Monday, 19 September 2011

The Shaw Trust

Last Wednesday, I woke up at an hour I haven't seen for a while so I could head to Neath in Wales to meet with a fantastic charity called The Shaw Trust, a little known organisation in most areas but one making a big difference by supporting disabled and disadvantaged people to prepare for work, find jobs and live more independently.

The Shaw Trust has been running for 30 years  and one particular way in which they help make lives easier is by illustrating to organisations the level of accessibility their websites provide to people with disabilites and I was visiting them to see how well the Help for Heroes website meets these standards. Although working for a charity that looks after people with a huge range of impairments, this was an area I had never even considered as being a potential struggle and feel rather embarrassed to admit that. But how many of you would think of it as being a problem? If you are in a world where you live and work around able bodied people that don't experience these issues then it might never cross your mind.

Their small office was home to about 15 people with disabilites ranging from dyslexia to blindness. I was going to be spending time with some of them to see what various disabilities need to make the digital sphere as easy for them as possible. 

My first stop was Kevin, a chatty Welshman whose movement had been severely restricted, especially down the left hand side of his body, by a brain injury. This means that he has to use the 'tab' keys to navigate his way through websites along with a series of key codes e.g. ctrl & f might take you to the Finacial Reports page on a specific website. Kevin also gave us a brief demonstration on 'Dragon', a voice control device which was an alternative way of take you through a website. The drawback of 'Dragon', however, seemed to be that you needed to spend some time teaching it to recognise your voice. I have no doubt that this was a very useful tool but I think a lot of patience was needed, certainly more than I posses!

JAWS being used
Mike was the next person to show me how to access a website from his perspective. Mike has been blind since birth. Sound is his sight and a programme called JAWS, a sound reading software, guides him from page to page. I was told that it takes about 2 weeks to become a competent user and Mike had been using it for a very long time. Listening to the speed at which he has JAWS set was incredible, like when you set a voice recorder at high speed and the voice played back seems somewhat alien. I had a short turn using JAWS, with the computer screen turned off. With in a few seconds, I had already pressed an incorrect key combination which sent JAWS in spin and it made itself pretty clear it wasn't happy with me. Mike was very good humoured about it and set me straight quickly but I didn't find it easy at all.

From Mike, we spent some time quickly with a chap who was visually impaired and explained the importance of colours on a website because some colour and text combinations can be difficult to read. Next was a chap with learning difficulties who helped analyse whether a website was easy enough to understand.

Finally, I met Darren. Darren was profoundly deaf and communicated via sign language. This is where my lack of understanding really hits a new low, especially given that I have a profoundly deaf uncle and cousin (although they don't sign). For some reason, I hadn't even thought about what needs a deaf person might have, possible because I just thought that they could read a screen. In today's virtual world though, it's hard to find a website that doesn't use video as a key communications tool and with YouTube the phenomenon it is, it is increasingly important to make sure it is possible for someone with hearing problems to understand it. To address this issue, organisations need to look at adding subtitles or signers to their videos.

I learnt so much in the few hours that I spent with these guys. Even though I have met and spent time with many of the guys and girls who have been wounded in the line of duty, seen the troubles they face and the way they face them head on, this was an eye-opening experience. It reinforced that there are so many things that I take for granted and don't even consider could cause issues for someone less able than I am.


For an example of an organisation making their website as easy to use as possible, I think the BBC's My Web My Way is worth looking at.

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