Tag Archives | information accessibility

John Kerr: Benefits Cut, Fit to Work?

And so it begins in Britain. John Kerr of Dundee, Scotland, who is blind, deaf, eats via tube, and doesn’t communicate verbally will have his benefits cut on June 7th because the person who filled out forms on his behalf that the Department of Works John Kerrand Pensions required made an error.  I don’t know what forms, or the nature of the error; media coverage on this over the Internet is scarce. According to disability blogger and advocate Nicky Clark, however, the form was substantial (over 30 pages), and Kerr’s options now are either to find employment or go through an appeals process to attempt to get his benefits reinstated.


Waiting on John Kerr Details

I admit that I’ve known about John Kerr and his story story since last Friday and held off on blogging about it. I’ve wanted to see what the Department of Works and Pensions would do.  I’ve seen the Ontario Disability Support Program send letters saying that income supports have been cut off because the recipient hasn’t provided requested information, and that they can appeal the decision; often a phone call to the intake worker assuring them that the requested information is indeed on its way is enough to get the suspension reversed before the next cheque is issued (depending on the date and the information required). But according to Nicky Clark, this error is going to take weeks to rectify, potentially leaving John Kerr and his caregivers in a very bad financial situation.

Who’s to Blame for What’s Happened to John Kerr?

I’ve seen arguments that the people who filled out the form for John Kerr need to lie in the bed that they’ve made regarding his benefits cut. After all, the government can’t be held responsible if someone makes a mistake and creates a situation like this, whether they intended to or not, they argue.

My technical writing training tells me otherwise. If these forms are so unclear that someone could make a mistake so crucial that it costs them their benefits, then they’re not well-designed enough. The design flaw could be a number of things (or many of them):

  • It’s not clear on the form what the response process needs to be. Where does the form need to go? By what date? Addressed to whom?
  • It’s not clear how to respond to respond to the questions.  On scale questions, which end of the scale is most severe, and which is least severe?  What if two answers apply to a given question? Can you attach paper if you need more than the allotted space to comment?
  • The questions themselves are unclear.  What if you have a learning disorder and you’re unsure to whom you should go for help? What about people with low literacy levels?
  • It’s unclear how crucial accuracy is. Clearly it was for this particular form.

Obviously a form can’t be developed that meets absolutely everyone’s needs, but there *is* a process by which technical writers try to make documents as accessible to as many people as possible. Government forms aren’t particularly user-friendly (as I’m sure all of you know), which is why I used to spend a lot of time with people I supported and their families assisting them to fill out forms – precisely so this sort of thing didn’t happen. Not that I’m perfect and don’t make mistakes, but I’ve filled out a lot of the forms now and find them a lot less terrifying than people I worked with and their families did.

No One Should Live in Fear of Losing Benefits Over One Mistake On a Form

Or two…or three. This story and its suggestion that you have to be a robot who doesn’t make mistakes instead of a human being who may be dealing with multiple challenges as you fill out a large government form suggests to me that this is just another way that Britain is experimenting with thinning the ranks of people on benefits. It’s underhanded and insidious, as many people (like John Kerr) do need substantial assistance filling out the forms, and are powerless as to whether it’s submitted with mistakes or not.

And it’s just plain not right.

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A Bit of a Rant on Information Accessibility

Another Post About Information Accessibility

Earlier in the month I talked about information accessibility and about how sometimesinformation accessibility systems of getting information to people aren’t set up in a way that’s convenient or even comprehensible (http://www.girlwiththecane.com/information-accessibility/). I found the mother of all examples of this last Friday, and thought I would share it with you.

Ready to Start Driving Again

I’ve had a seizure disorder since my second stroke, caused by scar tissue left after the brain surgery. Because of the seizures, my driver’s license was taken away from me almost immediately after the stroke. In some ways, not being a licensed driver in a spread-out rural community without any public transportation has been just as difficult as learning to live using one hand, but that’s a story for another day.

I take anti-seizure medication, and am finally to the point where I’ve been seizure-free for over a year. This means that I can start the process of getting my license back again – under Ontario’s graduated licensing system, it takes two years to become a fully licensed driver. I decided to write the knowledge test that will let me drive on most roads, with some restrictions, as long as there’s a person who’s had their license for at least four years in the car with me.

