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“New technology design agenda” needed for digital inclusion, research recommends

Digital skills training from local authorities and charities, and a bold new “technology design agenda” are needed to give people with sensory impairments the full benefits of digital services and products, a new study has claimed.

Conducted by Swansea University in partnership with RNIB Cymru (the Welsh chapter of the Royal National Institute of Blind People), the research looked at digital media usage by sensory impaired users in Wales, based on questionnaire responses from 396 RNIB Cymru members. Respondents were of a variety of age ranges (73% were over 65-years-old) and recorded themselves as possessing a range of visual and hearing impairments.

Respondents were asked about digital devices and assistive technologies they use, online activities, perceived benefits and challenges of using digital media, digital skills, and training.

The study noted that the majority of respondents were keen to use various technologies, but respondents also highlighted barriers that prevented them from becoming fully engaged with a digital society.

Financial restraints were a key issue, with the price of various assistive technologies acting as a barrier for many, particularly compared to non-specialist devices. Another significant problem was availability of training, with 24% of respondents stating they did not know where to seek digital skills training or support. Only 3% were given training by their employer.

Web accessibility was also found to be a barrier. Respondents noted issues with partially or fully inaccessible websites, such as moving graphics and illegible text.

Based on these issues and individual comments, the report makes a number of recommendations. Although the study focused solely on digital media usage in Wales, one of the report’s authors, Dr Yan Wu – Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at Swansea University – told e-Access Bulletin that if applied nationwide, the recommendations would also be useful for people with sensory impairments across the UK.

She said: “With more and more products and services moving online, discrepancies in media use, attitude and behaviour affect people’s wellbeing, as well as their level of participation in social life.”

The primary recommendation of the report is for “sustained training and support” to teach or boost digital skills, including the following: 61% of respondents wanted to improve online skills; 55% wanted to communicate with family and friends; 49% wanted to know more about protecting their personal data online.

The report states that support and training are “still needed from local authorities, charities and industries from both public and private sectors, so that sensory impaired users can grasp the whole range of accessibility functions enabled by digitalisation.”

One way of aiding this is letting people know about existing accessibility functions in products and devices they already use, the report states: “Many users are simply unaware of features that can help them, embedded in the operating system of their devices. Most modern devices are designed to provide a polished ‘user experience’, so tend to disavow formal training and manuals.”

Other suggestions in the report include highlighting free assistive technology solutions to a wider range of people, ensuring that web accessibility guidance is followed (specifically, British Standard 8878, a web accessibility code of practice), and instilling a “new technology design agenda” to both public and private sector.

Speaking about this design agenda, Dr Wu said: “Instead of focusing on technological capacity and market profit … design should [focus] on users and tailor the technology capacity around the needs of the user. Ultimately, digital technologies should be used to improve the quality of life for people – disabled or non-disabled.”

Read the report in full at Swansea University’s website.

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