University of Edinburgh

Information and Communications Technology: the new role of the intermediary

Editor, British Journal of Visual Impairment
Director, HumanITy

Let me begin with two stories that will put our theme into some sort of context.

Earlier this year I went to a conference at the Department of Trade and Industry on Information and Communications Technology and Social Exclusion. I sat at the front with my Braillite and took notes. At lunch-time the organisers were busy elsewhere; the predominantly white, upper class, male audience fled to the buffet. If it had not been for a Kenyan lady I would have struggled to get any lunch. You don't need information technology to be socially excluded, it comes with the disability. Incidentally, I told this story two weeks later at a Demos think tank session on the same subject. This time one white, upper class male didn't run away at lunch-time; the only problem was that he was totally hopeless at describing food.

Not long afterwards I received a very gratifying telephone call from a highly prestigious institution that wanted to publish a book on information technology in the next century; celebrities, famous authors and academics were being approached. I was flattered. I naturally failed to mention that I didn't fit into any of these three charming categories but wondered whether the Editor had any topic in mind? No, it was really up to me. So I explained that I was currently fascinated by building mutuals models to road-block monopolies. She didn't sound entirely convinced but she assented. So I beavered away, starting, as you do, with Diocletian's division of the Roman Empire into two at the end of the 3rd century and ending up with Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch, by way of Charles Darwin and, I think, Marcel Proust. Anyway, I was very proud of this bit of work but when the lady telephoned again she could only express her disappointment. It was, she said, a little high-brow. Could I possibly dumb down my chapter? I replied, of course, that it sounds very odd to be accused of being high-brow by an academic editor in a highly prestigious institution; I thought, I said, that if anybody had the obligation to be high-brow it was surely her. And, as you would expect, I refused to dumb down; I would take the work somewhere else. She expressed her sadness at this but then perked up a little. "You see," she said, "we expected you to write something about IT and disability". At which I was not quite so offended as I might have been because recent experience has taught me quite a lot about this subject. Whenever non-disabled people try to write cogently about the problems of disabled people they are sternly rebuked as if the only people who can drink beer are good brewers; so it isn't altogether surprising that a great sector of the wicked world draws the natural corollary; if ordinary people can't write about disabled people, then disabled people can't write about ordinary people.

I have started with these two stories simply to underline the point that if we get the technology right we will still have the attitude problem and it isn't entirely an attitude problem on the part of those who can see perfectly, not simply some professional failure by those who work with blind and visually impaired people. Professionals may have been too timid on this subject but they certainly haven't been entirely at fault; blind and visually impaired people themselves have often opted for the safe and the narrow, the obvious option of being the little fish in the big pond. The talk might have been of integration, inclusion, whatever the current buzz-word is, but plenty of people want none of it; not because of the difficulties of independent mobility, though that is bad enough, but because there is a need for a deeper kind of safety; better, perhaps, to maintain a narrow coherence rather than getting messed up in the untidy world of the seeing.

This is surely why the stereotype of blindness is still so widespread. Once upon a time there were baskets, then came braille and finally, that lovely canine creature; and, there you had it, Sir Thomas Armitage blessed with a Guide Dog; love of your fellow creature (the dog, of course) and pity for the lowly (blind person), perfect picture, perfect fund raising.

Of course, now we know better; all those statistics about large print and little telescopes like tubes of polo mints; back-lit screens and better ambient lighting. Low vision is the smart vision, it's the right vision; but we can't somehow get it to fit inside the psychology of all those agencies with "blind" in their titles.

