Can the Paralympics inspire a technological legacy?
There have been many fascinating aspects of the London Paralympic Games. One aspect that has caught media attention and certainly mine, is the equipment, tools and technologies used by many Paralympians.
My fascination is in how the slightest increase in the length of a blade can change the way an athlete performs; how wheelchairs vary as they are tailored to different sports and needs, and how mastering these technologies raises the performance of each athlete to incredible heights. My interest comes from how we use technologies and tools to perform better, to be able to overcome incredible obstacles and achieve our desired goals: those of global sporting significance, or those with incredible personal meaning.
Every day at Nominet Trust we hear stories of how digital technologies (the internet, mobile phones, laptops etc) are used to enhance people’s lives – and for me this is similar to using other ‘technologies’ to perform better. Some of these technologies are incredibly complex, big-budget-designed tools for a single Olympic-sized purpose, but I’m really interested in those that are being developed to increase the number of people able to improve their own quality of life.
One example can be found at the Rix Centre in Bristol, where they are working to develop ‘head and eye tracking technology’ for people with disabilities, who have difficulty using conventional keyboard and mouse access to computers. The project is testing a variety of low-cost or cost-free software packages and exploring their potential for users with limited or no use of their arms in various settings such as in school, work and home. The potential of this exploration is huge whereby relatively costly technology is taken and made more accessible, widening the benefits of use.
Similarly, the Royal London Society for Blind People (along with a range of other partners) is developing new voice technology which aims to improve the ease with which visually impaired people can access online information and services. For visually impaired people, browsing the internet and discovering their options can be discouragingly difficult. Some people find that screen readers make exploring cyberspace laborious and complicated, effectively preventing them from accessing information and services that are immediately available to others. This project will create voice technology for those struggling with screens and keyboards in the form of the ‘Conversational Internet’ – providing a new way to access the benefits of being online.
At the heart of both of these programmes is designing tools to be accessible and fit for purpose. Go ON Gold is a campaign to raise awareness of the barriers faced by disabled people in accessing computers, the internet, smartphones and other new technologies, and help remove those barriers (including some great videos from people like Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Karen Darke).
“The fantastic buzz around the home Paralympics has helped many people begin to understand their own and society’s prejudices that can throw up barriers preventing all sorts of people from realising their potential” says Dan Jellinek, Go ON Gold project director. “When it comes to technology, everyone who is involved in any way with offering information on the web; making apps for smartphones; making videos; or creating any other kind of digital information, content or services must be aware that there are as many vital issues to understand here relating to the concept of ‘accessibility’ as there are in ensuring a building has wheelchair access or a bus announces what the next stop will be.”
With an estimated 4.25 million disabled people – 43% of all disabled people in the UK – having never been online, we need to find ways to increase access to digital technologies, providing the opportunity to participate and make use of these incredible tools. If not simply because these tools can be used to achieve so much, then to respond to the increasing importance of digital access in everyday life.
With the internet pervading most aspects of life, there is a risk that people who do not have access to, or the skills to use, internet-based services become more vulnerable to further disadvantage and exclusion. For example, the internet is crucial in the job search process and internet skills can be seen as a basic requirement to be considered as a suitable applicant for many jobs. Currently, only 50% of disabled people are employed, compared to 80% of people who are not disabled. Not being able to take advantage of what the internet offers, adds additional barriers to finding employment.
Great activities like ‘www to work’ from the Vassall Centre Trust provide guidance and support to disabled people looking for employment. ‘www to work’ is a job club where disabled people can use the internet and other IT resources to seek employment. The project offers guidance, support and assistive technology for disabled people to use the internet to access information about job opportunities – overcoming barriers to employment.
And after a summer that has demonstrated just how much can be achieved when we are able to make the most of the technologies around us, we need to find more ways of supporting everyone to become confident, competent users – to achieve global sporting fame, or very personal accomplishment.
As Dan Jellinek points out: “The Olympics and Paralympics have been an uplifting celebration of achievement and social inclusion and we all have a responsibility to ensure now that this spark does not fizzle out but is used to ignite a flame of understanding and social progress that burns for years to come. This is just the beginning.”Tagged in: Go ON Gold, Nominet Trust, olympics, paralympics, Rix Centre, Royal London Society for Blind People, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Vassall Centre Trust
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