on so many levels, not least where medical science continues to value quantitative life over qualitative, but social welfare fails to keep up. In the 1980s recognition that society disables, through failure to recognise and cater for the diversity of human existence, did so much to challenge old medical models of deficiency. Shifting the emphasis from the individual to social structures was a beginning but never enough; there is still more to do in terms of achieving equity of access to opportunities for participation. Thirty years on, that which was given is now at risk of being taken away or provided in a format that is no longer realistic. The focus on work as the best form of welfare ignores the failure of the workplace to cater for diversity and obscures deeper aversive reactions to human diversity and difference.

The government’s public consultation on Disability Living Allowance reform ends on 14 February. The public consultation page is here

Unfortunately it doesn’t follow the ‘write-to-reply’ style public consultation whereby comments are publically available – another backwards step in the creation of the Big Society excuse for dismantling essential provision of welfare services.

It’s been a busy few months for e-accessibility. You could be excused for missing the Single Equality Act  October 1st because the media seemed to miss it too. The Act significantly increased responsibility on information providers to ensure their online content is accessible for disabled people; so it can only be a matter of time before a successful exposure of the inaccessibility of 99% of public websites to access technology – can’t it?

Next: the e-Accessibility Action Plan: Making Digital Content Available to Everyone on October 12th. This reminds us e-Accessibility is essential as the government delivers more and more services online  (Universal Credit anyone?) and will ‘ensure accessibility, affordability and equal participation for disabled users in the digital economy’

Final player in this triptych: BS 8878:2010 Web accessibility – Code of practice on December 7th.  The BSI says it’s the first British Standard to address the growing challenge of digital inclusion Hurray… but then identifies the excluded as being the disabled and older people Boo…..

Two issues here. Firstly the government appears to be moving further away from Labour’s explicit linkage of digital exclusion with existing categories of social exclusion. The UK National plan for digital participation included low income households, people with no formal qualifications, single parents, new immigrants and those living in geographically remote communities alongside older and disabled people (2010:13) as groups likely to experience digital exclusion. Secondly the new trend of linking disability and older people is worrying; it’s a blanket expression that implies ‘not part of the workforce’ therefore not contributing to the economy. The message that inclusive practice benefits all is missing.

The social model of disability was a giant step for individual rights to participation but the original meaning (an individual disabled by society not by themselves) is being diluted and the ‘society’ part forgotten. Slowly but surely we are moving back to a deficit medical model. Boundary lines are being redrawn and the label ‘disabled’ continues to imply exclusion through unwelcome difference. We need to fight this discriminatory mergence. The Papworth Trust write 83% of people  disabled by society acquire their disability in life; they are not born with it. All of us however, will get old.

All year I’ve been talking to anyone who’ll listen about government plans to discriminate against non-internet users. About how the words ‘online-only’ services appear in very small print inside the coalition’s Digital Manifesto. Following last week’s announcement (and blog post)  that Universal Credit will be managed online, further plans have been revealed.  BBC News reports Martha Lane Fox saying  “Government should take advantage of the more open, agile and cheaper digital technologies to deliver simpler and more effective digital services to users, particularly to disadvantaged groups who are some of the heaviest users of government services.”

Yet the previous government’s Digital Inclusion Action Plan  recognised that groups already socially disadvantaged and marginalised are also likely to be digitally excluded. “…the dividing lines of social equality are closely aligned to those associated with digital exclusion; age, geography, educational attainment, income, motivation and skills, disability, ethnic minority” (DCMS 2008:12).

The Guardian reports Cabinet Office officials saying “.. the full savings will only be felt if everything is moved online. Leaving even a small percentage of print registrations would be “prohibitively expensive”. Then they say not only will “getting rid of all paper applications… save billions of pounds” but “insist that vulnerable groups will be able to fill in forms digitally at their local post offices.”

No doubt they’re thinking of those  ‘vulnerable’ groups living in residential care who have lost the mobility allowances which enabled them to get to the post office in the first place.

It’s possible that if the government is serious about seeing “bridging the digital divide as a key economic priority.” something might be done about the barriers to access; namely the cost of assistive technology, the need for appropriate training and support and the inclusive design of digital data. But they’ll need to be quick. The Internet is fast becoming an increasingly visual medium with reliance on mouse navigation the default. This discriminates against a multiple diversity of those already trying to engage with digital living never mind the 9 million identified as yet to go online.

Money saved is less likely to come from the switch to online transactions and more from people being unable to claim in the first place.

I used to worry about landfill. I still do. The long term consequences of poisoning the earth with plastic and polystyrene are still unknown but can’t be good for our future. However, that’s a different subject. I worry as much these days about digital exclusion. I worry because the Internet is an increasingly visual environment and designers are ignoring diversity more than ever; as in the abandonment of text only/alternative websites and the move towards having one website for all. Tesco is the prime example. They quietly dropped their ‘accessible’ site in the summer. The result has been frustration and disappointment for users of assistive technology, used to shopping online, who are now struggling with an ‘inaccessible’ environment. The issues escaped mainstream media. That so few people know about this is indicative of the veil of invisibility that surrounds digital exclusion issues.

I’ve been talking about this; to staff,  students and colleagues. Few have heard of RaceOnline 2012, with its strapline ‘we’re all better off when everyone’s online’ or the government’s Digital Manifesto which promises to ‘do more for less’ and increase the provision of online information and welfare services. Registration for housing is already online with real implications for those classified as homeless who don’t have access to technology and may not have the confidence or confidence to use it effectively. Yesterday Iain Duncan Smith announced plans to bring in a single Universal Credit to replace work-related benefits.

“The new system will mostly be administered through the internet, with people expected to make claims online and check their payments like they would an online bank account – even though an estimated 1.5 million unemployed people do not currently have internet access, according to government figures. The DWP says a “minority” of cases will still be dealt with face-to-face.”

This worries me even more. How can 1.5 million people be considered ‘a minority’  to be further excluded by being ‘dealth with’ face-toface? How can this solve the social issues? Digital exclusion is the equivalent of digital disability; disablement by a society that fails to recognise diversity and disadvantages those already marginalised and disempowered. The strength of the identity politics of the 70’s and 80’s has become diluted and the digitisation of state provision of welfare will be a final blow to the aspirations of minority groups for equal rights. The arrogance of those who operate at ease within digital environments and don’t care about users of assistive technology needs to be challenged.  But how can you challenge when you are already denied easy access to public transport and are unable to participate in the communication channels of an increasingly digital public sphere?

The Home Access Scheme offered home internet access to school children. Launched in January this year, it aimed to ‘provide funding to over 270,000 households that currently lack Internet access by March 2011’ for all ‘low-income’ families with children aged between 3-9. A Home Access Grant bought a laptop including pre-installed software, wireless, technical support and internet access for a year. The scheme was managed by BECTA, axed by the coalition, and unsurprisingly the Home Access Scheme has similarly been cut. Although not without the prerequisite spin.

The main Home Access programme has been a runaway success. More than 250,000 families have already benefitted from Home Access Grants…… which are now no longer available – that’s 20,000 families who didn’t get to benefit. However,  the distribution of Home Access packages with Assistive Technology is ongoing. These aim to provide bespoke packages for up to 12,000 children with profound disabilities or special educational needs.

Apart from saying that’s 12,000 children who’ve fallen through existing assistive technology nets within the educational system, my maths is not good but isn’t that still a shortfall of 8000 children denied the opportunity for particpation.?

Screen reader  software allegedly offers an alternative way to browse the Internet. It’s not entirely their fault that using them is so frustrating. If you can’t see the screen the Internet remains largely inaccessible. Still. After years of Web Accessibility initiatives and standards. After a decade of UK Disability Discrimination legislation. If you’re visually impaired then tough. Imagine you are new to the Internet. You search in your Browser for a recipe because the TV programme read out the website address (and blind people do cook). You get the page below (click on images to enlarge them).

google search results page

The fun begins. There are15 links to go through until you reach the first relevant URL; these include reading out your search criteria and the word Search. But you’ve just done that. Why would you want to do it again? It’s getting confusing.  And it doesn’t get any better. Here’s the relevant Channel four page.

channel 4 page

Up has popped a box. You don’t know this because you can’t see the screen.  You’re being asked to participate in a study. You don’t understand what the study is about because all the relevant information is in the graphic. You’re stuck. You can’t escape (even with the Esc key) so you give up – and find something less frustrating to do instead.

That was yesterday. Today I’m looking at the Comic Relief Grant Application web pages. I’ve got my graphics turned off because I’m testing the effectiveness of poor ALT text on BBC News. I’ve got my Browser Text size set at large because my vision is impaired.  The first thing I notice is that the links are graphics and don’t all have ALT text. The headings are also graphics with no ALT text. Unsurprisingly the graphics themselves have no ALT text. I’m finding the grey on white text difficult. My browser is set to display black on yellow but the website is not allowing me this flexibility.

comic relief grants page              internet colours menu

At the bottom on the page I find the link to Apply and am taken somewhere even more inaccessible. The text is fixed size and too small,  the form boxes and instructions overlap the content and the colour contrast is poor.

comic relief grant application page

I also give up and find something less frustrating to do  instead.

When it came to benefits the media were biased. They reported with glee on the so called benefit cheats and scroungers, focussing on large families living council owned accommodation with barely contained self-righteous smugness. You didn’t read much about those struggling to get by on limited income and coping with a hostile built environment and difficult public transport. But since 20/10 the media are now focusing on the sick and those disabled by society. There’s precious little about the potential damage to the lifestyles of those they used to lampoon and whom these savage cuts were mean to be directed at in the first place.

Adults of working age who have lost their work through illness like a stroke or vision impairment, or have been injured in an accident and who want to work, are now being given a year in which to rehabilitate and find new employment. 12 months is a very short time in a society that has become adept at tokenism and aversive discrimination. After a year their Employment and Support Allowance (previously Incapacity Benefit) will be reduced and then what’s going to happen?

Removing the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance for people in residential care will allegedly save £135 million a year by 2014/15. City banking bonuses come to mind? An adapted car, or wheelchair or a scooter can make all the difference if you don’t have mobility. How else are you supposed to leave your building? How can something that is so fundamental to daily life be so callously withdrawn?

The government is taking away from those with least to lose. Many of whom have become unemployed through no fault of their own. Easy targets, already struggling with daily tasks we take for granted, it looks unlikely the future holds much improvement. We can’t ignore what’s happening. Do something useful and get involved in your local community.  See what a difference a few hours of your time can make. And think twice before casting your vote at the next election. A responsible society cares for those in need; it provides support and encouragement to enable independence, it doesn’t deny welfare to those who need it most. When the government says it will protect it’s not talking about the needy, it’s talking about itself.

Don’t know why I’m blogging instead of revising – probably because I accept the futility of cramming 20 weeks of study into the next 2 hours – and Facebook has gotten boring. I’m so not ready. It’ll take more than a wing and a prayer – I’ll be needing a 737 and a full house at Lincoln cathedral to get me through this one. Exams are so false. It’s not an assessment of my ability to understand the concepts of poststructuralism; the rethinking of the essential and the innate into the fluid and uncontainable, how knowledge is power and discursive practices replicate culturally specific control mechanisms not only through state and institution but how as individuals we reproduce our own repression through processes of monitoring, surveillance and self-regulation. No, it’s purely a memory test – and my memory is currently engaged – with other things.  We need to address assessment. Reducing learning to recall by rote is not what higher education should be about. I’m being judged on my ability to memorise enough content to write (pen and paper???) for three hours in an exam room that’s horrifyingly like being back at school and I’m not happy :-(


disabling disabled=

Mad world?

