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E-Access ’10 Conference Report: Digital Lifeline

By Dan Jellinek.

For people with motor disabilities, who may have problems leaving the house, communicating or with social confidence, online social networks can be a true liberator, delegates heard at this year’s E-Access ’10 conference hosted by Headstar and E-Access Bulletin with One Voice for Accessible ICT Coalition (

A discussion group on the accessibility of social networks to users with motor disabilities was hosted by Makayla Lewis of the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design, City University London, and herself a carer for her parents and a voluntary worker for people with cerebral palsy.

People with disabilities suffer from high rates of depression, said Lewis: many may only see one person a week, their carer. To such people social networks are a good way to share experiences and meet new people, even if their disability is severe, she said.

One young woman she had worked with had no siblings and stayed in her room most of the time, said Lewis. “She just used to sit in the corner.” For her, social networks had become indispensible.

“She says ‘I can’t socialise without it’, it’s is like food to her – she’s on it from the moment she wakes up to the moment she goes to bed. Social networking allows you to portray yourself how you want”, Lewis said. Although the interaction is virtual, it can also help to build real friendships and help boost confidence for face to face communication as well, she said.

The average person with a disability has 250 friends on Facebook, for example, compared with 130 for non-disabled people, Lewis said. Unfortunately, however, many people encounter barriers in using such networks, of which the biggest is accessibility. One problem was that while many people with motor disabilities would benefit from technologies such as voice recognition and text-to-speech screen-readers, public funding for these expensive tools is geared towards people with impaired vision.

“People with motor disabilities are given big keys and so on. Screen-readers would be very useful but they are not funded for that. You never find a screen-reader on a list of aids for them – they are not considered necessary for people with motor impairments. Funding is geared towards blindness.”

The problem can be even more basic, Lewis said: many occupational therapists, GPs and users themselves  don’t have the technical awareness or understanding to know what tools are available to help people access computers. “They don’t know the stuff is out there. The way you find out about access technologies these days is on the internet, but if you don’t have access to the internet…”

Some people with severe disabilities are helped in accessing computers by their carers, but this means their interactions cannot be independent and can be hampered by a lack of trust, Lewis said. “If you get tired, and a carer types for you, how is that independent communication? How is that private communication? A carer might leave after a few weeks, and a new one comes. So people can’t always trust them straight away, and just ask them to send messages online like ‘I’m fine, see you soon’ – they don’t open up and say what they want to say.”

There are also problems with the design of the main social networks, Lewis said, not least that the main sites often change their layout, which can present huge challenges to someone accessing a computer using a tool like a switch, who has learned over painstaking hours to navigate one layout only to find it has all been changed around. “With Facebook, they are always changing the site. Using a switch, you learn one format but then all of a sudden they rearrange the layout and task structure.”

One answer might be for sites like Facebook to have a fixed layout of their core features, such as your friends list and your profile, which would remain stable across redesigns, she said. Another might be to offer a simpler, pared-down version of the site which only presented the core features. However Facebook had removed just such a simpler version, ‘Facebook Lite’, for commercial reasons, despite it being used by many people with severe cerebral palsy, Lewis said.

Where changes are made, more understandable and relevant help could also be offered to users in working out what the differences were, she said.”Often changes are made to a site and people just have to work it out. They could be uploading photos showing how to use the new site step by step, like Twitter does online, with arrows.”

People with disabilities often prefer help information that is not text-based, such as videos or avatars, Lewis said. But they want to see images that are relevant to their own lives: “Many people with disabilities want help from an avatar who is also disabled”.

Apart from layout, many problems are caused by the small size of online features which can be not only hard to see but extremely hard to use for people with motor impairments, she said. Thus for example Facebook features such as the ‘like’ button to express your approval for something is too small for use by people with impaired motor control.

Because of the way Facebook is formatted – text size is hard-coded in – it s pages are also hard to magnify, Lewis said: users can zoom in using their own magnification tools, but the result is pixellated.

Nevertheless, many people persevere, she said: one user she knows highglights all the text from her Facebook news feed every hour; pastes it over into Word, where she can increase the text size smoothly;  writes her replies or posts in Word; pastes them back across to Facebook; and then spends 10 minutes trying to click on the ‘update’ button, because it is so small.

The fact someone is prepared to go to all this trouble “shows you how important it is for some people”, said Lewis.

When asked about accessibility, Facebook tends to say that only a small number of people with disabilities are using the site, but one of the main reasons for this is the inaccessibility of the ‘Captcha’ system of keying in distorted words that is used for registration to the site, Lewis said. Also, while there are tools specifically aimed at helping people with disabilities access Facebook and other networks, there is low awareness of them, she said.

Of course, Facebook is not the only network people can use, but the others are not much better, Lewis said. “MySpace is terrible. Bebo is better, but it is aimed at young people.”

Some other communities are set up specifically by and for people with certain disabilities, the workshop heard, such as Living With Ataxia (LWA –, set up using the ‘Ning’ platform which allows anyone to set up a social network.

Alan Thomas, UK Community Manager of LWA,told delegates that such focused networks helped people with particularly problems overcome feelings of exclusion, by allowing them to share experiences.

On the other hand, people with disabilities also need to be able to access the same mainstream networks as everyone else, Lewis said. “Often networks are divided. Maybe they should link up more and integrate more.

“It is disgusting that some people have to go to such lengths to do something that is so fundamental for all human beings – to communicate with each other.”


  1. Rachel Ethier Rosenbaum | August 26th, 2010 | 8:22 pm

    I just finished reading the August issue and felt I needed to state that although there is funding for equipment and training for visually impaired/blind persons, this funding is constrained by regs demanding that the visually impaired person has a job or will shortly get a job or that he/she is enrolled in school and need same for functioning in the school. Funding is restricted, not automatic and still many visually impaired persons are not aware of the availability of services. So it may be the case of the grass looking greener on the other side of the street.

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