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Forced Choice: Accessibility in the Real World

The social model of disability holds that it is socially constructed barriers, rather than the impairments of disabled people, that limit their opportunities.

Disabled people are disadvantaged by the way society is organised by non-disabled people. Take any issue or area of society such as employment, education, housing, transport or poverty and you will find that disabled people are more disadvantaged than non-disabled people, and that the difference cannot be explained or excused by impairment.

The explanation of this deep rooted “structured disadvantage” lie in the social, physical and attitudinal barriers that society creates, stopping disabled people from fulfilling their potential and from achieving the same life chances as non-disabled people.

ICT is thought to hold great promise for disabled people because it has the potential to reduce or eliminate many of the disabling barriers that impair or completely prevent disabled people from working, learning, shopping, banking, being entertained, and communicating with others.

But many barriers still remain.

New technologies are constructed, tested and designed for non-disabled people. They empower people with new abilities, but also rely heavily on the existing ones. Telephones depend on the capacity to speak and to listen; computer screens on the ability to see; satellite navigation systems on the ability to see and to hear. And so on.

Any new technology brings with it a new power for those who can use it, and a new disability for those who cannot.

How ICT strategy is developed and implemented can mean for disadvantaged people the difference between dependency or autonomous living.

I’ve heard the economic argument that disabled people need to be “reconceptualised” as a potential market (18% of the population) and need to trust the market and industry to address accessibility.

However, I reject this business argument and would rather assert that the industry needs to embrace the “mind set” of the social model of disability.

The three critical building blocks of this approach are first, respect for the human rights of disabled people. For example, product developers need to employ disabled people and consult actively with the disability community to ensure that access is a fundamental part of products.

Second, respect for personal choice. ICT options must not be imposed on disabled people – often choices for accommodating impairments are made by a technical “expert”—someone who knows the technology options and assesses what they believe is best for the user. If only certain ICTs are accessible, then disabled people can only choose the accessible option – it is a forced choice. Forced choices carry with them the message that non-disabled people warrant a full range of affordable options, while disabled people only deserve the few, often specialised and expensive, options that are made available to them.

And the third building block is development of universal design and disability-related supports. Often the solutions developed in accordance with the social model of disability help not only disabled people but also non-disabled people.

Additionally, there are differences in how disabled and non-disabled can access and use ICTs that may be beyond the reach of universal design. These differences create the need for disability-related supports, as well as information, training, and local support services in order to become successfully connected to the digital world. The social model perspective holds that society should make necessary supports available to people. In this way, disabled people can both enjoy the benefits of society and be productive citizens.

In summary, ICT isn’t the powerful agent of change – it is the strategy that is adopted that will be the change agent.

My personal experience of using ICT during higher education – I am a post graduate student studying for a masters in disability at Leeds University – has, on balance, been a positive one. However, there are a few issues it will be useful to highlight.

Disability Student Allowance (DSA) funding is supposed to help meet the extra course costs students can face as a direct result of a disability.

I am a wheelchair user and have a neuromuscular condition associated with muscle weakness from the neck down. When I went to have my assessment for DSA I requested several types of equipment that were appropriate for my type of impairment.

The first item I requested was a computer multi-monitor application. Typically, a student works surrounded by numerous text books to read and reference. In my case I am unable to lift, hold or turn the page of book. So I requested this piece of kit – three monitors and some software – to flip from monitor to monitor to access written material or documents. The total cost was about £700. Instead I was given a non-mainstream mechanical page turner. It takes up about all the available desk space, has limited functionality, costs about £2,500, is totally inappropriate and was a “forced choice” as described earlier. In the end I had to go out and buy the multi-monitors myself.

Second item was a laptop – I need a laptop that is ergonomically suited to my impairment, and requested a model that I considered functionally appropriate for my access needs. Again, I was given the “forced choice” and subsequently had to go out and buy myself a laptop that I was able to access.

Similarly, I wanted a Kindle so I could access reading material while lying on the bed. I spend 14 hours a day sitting in my wheelchair and sometimes I would like to study lying down. I requested the Kindle because it was lighter and ergonomically suited to my impairment. They gave me the heavier Sony Reader with the buttons at the top which I couldn’t access.

I went out and bought a Kindle.

This illustrates that it is not the ICT that is the problem but has more to do with the strategy and the prescriptive approach of the “gatekeepers” of the service. Thus the “technical expert” knows what’s best for the user.

Then there was the set book list. All the course material was electronically accessible, but most of the set books were not accessible, so I was faced with paying somebody to scan my purchased books and format them into PDFs. This cost me three times the price of each book.

The point I want to make is that I am not on “equal basis with other students”. And many disabled students may well have given up the course because of issues of affordability.

ICT has to be affordable; available; accessible – and applicable.

© Copyright Miro Griffiths 2011. Miro Griffiths is a disability equality consultant. This article is an edited version of a talk given at this year’s e-Access ’11 conference, hosted by E-Access Bulletin’s publisher Headstar.


  1. Mickey Fellowes | November 18th, 2011 | 11:40 am

    Hi Miro

    Great article. Just to add …
    Implicitly within the social model of disability is that the only ‘expert’ about the needs of the disabled person is that person itself.

    Somehow we’ve got into a whole situation where paid ‘experts’ are making decisions on needs and donating out largesse to the deserving disabled!

    Your story is a deep critique of higher education and the DSA that even with all the extra money and resources your needs were ignored.



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