Nearly as mad as this: a two way table top device for enabling communication for a some who is deaf blind allows one person to key in text which is converted to a Braille readout for the other person to read. They then key in their braille response which is converted to text. So simple and so enabling.

Cost £4500-5000.

How disabling is that?

Careless I know but somehow I missed last Friday when the Single Equality Act became law, in spite of a daily scan through the BBC News, Guardian and the (shhh) Daily Mail online.  I don’t know how that happened. Is it possible the media missed it too?

I have mixed views over this legislation. With my digital head I welcome the provision of accessible formats, being  anticipatory, not waiting for someone to experience difficulties before instigating change. Reasonable adjustments were required where service was ‘impossible or unreasonably difficult to access’. This has changed to where service causes ‘substantial disadvantage’ and sounds the first warning bells. It implies an increase in the need to be proactive. If  it wasn’t happening before, how will compliance be reinforced? If the Commission for Equality and Human Rights is to be abandoned then (quite apart from its controversial existence) who is left to take on discriminatory activity and attitudes?

I doubt the effectiveness of this extended legal protection. Digital exclusion is becoming  increasingly blatant and customisation to suit individual preference more of a challenge. Take away the flexibility of digital data to adapt to the user requirements and you remove the potential power of the Internet for democratic access. History shows prohibition drives practices underground. It disguises them in imaginative formats which replicate and reinforce the continued existence of what was originally banned. So it is with discrimination. Fuelled by predjudice or unawareness, it’s not going to vanish on the strength of a single act; structural systems of inequality are too deeply buried in the social fabric. It’s nearly a decade since SENDA yet exclusive digital practices remain the norm rather than the exception. I worry this is the wrong direction; that the legislation on its own is hollow and weakened by inreasingly complex notions of discrimination as direct and indirect as well as associated or perceived. As soon as you introduce something as subjective as perception and replace ‘being treated less favourably’ with ‘being treated badly’ you problematise interpretation. Maybe, instead of penalising the behaviour, we should be addressing the fundamental reasons for the segregation of difference in the first place. Maybe this is why the act appears to have become statutory with a quiet whimper rather than a noisy bang and a clatter. Maybe it knew it was tokenism before it even arrived.

The latest released version is 11 and this is 8. I don’t know how much things have changed but I suspect some of these issues are still valid. Firstly you need an Internet Connection to activate the software and the only reference to this is on the box in very small print, not on the top, the front the back or the side but underneath! Secondly, a product sold to ‘replace slow and painful typing’ and enable you to ‘control your PC’ still requires manual dexterity with the mouse to turn the microphone on.

I’d heard voice training was problematic but although it insisted my sound system quality was unacceptable, it got to know me very quickly. The activities were a visual challenge. I’ve enlarged everything scalable on my screen but the training windows remained small – an example of the single fixed format syndrome. Accuracy is not brilliant; you have to speak clearly and precisely so it’s not conducive to an open plan office or any degree of privacy. There will always be issues with some words and while you can train it to recognise specific vocabulary specific it still struggles with Hull; a bit like the Nintendo Brain Trainer which has similar problems with blue.

Overall, the biggest issue is remembering the commands. Like any new skill, there’s a lot to remember and not all of it intuitive. Backspace makes sense but ‘Scratch that’ for delete? I found accuracy decreased when I used it for real and it assumed punctuation rather than waiting to be asked. The need to use the Dragon Pad rather than the Word window is another limitation; I can’t find how to enlarge this without the mouse and keyboard commands respond to what ever else is open rather than Dragon Pad itself.

I’m being critical and it’s early days, but the setting up has been tough on my eyes and the need to use the mouse seems to defeat the hands-free element or have I misunderstood the marketing? It doesn’t appear conducive to free thinking or creative writing although it could be good for poetry where you are looking to create the maximum impact with the fewest words; minimalism may be key to good dragoning.

I think it could be a powerful piece of software but like all assistive technology it comes with its own training and support needs and these in themselves can be formidable barriers. Unless you follow the Mouse, Eyes and Ears MEE-Model of computer use (or have capable and willing sighted assistance) then you’re going to have to work twice as hard to have the same ease of use and take twice as long to get where you’re going to. Nevertheless, with 20-20 vision or without it – I’m not defeated yet…

Microsoft sucks!

September 24, 2010 | visual impairment  |  Leave a Comment

Access to digital environments remains problematic. Because I’m also photophobic the contrast of black on white is too harsh. In Word I can change the background colour. On the Internet I’ve used my browser controls to ignore specified colours in favour of my own choice with mixed results. Graphics are either not transparent or too transparent!

The inflexibility of Windows is a major obstacle. I’m working at 220% in Word which is comfortable; a bit like sunglasses on a sunny day, but the contrast between this and the unchanged size of the toolbars and menus is a continual strain. Windows is a discriminatory digital environment. I don’t know how Microsoft have got away with it for so long and the magnifier in their accessibility tools is useless.

The power of digital data is its flexibility meaning it can be customised to suit individual preference. I want to adapt my computer use to suit my own requirements. I want the same experience and ease with vision impairment that I get when my vision is not impaired but it isn’t happening. The digital connection to the internet I rely on as my primary source of communication and access to information is increasingly problematic and I’m being denied an equivalent experience.

Next, I’m going to try Dragon Naturally Speaking but in the mean time, and I never thought I’d say this, it’s a relief to turn off my laptop and do something less stressful instead!

Have a good weekend :-)

First impressions are that Live Writer isn’t going to be very helpful,

There’s no zoom facility that I can see, the browser size controls make no difference and the ctrl
+ mouse-wheel combi doesn’t work. The menu options are tiny and the only font size choices are headings 1-6 or paragraph. Most annoyingly the text wraps about half way across the screen where you don’t expect it too.

I was disappointed to see the alt-text option hidden behind the Advanced image tab; it should be a basic requirement not an added extra!

the inside of a giant white poppy inside of a red poppy

All in all I’m not impressed. At least WordPress responds to enlargement although not without creating different problems. I do like the watermark facility on the images though :-)

blog posted via Windows Live Writer

I’ve got restricted vision again and ‘seeing’ the Internet differently. Tokenism, surface allegiance to accessibility legislation, is common. My pet hates include those little ‘A’s increasing in size but not to any useful extent; clicking them isn’t as easy as you might think; they are small, and where they only increase the text frame navigation and other peripheral content remains the same.

I can change my Browser settings to Largest and increase everything that’s scalable but this highlights the amount of content that isn’t. More frustration as text gets cut off or wraps on top of itself.

magnified text cut off magnified text over wrapping

I need to re-set to Largest when I change sites and incidently, Largest isn’t Large enough. I know there’s the Ctrl and mouse wheel trick that zooms in and that’s how I’m operating but it takes two hands and a degree of manual dexterity, not to mention a mouse with a wheel and knowing about it in the first place! Without screen magnifying software, nothing affects the size of the menu bars and buttons. The brain tries to adjust but the combination of large and original text is difficult to interpret especially with menus such as Save and its  drop down lists of options. The contrast is marked and the original text size appears even more tiny. Headaches and additional eye strain is never far away.

Onto my blog. With Browser set to Largest I find my posted text isn’t responding and I need the mouse trick. The main Dashboard then becomes a touch problematic as it appears very wide. I have to scroll or arrow backawards and forwards from left to right to see it all. The drop down menus have become separated horizontally from each other. I can’t seem to get into them with keyboard commands, making it quite a fun game to try and jump across the gap to hit the Dashboard for my blog.

blog dashboard

Adding images is a bit of a nightmare; zoomed to a workable size the menu gets stuck and becomes unusable for example the image below shows how I can’t scroll down any further.

insert graphic menu on zoom

As you can see I made it but the whole process has taken much longer and is more complex and instead of enjoying working online it’s frustrating. I’ve achieved far less than I normally would have done in the hour and doing less  causes additional problems.  I’m currently looking at Dragon Naturally Speaking for times like this; I think it would be useful on lots of different levels so watch this space – if you can.

Here’s a question – if you’re not digitally active then how do you know you’re being digitally excluded? The irony (or deliberate discrimination) of the government’s Race Online 2012 Manifesto is its invisibility. If you don’t do technology you’re probably unaware of the extent of government plans to move to online-only services. Their focus on broadband access as the answer to digital exclusion is not enough; it’ll do nothing to tackle existing structural inequalities; if anything it will exacerbate them.

I’m not a fan of diary blogs but this weekend I’ve revisited digital exclusion. A couple living with multiple health issues were donated a computer by a local organisation but the power lead for the monitor was missing. It needed POWER:12VDC 3A and the small print on the back of the monitor said  ‘Only use with adaptor: see user’s manual’ which they didn’t have. They had no idea what lead was required, the organisation couldn’t help, the shops they’d tried all said ‘no’ and initial excitement was turning to frustration. I’ve never claimed to be adept with hardware but have the advantage of digital inclusion plus a son who told me ‘use the technology Mum’ so between us we did. I texted him photos of the back of the monitor; he went online, made some phone calls and sent me the location of a shop plus a picture of the transformer required. I found the second hand games shop, doubling as an electrical workshop, and operating a ‘cash only’ policy. It looked unlikely but on the back of a shelf covered in dust was the magic lead.

Currys, Comet and PC World 0 – Local Independent Retailer 100.

The computer was an ASUS52X, loaded with Office 2003, it was fast with a new keyboard and mouse. There was no Internet connection but the computer had capacity and the town has good reception. Sourcing the lead took a couple of hours but for this couple, even when they get their Internet connection, it’s just the beginning. Not everyone has the manual dexterity to manage a keyboard and a mouse and there are going to be access issues there. Then there’s the learning curve which incrementally increases; I began ICT training in Adult and Community Education in the 1990s, pre-Internet, and it was a challenge then, particularly with groups the government now define as socially excluded – in reality having been denied opportunities for participation. To operate with confidence and competence in digital environments today requires multiple skills and knowledge; to stay safe is to know about viruses, scams and phishing, about good online practice regarding payment transactions and being able to judge the authenticity of digital information  – as well as the basics like naming and saving and file management.

The government’s focus on providing access is technological determinism – believing if you have the means the rest will follow. Those writing digital policy and procedure have the pre-requisite digital requirements and too little experience of being on the wrong side of the divide. As digital divisions are increasingly reconfigured as having complex multi-structural dynamics I worry the real issues will get lost; the reality of digital technology meeting analogue user, where the importance of the correct plugs and wires is only the starting point and after that comes the need for effective long-term training and support. These issues are not going to go away.

Suicide Machine

September 16, 2010 | Uncategorized  |  Leave a Comment

Blogs must be like buses – wait for ages then two come at once. A BBC report publicises the Suicide Machine – a service to help people disconnect from social networks. Founder Gordan Savicic says he’s had 90,000 requests and rising from individuals keen to opt out of the Internet and experience the real world instead. It had to happen. Our digital lifestyles have taken on a life of their own. Self-deletion is no longer an option. Who you gonna call? DataBusters! I’m not entirely comfortable with the suicide analogy, and a visit to the website doesn’t make it seem anymore appropriate. But maybe even the human experience of bereavement is reduced through digitisation. Like Kindle takes away the human element of book reading while still offering the same end result.  The report includes a link to Daniel Sieberg’s Declaration of Disconnection in the Huffington Post  where he refers to himself as a recovering social network addict. Suicide AND Addiction?  Scratching on the surface of the reality of the dark side of the Internet. When did you last experience digital disconnection and how was it for you?