Information Accessibility and Me

The nearest place to write the knowledge test is 45 minutes away, so I had to arrange to have my father drive me. I looked on the Ministry of Transportation website to see what ID I’d need to bring, but found information confusing. At one point it appeared that I just needed one piece, and at another point they seemed to want two. I called the phone number of the Ministry of Transportation office in the town where I’d be writing the knowledge test.

The rest of it went a little like this:

1. Voice mail gave another number for people calling concerning licensing *or* two extensions.
2. The phone number was for a bakery.
3. The first extension took me to Service Ontario, a government service centre that doesn’t know anything about licensing. The woman on the phone referred me to the website.
4. When I explained that I’d already been to the website and was confused by what it was saying, she said that I couldn’t ask the driving test people because there isn’t a line for the public to that office.
5. She went to the website to see if she could find the answer to my question.
6. Sensing at that point that I was really annoyed, she said it was a slow day, and she’d make some phone calls to see if she could get the answer and call me back.
7. Which she did. But she still only had speculation – no concrete answers.

Big Questions about Information Accessibility

I do appreciate the Service Ontario woman’s attempts to help me. I know that Service Ontario centres are generally very busy. And I understand that there’s likely no public line to the offices that do driver testing just because the employees don’t want to spend the day dealing with nuisance calls like mine.

But we’re back to the issue of information accessibility. You don’t have to have a high level of literacy to write the knowledge test – you can arrange to do the test orally. I’ve never supported someone with a developmental disability to get a driver’s license, but I know it’s been done. What if I couldn’t read the website? What if I didn’t have Internet access?

What if there’s a question that I just need a human being to answer?

At least the Ontario Disability Support Program takes a stab at information accessibility. Their reading material can be difficult to understand, yes. But there’s a direct phone line to them, with places for people to leave a message for their income support specialist, and the income support specialists have designated days where it’s more likely that you’ll reach them if you call. It may take them a bit to get back to you, but it’s always been my experience that they do (at least in my part of the province).

The government really needs to do some thinking about information accessibility. If government services are going to keep referring people to the Internet for information, there needs to be an overhaul in how the government views the Internet as information tool – websites need more plain speech and diagrams, simpler graphic user interfaces, and more intuitive processes. More public access to Internet is also necessary.

Or, they can put more human beings on the phones.

Which would ultimately be cheaper, I wonder?

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Information Accessibility – Information for Everybody

Information accessibility issues get very little, if any, attention.information accessibility

Information Accessibility

We’re all familiar with physical accessibility issues, and we’re becoming more familiar with accessibility issues around hearing impairments, visual impairments, and even web design accessibility. But we’re only starting to learn, it seems about making information accessible (which can use elements of all other types of accessibility).

Let’s look at this example: Getting information about the Ontario Disability Support Program

  • Even finding the phone number in a phone book would be too much for some of highest-functioning (for lack of a better term) people with intellectual disabilities that I’ve supported to find without some assistance.
  • The voice mail system at ODSP makes you key in an extension based on the first letter of your last name. You have to listen carefully, because the letters are not presented sequentially (for example, you may have to key in a certain extension if your last name starts with A-L, Q, T, X or Z). Most times, the call goes directly to voice mail.
  • ODSP does have a web site, but it’s confusing to use and provides limited information on the program. You are referred to your local office, which can be difficult for people to ascertain.
It’s confusing even for people without intellectual disabilities.  It’s not good “information architecture”, as they say in the technical writing world. Depending where you are, other factors make the information even more difficult to access.

Different Region, Different Information Accessibility Needs

I remember going to quarterly regional meetings of the transition program in which I once worked, hearing about the fabulous things that everyone else was doing, and thinking, “That just won’t work where we are.” I wasn’t trying to be negative. I just saw us facing different access challenges, as a very small town, than the people from larger centres did: no public transportation, lower literacy rates, fewer people with internet access in the home…it affected the way families that I supported understood their options for their children once they graduated, and often it meant an intensive level of support for some students and families. I felt like we did things differently than the programs in the larger centres, out of necessity, because needs of students and families were different.

Those Darn Assumptions

Which isn’t necessarily bad.  But there are assumptions out there now that *everyone* has internet access and knows how to use it effectively. A number of factors may make this simply not true, and it keeps people (and not just people with intellectual disabilities…if I’m having trouble getting what I need from a government website, then other people are people are as well) from getting information that 1) they’re entitled to and 2) that they need.

