So who cares if you can't keep up?

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Sally McKeown is worried that pupils with disabilities and learning difficulties are being overlooked by the Internet whizz-kids. It's not usually this slow!" Nearly every demonstration of the power of the Internet is interspersed with these words and yes, it nearly always is that slow. But it is not necessarily a panacea for those with learning difficulties or physical disabilities.

It can however be useful to a teacher who, for instance, is suddenly faced with a partially-sighted child in the class. She can log on to the Royal National Institute for the Blind's world wide web server (http:www.rnib.org.uk) and find out about the factsheets from the Education Information Service.

Don Johnston, an American software company, has a superb catalogue which contains all sorts of specialised software and facilities. Don Johnston himself has now set up his own home page (httpwww.donjohnston.com). Obviously it is easier to update Web pages than to reprint a catalogue. It should be an ideal medium for product information, with the added bonus that users will be able to send queries direct to the company and get a quick reply. However, it is sometimes difficult to link to other pages and some graphics only half-load. Also, the text scrolls irritatingly slowly.

Nevertheless, Don Johnston is optimistic about the potential of the Internet. "Originally the Internet was designed for military use and was not for the level of use it is currently getting," he says. "It will get better and more powerful."

But what about the user who has a disability or a problem with the printed word? Here the news is mixed. Surprisingly, it may prove to be very successful with the profoundly deaf whose first language is British Sign Language. Often in the past it has been claimed that the level of the text may be a barrier for those who are not fully proficient in the use of written English. But Ken Steven of the School of Visual Language at Wolverhampton University disagrees.

"Many of our students are using Internet Relay Chat," he says. "While English is the standard language, it is used by people from all over the world who may not necessarily have a good command of English, so deaf users do not stand out." Ken Steven has set up Deaf-UK, a database for most of the sites in the world which have information about interpreting and deaf services.

There is also a user group for teachers and speech therapists who can exchange ideas and information. Edudeaf is used extensively by teachers of the deaf in the United States and Ken Steven would like to see DeafUK take the same lead. There is also a local dimension. It is designed so that all students at Wolverhampton University can find information about their courses.

He says, however, that the technology has advanced and there are now many pages with sound files and the graphics are frustratingly slow which does not make it an ideal resource for deaf users. Ken Steven can be reached at k.steven@wlv.ac.uk and DeafUK is at http:www.wlv.ac.ukwwwdeptsslesdeafuk.

Alison Hiller, a Brighton University business student, is currently on a one-year placement as marketing assistant at Apple UK. She also has dyslexia and finds the Internet a pain. She has always had problems with telephone numbers. "Conventional addresses have a structure," she says. "In fact, Internet addresses also have one, but if this has not been explained, it is meaningless.

"The new etiquette leads to overload. When you ring a voice mail and get a messaging service, people don't say 'You can reach me at...' and then reel off a whole address but they are starting to do that with electronic-mail addresses."

Many people with specific learning difficulties find it hard to change their focus between the key board and the screen and even competent touch typists tend to look at the keyboard more often with Internet addresses.

Obtaining information is not easy either. "Bookmarking is only a partial solution," she says. "You need to remember what a particular bookmark [a menu reminder of a Web address] means and where a train of thought is going. "

At George Hastwell, a school for children with severe learning difficulties in Cumbria, they are just getting into the Internet. They are no strangers to technology and have made good use of Apple's eWorld on-line service. For example, they did some work on the environment and used a Canon Ion camera to take pictures of littered local beaches. Then they used eWorld's news office to find out about pollution world-wide.

Deputy head Claire Martin admits to a feeling of disappointment: "Access for physically disabled pupils is only possible via a third party at present. We were hoping for an explosion of information but it's all a bit limp."

Doubtless, by the time the Internet has been adapted to meet the needs of those users with special needs, it will also be a really fast system. Ironically, by then it may also be seen as an old and outdated technology.

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