September 15, 2010 | Uncategorized  |  Leave a Comment

For me, blogging is about reflection. This relationship becomes strained when time is in short supply. The act of blogging then becomes a measure of the time available for thought. You know when blogging gets neglected, the processes of reflection are slipping too.

Without reflection we function automatically. Reflection is the means by which we make sense of the present and move meaningfully into the future. But sometimes events are too much. That’s when avoiding reflective practice becomes a way of coping. Workload exceeding its allocated time is an example. How to prioritise? What to cut? Where to say no?

Then it gets more complex. What is my role? Like the words on the bridge over the Brayford – where have I come from and where am I going?

Blogging is an opportunity to take time out for reflection – we should value that. However we choose to engage, we need reflection. Somehow we must find a way to make it happen.

So what do I say no to in order to have time to think?

September always feels more like  a ‘new year’ than January does. There’s a sense of anticipated difference – in the levels of noise, people, activity, queues and above all start of semester work-loads. Only this year I haven’t  actually stopped working. I don’t know where the summer’s gone, only that I havent gone anywhere with the exception of last week when I visited the University of Kent; home of the Creative Campus Initiative. Creativity appeals; imagination, dance, poetry, music and above all reflective writing – I knew I’d feel at home there :-)

Brayford is an attractive campus but it misses the landscaped gardens of the ‘Cottingham Road – Hull’ campus. Kent campus is built on a hill surrounded by trees and bushes full of rabbits and squirrels; a highspot is the Canterbury Labyrinth – more about this at – looking even better for real than it does in the pictures.

[nggallery id=9]

The labyrinth overlooks Canterbury Cathedral;  creating appropriate parallels between a workshop on reflective journeying and Chaucer’s pilgrims travelling to the shrine of Thomas A Beckett, murdered in the cathedral in 1170. The cathedral itself is permanent memorial to the craft of the medieval stonemasons but there’s less on the death of Thomas himself and the candle marking the long gone shrine is nowhere near the alleged place of the murder. For years I believed there were bloodstains on the stone; more likely a natural colour change but a powerful memory and I wanted to investigate. The pillar itself is no longer there; instead there are headstones in the floor and one has a circular plaque which a guide told me is where the pillar was. Coincidence or design? Either way it sounded speculative and most people, myself included, will have walked over that spot without even realising it’s there. The rest of the cathedral is well worth a visit but there is no blood on the stones.

[nggallery id=10]


I hate labels and the label I hate the most is ‘disabled people’.  I hate it because people with impairments are disabled by society’s failure to recognise categories of difference and reduce subsequent barriers to participation.  This is the social model of disability. It’s society that disables individuals; you don’t disable yourself.

Today the BBC and the Guardian have reported on a poll commissioned by Scope from ComRes, where 91% of people stated they believed disabled people should have the same opportunities as everyone else (it doesn’t say what the other 9% thought). It then goes on to tell us how ‘disabled people are largely hidden’ away and socially excluded.  Richard Hawkes, Chief Executive of Scope, said: “This is shocking evidence that shows that disabled people are still relatively invisible in day-to-day life. We are deeply concerned that the Government’s spending cuts will end up pushing disabled people even closer to the fringes of society.”

Note the label’ disabled people’ throughout. When problem with labels is they’re seen first and accompanied with all the stereotypical images and cultural attributions associated with them.  If these are predominantly negative then the reader or listener experiences them first.  Labels reinforce and reiterate. When you see the label disabled people, add socially in front of every occurrence of disabled and see how the radically the meaning changes.

Who put the C in ICT? When did the word Communication(s) slip in? According to Dyer Witherford in Cyber Marx, communication(s) could well stand for capitalism. Following in the tradition of Negri  and Autonomist Marxism, DW claims technology has become the major site of class struggle and conflict in 21st century. Techno-science is portrayed as an ‘instrument of capitalist domination’ with control of communication channels in the hands of multi-national organisations. Flows of information and digital data are less easily managed which is creating space for ‘invention’ power to re-appropriate and subvert and use information for alternative purposes. It’s the tension between these contesting interests which provides society with the nucleus for revolution.

Information theorists  suggest our current ‘information society’ represents a ‘third age’, one that follows the ‘agrarian’ and ‘industrial’ ones. They argue industry has been succeeded by information and techno-scientific knowledge has become the main wealth-producing resource (but wouldn’t rain forests and natural treasures like gold have valid claims?) Evidence of a knowledge economy is all around and critical to the dissemination and management of these new ways of working have been the developments in Information Technology (IT). We now generally use the acronym ICT but when did the additional letter slip in? Pondering like you do (long car journey – monotonous roads) the parallels between the Autonomist’s view of the I and the C as representing conflict between citizen and state makes a potential duality of meaning an appropriate one.

The National Centre for Social Research give nothing away. Lots of interesting sounding work  regarding social issues but not freely available.  The most I could find of Chapter 9, Report 23, Disabling attitudes? Public perspectives on disabled people by John Rigg was the first two pages at and a price tag of £8.22 for the full document.

The Centre describes itself as a not-for profit organisation dedicated to ‘making an impact on society and advancing the role of social research in the UK’ but clearly doesn’t subscribe to any democratic principles of digital data such as Creative Commons or GNU General Public Licensing. A bit ironic that a document about those who live most of their lives dealing with barriers to participation can’t even check out these public perspectives – in fact it’s not even ironic – it’s disgraceful.

10 quick and easy steps to inclusive practice with digital documents.


  1.  Text in capital letters
  2. Text in italics
  3. Underlining text (except for hyperlinks where it’s a convention)
  4. Right, Centre and Full Justification
  5. Patterned backgrounds
  6. Poor colour contrast
  7. Text over images
  8. Fancy fonts
  9. Text less than 12 pt in size
  10. PDF with no alternative version (eg Word, rtf, html etc)

Finally, Section 20 of the Single Equality Act, ‘Duty to make adjustments’ (page 24 of the act) expressly references the provision of information in accessible formats. The EQU guide to implications of this act for higher education uses the example of providing lecture hand outs only in paper format where a reasonable adjustment would be to provide lecture notes in alternative formats such as on a virtual learning environment.  Students can then access them independently and, designing them with the 10 steps above in mind, should help ensure they are accessible.


August 13, 2010 | inclusive design  |  Leave a Comment

The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) website have produced a document  ‘Implications for Higher Education Institutions’ referring to the Single Equality Act’. They also have a useful link on their home page How can academics ensure the materials they produce are accessible for all students?

The Single Equality Act is a complex piece of legislation; there are nine areas against which it is illegal to discriminate and HEIs still have the responsibility to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ in order to ensure a disabled person is not treated less favourably than a non-disabled one. The word disabled is in itself contentious. It doesn’t make explicit that being ‘disabled’ is about society and not the individual, that being disabled is about being denied access to participation through  society’s failure to recognise sufficient categories of difference. The external social environment functions at the level of the majority or the level of the individual who is operating as the provider of ‘goods, facilities, services and public functions’.

With regard to virtual learning environments this is about the MEE Model. The person creating and uploading digital content using Mouse, Eyes and Ears and assuming everyone accessing that content is doing the same – when this might not be the case. As we head towards the start of a new academic year, it’s worth revisiting the subject of promoting inclusive practice with digital data. Look out for PIP2 following shortly :-)

Firstly classic government spin from last weekend’s Guardian. After decades of research into maternal attachment, and under the mantra ‘work is good benefits are bad’, a single study in the US claims to show ‘babies don’t suffer’ if mum goes back to work. Well, they wouldn’t would they? Babies are resilient. Their built in survival mechanism responds well to being warm, dry and fed – regardless of who does it. The issues are much more socially complex than this and lines like “The gains of being in employment outweigh disadvantages” could only be written by someone who’s never worked in white wellies or juggled night shifts with a growing family at home. Work is a necessity; enjoying work is a luxury.

A second Guardian report that only tells half the story. 40% of dementia cases would be avoided if we spent longer in education – oh and we need to eliminate depression and diabetes, and eat more fruit and veg too.  What isn’t being mentioned is the control the processed food industry has over the cost and availability of the chemical crap it passes off as being good for us. Diabetes is linked to obesity which 99% results from messing up our bodies with high fat, high salt, high sugar food. If you eat lots of fruit and veg there’s a good chance you won’t be eating much of the synthetic stuff; not only will that reduce your chances of being obese and diabetic but you’re likely to feel better too. Aspartame messes with your brain. Remember saccharine? At a time when rising levels of obesity, and related health issues, are causing concern, note the plethora of low fat, low sugar, diet foods and drinks that are available but don’t seem to be making any difference. Why don’t they teach critical thinking at primary school?

When do the normal ups and downs of daily life become bipolar disorder? When does eating too much chocolate because it was a bad day become binge eating? Or the regular onset of nerves before speaking in public a mixed anxiety depression?  The fifth edition of the bible of all psychiatrists, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is soon to be published. Edition four introduced conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) which saw sales of the drug Ritalin flourish – no doubt with substantial profits for Novartis. It begs the questions ‘What will be the medication of choice for this new batch of disorders?’

A definition of mental health is required, but which one? Spot the differences.

  • Health Education Authority (1997) “the emotional and spiritual resilience which enables us to survive pain, disappointment and sadness. It is a fundamental belief in our own and others’ dignity and worth”.
  • World Health Organisation (2007) “Mental health is a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
  • Mind (2010) A level of emotional well-being that allows an individual to function in society or an absence of significant mental health problems.

Foucault wrote about docile bodies which were inscribed with cultural categories of dysfunction. Negative identities permitted state regulation. One particularly pernicious category for 19th century women was hysteria. The Yellow Wallpaperoffers a chilling insight into how post natal depression was misconstrued according to the norms of the time.  In the days of the Victorian lunatic asylum, attributions of insanity endowed the power to incarcerate and remove from society. As well as the changes in language, cultural responses have changed too, along with the ever increasing breadth of diagnostic conditions. Any new classification of mental illness serves to legitimise intervention. With categories becoming ever more closely aligned to the trials and tribulations of 21st century life, it seems likely that those set to gain the most benefit from these latest additions to the manual, are most probably the pharmaceutical companies themselves.

‘Digital Britain’ has survived the election and the drive to get us all online by 2012 has stepped up a gear. The strap line to the Race Online 2012 website now reads ‘We’re all better off when everyone’s online’ and David Cameron’s letter Martha Lane Fox to remains Digital champion includes the following:  “…the Government is committed to increasing transparency and accountability through making information systematically available online…we need to encourage more people to go online and hence be able to access public information and services.”

So far so good – so long as we have digital equity. The Labour government made an explicit link between social and digital exclusion and while it didn’t go far enough, it was a promising start. Race Online 2012 has a new manifesto.  and it increasingly clear there is a new agenda.  Online, the manifesto is a visual horror. The 67 page 5.56 MB PDF offers no respite. This is a prime example of style over substance. The Manifesto for achieving for 100% digital inclusion demonstrates how to be digitally exclusive right from the start.