I have to say that I am deeply committed to this vision for in an odd way I found losing my sight, going through a period of patchy, unpredictable, declining low vision, much more difficult than I shortly afterwards found total blindness. As the light came and went, as objects swam in and out of my monocular lens, I would ask a passer by to read a bus number then dash across a traffic filled street to jump on it. I often felt like a fraud and was occasionally accused of being one. At least when I became totally blind I knew where I was. So I have immense sympathy for people with residual vision, particularly if the functionality is not uniform and if the prognosis is not stable. For those who suffer from such conditions and professionals who work with them, the problems never go away. We need to get out of the habit of thinking of resources and difficulties occupying a continuum with most need related to total blindness and least need to those on the edge of normal vision. Those who think they can see reasonably well and are thought to be able to see reasonably well, but cannot; they are, in some ways worse off than those who cannot see at all. Totally blind people may be rejected without being approached simply because they are totally blind. Good old Joe public knows how to be considerate, being a good British chap he talks to the dog and ignores its owner. But people who look superficially completely normal often suffer the pain of early acceptance followed by mortifying rejection. Having been at the wrong end of both, I am not sure which I find worse.

After which, let us turn to information and communications technology. I started where I did because the technologies we are about to lead our lives with are not going to be exclusive, narrow little numbers like the PC, the Apple Mackintosh, the CC-TV and sticky key software. The age we are about to enter is the age of IT ubiquity, of digital radio and television, of 'smart' mobile phones, of palm tops and bits of processor sewn into your clothes, of gadgets as tiny and widespread as the digital watch; so what I want to look at is how this kind of technology, universal, miniature, cheap, will affect the way that blind and visually impaired people interact with society, how it may interact with them, and how these changes will affect the role of professionals as intermediaries.

Let us start with a few comments on the kind of information these new devices will carry. In the past we have tended to match kinds of information with what carries them; so, we say to ourselves almost without thinking, an academic journal is more serious than Playboy; the Financial Times is more serious than The Sun; books are more serious than videos; computers are more serious than televisions. This, of course, is nonsense: some academic journals are enclaves of bland plagiarism and there are really people, apart from blind people, who buy Playboy for the serious articles rather than the pictures; there are very shallow, 'serious' books and some very serious videos; there is a great deal of pornography transmitted between computers and a huge amount of educational television; all right, I'll concede that the FT is more serious than the Sun!

Getting rid of data stereotypes is vital because we will soon be living in a world where static, adjustable sized text is a minority concern occupying the minority of space on the Internet. The relative tranquillity of the Internet, designed by the military and passed on to academia, is about to be shattered by the wholesale invasion of the commercial entertainment industry as digital television merges with computers to give us millions of hours of pay per view television; and by the infestation of private digital still and moving pictures. We will be living in a world of moving pictures and music, we will be walking through virtual reality shopping arcades, we will have round-the-clock sport; and because almost all of this entertainment will be from global companies for a global market, the language content will be minimised; we shall thank God that at least the majority of what language there is will be English until automatic translation systems improve. Even digital radio will have a visual element with data being transmitted to a small screen. So, three major points emerge immediately from this:

* first, the educationally taboo world of television and the respectable world of computers will become indistinguishable;

* secondly, the traditional way we evaluate the seriousness and importance of data will break down;

* thirdly, teachers, know-alls and pub bores will go out of business. We will want to learn how to search for information and no doubt we will always be short of wisdom but there will not be a who knows what hierarchy. This last point has immense implications for the way we rear and educate children, even if we ever become as technologically literate as they are.

Of course these will not even be old fashioned conventional moving pictures. Quite ordinary form filling will involve clicking and ticking; there will be any amount of flashing lights and whirling data, the on-screen version of Piccadilly Circus; there will be scrolling text, side to side, top to bottom, diagonal, curling, twisting and recursing; there will be a multitude of cursors, flashing and bouncing; there will be image superimposition and collage. I say "there will" but of course a lot of this stuff is already happening, particularly with Java and there is no point complaining, no point trying to limit the way the sighted world works in order to protect our children and clients. There is some point in asking for a lot more text creation to parallel and perhaps substitute for the pictures but in the end it will come down to a radical change in the way we act as intermediaries.

