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Free for all?

Sally McKeown highlights some of the problems facing those who have much to gain from the Internet - disabled and isolated users. I feel like the child in the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes", the onewho points out that, despite all the hype, the Emperor is in fact naked. I have yet to be converted to the Internet; it has a long way to go to become the service that I want.

Here's an illustration. I have spent some time recently trying to find information about Virtual Reality conferences and in particular any papers about VR and disability. I quickly discovered that for some reason it is quicker to log on to Washington University than locate a UK special-interest group.

We typed in "virtual", "reality", "disability" and "conference". There were 40,000 entries. This did not mean that there had been 40,000 conferences about VR and disability, but that 40,000 documents contained any one of those four words. Because no one owns the Internet, the entries are not likely to be keyword indexed in any useful way.

Every new technology spawns its own jargon, and some of Internet's is distinctly unhelpful. You may have heard of gophers, flaming and points of presence. And what about the acronyms? FTPs and URLs and the like. A Universal Resource Locator is meaningless to me why not just address? Dyslexic users must find the system more frustrating. In a string of meaningless abbreviations, the rate of errors must be high.

However, putting my prejudices on one side, does the Internet offer potential for users with learning difficulties and disabilities, or for professionals working with them?

Dave Laycock, at the Computing Centre for People with Disabilities at Westminster University, is interested in using it as a forum for those working with disabled students in higher education. He is a member of the south-east Skill group where over 80 staff were meeting once a term. "We just don't have time to get through the business; some people are not part of big glossy projects and feel quite isolated in their work," he says. "But through e-mail and user groups such as Dis-forum they can get answers to questions as diverse as, 'Has anyone cracked linking character enlargement to speech synthesis?' or 'Do disabled students from overseas have access to the same benefits as British students?'" Similarly, in schools there is a need to network, especially with the demands of the new code of practice for special needs. The National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) has provided special needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) in 22 schools, with modems and full Internet connection. Now they can communicate with one another and access a wide range of services through the Internet, including the NCET's special-needs pages and information from the BBC Networking Club. "The email facility has been well used," says Lydia Matheson, SENCO project information officer. "It has proved valuable for teachers and LEA services. They are keen to exchange views about issues they face in the classroom in an informal way. There is a monthly awareness bulletin with abstracts of articles, information sheets and details of other organisations. "

Myra Tingle and Lesley Rahamim of CENMAC special needs centre in south-east London have been disappointed by Internet: "It is not as intuitive as we had hoped and there are virtually no switch users accessing it in the UK at present."

They also feel that there are a number of equal opportunities issues. Certainly the joy of e-mail is that anyone could be writing and there is no way of telling if that person is black, white, blind or physically disabled. However, as they pointed out, "You need a good fast computer for Internet with substantial memory. Disabled people have exceptionally high rates of unemployment and are among the poorest people in British society." David Colven at the ACE Centre in Oxford thinks that some of the access problems for switch users can be overcome by the centre's Switch Access to Windows (SAW) and plans to develop an Internet connection.

Michael Lewis, of the Open University's Opening Up the Library project, agrees that access is still a problem. "With the move to graphics, a lot of people are putting up image maps where buttons are hidden in the graphics. At present, often quite simple things like using a speech synthesiser are difficult. " Blind people also need technical support to install a modem so, even if they have advanced technical skills, they can't be fully independent. Michael feels that things will improve rapidly. "The Americans with Disabilities Act is having a major impact in the US and they are still the major providers of information on the Net, so things are looking quite rosy."

A deaf Internet user, Gavin in Croydon, wrote to say that because of his poor keyboard skills and the mistakes he makes writing in English (BSL is his first language) he spends twice as long on-line as he should and faces massive phone bills. He feels BT should offer a re-bate scheme or cut rates for people in his position as they do for the Minicom communication system.

Peter Orford, of the Yorkshire Residential School for the Deaf, says that Internet can have a lot to offer those deaf learners who have a good command of English.

Overall then, the Internet gets a mixed verdict; the e-mail facility has tremendous potential for giving access to ideas and to experts. But access issues and the cost of high-specification machines are still major barriers for the majority of disabled users. This is a problem which must be addressed, or the Internet will become the province of the wealthy able bodied.

Anyone with information on VR and disability, please contact Sally McKeown: sally

* David * * Michael

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