Image from Race Online 2012 manifesto

Putting the dreadful design to one side, what is Race Online about? The message is clear. The government is replacing people run services with online services. If you can’t access them then tough. The reasons for not going online are lack of motivation, access and skills. The government is going to sort out the access, then its up to you to get motivated and virtually re-educated. Its for your own good. The benefits of being online are obviously about economics, education, employability and improved efficiency of public welfare so how can you not see the benefits?

The Manifesto is glossy, in your face and totally inadequate. It recognises 48% of disabled people are not online but on its own that figure means nothing. Words like assistive technology, accessible design and inclusive practice are absent (in both text and the sub-text of the design). There’s no recognition of the issues of the cost of assistive software or even how with all the prerequisites in place, if digital data is not designed with the needs of assistive technology in mind then access will continue to be denied. Focus is on the transformative power of the Internet to create a new networked nation with no indication of how vulnerable citizens, already disempowered by inadequate access to welfare and barriers to social participation, are going to be supported.

The move towards virtual citizenship is alarming. Divisions between those with digital competence and those without are already creating new structures of power and dependency. The computer both connects us and isolates us. It supports a digital economy where nothing is real but we all pretend that it is. In the future, anarchy won’t be virtual it will be human. Science fiction won’t be about machines, but about people. The Internet can offer unparalleled access to information and opportunities to participate in the active construction of knowledge, but it can’t substitute for care and welfare. The greatest problem is that those driving the agenda don’t care about the impossibility of digital equity while those best placed to highlight the issues are being denied a virtual voice.

This expert blog post ‘Warning Social Computing could be good for your health’ led me to the speech by the Secretary of State for Public Health (who doubtless has to neither shop on a budget nor be restricted by the stock in his local Nisa). Most of the nine pages is typical government rhetoric about inherited problems and solutions that neatly bypass the source.  With regard to social media, Andrew Lansley, actually says very little and the phrase ‘the power of new technologies and new media’ bypasses digital exclusion issues of which I have much to say. If you need a reminder of contemporary attitudes, here is some feedback on a funding bid to research digital exclusion and visual impairment.

“Readers said they were surprised about some of the statements about accessibility as there is special software for those with special needs and there is guidance for software developers related to meeting the needs of those with special needs.”

Ok, you could say ‘yes’ to both (ignoring for now the old medical model of disability that’s implicit here), but in the real world the industries who are responsible for each  rarely talk to each other. As a result the more the Internet is used to communicate then the more people are being excluded.  (If you doubt this click the digital divide/digital exclusion links under my blog categories.)

Back to public health – in a stunning display of political hyperbole, Andrew Lansley misses the point completely. Alongside education for behavioural change, policy should address the environmental issues too such as cut-price alcohol and the processed gunk that passes for ‘ready’ meals. The monopoly of giant food corporations like Coca Cola and McDonalds, and their cheap alternatives, has led to mass consumption of chemical concoctions designed to increase profit margins regardless of damage done to health. The people the government claim to want to help are the very same who are inadvertently supporting their own privileged and financially secure lifestyles. If you need more evidence try We are being ruled by a junk food government  and  Business Interests fight obesity

Some weeks are tougher than others. This week my laptop has not been helpful. I open an existing file, work, save and close. The next day I try to reopen and get this sweet little error message

Word Error Message

Word Error Message

Don’t be fooled because none of the above suggestions work.

The first time this happened I lost an assignment and was not happy. A virus was suspected, the laptop ghosted and my general admin rights removed. This has not been without its frustrations but is by the by. Over the past two weeks Word documents have mysteriously started vanishing again. At first I blamed the synchronisation for behaving strangely. But it’s been a week since my laptop was plugged into the network and I’m still losing work. Never mind cigarettes and alcohol, this is not good for my health.  I’ve reactivated DropBox, am emailing myself and putting backup copies on the D drive which doesn’t seem to be affected. I don’t understand. How is it possible to save and close and then the file vanishes? There are things in life we like to rely on. People can be perverse but I like to think my car will start in the morning and my laptop is reasonably faithful, that it will hold onto my work and return it to me safely. But not so. Some days there’s a lot to be said for sitting down at the allotment and just watching the flowers grow.


Shortly after Dr Beckton successfully completed his Viva, it was necessary to follow the time-honoured traditions of doctoral creation.

Doctoral Tradition 1 - the rush to the bar...

Doctoral Tradition 1 – the rush to the bar…

Doctoral Tradition 2 - collegial solidarity...

Doctoral Tradition 2 – collegial solidarity…

Doctoral Tradition 3 - the first doctoral pint

Doctoral Tradition 3 – the first doctoral pint

Many congratulations Julian, well done  :-)

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Yesterday the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt blamed ‘a lack of funds’ for the government’s decision to delay the roll out of 2MB broadband. Labour had set 2012 as a deadline, now Mr Hunt says he does not think there is “sufficient funding in place” to meet that goal.’

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in its recent report A minimum income standard for the UK raises the benchmark for an “acceptable standard of living” from a computer and home internet connection being essential for people with school-age children to essential for all working age households.

Steve Robertson, chief executive of BT Openreach, says “As a society we need to make our minds up about what is an essential element of our social fabric. Today not having broadband makes people feel deprived”

A letter from David Cameron appointing Martha Lane Fox as the UK Digital Champion (18/06/10) says (my emphasis) “…the Government is committed to increasing transparency and accountability through making information systematically available online.  We also want to improve the convenience and efficiency of public services by driving online delivery….To make this happen, we need to encourage more people to go online and hence be able to access public information and services.”

Clear evidence here of digital divides and mixed messages while, maybe not surprisingly, no mention of the digital exclusions that exist even with a broadband connection in place.

The Plastiki, a plastic bottle catamaran, revisits the issue of plastic waste in the oceans; in particular the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or Gyre where the currents have created a concentration of plastic pollution. The plastic breaks down but doesn’t decompose. Plastiki also raises awareness of the shortage of fish, comparing their journey to that of Thor Heyerdahl on the Kon-Tiki in 1947 where the fish were so abundant crew were throwing them back into the sea. Despite having their lines in the water every day, Plastiki crew have caught only a couple of tuna in three month, reinforcing reports that 80% of the world’s fish stocks have done. The remaining fish are damaged by plastic pollution.

“These particles [of plastic] are ingested by marine life and pass into our food chain. We all do it: we throw this stuff, this packaging….into the bin, and we think it has gone. But it comes back to us one way or another. Some of it ends up on our dinner plates.”

plastic pollution

Examples of sea water containing fragments of plastic; it breaks down but doesn’t decompose


Videos on You Tube. World biggest garbage dump – plastic in the Ocean

Charles Moore: Sailing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch- a TED Talk

The value of conferences is the opportunities to meet other people and share ideas and experience; especially with a subject like digital exclusion, which isn’t high on anyone’s list, although it should be. Participants at JSWEC, the Joint Social Work Education Conference, were a rare mix of service users, carers, volunteers, social work students, educators, practitioners, academics, government officials and the mix worked well. The atmosphere was friendly, supportive and eclectic; widening participation in practice with not an ivory tower in sight.

The HEA Conference took place the week before; like JSWEC it was also held at the University of Hertfordshire. The atmosphere was different although the bar was equally well attended. Jan Sellers from the University of Kent created a temporary labyrinth in the campus grounds. It was a shame it couldn’t have been there for JSWEC too because it would have been popular. The idea of walking the labyrinth is to take time out. Pause to reflect and focus on the winding twisty path into the centre and out again. Understanding isn’t important, you don’t need to analyse, it’s the doing of it that counts. Interest in the use of labyrinths in higher education is growing. See for more information.

labyrinth at the HEA Conference 2010, University of Hertfordshire   labyrinth at the HEA Conference 2010, University of Hertfordshire

My conference hat-trick began with the International Social Work and Social Development Conference. I blogged a bit about the Hong Kong experience here. The experience was inspiring. International conferences offer a rare insight into other countries and lifestyles. They support a retrospective assessment of what you have at home. No matter how much we complain, the UK is an excellent place to live. We have an education system the world admires, a welfare state second to none and precious amenities we take for granted like clean drinking water. John Bowerman, photographer for National Geographic, says the only justification for travelling is the stories you bring back. The most memorable story I heard was from Ms. Valerie Maasdorp, Clinical Director for the Island Hospice and Bereavement Service in Zimbabwe. The speech contained multiple realities; poverty, lack of food, shortage of medicines, the legacy of Aids resulting in thousands of orphans and the harsh consequences of living under a dictatorship government. Here we can ignore the media and pretend everyone wears shoes and can provide for their children. Sharing space with people who are living lives so much harder than ours is a difficult, uncomfortable experience. The story I bring back is we should all value what we have so much more than we do.

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Another Place on Crosby Beach was original. If public art is to stimulate thought and reaction then for me it worked. The parallels that came to mind as the tide revealed and concealed the statues ran unexpectedly deep. Even now, knowing the process is continuing reminds me of the permanence of nature in contrast to the impermanence of human life. But how many times do you need to repeat something before it starts to lose its originality and impact? Statues of Anthony Gormley are now available on an international scale; they’ve been installed in London, Edinburgh and New York and their latest appearance is high in the Austrian Alps. Gormley says calls the figures “silent witnesses” and says:

“The works are neither representations nor symbols, but [define] the place where a human being once was, and where any human being could be… [It] asks basic questions – who are we, what are we, where do we come from and to where are we headed?”

Once on Crosby Beach I might have agreed. But the effect is lessened by repetition. They are starting to raise the question of  is it art or is it ego that drives someone to continually recreate themselves in this way.


As the LGBT community celebrate 40 years of Pride, Peter Tatchell looks forward to a society that is beyond Gay and Straight;  to the end of homophobia. I’m not sure that’s possible. Social phobia have deep roots. We absorb socially constructed identities and ideas. They are tenacious, almost impossible to remove. Like attitudes towards disability. The language has moved on. The words cripple and handicapped are no longer socially acceptable. The medical model, where impairment was blamed for non-participation, has been replaced with a social model. This acknowledges society’s failure to recognise and cater for difference of need. But underneath I wonder how much has really changed. We may have statutory equality of opportunity but negative attitudes are still there. They maybe invisible, even subconscious, but access is for the majority and this is not changing. Take the recent move towards street furniture and shared surfaces, where the distinction between road and pavement is removed. This suggests the built environment is becoming less rather than more accessible. What about technology where the flexibility of digital data means it can be made accessible to everyone. The furore over the Tesco online shopping website this week clearly demonstrates how little the needs of visually impaired shoppers are taken into account. What’s that? You haven’t heard anything about the Tesco online shopping website? Then I rest my case.

Hong Kong

June 19, 2010 | conference  |  Leave a Comment

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In Hong Kong the divide between east and west is tangible. The concrete steel and glass skyscrapers are indicative of scores of Western cities. Expensive hotels surround the Hong Kong Convention Centre in Wan Chai, all joined by a series of walkways that cross over roads and mean you can effectively spend a week in the harsh air conditioning, your feet never touching the ground. Which would be a shame because it’s down at ground level that you find the real Hong Kong. Where the Western façade gives way to colour and culture that has existed unchanged for centuries. Where food is cooked on the street; the jobless sit in dirty corners and the hopelessness of poverty is etched into tired faces. Young teenage girls stand in club doorways inviting tourists inside; they look like they should be doing their homework not pandering to sex tourism. In Hong Kong there is no middle way. If you are rich, you live above street level, if you are poor your life is lived in among the doorways and rubbish piles, where the smell of frying onions mingles with sewerage.