Let me take a quick look at another set of informational attributes that are difficult to assess if you do not see very well and which are impossible to evaluate if you can't see. Let us imagine that you see a poster of a soldier in outline in the middle distance. As you come closer you notice certain aspects of the poster which give you clues abut the intention of the artist: The figure reminds you of Kitchener posters from the First World War, so you draw the conclusion that the poster is in some way a piece of official recruitment; you then see the ironic expression on the soldier's face and wonder whether this might not be pacifist propaganda; and then you notice that the soldier has an ear stud and you remember that gays are not allowed in the armed forces. So far, remember, we've only dealt with one figure, an interpretation of his facial expression and one thing he is wearing. We haven't dealt with his uniform and stance, the calligraphy, the background, other human figures and symbols. It would make an obvious difference, for instance, if you saw allusions to Picasso in the construction rather than, say, Breughel the elder. Suddenly we are in a world of irony, satire, parody, allusion and collage and we are rudderless without a very strong understanding of subtlety, sophistication, playfulness and style. The fact that somebody can pick up the outline of a soldier through a mini telescope or on a CC-TV really isn't good enough in these times. St. Paul might have preached Faith, Hope and Charity where the greatest of these was Charity but now the main values are sex, money and style and the greatest of these is style.

What we have to bring ourselves to see is that this visual understanding isn't trivial; people in Russia have been put into prison for not interpreting cultural signals properly or interpreting them too acutely. Our own trouble is that unlike Russians under Stalin we don't watch ourselves watching; we are so accustomed to the richness of the visual environment that we would hardly ever describe it that way. I think it is this failure to understand the 20/20 visual world as it is that accounts for a serious shortcoming in the way we deal with low vision. Too often low vision children are on the end of a sustained, neo-Cromwellian campaign of the 3Rs. In my day children who could have benefited incalculably from television were only allowed a meagre weekend ration. When the colour VCR came along the educators stuck with the more expensive, text centred, inflexible, plain stupid CC-TV. What were we thinking of? What we have to ask ourselves now is how much of this rich, colourful, moving visual world can we rescue or interpret for children with low vision?

Related to that, what do we do to compensate people who are going blind for what they are losing? I can't prove this but I think that the reason why so many people going blind are not very interested in the rehabilitative process is that they lose Monet and we offer them climbing stairs and boiling eggs. Of course I don't mean Monet literally but let us use him as a symbol for all kinds of rich visual imagery. We say a lot about those who do not understand body language but what about the majority of our clients who lose it, who lose faces, children and grand-children. As I said recently in Australia, I think we do our best but we are driven by statutory money into a kind of utilitarian bleakness.

Halfway. That, I think, is the worst it gets; so relax a little, from now on most of what I have to say is about how we can make things better.

The absolutely central thing is that we should be intermediaries between the child or client and the world; not intermediaries between our agenda and the client nor, except where the stern Mr. Blunkett lays it down, should we feel responsible for a narrow and reactionary curriculum. Whatever most of the world does for a living, it certainly doesn't sit in an attic writing novels; nor does it proceed with the utter redundancy of carrying out long multiplication without a calculator. We are going to have to be opportunity driven rather than formula driven; we are going to have to teach and train in the world of 24-hour TV and, of course, 24-hour fast food home deliveries, only the leisurely and the purist bake and cook; we have, after all, reached the stage where it is more expensive to buy and cook wholesome food than to buy and heat junk. I rarely go a week without thinking of John Crossland's wonderful comment that he's more often asked to teach a blind client how to roll a joint than bake a cake.

There is one major force on our side which is not yet obvious but will be; and that is our general longevity. As more of us live longer and, accordingly, as more of us live to be disabled in one way or another, more of us who are not so old will look ahead and see where our best interests lie. The younger generations will rightly try and get things ready for when they become older and disabled. It will no longer be sensible to design lawn-mowers for 30-somethings; it will be stupid to have a computer mouse that is useless if you have arthritis; it is plain crazy to design standard print sizes and fonts that a huge swathe of the population can't read easily and quickly. My guess, however, is that the Design for All movement will stop there. It will take a look at the world of digital content, stick in sub-titles, a little audio, some text alternative to images on Web pages, and leave it at that. Following on from what I said about the loss of richness, we need to bear in mind that there will be a huge number of people, millions, still with buying power, who will lose that richness. In our society for the next two decades the age group with the largest amount of disposable income will be those between 45 and 65, between children leaving university and the first nasty medical or nursing home bill; at the same time we are beginning to see that the onset of sight deterioration is a 40s and 50s phenomenon; we should start looking for signs well before the pension kicks in.