It creates inequalities, and therefore needs to be addressed, whether it’s through providing more support to assist people to understand information to or restructuring information architecture so that it makes information more accessible and understandable…or both.

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International Day of Persons with Disabilities

International Day of Persons With Disabilities

international day of persons with disabilities

December 3  is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It’s a day to celebrate the contributions of people with disabilities and to raise awareness about their rights.

I knew that I wanted to blog about this in some way today, and I spent a lot of time thinking about it last night, and kept coming back to what Michael Bloomberg saying that having making all the cabs in New York accessible wasn’t necessarily what people with disabilities wanted.

What Do People With Disabilities Want?

I’m not a scholar in the field, but I’ve worked with people with disabilities for over fifteen years, and I’ve been living with my own disabilities for over a decade. I think that our needs are fairly simple.

  1. Access to Buildings When we’re cut off from buildings and from areas in buildings, we’re cut off from experiences and from participating fully in the community. We don’t have choices and opportunities that everyone else has.
  2. Access to Resources The current struggles to make web pages more accessible, to make menus easier to read, to make the justice system more navigable, etcetera, seem like overkill to some people without disabilities. But when you can’t see a computer webpage because you’re red-green colour-blind, or you can’t read a menu because the print is too small, or you can’t don’t understand what your public defender is saying to you because you’ve got an intellectual disability, you’re at a distinct disadvantage because of your disability.
  3. Respect for Rights and and Knowledge of Responsibilities  People with disabilities need to live in communities where, like everyone else, they have rights and responsibilities. People with disabilities, adults and children, are at a much greater risk for bullying or assault, sometimes by people are supposed to be taking care of them (paid and unpaid). Abuse can come in all forms (verbal, sexual, financial, violation of privacy, theft). Other rights that get disrespected are as follows: the right for a person to make their own decisions about their life, to be in relationships, to try new things, and to make health and/or money decisions. People with disabilities deserve to have rights abuse allegations take seriously, and need to understand that they have the responsibility to behave in ways that respect others’ rights. Failure to do so will result in consequences for them, just as it would for people without disabilities.
  4. Opportunities to be a Part of the Community  Everyone has ways that they can contribute. Community members need to be open to having all sorts of people as volunteers and employees in the community and makes everyone feel welcome at community events.
  5. People-Centred Supports for Assistance When Necessary  Not everyone needs help all the time, but sometimes something comes up with which people need assistance. It’s always nice to know that someone will be there if you need, whether it’s a paid or non-paid support.
  6. Income Support for Those that Can’t Work That Actually Reflects the Current Cost of Living  The amount that individuals receive on the Ontario Disability Support Program  leaves them at a poverty level.

The Challenges

Right now, setting up frameworks within communities where we can ensure that these five things are adequately addressed costs is taking a lot more time than it should. I believe it’s at least partly because educating governments about the importance of getting funding to help address these issues is taking a long time. It’s simply not high-priority.

And I think that’s partly because you can’t appreciate how vital these issues are until you’ve lived them.  I know from experience that it’s difficult to realize how frustrating it is not to be able to get into a favourite restaurant in a wheelchair until you’re in that position.

I didn’t know until a couple of days ago that International Day of Persons with Disabilities existed, and I hope it will bring some much-needed awareness to what still needs to be done.

On the lighter side, here are some people with disabilities whose accomplishments we really need to celebrate on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities:

  1. Rick Hansen
  2. Christopher Reeve
  3. Albert Einstein
  4. Terry Fox
  5. Stephen Hawking
  6. Michael J. Fox
  7. Helen Keller
  8. Ludwig Van Beethoven
  9. Thomas Edison
  10. Charles Darwin

More about the International Day of Persons with Disabilities:


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The Right Thing to Do

I’m currently writing an article for another website about website accessibility. It’s a learning experience for me, because I really don’t know a whole lot about website accessibility. I’ve interviewed a man who does, though, and I was really impressed by his level of commitment to accessibility testing for websites.

Why Accessibility?

People ask about accessibility (for physical spaces and for websites), “Why should we go through the cost and effort for something that’s going to benefit such a small group?”  The simple answer is, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, is that when you use the principles of universal of design, whether it’s for a physical space or a space on the Internet, you benefit everybody – even people without disabilities who, for whatever reason, have an easier time accessing the space when universal design is available.

