Education and access – a powerful combination

16/12/2016 posted by Mike Taylor


Introduction

Dr Scott Hollier specialises in the field of digital accessibility and is the author of the book ‘Outrunning the Night: a life journey of disability, determination and joy’. With a Ph.D. in Internet Studies and project management experience across the not-for-profit, corporate and government sectors, Scott is an internationally-recognised researcher and speaker.

Dr Scott Hollier – Digital access specialist, author & Adjunct Senior Lecturer at Edith Cowan University

A few weeks ago I launched my memoir, titled ‘Outrunning the Night: a life journey of disability, determination and joy’, in my home city of Perth, Western Australia. It was a great event with family, friends, work colleagues past and present and disability groups all coming along to provide support which meant a lot. The night was great fun with the only complaint being that the fantastic pizza on offer ran out just a little too quickly for some.


Since the launch and some of the subsequent media interviews around the book, I’ve been reflecting a bit on just how fortunate my life has been. For many people looking from the outside, my life probably doesn’t’ seem that fortunate as I’m legally blind with the degenerative eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa, and at this point of my life now aged 41 I’ve lost most of my sight. It’s true that things are difficult at times and there are many challenges that relate to having a disability, but there’s also lots to celebrate and much of that happiness stems from two key things established when I was young; the persuit of education and the benefits of accessible mainstream technologies.


I was diagnosed with my eye condition just after I started primary school, and as a father now I can appreciate just how hard the news must have been for my parents. The specialist indicated that I’d probably lose my sight quickly, I’d need to go to a special school and my career options were almost non-existent. While this seems harsh today, it was basically a reflection of Australia’s legislative frameworks at the time as legislation relating to disabilities services didn’t come in until 1986 and disability discrimination laws weren’t established until 1992, so the discussion about education and a career path was largely based on mainstream thinking at the time.


Fortunately my parents being primary school teachers wanted a second opinion, and happily that second opinion was a bit more enlightened. As a result I continued mainstream schooling, completed high school, studied Computer Science at university and went on to complete a number of other degrees including a Master of Management and a PhD in internet-related studies. It wasn’t a journey I took alone though – as I note in my book, there were key people along the way and if it wasn’t for their intervention in caring enough to support my education, its likely none of the above would have been completed successfully and this really highlights just how important it is to have good support around you and organisations that champion the disability cause.


My interest in technology also stemmed from the support of others around me. In the early 1980s I lived in a small country town for four years due to my parents working at a school in the Western Australian outback, and with only one TV channel and one radio station my favourite entertainment choice was watching the bigger kids play arcade games at the local café. As a small child with no money, I dreamed of the chance to play those games, and thanks to my parents the dream came true – the ColecoVision TV game console arrived, a shared Christmas present with my sister which featured Donkey Kong as the pack-in game, and a car racing game Turbo. My passion for computer games, and computers more broadly, grew from there, with a Commodore computer becoming my prized possession in high school for doing homework, entertainment and experimenting with programming. It wasn’t until I started university though when I fully appreciated the potential of how the humble personal computer, and later the internet, could revolutionise the opportunities for people with disabilities in terms of participation and independence.


My first introduction to the Internet was in 1993 when the Internet was largely text-based and the Web was in its infancy. One of the things I really enjoyed doing was reading the comp.sys.cbm newsgroup where people were posting discussions relating to Commodore computers. While my trusty high school computer companion had since been retired due to using a PC at university, I was still interested in following the discussion. One discussion that caught my eye was a post from a person asking if it was possible to get a Commodore 64 on the Internet. As I mention in the book: …this post led to a few responses, most of which were either critical of the author for making the ridiculous suggestion that a computer from 1982 could be put online, or from others viewing it as a deliberate attempt to ‘flame’ the group. After a few posts, though, someone posted code in BASIC that would create a TCP/IP stack, and various primitive connectivity options to get it online. It was at this point that it dawned on me that the power of the Internet was not just about information, but collaboration – it was a place where people with similar interests could come together and pursue ideas. It occurred to me that if people from around the world could come together to get a computer from 1982 on the Internet, imagine the possibilities if similar efforts were put into using technologies to support people with disabilities.


Fast forward to today, and that dream of the world coming together to support people with disabilities has largely come true. Even just 10 years ago it seemed virtually impossible that assistive technologies such as a screen reader could just be a part of our everyday devices, the idea that a blind person could effectively use a touch screen seemed ludicrous and the idea that videos could virtually caption themselves using automated speech existed only in science fiction. While not all of these things have been perfected (especially automated captions) it’s important to consider that the provision of accessibility in mainstream devices, the ongoing development of web accessibility standards by organisations such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to make sure these technologies work and the massive global focus on supporting people with disabilities highlights that as a person with a disability there are opportunities today that even a few years ago would have seemed like a distant dream.


However, it’s important to remember that among the fantastic consumer products that are providing both choice and affordable technologies, not to forget about the importance of education. At the end of the day, having our modern tools becoming more accessible is wonderful, but ultimately they are just tools. To take my home country of Australia as an example, there is currently 59% unemployment among people who are blind or vision impaired, and when you look at the statistics in relation to educational opportunities there is a very notable correlation between who struggle to find employment and people who have not been fortunate to have educational opportunities. The correlation is comparable across other disability groups. To make the great technological benefits work for us, we need to learn how to use them in an area where we have the passion and skills to make the most of them and for this we need to always consider the pursuit of education. Importantly, education doesn’t have to be in a tertiary setting, or even specifically to find a job; my first degree featured a major in Computer Science and a minor in Creative Writing, an odd combination forged by the fact that I struggled with maths and had a very supportive course controller who provided me with the opportunity to take out the maths part of my degree and put in something else instead. While most of my friends were sceptical about how Creative Writing would ever be relevant, as I’ve moved through my career it became a great basis for technical writing and in turn has been invaluable in writing the book. I’m a great believer that no knowledge is wasted knowledge, so the combination of striving to learn more, combined with the amazing technologies rapidly evolving round us, makes for an exciting road ahead for all people with disabilities. If you are currently wrestling with diffiuclt decisions about your future, I would encourage you to embrace both education and accessibility technologies as a great combination for the road ahead.


Before wrapping up this post I’d just like to thank DAC for the opportunity to share this information. DAC are an important part of that global tapestry of accessibility work going on in the online community and see the benefits of education and technology first-hand through their specialist staff. Everyone’s work in this space makes a significant and profound difference to the lives of people with disabilities and I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts on this website.


If you would like to read more about my thought sin this area, you can find out more about my book at Outrunning the Night (external link) including links to purchasing it through Amazon.co.uk as a paperback or Kindle e-book.