Nothing in Hong Kong is free.  I visited a state nursery for children with disabilities where even the poorest parents pay a contribution. At the Hong Kong Institute for the Blind, cheaper treatments are offered but still at a cost. Education for children is a valued priority; a way out of poverty, an opportunity for greater participation in western lifestyle and values; the evidence of which is everywhere in the ubiquitous, globalised brands of McDonalds, Subway and Starbucks, all key players in the internationalisation of cities where consumerism is rife and difference reduced to the type of currency unit in your pocket.

Some of the best things about Hong Kong are their virulent anti-smoking policies; they’re anti-plastic bags and litter. Functions and events run smoothly. The metro is a dream, spotlessly clean and easy to navigate. The buses, trams and Star ferries between Hong Kong and Kowloon and the surrounding islands operate on regular, cheap timetables. I never saw anyone drunk or aggressive in public. The day begins with Tai Chi, an example that would benefit us all with its slow, smooth grace.  Peaceful Buddhism is a major religion and the government openly influenced by Confucian philosophy. This again is symptomatic of the dichotomy. Hong Kong is key to capitalism, its skyline dominated by the International Financial Centre, while down in the streets below the traditional Chinese medicine shops stock dried animal parts for the holistic treatment of individual ills and ailments. Like the difference between the humidity and the chilled air conditioning, Hong Kong is a city of contrasts, but one where you need to get out into the heat to experience it.

My next blog will be about The Agenda, the 2010 International Social Work and Social Development Conference and HUSITA (HUman Services Information Technology Applications).

Deadly oil

June 4, 2010 | Uncategorized  |  Leave a Comment

a pelican covered in oil    a seabird covered in oil

Images from the Daily Mail  There are no words.

What goes around comes around and here we are, 100 years on from the report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law (1910) looking once again at welfare reform. The rhetoric of benefit dependency, or benefit scrounging depending on your philosophy,  informs current government policy aimed at getting the nation back to work. Being employed is going to be made the most attractive option.

Do some simple deconstruction and look at the background, lifestyle and income of those making these statements. Then put them into white wellies and leave them in a wet fish factory or get them into the industry of the 21st century – a call centre – either cold calling where your wage depends on meeting your targets or customer services where the ‘care’ ethos has gone to extremes – give Iain Duncan Smith the experience of verbal abuse on a shift rota that includes bank holidays and weekends. Will he still see work as the ‘more attractive option’?

Its all about getting people back into work and nothing about support for those who have always been in work, who spend their lives doing the low paid routine jobs that the government is trying to make more attractive than benefits. Ensure those citizens have contracts that protect them, not cut their wages if they’re genuinely ill, and most of all create affordable education opportunities so work chances can be improved. The cost of part time education is exorbitant and contributes to the trapping of young single people into dead end jobs where opportunities are locked down and there are too few rewards for taking the ‘more attractive’ option.

Then there is the issue of incapacity benefit – and ensuring protection for those genuinely excluded from social, economic and cultural participation. Not because they are unable to take part – but because society is not designed for them to be able to. A separate blog post I think. If you have any concerns about these issues then watch this space…

image showing oil reaching the Loiusiana coast image showing oil reaching the Loiusiana coast

“Local reports described heavy sheets of oil the consistency of latex paint clogging the marshes in the Mississippi delta that provide a haven for migratory birds, and buffer the shore from Gulf hurricanes. ”

This is what everyone wanted to avoid, because the wetlands are the nursery for everything that swims or crawls in the Gulf of Mexico,” said John Hocevar, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace. “Once the oil gets stuck in there we are pretty much stuck with it.”


The Coalition Programme for Government is available.  Firstly I’m on my soapbox about it only being provided in pdf format. The support information is inadequate i.e.  three links away from a 30 page Adobe Document which guess what – is also a PDF – like I didn’t have a problem first time round!

But secondly, what did catch my eye was the structure of the contents. The first of 31 items is Banking (Das Kapital?)  Then I noticed that Social Care and Disability is at 28 while Universities comes in at number 31 and I was amused in an ironic ‘TFIF’ sort of way…

oil on the shore in Louisiana

It’s been three weeks and six days and oil continues to gush out of the broken pipe. Only it’s not one but two broken pipes. While BP stick with their 5000 barrels a day estimate, a professor of mechanical engineering has studied the latest video and reported that the two wellhead leaks combined are gushing 95,000 barrels a day, with 70,000 barrels from the largest leak and 25,000 from the smaller. This is the first reference to two leaks. Previous video footage only appeared to show one. It shows how we have no idea of the truth of the situation.

The story is old now. You have to search to find coverage. But it’s still happening and the oil has reached the shoreline. The damage is unknowable. One of the dispersents being used is Corexit, a chemical banned in the UK because of its effects on limpets and other sea life. The word helplessness comes to mind. Helpless to stop it, helpless in the face of the potential environmental damage. Argument and debate in the US is focused on passing the blame, on the politics of deep water drilling and on attempts to limit political damage on the November mid-term elections. In the mean time the oil continues to leak unstoppably into the Gulf of Mexico.

seabird covered in oil

Estimates now range from 5,000 to 70,000 barrels a day, following analysis of video footage of the broken pipe. Now in week 4, it still gushes.  Tony Hayward, BP CEO, claims the oil spill is “relatively tiny” compared with the “very big ocean. Coverage of the press conference  gives no answers only that BP are “learning as we go along”. For the waters and shorelines of the Gulf of Mexico the lesson may be too late.

In the 17 days since Deepwater Horizon exploded 1,135,600 litres of oil a day (19,305,200 litres or 1,748,824 gallons) has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico and continues to do so every minute of the day. BP have an environmental disaster on their hands. The BP PR campaign has gone into overdrive. It needs to do. So far they’ve tried fire, containment booms, underwater robots and a deep water containment cover all without success. The latest idea is a ‘junk shot’. Under high pressure, ‘tyres, golf balls and things like that’ are going to be fired at into the leaking pipe. I read that twice too. If you can’t sink a containment device because of the ice crystals then how much different is a high pressure debris firing gun going to make? The only hope is, for the sake of the environment, that it works – but it’ll be a long shot in every sense of the word.

The Centre for Social Justice  makes out it’s for the benefit of society but whose society is it benefiting?

On the title alone, it sounds like my kind of organisation. Focus on social exclusion and favouring collectivism over an ‘each to their own I’m all right’ politics.  But titles can be so misleading. There’s something not ‘I’m all right’ here. For starters, it was founded during the time of ‘Margaret – there is no such thing as society – Thatcher’. It alleges independence but what does that mean? Everything is political. We’re all political. It’s impossible not to be. Informed and framed by social location, we reflect past and present environments. I prefer to think I’m capable of independent and critical thought but I accept the influence of cultural expectation. It’s recognising it that counts.  For me social justice has two strands; identifying and changing the structures that lead to social exclusion and using education to promote acceptance of diversity.

The Centre for Social Justice is a government ThinkTank so any talk of independence is an anomaly. Their position,  left or right of centre,  contains inherent political bias and they would do better just admitting it rather than disguising their intentions in false consciousness. The thinkers in the tank are products of their own environment so the chances are high that recommendations will have individualist or collectivist roots – never the twain shall meet. This bloggolage has come about through media coverage of Phillipa Stroud,  Executive Director of the Centre for Social Justice. Even allowing for media bias, there is something uncomfortable about social justice being headed up by anyone with extreme views. In this case homophobia to a degree that shouts Clause 28  all over again.

The Observer article  attracted a range of media responses; here’s a selection from the The Guardian,  The Telegraph and The New Statesman. Couldnt find anything from The Times.

The name Deepwater Horizon will go down in environment history. It’s been 8 days since an explosion sank the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. First estimates were 1,135,600 litres of crude oil released into the water – every day. That’s 79,492,00 litres a week so even more than that is now floating in the sea and starting to come ashore on the Louisiana coast.  There are two tragedies here, the loss of 11 lives and the environmental disaster when this amount of oil is leaking from 1,500m below the water’s surface, making it impossible to reach.  The effects on the environment  and on wildlife  can only be estimated, based on previous experiences, and this disaster looks likely to be even greater. How many wake-up calls do the multinational oil companies like BP need before accepting that the harm they are doing to the planet will always ultimately outweigh the benefits they provide.

A collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts from the Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, has been digitised and is now available on the internet. Take a look. They are a fabulous glimpse into history.  My first thought was how can digital data ever compare with these beautiful pages showing the lost art of illumination, from a time when few could read and even less had access to the expensive inks and vellum parchments. What will we leave behind other than mountains of obsolete system units and monitors and electronic content that’s inaccessible without the means to interpret and display it. But then you realise that without an internet collection we wouldn’t be seeing these manuscripts in the first place. The only ones I’ve seen have been in various museums around the country and the Henry VIII exhibition last year at the British Library (cost in the travel and entrance ticket). So maybe the virtual is better than not having the reality at all.  If you need convincing then the British Library’s Turning the Pages should do it. This digitisation of priceless manuscripts has been online for several years. As well as Leonardo, Blake and Austen, it includes treasures like the changing seasons of the Luttrell Psalter and the stunning anglo saxon Lindsifarne Gospels.  Virtual history doesn’t get much better than this!

pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels

Exams should no longer been seen as effective methods of assessment; at least not unseen papers consisting of three essay type questions to be answered in three hours that cover a three month intense theoretical based course. I took one of these ‘bad experiences’ this week; at an exam centre I’d never been to before; it had with no car parking facilities, and was in the centre of York, over 50 miles from my home, all factors that added to the stress. The subject of the course was psychoanalytical and sociological theories of identity construction. It was helpful that this covered materials from the subject of my first MA in Gender Studies. I felt I had knowledge and understanding of the subject matter but knew from the start that when it came to an exam, then recall was going to be a problem. I’m taking an MA in Open and Distance Education with the OU and their study materials are excellent. I read the preparation for exams booklet from front to back, followed a revision plan and drew the mind maps that suited my visual learning style. But an hour into the exam and I knew that I couldn’t ‘remember’ any more than I’d already made notes on. It was like my memory was saying enough is enough and had shut down. I could see my diagrams in my head, the shapes and the colours, but not the text. I don’t know if this is a learning disorder, early Alzheimer’s or a symptom of a heavy work load that regularly extends into evenings and weekends. What I do know is that it felt like an unfair assessment of my ability, and I felt discriminated against by a mode of assessment that for me just doesn’t reflect my knowledge and understanding or allow me to do myself justice. I would be very interested in other people’s response to this.


April 16, 2010 | nothing to do with work  |  Leave a Comment

Beautiful Minds is a Channel 4 series about some of the greatest scientific discoveries of our age. I was pleased to see that the second episode was devoted to James Lovelock; it’s time he was credited with recognition for the all the right rather than the wrong reasons.

I always thought Lovelock was a sensible scientist. His idea that the earth was a self-regulating organism, made up of complex interrelationships that can be  detrimentally altered by human activity,  never felt odd or strange. When the Gaia hypothesis was first made public you could find me down in the country, on a bit of land and living the good life; chickens and all. I felt in tune with the seasons and growing cycles, and witnessed the mysterious power of nature on a daily basis. Lovelock’s  ideas made sense.  It was a shock to read about his subsequent denouncement by the scientific community who made out that this uniquely individual mind was maverick and almost insane.

