Monthly Archives: April 2008

Disability in the Pacific

It is always a privilege to be able to hear disabled people share their stories. Last week I heard young disabled Samoan women take, for some of them, their first steps towards empowerment. It was sometimes sad and always moving but we managed to have a few laughs together as well.

As I said in my last blog the stories are similar the world over, I can identify with the pain and marginalisation expressed in each personal story. I also said in my last blog the differences are usually local and cultural angles, and of degree.

These young women told of being cared for by their families, but not being allowed out on their own, and being denied opportunities, such as going to school or having a job and being able to contribute to their families in the ways they wanted. Some cried as they told of painful instances of being cruelly treated by others in their communities.

Happily not all stories were sad. One young woman said she was not ashamed of being disabled, and that she had been able to achieve success in her life, and we celebrated that with her.

They all had dreams, the same dreams you would expect many young women to have. They wanted to be able to work, to party, to have boyfriends and ultimately have a family of their own. One expressed a longing to go to school.
I have just returned from Samoa, where I attended two disability conferences, the first a women’s forum. Never having visited before, I found Samoa to be laid back, hot and very clean and tidy. I don’t think I saw a scrap of rubbish anywhere, and the beautiful gardens were lush and colourful. Coming in from the airport when I got home I thought Wellington looked messy by comparison.

One meeting was held in one of the beautiful open fales, which allowed the air to circulate and a fairly comfortable temperature, while the other was held in a rather inadequately air-conditioned room.

Physical access in Samoa is minimal, as there are few footpaths and most buildings especially the churches I saw had lots of steps. There is still much to do also in terms of education, and support services. Sadly disabled people seem to be the last in line when it comes to inclusion in mainstream development aid, but I am pleased to see that NZAID has a good reputation and is funding small practical grassroots projects to help disabled people’s organisations.

Despite the, heat, the long hours of work, the usual tummy troubles, and almost being caught up in a near riot between warring schools, (over rugby) it was a great trip. We were there to help build capacity in Pacific disability organisations. We met some stunning people, and I hope we were of use to them.

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Filed under Disability Issues, Disability Rights, Travel, Women

Disability and development

Next week I will be in Samoa for two conferences, the Pacific Disability Forum and an associated women’s meeting We will be focusing on human rights and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

It will be good to have some sunshine to prolong our wonderful summer, but I am really looking forward to meeting disabled people from around the Pacific and talking to them about their issues. I am sure accessible information will be part of the picture. I am interested to know how inclusive development projects in general and information technology projects are, and how we can work together to make sure disabled people can increasingly participate in, and benefit from the development action.

I am also looking forward to talking to disabled women about their issues. I suspect they won’t be much different to ours, just a different angle.

It’s surprising how much work you have to do before going away for even a few days so this blog is very short. More on my return.

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Filed under Disability Issues, Disability Rights, Information Accessibility, Travel

Accessible web content

Content is king may be a cliche but nonetheless the content of a web site, and how it is presented is a critical part of accessibility, but sometimes forgotten in the “gee whiz” technology focus. After all we are talking about a communication medium.

If you have ever been confronted with some useless flash image when you arrive at a web site that tells you nothing about where you are, or what you should do next then you will know what I mean.

Recently I tried visiting some fashion sites. Nice pictures but short on information to the point where one had no contact details! I really wonder why they bothered. Even with broadband most of the sites I tried to visit took ages to load. The text, such as it was wouldn’t enlarge either. (Couldn’t possibly spoil the look, darling!)
Then there was one which had only a squitchy image and a progress bar creeping along. This is the twenty first century! Why would anyone want to waste their time sitting and watching that? I simply gave up. Their loss.

Rant over. I do understand that not everyone is a word person like me, but at least some meaningful content would be good.

The opposite of course is just as bad. Tons of turgid verbiage which is also a pain in the neck. People don’t read information on web sites in the same way as they read a printed page. They will not read as much text on a web page as on a printed page. I sometimes have to resort to cutting and pasting into Word and then printing off long and dense documents, which isn’t good for the planet, and is more costly to me. Of course I only print off the things I am really highly motivated to read. I have to leave the rest.

Accessibility is not just about resizing, use of colour, alt text for images, skip links, proper data tables and all that important stuff, nor is it about reducing everything to boring plain text with no visual clues. It is also about having properly marked-up headings, straightforward writing, short sentences and paragraphs that engage the reader. It is not about dumbing down important information. It is about writing clearly and concisely in a way which will engage the reader.

While web content must be considered in terms of structure and organisation, attention must also be paid to quality, usefulness, ease of understanding and accessibility of the information it contains.

Having been a journalist, writer and broadcaster I must say I am a real fan of good old plain English Everyone benefits.

I also thoroughly recommend Rachel McAlpine’s new book Better Business Writing on the Web.

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Filed under Information Accessibility, Web Accessibility

Wheels on Fire

Yesterday morning I was irritated to hear an Australian journalist turned novelist describe Stephen Hawking as being “trapped in a wheelchair in a crumbling body.” Oh dear! This is part of the whole glass-half-empty malady which seems to infect the media whenever they refer to disability. It gives rise to the “fate worse than death” syndrome which is often passed on to those who need to become wheelchair users for whatever reason, or anyone else who acquires a impairment, making their transition process even more difficult than it could be.

Once, a long time ago I unwisely described someone’s wheelchair as an “electric chair” in a (fortunately draft) report, eliciting a terse response from the chair’s owner, and a humble correction from me. So anyone can make a mistake, once.

Let’s take the above example. Stephen Hawking is one of the pre-eminent scientists of his generation. His name, reputation and impairment are common knowledge. Perhaps one or two generations ago he would not have lived very long after the onset of his impairment and the world would not have had any benefit from his towering intellect because he would have become a closeted in-valid for the short time he would have had left.

So I ask, is the glass half empty or half full? OK, life is not easy for him, and yes, his health is not great, but trapped no. Without his high tech wheelchair and state-of-the-art communications technology he would not be able to go anywhere or work at all, and as for the body, in his case it’s the mind that counts anyway and he very sensibly concentrates on that.

Ironically, although he is famous enough to have a guest spot on The Simpsons, and is probably quite rich, he still has to cope with all the accessibility barriers that other wheelchair users have to. It is that and related disability issue that the media really needs to focus on.

I apologise to Stephen Hawking, for using him as an example. He must get heartily sick of it.

But going beyond the obvious, my friend who can remain working because she has a power chair and accessible public transport would not feel trapped by her chair, I don’t suppose the guy who hurtles down the steepest part of The Terrace in his, causing me to hurriedly skip out of the way on several occasions does either.


Filed under Disability Issues