But if professionals in visual impairment and low vision persist in being bleakly, unimaginatively utilitarian then we can't blame intellectual content designers if they ignore this important segment of the market. We need to be constructive about aesthetics; if we do not learn about aesthetics ourselves we cannot be good intermediaries.

But I don't just mean making more sense of moving pictures. During the last couple of years I've been getting more and more interested in the question whether when people have no sight or lose their sight, their other senses in some way compensate; it's the kind of nonsense you get in taxis every day of your blind life. The answer, of course, is that people might develop compensatory sense data analysis with good training; but after a blind child has got a bit of braille, how much do we teach her to touch? We teach people about cooking but do we teach them about food? We generally place great faith in more concentrated hearing skills but do we teach people to listen? I wasn't sure of any of this - and I'm still not - but at least in a small way I have begun to investigate. Last year I took a group of blind children to look at a special exhibition of memorial sculpture, of gravestones and headstones, statues and inscriptions, and found out how much they got out of this (I'm currently finishing off a slide set and commentary); and since then I have been collecting slides of public sculpture, of useful things that people are allowed to touch. I never pass Conversation with Oscar Wilde without giving him a friendly pat and I know a statue of a teenage girl in crop top and cut-off jeans that most men would die for.

I've also become interested in geology, tree rings, the history of domestic architecture and the progress of a digital 3D environment with virtual reality. I think this agenda is a lot easier to follow with children but there are surely adult education, training and cultural variants; there is no doubt a place for the almost blind photographer and for tactile paintings and drawings but give me a bit of clay and a potter's wheel or a slow day on the side of an escarpment. And one final thing on this subject; what is a blind man like me doing commissioning pictures of sculpture, architecture and geology? Don't go anywhere without a camera.

We could also be a good deal more positive about the way we help people with the mass media. As far as I know there is no analytical process which helps to navigate newly blinded people, or people steadily losing their sight, through the media jungle so they can get the best out of what is available. Until recently this has been very difficult because people have had channel and schedule tastes; they always watch this soap opera, that news. As the old fixed channel schedules give way to multi channel pay per view we need an analysis which helps us to point our clients and our children towards helpful sources of information and entertainment. Most men at least know that the radio cricket commentary is better than the television if you can't see the screen; one of the few inventive devices male sports lovers have ever evolved is the TV picture and radio commentary for cricket! But how many people going blind would currently switch from a TV consumer programme to You and Yours on Radio 4? Or isn't this the rehab worker's job? It is my contention that it is and will be more so. We can't just leave those with poor vision stuck in front of habitual, unhelpful television. We might want to interest ourselves, for example, in how fast the ball travels in various sports and see whether that might be a spur to people with poor sight to watch more snooker and less tennis.

This won't simply be a matter of what people do in their living rooms. The swarm of mobile telephones in trains is a standing joke or a grim source of urban myths. Personally, I have this terrible urge to get out my Nokia, pretend to switch it on and shout "buy a million at 50" but instead I confine myself to trying to shut down other conversations; the best way is to take notes of your neighbour's conversation and say: "Sorry, I didn't quite catch that last figure". Soon we will all have mobile sound and picture communication, with e-mail pouring over the planet like runny honey. We will go ultra interactive. I have noted already that this has serious drawbacks if you can't see, if you are shut out of the information access general social standard but I want to emphasise equally that there may well be a case for people with poor vision putting themselves in the position of counsellor, helping people to sort the wheat from the chaff, helping to get the main lines of an issue and push it back to its origins or historical roots.

Another positive option is teamwork. Recently I worked with a dyslexic sculptor. He rigged up a contraption which allowed him to drive organ pipes with hair dryers triggered through a computer touch screen; another collaborator made interactive video so that if you poked the eye on the screen the man would scream, or you could soothe him by scratching an itch on the part of his back he couldn't reach; another collaborator found some music; and I provided a poem and put it into hypertext with hot links to pictures and music, so I needed help with the pictures. None of us could have done the whole thing ourselves.