The Gaia hypothesis was in the news again recently. Lovelock claims that climate change is irreversible. The damage has been done.  Just as he has been proved right before (the first to detect the widespread presence of CFCs in the atmosphere and the effect of the sun on micro organisms controlling the temperature of the oceans) so he may be right again. Something needs to change.

It’s  frustrating that change on an individual level – while commendable – we can all change our lifestyles, shop differently, recycle and grow more of our own food (whether we want to or not being a different issue) but when compared to the international scale of over fishing, deforestation and the burning of fossils fuels, can feel like a grain of sand in a desert. We would find it hard to live without balance; heat, light, water, food are all basic ingredients and we are dependent on nature for them all.  How can we not have respect? At the very least we should take time out to think about it. Do something for the planet and watch the programme here this weekend.

Bored with the election coverage and debate? Here’s a variation on a theme. See how well the party website accessibility statements match up to the reality of use at

Government digital plans are back in the news. Lack of media acknowledgment of digital exclusion continues to exist.  It’s ok to mention exclusion through provision but not through access.  The Guardian makes this distinction explicit. Unemployed/jobseekers to sign on from home  and citizen personalisation of MyGov web services  Quote GB “MyGov dashboard will … allow citizens to shape information for their own needs” and “… manage their pensions, tax credits and child benefits, as well as pay council tax, fix doctors or hospital appointments, apply for schools of their choice and communicate with children’s teachers.”  No GB. This can only happen for those privileged through means of access.

Ofcom announced plans for superfast broadband. While government excludes mention of its own link between digital and social exclusion (Digital Britain), and the implication that those who would benefit most will be denied access,  Ofcom make explicit the equivalent of digital exclusion through lack of service provision.  “…large numbers of homes and businesses are in locations which cannot get any sort of broadband, either because they are too far from an exchange or because the lines are of poor quality.” I have family in rural Holderness with a half MB connection, yet still pay a similar amount as myself for their ISP connection. That’s inequitable but not as much as being denied access to the digital data itself.

Years of international standards designed to increase web accessibility still fall short of ensuring equal access for assistive technologies.  Open Source, which the government plans to use, is less regulated than traditional ‘closed’ web environments. By definition, open source encourages repurposing. This may be for the common good but if responsibility for accessible content shifts from the designers to the users, then it effectively escapes regulation. Politics of freedom aside, the socially disempowered need support. Web standards were an attempt to ensure equitable access. They might not be 100% effective but remain a matrix against which inclusive design and practice can be measured. We are all living through a digital revolution. There needs to be much greater acknowledgment of the needs of those who stand to benefit most.

The Cove  won best documentary at this year’s Academy Awards. Funded by the Ocean Preservation Society, the team secretly filmed the  slaughter of dolphins in a secluded cove in Taiji, Japan. Bizarrely, Taiji looks like a town that loves dolphins. Sculptures and murals of these mysterious mammals are everywhere.  But the cove is shut off with barbed wire and  keep out notices reinforced by aggressive local fishermen. Visitors are clearly not welcome.

In the 1960s, animal trainer Ric O’Barry captured and trained the five dolphins who played Flipper in the international children’s TV series. Since then O’Barry has travelled the world campaigning against keeping dolphins in captivity and was instrumental in putting together the team of people who made this film. In Taiji, young female dolphins are captured to be sold to the multi-billion pound animal entertainment industry via organisations like Sea World. The remaining males and the babies are slaughtered in barbaric fashion that turns the sea red. The film is worth watching even if you need to close your eyes for the final scenes. Global attitudes to whaling are covered, the unsustainability of overfishing the oceans as well as the gritty economic realities of nature versus income. I’m not a sushi fan but I would certainly think twice about watching dolphins in perform in captivity again.

Coincidently, today’s Guardian runs the story of the closure of a California restaurant for selling whale meat after the Cove filmmakers secretly filmed the evidence while in town to collect their Academy Awards.

For a week I experienced digital disconnection. In the Lecrin Valley in rural Spain with no electricity, and only a log stove to fight the cold, even my mobile roamed for data in vain. It was a short-term experience of digital exclusion. The area was remote, full of orange, lemon, olive and almond trees. The closest I got to digital technology was the petrol pump at the garage seven miles away. It was a different pace of life, one where digital exclusion appeared to be the norm. The village is on Google maps  but life is lived in a traditional style far away from retail centres and the ‘education, information and entertainment’ buzz of a 24/7 Internet. I thought I would miss being connected but I didn’t. It was a timely reminder of how pervasive digital technology is becoming in my life. At a time when government policy is moving towards creating an increasingly digital society, touching base with nature isn’t a bad thing. They say you don’t know what you’ve lost ’til it’s gone. Last week was a good reminder not to lose sight of the values still to be found in an analogue world.

Walking the Labyrinth

March 2, 2010 | Uncategorized  |  1 Comment

In the Engine Shed on Monday and Thursday (11.00-2.00) the Ermine Street Labyrinth is laid out for people to experience ‘walking the labyrinth’. This large canvas labyrinth offers an opportunity for some time out and reflection. Labyrinths and spirals are ancient symbols that may be representative of life cycles and the continuity of life patterns.

Les Acklam and Eunice Mathers

Les Acklam and Eunice Mathers

If you haven’t experienced it before, then do something different and walk the labyrinth during Healthy Campus week.

The labyrinth laid out on the floor of the Engine Shed

The labyrinth laid out on the floor of the Engine Shed

When you arrive at work and colleagues ask how you are, the last thing they want to hear is that you’ve had a terrible journey, the coffee jar was empty,  your computer’s crashed and your lunch is at home on the kitchen worktop.  It’s a whole lot easier to say I’m fine. But when used in this context, Fine is an acronym that stands for Fed-up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional.

So when you next hear this, and notice the smile is strained, offer some of your coffee and the reasurance that it’s ok because you’re fine too :-)

I was disappointed in the BBC’s Virtual Revolution series. It completely failed to address the potential of technology to ensure equal access to the Internet. The invisibility of this issue is really quite sad. For all the parallels made with the legacy of Gutenberg there was no awareness that from Gutenberg to Google those in need of assistive technology are having access denied. Even with all the technical assistance in place, most of today’s virtual environments remain inaccessible. Current debate on the BCAB forum reaffirms this – BMI Baby and Easy Jet should know better or do they just not care?

Episode 4 started promisingly but didn’t really go anywhere. It asked if the Internet is altering us but failed to cover issues like those raised in the CIBER report about the changing behaviours and attitudes of young people online and the implications this has for ensuring appropriate future digital literacy. Maybe my horizons are too narrow. I accept programmes have to be selective but I believe passionately in equity of access – how could they not care about such blatant discrimination – and I worry about the effect of continual digital engagement on young brains. Which is my other point and it’s not the Internet. Heavy Rain is the new PS3 game by Quantic Dream. Described as a classic film noir thriller, the level of available interaction is amazing.  The graphics are so fantastic you’re not sure if you’re watching a film or playing a game. I had to watch because I couldn’t play it. I struggled with Grand Theft Auto and Heavy Rain was totally beyond me. My brain isn’t capable of the multiplicity of actions required to operate at this level and I’m not sure I really want to. I’d rather be out in the sun on the allotment.  I suspect the greatest danger of virtual environments is as Sherry Turkle said in Virtual Revolution 4‘We are no longer nourished but we are consumed by what we have created.’

An article in today’s Observer calls for random dope testing of students to detect the use of ‘smart drugs’ being taken for cognitive enhancement. If you didn’t already know, then it tells you Ritalin and Modafinil are available over the Internet. Improving ‘alertness and attention’ in this way is raising ethical concerns about potential cheating. It’s ok to improve brain functioning while studying but not under exam conditions. I have a three hour exam coming up; my first in decades. If there were a quick fix solution to memorising 12 weeks of study materials and writing three one-hour essays, then I would be sorely tempted. But the problem with effective drugs is the speed at which they become habitual. We seem hot wired to seek out improvements on our current state of mind and then feel compelled to repeat the behaviour as and when required.  Dependency is a dangerous direction of choice.  The article suggests legalising cognitive enhancement could result in either shorter working weeks with more leisure time or a 24/7 working culture with greater productivity and, presumably, capacity for creativity. Sounds quite appealing with echoes of Soma in Huxley’s Brave New World which had‘all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol and none of their defects’.

Drugs are a bit like technology. It’s not what they do but the way in which they are used. Smart drugs raise questions about the legitimacy of chemically altering mental capacity. Should we struggle with what we have or is it ethically acceptable to seek to enhance it? Or is altering the brain like plastic surgery to alter the body; your money your choice! The highest risk seems to be buying drugs over the Internet in the first place. There’s no guarantee you’re not getting sugar pills in plagiarised packaging. The other danger is the more students, researchers and scientists (Can a daily pill really boost your brain power? Nature 20/09/09)  participate in self-medication then greater advantage will be taken by those illegally supplying this new lucrative market.

Any form of person-phobia is unacceptable. The SU posters associating LGBT with abuse are forthright and difficult to ignore. 10/10 for impact; there’s no doubting the message. Or is there?  What sort of awareness is being raised? Isn’t linking LGBT with hate crime discouraging for anyone wanting to know more about alternative lifestyles?  Deeper meanings may lie underneath but posters are not always the ideal medium for provoking thought; sometimes it’s the surface message which dominates people’s time and attention.

The risk with promoting uncomfortable images is the observer may make the wrong association. Linking LGBT with violence says homophobia shouldn’t be happening but, because it is, you might want to think twice about putting yourself in that position. Nothing positive or reassuring about being LGBT is evident. Result? A missed opportunity. Closet door stays shut. At best, the viewer is unavoidably reminded of the lack of space in social discourse for difference and that legislation against discrimination is never enough to prevent it.

Pure fantasy

February 17, 2010 | CERD  |  Leave a Comment

A report by Universities UK, Active Ageing and Universities: Engaging Older Learners, suggests that a new target for higher education should be the ‘retired’ as they may represent ‘crucial future activity for universities’. Yet another avenue of widening participation under Mandelson’s mandate for the expansion of new routes into higher education.  Last week at the Lord Dearing Memorial Conference, the man with the plan said: Part-time degrees, shorter and more intensive courses all offer the potential to lower student support costs, use resources more intensively and improve productivity.

This is pure fantasy. The word technology was avoided in this keynote although I suspect it lay behind the reference to alternative modes of study especially since current policy borrows heavily from the DEMOS Edgeless University report on the reasons why HE must embrace technology. If this is the case, then to say that changes in course delivery will cut costs is the wrong message.

Technology alone is not enough; as anyone who has worked in this field over the past decade can testify. Confidence and competence with computers can never be assumed for either staff or students. Resistance is alive and well and not without good cause because what the techno-addicts fail to recognise is that for many people virtual delivery involves change in practice and that requires more support – not less. It’s not a question of an ICT Helpdesk, valuable as that is, but , for staff in particular, pedagogical support for the transfer of teaching and learning from on-campus to the personal computer,  to the small screen netbook, or even smaller mobile phone; the moving from face-to-face interaction to media delivery.  As well as ensuring learning development support for traditional academic practice, there is the need to ensure digital literacy for both staff and students. Understanding authenticity and citation with search engines. Accessing electronic journal databases. Utilising the academic value of tools such as refworks and turnitin, blogs and wikis and constructing electronic portfolios. All this under the umbrella of virtual pedagogy; the change in the relationship between student and teacher as the lecturer becomes the facilitator of the vast breadth of knowledge sources on the Web and no longer the sole gatekeeper of subject expertise.

