To mark World Sight Day (11 October), a report by Swansea University researchers from the College of Arts and Humanities and College of Science reveals the range of challenges faced by members of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) Cymru to fully embrace digital technologies.
Currently about two million people live in the UK with sight loss and RNIB Cymru estimates that there are 107,000 blind and partially sighted people in Wales. While the number of digitally excluded adults has reduced significantly in the UK as a whole, the level of digital excluded disabled adults (38%) is double the figure for all adults (19%), according to an official report.
Digital benefits v digital usage
The report, entitled Digital Media Usage of Sensory Impaired Users in Wales 2018 reveals the following survey findings:
- Sensory impaired users are positive about using digital technology, with 77% of the RNIB members believing that digital technology brings them closer to friends and family.
- More than half of the respondents believe digital technology facilitates more independent living.
- 42% believe digital technology keeps them up-to-date with community news.
- Just under one third of people (29%) think digital technology improves general wellbeing, and makes them more capable at choosing the appropriate media in communicating with others.
- 20% believe that it brings more educational opportunities.
- 23% think it helps with money management.
- 24% believes it improves the ability to travel.
Dr Yan Wu of Swansea University, who led the study said: “While these findings indicate that there is a generally positive attitude toward digital technology, this has not been matched with levels of actual digital usage. We have found that sensory impaired users’ digital device ownership is generally low and their online activities are limited compared to the national average.
“Personal computers connected to the internet are owned by 38% of people we surveyed, smart phones are used by 23%, and only 1/3 of people we surveyed regularly use search engines and email.
“Furthermore in terms of carrying out tasks online, only about 1/3 of the respondents can find a website that has been used before, and can shop online, while fewer than 20% have downloaded or saved a file found online, chatted by using video messaging tools, or bought and installed applications or software via the internet.”
The study also found that only a small percentage, some 14% of RNIB members, accessed public services online and just 11% used the internet to book appointments.
Barriers to digital usage
The report also showed that sensory impaired users identified a number of barriers to accessing information, education and services, mainly in the areas of finance and training.
Sensory impaired users are often unemployed and find current assistive technology too costly. For example specialist software, such as JAWS for Windows Professional which supports standard Windows applications for visual impaired users, costs £845, which is beyond the reach of many RNIB members.
While the RNIB has been actively promoting the use of free accessibility software and has listed a wide range of free assistive technology options on its website, most ‘free’ applications offer basic service, while accessing more advanced features often involves paying the monthly subscription fee.
The second barrier identified is the lack of training opportunities. While the British Standard 8878 code of practice ensures web products including web sites, web applications, software, cloud based services and other services to meet the requirements of the Equality Act 2010, users need to have a good level of digital literacy in order to use such products.
Digital skills training provided by RNIB’s Online Today program has worked effectively in Wales in past years. The program focuses on home-based learning on a 1:1 basis, following a technology needs assessment that is led by customer needs. RNIB’s Technology for Life Co-ordinator Hannah Rowlatt said: “Increasingly people’s lives are being lived online. It is vital that people with sight loss are a part of this digital world. Whether it is to bank, shop or keep in touch with family and friends, being digitally active can be a lifeline for blind and partially sighted people. Unfortunately, this report shows that many people with sight loss don’t feel supported with the skills and knowledge they need to access vital digital services. More needs to be done to raise awareness of free apps and accessibility software that are constantly developing and making it easier for people with sight loss to get online. It is also essential that public services and businesses involve people with sensory loss when they are developing their digital platforms to make sure they can access and use them with confidence.”
Dr Wu said: “The report recommends that priority should be given to making people aware of the customisation and interactive services that enable users to perform activities, such as to modify the size of text fonts or the colour of webpage background. Cultivating the awareness and interest to learn amongst the users could be the appropriate way to lead to sustained training for, and in support of, sensory impaired users in the future.”
Before Margaret Geddes lost her sight in her fifties, she worked in neonatal and paediatric intensive care. The loss of vision and hearing made employment impossible, but, in a bid to keep busy, Margaret instead armed herself with a smart phone and computer. She became actively involved in voluntary work for a local charity helping other sensory impaired people in South Wales and says that digital devices and the internet offer her a means to re-connect to the society.
However, she acknowledges it is not the case for everyone. As more and more services and products have moved online, this can prove difficult to sensory impaired people. She said: “There is more social isolation because of technology, because there’s just the presumption that everybody can access technology and that everybody can understand it.”
The way ahead
Funded by Challenging Human Environments and Research Impact for a Sustainable and Healthy Digital Economy (CHERISH-DE) research centre based at Swansea University, the inter-disciplinary research team is now moving onto the second phase of the project by examining qualitative data concerning digital usage patterns and preference.
Dr Wu said: ‘The theme for World Sight Day 2018 is Eye Care Everywhere. Considering that disability is determined by environmental barriers in society, we hope that our priority of digital care everywhere will be a necessary and welcome addition to the agenda in Britain today’.
- Thursday 11 October 2018 12.18 BST
- Monday 9 September 2019 10.21 BST
- Swansea University