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Worlds apart? Accessible information and our digital society

A gulf exists between the increasingly online world of service providers and the world of the individual still waiting for their basic access needs to be met.

Last October the Scottish Accessible Information Forum (SAIF) held a national conference in Glasgow, which we called “Bringing our information into the 21st Century”. This was the first event since the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) took on leadership of SAIF. We felt it an important opportunity to consider the impact that our increasingly digital society is having in the accessibility, or otherwise, of the information that we provide and receive.

First things first, I should clarify what we mean by accessible information. Put simply, it is information that can be accessed by its intended audience in a timely and accurate manner. So, it’s relevant to everyone. However, SAIF is predominantly concerned about whether information can be access by disabled people with a range of different and complex access needs.

So, how did the conference go? Well, generally speaking it was very well received. The speakers were engaging and the discussion sessions lively and productive. People found the day useful, were able to connect with others and learned something new. Of course there were aspects that didn’t work so well, and we received useful feedback that will help us shape future events and support.

High amongst this was the need for SAIF to focus on providing more practical support and solutions for people who already have a good awareness of the issues but are struggling to make progress on the ground.

We had two roundtable discussions during the day, as part of which we asked people to think specifically about the impact of digital. However, as I have been working through the feedback I have been struck by how little the digital agenda has been explicitly mentioned.

So what did emerge? In many ways the mains themes are no surprise. Issues of limited resources, a lack of prioritisation within organisations and the need for much more awareness raising and training. Important points were also raised around the balance we must strike between taking a consistent approach whilst still supporting the needs of every individual.

But what about digital technology and the internet? Why were there not more points raised about the impact all this is having on us? I think there are a couple of reasons for this.

First of all, perhaps we didn’t do quite enough in the design of the event to really enable this to be explored throughout the course of the day – that is certainly something we’ll reflect on and learn from.

Second, whilst the technological landscape we are operating in has changed massively, the fundamentals of providing information accessibly have not, and I think this is reflected in the issues that did emerge.

Finally, a very important point was nicely summed up in the conference feedback which said that we “need to recognise that ‘going digital’ just isn’t a priority for some organisations and their service users”.

This is crucial. The internet has provided a fantastic opportunity for us to do things more efficiently and effectively. But for many disabled people with access needs there are still some basic fundamentals of providing information accessibly that are not being met by service providers. Things like making your documents and written information accessible for people with sight impairments, providing alternative formats to people with dyslexia, producing information in easy read format for people with learning disabilities, or just keeping things clear and simple without lots of confusing jargon, which benefits everyone.

Ironically, in many ways the technology and tools available to us today means it should be easier for us to do this than ever before. So it’s certainly not an issue of capability – more of awareness, understanding and prioritisation.

The SAIF conference has reinforced again that we must do better to prioritise the needs of our service users and stakeholders with a whole variety of different information access needs, and to get the basic fundamentals right, particularly for disabled people.

As one delegate put it. “We’re trying but there’s a long way to go!”. Well, SAIF is certainly up for the challenge, and we look forward to working with you to get there.  In fact, why not join us at The Gathering on 25th February in Glasgow for our ‘information explosion – information inclusion’ workshop.  To find out more or register go to www.gatherscotland.org.uk

You can read a themed summary of the discussion sessions in our short conference summary report along with more on the conference evaluation. This is available on the SAIF website, but we’ll be happy to provide this in an alternative format – just let us know.


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