Then there are the issues around course design and validation, the requirement for inclusive practice and provision of alternative formats. Let me know what I’ve missed. How can we quality assure such a major change in direction? If all this can be done using existing resources as well as cutting costs, then those who care about the future of higher education should be very scared indeed.

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Rhubarb  may not be the most exciting of foods but it has an illustrious pedigree; one which belies its current status. The plant’s history can be traced back to 2700 BC in China and medicinal rhubarb, the powdered root, was a staple of international trade routes in the time of Marco Polo. It’s health properties were reinforced on Friday when researchers at Sheffield Hallam announced that rhubarb contains anti-cancer properties. This weekend I visited the Rhubarb Triangle in the West Riding. Here rhubarb is grown and picked by candlelight in long, low-ceilinged forcing sheds; thwarting nature and depriving the plants of light to create a sweet, stunningly red-coloured stalk. They use methods handed down through the generations and in the darkness you can hear the buds emerging from the roots with a distinctive ‘pop’. Rhubarb is easy to grow; it can be forced by placing a bucket over the crown, it freezes well and it’s good for you too. Following the promotion of natural remedies such as bilberries and goji berries as miraculous health endowing super-foods; 2010 could be the year that  Rheum rhaponticum emerges from the darkness and into the light.

Wild and Willing

February 11, 2010 | Uncategorized  |  Leave a Comment

The third floor corridors of the MHT Building are looking better for a new coat of paint (although it seems slightly mad to do this while staff and students are trafficking by). The collection of framed film prints and posters in the stairwell also look good. I was intrigued by The Wild and The Willing, filmed in Lincoln in 1962. The plot outline on IMDB didn’t hugely appeal but out of interest I watched the first segment on YouTube (1/12).   Like all vintage films it provides a snapshot of  the social and cultural attitudes of the day; in particular,  local reaction to having students in their midst. Prophetic or not? Watch and make up your own mind!

I also came across this 1997  THES article  from Roger King, late of this parish, or VC  of the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside as he and we were once known. Again, it’s interesting to look at then and now. Don’t you just love Google sometimes :-)

A blog link arrived via an rss feed, email, colleague (not quite sure of the correct order but thanks Julian) Are you digital natives paying attention draws attention to Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier; a production (in nine episodes) shown in the US as the BBC’s Virtual Revolution is being shown here.  Programme website

I was interested in author Derek Morrison’s suggestion that “Both public service broadcasters (in US and UK) should normalise providing transcripts for resources like these”because “there is a lot of valuable commentary and potential citation in each production.” I’d like to add an additional reason. Those digitally excluded from the Virtual Revolution, through lack of inclusive design and affordable assistive technology, are those with the most to gain from alternative modes of access. I’ve watched two episodes of the BBC programme and have yet to see any mention of the ‘revolutionary’ ability of digital data to be customized to suit individual preference or need. No mention of it in the blog outline of the nine Digital Native episodes either. Talk about invisibility!

TMA2 completed (and backed up twice, thrice and more). Continuing to look at the self, the course materials stepped back from Lacan’s ‘subject of language’ approach to the early psychoanalysis of Freud and Klein. TMA2 was about the effect of Kleinian thought on social relations compared with more recent developments in sociology. In psychoanalysis the root of identity is underpinned by primitive emotions and desires; a product of unconscious reactions to early experience. We learn to repress socially unacceptable behaviours and develop defences, which sometimes turn to neuroses, in later life. Sociologists such as Giddens, deny there is an unconscious layer and suggest that identity is a product of post-traditional culture. Freed up from pre-established restraints of family, subjectivity is about reflexivity; founded on future possibilities, based on individual choice.  Psychoanalysis has largely been replaced by psychodynamic counselling and the origin of the authentic self transferred from the internal psyche to the external environment.

I wonder where Jung is in all of this. Subjectivity for Jung was inherent  “. . . Man brings with him at birth the ground-plan of his nature. . . .” (Collected Works 4: 728) Neither a product of an unknown psyche nor a cultural response, identity was part of a shared spiritual experience.  “In some way or other we are part of a single, all-embracing psyche, a single ‘greatest man. . . .’” (The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man [Collected Works 10: 175])

What’s been most interesting about this unit is the evidence of a changing knowledge base but Jung seems to have slipped out of the frame altogether. What’s missing often says more than what is present. As what we don’t say reveals more about us than what we do. One problem with Jung is that he was seen as discrediting Christianity and his reputation unfairly damaged. Unfairly because Freud was also anti-religion and far more vehemently so. But I wonder if there is another reason. In an era of individualism, and dominance of the narcissistic personality type, it’s maybe not surprising that the idea of a shared spirituality is downplayed. With sharing comes responsibility and in a postmodern, post-traditional society, that’s no longer a popular idea. However, to cover Freudian psychoanalysis without at least a mention of his one time partner or his work on myths, symbols, archetypes and the collective unconscious is a loss and discredits his contribution to the literature on the identity of the self.

I hate the torch icon. Especially when it shines its light from side to side in what the designers must have imagined looked like hopeful anticipation. Windows is searching for a copy of this document. To locate the file yourself click Browse. Why bother; the Missing Shortcut menu is always bad news. I’ve been using computers for longer than I care to remember. Over the years I’ve made a few mistakes. But it’s been a long since I lost a document. Yes I did name and save it to a folder on my hard drive. Yes I did regularly press save throughout the seven hours I spent working on it. No I didn’t get any error messages. Yes it did close down nicely without any problems. And then promptly disappeared. Like being swallowed by a black hole inside my laptop. I suspect the chances of this happening increase in direct proportion to the importance of the file – in this case my OU assignment.  So don’t just save, make a back up copy. On a cd. On a data stick. Your computer isn’t to be trusted. It’s not your friend. It doesn’t like you. It has a mind of its own and is not afraid to use it. Read this and be warned….

The first of four programmes in the BBC’s The Virtual Revolution was called the Great Leveller.  It sounded promising but it wasn’t. The script was full of cliches such as empowering everyone and giving equal access to information while neatly sidestepping all the issues around barriers and inaccessible websites. It did get one thing right, when they said  ‘the potential of the technology was to offer a paradigm shift on a par with the invention of the printing press’. It was a shame it didn’t go on to acknowledge those who have always been excluded from analogue text who will continue to be excluded from digital unless access technology gets cheaper and content produced inclusively.

The programme ended by suggesting that the original bottom-up democratic vision of the Internet was being undermined. Focusing on the domination of organisations such Google and Amazon, it claimed the web’s inherent inequality is a reflection the hierarchical nature and inequalities in the world. Well, at least that was one point you can’t argue with!

In 1994, the UK government made the decision to use technology to deliver ‘improved’ public services via the Internet. In 1995 and 2005 Disability Discrimination Acts were passed. In 2009 the Digital Britain report made explicit the needs of those who are digitally absent. The report highlights links between digital and social exclusion. These links are pertinent but there is a danger of creating a mutually exclusive binary where the real issue escapes attention. The Governments newly published ICT Strategy is evidence that this is happening.

Section 2  UK Public Sector ICT in the 21st Century states how “Technology can be used to provide access to citizens who might otherwise be excluded from services delivered using traditional methods.”  So far, so good.  What better use of technology than to enable those unable to see text to listen to it instead? But the document doesn’t even go there. Instead the two examples it gives are ‘using websites to inform teenagers/children about the dangers of drugs (FRANK –, or providing online learning for young people excluded from mainstream education through”  What about the needs of those already excluded from analogue text who continue to be excluded from digital equivalents. In 5.2 Strategic principles there is one mention of the word ‘accessibility’. The concept, so crucial to the Internet, doesn’t even qualify for a tag.  From Gutenberg to Google, access continues to be denied.

The governments ICT strategy was launched yesterday. Maybe I was looking in the wrong places, but I expected to see a bit more publicity heralding the event. As it was I saw nothing.  Same again today. Not the BBC news, or Technology pages, no mention in the Guardian Online. So I turned to Google and eventually, after following several links to non-government pieces referring to it, I finally arrived at

My point is on the one hand we have a government promoting digital inclusion and on the other it doesn’t seem to be aware of what it’s like to be digitally excluded. Having to search to find its own ICT Strategy suggests it’s not that bothered about it being found. In digital Britain, it won’t be enough to have access, it’s not even the skills and the confidence that makes the difference. It’s the format in which digital information is provided and promoted.

Once you get there then Write to Reply encourages audience participation and the text enlarges well – although if you were unfamiliar with the format then navigation becomes problematic. I’d like to see the statutory button called Accessibility. Even if it can’t offer anything alternative it would at least show awareness of the issues. The home page graphic has no meaningful Alt text; ‘Wordle’ doesn’t count; it means nothing if you are unfamiliar with the concept. Again, sometimes it’s what you don’t do that often says more about you that what is done.

My second assignment is fast approaching, gathering speed in the way that only deadlines do. Nombre deux goes back to the roots of psychoanalysis. Familiarity with Dr Freud’s concepts of tripartite personality and the oedipal process is a prerequisite. The starting point is Melanie Klein and Object Relations theory. The essay title is along the lines of ‘what has object relations ever done for us?’  The answer seems to be quite a lot – but only if you lived in the UK. The fall out between Anna Freud and Mrs Klein,  resulting in Miss Freud moving to America to peddle her father’s psychoanalytic practice, led to an Atlantean split in ideas and approaches. Interestingly, both ladies seem to have issues which suggest all was not well in their own ‘psychic’ lives; particularly intriguing is the estrangement between Klein and her daughter. For someone who promoted expertise in the management of infant anxiety, she seems to have well messed up her own maternal practice.

Following on from recent posts on the potential resurgence in feminist politics, I’m finding it appropriate to be revisiting identity construction. Both Freud and Klien were products of their cultural time with an unchallenged acceptance of partiarchal systems and values. When Karen Horney  postulated womb envy as an alternative to penis envy, and dared to suggest that rather than a portion of the male anatomy what women were  really envious of was the male role in society,  her work was not enthusiastically received.  Most 20th century analytic thought still rests on Freud’s oedipal assumptions despite their emphasis on the category of male and invisibility of the female,  perceived as lack rather than possession.  The symbolism of Oedipus blinding himself is apt one, in more ways than Freud might have ever realised.

I’ve found a cure for exceeding my profile storage space. Didn’t work on campus but it’s solved the problem on my laptop. Paste this code into Notepad

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00


Save the file to the Desktop with the name undopolicy.reg and select All Files. Double click the Desktop icon and say Yes to  add to Registry.  Problem solved.  I can now shut down with that horrendous bleeping noise and those irritating messages :-)

On 8 January I asked what the F word did for us. I may have been unfair because it’s thanks to feminist politics that I’ve had choices which would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. However, being of an age where my children’s generation are now having children of their own, I see increasing pressure to conform to a stereotyped body image, male as well as female. Activism against body politics can’t be far away.  A new book by Natasha Walter,  Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism  looks  at contemporary expectations on young women and the return of a sexism that privileges appearance. Two more books are due out this year; Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion, and Reclaiming the F Word: The New ­Feminist Movement by Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune’s. A resurgence of feminist politics may well be on the horizon.

