digital exclusion as linguistic lockout

image of a locked gate
image from

The blog post Why digital capabilities matter attracted a number of retweets. It was short and to the point. Since them my 500 word limit has been breached. I need to try harder. Blogging should be an exercise in brevity as much as pertinent points.

The post made the digital-assumption everyone had access in the first place when this is not true. Last week I wrote about the Visitors and Residents typology and suggested a third visitors and residents column for the NAYs (Not arrived Yets) This was primarily about digital resistance or reluctance in higher education- those I call the digitally shy – but I included a wider reference to digital exclusion.

While applying V&R to learning and teaching, it must be remembered how beyond the educational sector, there are an estimated 17 million people in the UK who have no internet connection or are unable to make relevant use of it. Here neither residency nor visitation is a possibility.

David White (co-author of the V&A paper) tweeted Do we need to include those that are not online in our thinking? A timely question.  My answer to the question is unequivocally yes. Digital exclusion is a social responsibility, fundamental to all, in particular for education developers with critical approaches to social change.

Yesterday, a conversation about computerised Health Centre appointments, included the notion digital exclusion would not be an issue with high-speed broadband. Was the digital content designed for users of Assistive Technology within that area? Oh yes, I’m sure someone will have tested that. I’m not so sure. Instead I suspect this is the ‘digital assumption’ in action. It’s easy to do and we are all guilty but need be more provocative and ask the questions.

Digital inclusion does not stop at internet connections or home pages. Sites can be inclusively designed but use bolt-on transaction systems which are not. I supported someone with VI doing online shopping using the market leader in screen readers. All went well until the payment where the pages lost their labels and alt-text rendering the process impossible. I rang the shop. They offered to take the order over the phone. Which missed the point. Digital exclusion prevents independent living as much as access to resources.

A local visual impairment organisation tendered for a new website. None of the design companies knew about screen reading software. We chose the one which said they would like to learn.

A computer science course taught the theory of accessible design is a year 3 module. Which seemed a little late in the course. I asked how the designs were tested. Did they have access to a screen reader or alternative navigation aids? The reply was no; students just needed to know the theory.

David White tweeted ‘there are more fundamental inclusion issues than the digital such as English as a second language.’  I would suggest to be digitally excluded is a form of linguistic lockout. If all around you people are communicating and collaborating online but you don’t have the means of equitable access, they might as well be speaking in a different language.

Digital exclusion is to be rendered invisible. If you’re shut out from the digital platforms of the public sphere you have no voice and digital capital involves negotiating complex structural barriers of cost, support and inaccessible design. Those with digital privilege should be raising awareness of what it takes to ensure a digitally inclusive society. We need to remember how digital exclusion could happen to anyone of us at anytime.

I hope this answers David White’s question Do we need to include those that are not online in our thinking?  Digital inclusion matters. It really does.