For example, people with visual disabilities often find that the option to change the font size on a website allows them to find the way for them to best view the website. A person prone to headaches may also find that being able to increase the font reduces the incidence of their headaches. Or, a person like me who finds that software video tutorials simply move too fast may prefer to read the transcript provided for people with hearing impairments, even though my hearing is fine.

So, a well-designed, accessible site can potentially draw a lot of people to it.  The accessibility of the website may be what wins out when, say, a person who is red-green colourblind is trying to decide from which online store to purchase clothing, or when a person with a severe hearing impairment is trying to decide from which educational institution to take online courses.  These may seem like isolated incidents, but for a website that’s counting on a high traffic over the long-term to survive, the “isolated incidents” are going to add up. Businesses especially can’t afford *not* to look at an accessible website, any more than they can’t afford not to look at being as physically accessible as possible.

The Right Thing to Do

And then there’s the argument that accessibility, both physical and on the Internet, is just the right thing to do.

When I was waiting around after my first stroke and between my surgery to see what what the doctors wanted to do next, I volunteered at a social services agency in the area.  I had a discussion one day with one of the employees about physical accessibility. I said that I understood why, in a town full of such small businesses that struggled from season to season, making their buildings physically accessible was too much to take on financially.

“I don’t.” he said. He talked about how there were government grants to make buildings accessible, and how inaccessible buildings were a form of discrimination.

“You really think so?” I said.

“I certainly do,” he said. He went on to talk about how if the business people in the town really thought that people in wheelchairs were good enough to be in their establishments, they’d find a way to make their establishments acceptable.

It was truly a different way of looking at the issue for me.  And I have to admit that after spending a year in a wheelchair, I’ve become much more militant about physical accessibility issues, especially in businesses.  As a person with disabilities, my money is just as good as anyone else’s; if a business doesn’t want to make me feel comfortable in its store (or doesn’t want to even ensure that I can get in; I *have* run into this), then I’ll take my money to a business that will.

I imagine that after I finish writing this article, I’ll be looking at websites in a new way, too. And I certainly have some work to do on this website.

Because it’s the right thing to do.

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“But You Don’t Look Like You’ve Got a Disability”

Invisible Disabilities in Society

Someone left a comment about invisible disabilities the other day, and it really got me thinking.

In both my career and my personal life, I’ve worked with a lot of people that, unless you spent a bit of time with them, you wouldn’t know that they’re living with disabilities. Some of them have had very mild intellectual disabilities; hearing or vision impairments; developmental disabilities like Asperger’s Syndrome; mental conditions like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; or learning disorders or ADD/ADHD.

We call these sorts of disabilities invisible disabilities. All you may notice, if anything, is that the person seems a little “different”, but nothing you can really put your finger on. I’ve got some invisible disabilities myself.

Society can be just as inaccessible for people with invisible disabilities as it is for people with physical disabilities. Even a grocery store can be pretty daunting if you don’t know how much money to give the cashier, or your vision is bad and you can’t read the signs, or you can’t hear what the cashier is trying to say to you, or you’re totally overwhelmed by crowds or by the idea that idea that people have touched things before you, or you thought that you had a list but you left it at home along with your bank card because you find it difficult to stay organized…

Simple Ways to Increase Accessibility for People with Invisible Disabilities

Fortunately, there are many ways that people in the retail and service sector can make places like stores and hotels more comfortable places for people with invisible disabilities, and it all really boils  down to good customer service. Simply asking when someone gets to the cash register “Did you find everything that you need today?” gives a shopper a chance to ask for help without having to say, “I can’t find the ice cream that’s on sale because I can’t read the cartons.” Stepping up to the person who’s standing in the aisle looking lost and asking “Can I help you find something?” accomplishes the same thing. You don’t have to know why they’re looking lost and they don’t have to tell you – whatever the reason is, if they need help, there’s an opportunity to get it.

Many large corporations offer disability sensitivity training. Employees learn about the signs that someone they’re serving may have an invisible disability and the best ways to make that person feel comfortable. If you can’t find a course in your area, Google “disability sensitivity training” to find several downloadable resources. This sort of information is particularly useful for businesses, but it doesn’t hurt any of us to know about the basic concepts in disability sensitivity; it’s another, really easy way to make society easier to navigate for all of us.

Have a great Wednesday!

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