Some backlash against feminism was inevitable; such as the reinterpretation of the label to support the cult of female celebrity and all its physical fakery; fake nails, fake tan and fake breasts. Maybe that in itself is a form of political feminism. In the same way that happy housewives defended their right to prioritise the home and childcare, taking control of the body may be seen as the right to find identity and meaning. However, rather than unrealistic cultural expectations my greater concern is the absence of status for the pregnant body and the role of childcare.  At the risk of sounding essentialist, you can’t alter biological design. A key error in feminist politics was to assume that all women wanted freedom from subordination via autonomy when to be sustainable the real issues were about achieving a balance of power. Childcare is key to feminism. Jenni Murray calls for altering public policy to change its perception into as something all parents do, not just women’s work. Therein lies the answer that was missed last time round; feminism is not about existing independently, it’s about collaboration between the sexes and recognition that childcare is a joint responsibility.  As the media reports widely on toxic families and the break down in social structures there’s never been a better time for the policy to catch up with a contemporary need for gendered social equality.


The official Olympics 2012 logo is as disappointing as the choice of official sponsors. The disjointed looking piece of Flash breaks a number of accessibility guidelines and resembles something falling apart rather than being in any way memorable, reproducible or having an association with health and fitness.  Which leads onto the sponsors who include Cadburys (should that now be Kraft?) Coca Cola and Macdonalds. High-sugar, high-fat, processed food and drink; the antithesis of what our government is currently advocating as ‘healthy’ eating. The modern Olympics aim to promote the ‘practice of sport and the joy found in effort.’  In 21st century-speak this could translate as the promotion of healthy lifestyles. Quite where the McDonalds fast food ethos fits into this is not overtly clear. Even more bizarrely is the official Olympic rule of allowing no advertising when the organisers can appoint official sponsors, to generate income to help with the ‘costs of running an Olympic Games and promoting the Olympic message’ (ibid) In 2012 the message seems to be ‘additives and junk food are ok’. How this blatant promotion differs from advertising of products is unclear. Another recent expose of the ‘food’ industry is Ingreedients  which follows in the footsteps of Fast Food Nation,   SuperSize Me  and Food Inc. The advertising for Ingreedients says ‘This DVD contains the information to live a healthy life but the choice is yours!’ a message the Olympics 2012 should be taking the opportunity to promote rather than associating with the multinational junk food companies who have a vested interest in profits rather than children’s health.

Examples of the invisibility of digital exclusion issues is, paradoxically, all around us.  Today I’ve read the Independent Review of ICT User Skills by Baroness Estelle Morris (June 2009) which under the chapter ‘Who are the Digitally Excluded?’ says: An analysis of this data suggests the digitally excluded tend to be:

  • older 
  • socially excluded – often through unemployment, living in social  housing, having low incomes or being single parents. 7.2m (15% of the UK adult population) are both digitally excluded and socially excluded. 
  •  with few or no qualifications

No recognition of digital exclusion through impairment and the inadequate availability of the appropriate assistive technology.

Also today I’ve seen the BBC’s online article on training blind people to take photographs. Apart from my linguistic objection to labelling people through a sensory impairment, as though that was their sole defining feature, the BBC tells the story using video. Listening to it doesn’t give adequate descriptive information about the content of the images, or what is happening on the screen, and the captions (for people with hearing impairment) only tell you the name of the photographer. Needless to say, if you are using the low graphics version of the website there is no alternative text.

The exhibition Sights Unseen runs from 19 – 23 January at The Association of Photographers Gallery, 81 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4QS.

What difference would having the Internet have made to Feminist politics in the 1970s? In 2010, online feminist activity is encouraging libratory action; designed to creative a positive self image and sisterly solidarity. Make Your Own Herstory  is a website set up by self-confessed activist Nic Green, creator of Trilogy, feminist theatre involving naked female bodies that is allegedly so inspiring audiences have stripped naked for the final rendering of Jerusalem. I think that’s carrying audience participation a bit far but an alternative is proposed on the MYOH website were you are invited to take a camera outside, remove your clothes, sing Jerusalem and then upload the video.

Sounds like virtual feminism has arrived.

When the School Food Trust was set up in 2005, part of its remit was guidance on healthy packed lunches. Research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health reports on the numbers of children’s packed lunches still based on crisps, sweets, and sugary drinks  saying only 1.1% meet the required nutritional standards and only 1 in 5 contain fresh fruit or veg. If a government strategy for addressing something as fundamental as the health of our children can fail then it doesn’t bode well for the Digital Britain Action Plan’s success in persuading non-computer users of the advantages of the Internet.  Government strategies are doomed when they suggest changes in lifestyle; stop smoking, restrict alcohol, eat five portions of fruit and veg, walk 10000 steps, while all the time there is an easy cheap supply of cigarettes, alcohol and high sugar/salt/fat processed foods, mostly well within 10000 steps.

January is the time of broken new year resolutions; the majority of which involve giving something up. We pick the coldest, greyest and most miserable time of the year to promise ourselves we’ll be fitter and healthier in the months ahead. But it doesn’t happen; in the same way that sales of cigarettes and alcohol won’t go down so long as they provide the government with a healthy tax revenue and supermarkets continue to offer cut price deals. Habit is a powerful incentive. We choose behaviours that reward us in the short term so delayed gratification may not be the best way to sell an idea or a product, neither is depriving us of something we enjoy. A ‘healthy’ packed lunch is about more than food; it’s about the availability of cost and time, about education and understanding where processed food comes from and the number of additives and chemicals it contains. As a rule of thumb, if you can’t pronounce the ingredients list then reconsider eating it.

Supersize Me and the Future of Food are free to watch on   Fast Food Nation  and tell much the same story. But warning; ‘healthy’ eating may well start here….

As part of the Digital Britain campaign,  Online Basics has been launched, designed to create confidence with using the Internet. Peter Mandelson  says:

Everyone should be a confident user of the internet if they are to participate fully in today’s digital society. Being online brings a range of personal benefits, including financial savings, educational attainment, improved salary prospects and independent living for older people.

Déjà vou! In the 1990s I worked in adult and community education when much the same things were being said about computers. I set up computer courses for the ‘terrified’ (no longer allowed under pc rules) and for teaching literacy and numeracy.  Our software was MS Works, Adobe Pagemaker and Paint and we had multimedia cd-roms. No Internet. You learned the basics about using a computer. Today, as a volunteer support worker, I’m frequently asked to visit a service user who is ‘really good with computers’ to find someone can send and receive emails through a learned sequence of steps; they have no holistic knowledge with which to troubleshoot and may have to wait days or even weeks for someone to sort out a problem.

How realistic is the expectation that you can learn to use the Internet effectively when you have never used a computer? Or is it merely like learning to use a library without really understanding the Dewey classification system (which I don’t). Maybe times are changing and I need to change with them.

But one thing remains the same; digital exclusion is still about access. It would take too much space to list all my criticisms of the site but I would suggest it was designed by an ME-user (Mouse and Eyes) and not tested with alternative users. Why isn’t this site a leading example of digital inclusion? Changing text size fails to alter the menu text, links are indicated with mouse-over and new windows open without warning. Aside from DDA requirements, the typos show a lack of proofreading and an exercise on searching has you keying in with a further screen advertising Virgin Atlantic – mmm…neat piece of advertising.

Digital Britain is about digital inclusion and the reports make explicit the links between social and digital exclusions. But unless digital data is provided in formats that enable flexible delivery and content customisation, exclusion will continue across all social strata. We have the technology to enable access; what is needed now is to flip the coin and ensure that content is accessible too. Déjà vou again.

Eight years ago, governments pledged to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. Richard Black, BBC Environment correspondent, says it is clear that the pledge will not be met. Today the UN is launching the International Year of Biodiversityand promoting these messages.

  • humans are part of nature’s rich diversity and have the power to protect or destroy it.
  • biodiversity is essential for sustaining the living networks and systems that provide us all with vital services our lives depend on.
  • human activity is causing diversity of life on Earth to be lost at a greatly accelerated rate; but we can prevent this loss
  • achievements to safeguard biodiversity have been made but we need to do much more and we must act urgently.

The parallels with climate change are clear; growing awareness and tokenistic calls for government action. We ignore the natural world at our peril. It’s arrogance to assume that the planet will continue to provide when we don’t understand the force that drives it and are unable to replicate its life or beauty. We should respect a power that lies beyond our control but unfortunately most people don’t seem to think this way. Their narrow mindedness will sooner rather than later enforce lifestyle-changing effects on us all.

Its 40 years since the first National Women’s Liberation conference was held in the UK; since the language of the Female Eunuch and Sexual Politics and the media reveled in castigating  women as bra-burning, man-bashing dykes.

During WW2 women were given opportunities to support the war effort and take on traditional male roles,. Then they were relegated to the domestic sphere. Gender expectations swung from one extreme to the other. It’s no coincidence that female fashion in the 1950s promoted the forerunner of Barbie; nipped in waistlines and pushed out breasts. Feminism was a reaction to cultural repression, to the curtailing of women’s freedom to participate on an equal social and economic level with men. It tackled gender discriminations such as equal pay and employment opportunities. But the free love, free spirit ethos of the 1960’s overlooked one crucial issue; responsibility for childcare. At the end of the day, someone has to position themselves in the private sphere and tend the domestic hearth. To achieve equality took more than raising consciousness, it required a fundamental shift of the status of mother and housewife; accepting them as valued occupations in their own right. Instead, equal employment opportunities today often involve paying other women to take on the childcare and domestic commitments instead.

The legacy of feminism is increased gender controls. There is a clear cultural backlash through media induced social pressure to conform to an idealised female identity; one that defies nature and is impossible to achieve. Predominant images of women are airbrushed into thin perfection. It’s laudable to display a pre-pregnancy body within weeks of giving birth. The mantra ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ is supported by anorexia focused websites and the promotion of the size zero ‘celebrity’ as a role model. Pressure on young women to conform to a stereotyped image of femininity has never been greater nor the female body so diminished. Parallels with the onset of the feminist movement 40 years ago are striking suggesting that activism against body politics cannot be very far away.

Feedback on TMA1 is the first ‘real’ contact I’ve had with my OU tutor but I’ve no idea how others have done on this assignment. There is nothing with which to compare my own progress. I’m still experiencing the absence of a virtual dimension to my learning as a loss rather than a gain. I miss the sense of cohort with other students and without the motivation to log onto my learning area to see who has posted what on the discussion board, it’s much harder to coerce myself into picking up the book and engaging with the content. The paradox is online submission and electronic marking of assignments. I still need to word process my assessed work and log onto the OU site, where there is a module entitled D863 Identity in Question but with no content behind it. The value of this traditional distance unit is that it clearly demonstrates the benefits of a virtual learning environment. Isolated at home with my study materials is a single dimension experience. Previous units involving assessed online activities and contributions, not to mention the camaraderie and support of fellow students, added a multi dimensional aspect to learning which should never be underestimated.

Welcome to 2010; the winter of the great freeze with yet more snow to come. The reality of climate change is challenged. While Britain shivers, recorded temperatures in other areas of the globe are said to be 5-10 degrees warmer than usual. Current debate centres round the difference between weather which is unpredictable and climate change which is a trend; they are two separate things.

It seems that every new online article reveals the value of the internet to incorporate public opinion. Comments remain the stars of the show. Their pertinent quotes and links to other resources are a continual source of relevant information. Along with an erudite mix of wit, humour and sheer ignorance, they offer a greater variety and interest than any one single journalist could ever achieve. Daily printed news sheets cannot hope to compete with this acerbic mix. One thing is for certain; analogue news can never be the same again.