How accessible is technology?

15 October 2019

Interview with 

Adi Latif, AbilityNet

COMPUTER-INTERFACES

Interacting with digital computer interfaces

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Today, we’re analysing the inclusivity of tech. How easy to use are the apps and websites that modern life demands that many of us use every day? We’ll be seeing what’s fit for purpose, what needs to change, and how science can help. With us is Adi Latif who works for AbilityNet, a charity that supports people living with disability to use technology. Adi is blind, and he came here today by train and had to book a ticket online. First up, Chris Smith asked Adi, how do you go about booking a train ticket online if you're blind?

Adi - Well it's amazing now as a blind person. I have an iPhone and I'm able to access most of the features on the iPhone. I turn on something called VoiceOver - It's a setting in the phone. And it sounds really weird, but as I move my finger over the screen things are read out to me. And I have it really fast so it talks really fast, and that allows me to use apps on the phone, and that's how I tried to book my train tickets.

Chris - Now we asked Adi to document his experience and record his interaction with the website on which he booked his ticket. Here’s how he got on.

Adi - Open ‘thetrainline’.

VoiceOver - Trainline. Help. From: Departure Station. Text field: K I - I N - N G. King’s Lynn. King’s L-- King’s L-- King’s L-- Kings Norton. Dalston Kings-- London Kings Cross. Seven Kings. London Kings Cross.

Adi - London Kings Cross going to Cambridge.

VoiceOver - Next field: Cambr-- Cand-- B F Q. W Q. Cambr-- Cambr-- Cambr-- Cambrills. Cambridge North.

Adi - Yes! There we go.

VoiceOver - Open return. Outbound. Saturday 12th October.

Adi - Saturday…

VoiceOver - Sunday 13th October.

Adi - Sunday 13th…

VoiceOver - Find times and prices.

Adi - Fantastic. So up to this point this has been quite event-free. Let’s see what happens next. So live times and tickets...

VoiceOver - Close button.

Adi - Oop, it’s doing something.

VoiceOver - Mobile tickets are now available to Cambridge North. No more queues or fumbling for tickets.

Adi - No more queues or fumbling for tickets. How does it know I’m always fumbling for tickets?

VoiceOver - OK. Got it.

Adi - OK, got it.

VoiceOver - How to get your ticket. Heading.

Adi - How to get your ticket.

VoiceOver - Collect from station.

Adi - Collect from station.

VoiceOver - Read from a ticket machine using a payment card. Button.

Adi - No.

VoiceOver - Ticket collection info. Button. Collect from station. Collect from station.

Adi - I thought it said no fumbling for tickets and now it’s telling me that’s the only option…

VoiceOver - Total amount to pay: 12.20 British pounds.

Chris - Well you made it... was that a good interaction? Was that a good day?

Adi - It was a typical example of something kind of working, and then me getting stuck. So as you can see, or listen, I got so far and I wasn't able to get a mobile ticket. And then when I got to the end it wouldn't actually allow me to book. I put in two different cards and it just wasn't working for me.

Chris - I find it hard enough, Adi, to buy stuff online, and I can see all these buttons and boxes I'm supposed to tick and click. Does it not make you exquisitely nervous when you're thinking, “I’m parting with credit card details onto a webpage that I can't see, and I don't really know what it's doing with any of the data”?

Adi - Weirdly enough if I get that far, if I'm actually able to give them my money, I'm the happiest person in the world! Because over 90% of apps or websites don't work for me. So I'll get so far, I’ll have filled in a form to book a flight or to buy something, and I get to the end and the button doesn't work for me. So if I'm able to give someone my money then I'm really happy to do so.

Chris - I find it really surprising and quite frankly shocking. We invent computers, we invent computer programmes, and ostensibly this is all about making life better for us. And we've never had it so easy in terms of being able to make something and mould it, and turn it into something that we need. And yet we seem hell-bent on actually making computers the masters and we're their slaves. And when it comes to people who actually have disability, we make them even harder!

Adi - And I think the digital world - and this is the most exciting thing - that digital world inherently is barrier-free. And it's just unfortunate if we don't look at a methodology such as inclusive design, if we don't think before we make something that, you know, “will this meet the needs, is this fit for purpose for society,” then we unfortunately create these barriers that are just unnecessary.

Chris - What success stories have you come across though? In what way have you seen your life change as a blind person thanks to the digital revolution that we've had in the last couple of decades?

Adi - Well there's so many things that a blind person can do. Twenty years ago I couldn't read the papers, I wouldn't be able to flag a taxi off the street in a train station, I wouldn't be able to find out what platform my train is leaving from, so there are just some examples. And all that is possible now. I’ll load up the Uber app and I can book my taxi in the train station; I can refer to the app that tells me what platform the train's leaving from; and obviously we've gone online with newspapers and books, so I can have access to all that information now. So in a way technology has given me what medical breakthroughs couldn't: it's given me independence, it's given me access to information. That's why it's really exciting.

Chris - If it didn't quite work out then Adi, how did you get here then? Because you fell down at the last hurdle, it wouldn't take your money.

Adi - Absolutely. So it didn't take my money, so I decided I would just go to the station the old-fashioned way and find some assistance in the station, and have someone help me use a machine. And as you can see, the difference there: there's so much relying on other people just because the digital was not working for me.

Chris - Can I ask you something about other aspects of everyday life? Because we heard something relatively straightforward, in theory: buying a train ticket. Increasingly governments and so on are pushing us online for everything. Pensions. Tax returns. Benefits and so on. What's the experience with things like that, from your perspective? Do they work well?

Adi - They're getting much better now. There's a lot of regulation now, recently there's a regulation that came out, the public sector’s Website and Mobile Applications Regulation, so it really states that public sector services, digital services, have to be accessible. And pretty much online government services are pretty good. However there are a lot of challenges; I've not used a lot of the services that you've mentioned, so I don't have firsthand experience, but usually there's a lot of guidance and a lot of accessibility considerations taking place with government. With the NHS, on the other hand, I'm really thrown into the dark ages when it comes to the NHS. Everything is paper-based, I get my prescriptions on paper, get important results from the hospitals on paper, so all the independence I’ve received using technology is stripped away. And what's more important than managing your healthcare? So that's really an area that really would benefit from being accessible.

Chris - And dare I ask, have you had a look at nakedscientists.com to see how we're doing? Is our website any good?

Adi - Do you know, I have not had a look. But I'm so thrilled with the show, just being here today and listening to the exciting stuff on the show, I'll definitely have a look and get back to you on that.

Chris - Yeah do, and if we can improve it... because obviously our programme is full of audio. It's a website that actually, lots of the content is audio, but we transcribe everything with the intention that actually screen readers and things should be able to either play them to people or read them out to people. I'd be just really interested in your appraisal.

Adi - Absolutely. I will be gentle but I'll be honest.

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