I think of the 20th Century's icon as the Hollywood movie with a huge run of end credits. As we all work together most of our lives in formal and informal teams it is vital that we teach and train children and adults to be good team players. As this is no doubt the case it puzzles me that the whole of the National Curriculum and most of what follows afterwards is examined in hermetic silence without any kind of assistance. We spend our lives borrowing each other's equipment and expertise, we copy techniques and absorb them into our own repertoire but in examinations we are treated as absolutely solo, teamwork is penalised as cheating and no kind of copying is allowed. This puts people with narrow skills bases at a terrible disadvantage and, of course, that includes most blind and visually impaired people whose sills bases are narrowed by impairment. This means that our children are seriously disadvantaged by the testing system which is largely indifferent to the skills they will need in their working lives. this will change but it will not change without help from us; we need to emphasise the importance not only of teaching teamwork but of examining it and giving formal credit where it is carried on successfully.

A major potential positive aspect of the new technology is that it will domesticate a huge range of transactions such as shopping, banking, booking holidays and, of course, buying entertainment. It will also add greatly to the flexibility of personal correspondence where e-mail can replace rigid letters, forms and bills. In fact one of the most recent bouts of technological struggle has been about encryption and privacy, not because anybody is very interested in private correspondence or even your bank account details but because the moralists want to keep pornographic and sexual transactions off the Internet and many governments want to keep drug transactions off it too; but if they succeed, and I doubt it, these two major industries will be the only ones not amenable to domestic Internet access.

Now this is all right as long as electronic transactions are an alternative to physical facilities; and it is all right as long as people who are not naturally good with technology get the help they need either to interact autonomously or with the help of an intermediary. The worst possible scenario is a technologically illiterate or debarred group in an ever increasing state of physical isolation as bank branches and middle sized stores close, creating an ever greater distance between people and services operated by human beings.

So, drawing towards a conclusion, this brings us back over and over again to the role of the intermediary. We should stop looking at this in traditional, narrow, utilitarian ways and consider what people who can see regard as central in their lives. Of course they are interested in getting and keeping a job or attaining a certain level of competence in the educational and training fields but we must look further; further even than domestic chores. For we all live in an age of information which requires a social as well as a strictly utilitarian response. Have you noticed, for instance, how naive blind people, and particularly congenitally blind people, are about violence and yet an understanding of violence is absolutely central to the way our society conducts and entertains itself. We might regret this but it is not our job to censor it, to ignore it, to lie by omission. I could have made exactly the same point about sex but that has been made often enough since the controversy over braille transcription censorship in the 1960s.

To be multi-faceted intermediaries requires a whole host of reforms, starting with the way in which workers with blind children and adults are trained, examined, supervised, mentored and inspected; it requires a higher basic entry level; and it requires better pay and conditions for the delivery of these highly complex services but perhaps above all the basic need is for a strong, self confident, self regulated professional body. It is easy for me to say, of course, but what I think we need is a major clear out of old baggage to make professional bodies streamlined, nimble, pro-active, perhaps even iconoclastic on occasions. Very little has been gained by caution; with caution as a single guide to conduct there would be no democracy, certainly no female suffrage, no feminism, no gay rights, no disabled person's rights. Everywhere I go I hear charities telling me that their purpose is to be at the cutting edge, to be experimental and to provide instant reaction to crises; and everywhere I go I find people crawling forwards, but facing the past and with their backs to the future. I understand why this is the case with public servants paid for with public money; nobody expects anybody in the public service to take a risk unless that is part of an experimental package funded by special provision; but it is a bit much when the public sector is actually more experimental than the charitable sector and I think that that is close to becoming the case in the blindness and VI sector since the advent of New Labour. Of course the call will go up for partnership but too often partnerships are mechanisms for cobbling together funding. I get very little sense of real, committed partnerships, the kind of relationships that remind me of young love.

I have been privileged to work in visual impairment for the last 22 years as a young worker in developing countries, as a policy maker for Sight Savers and, more recently, as a freelance consultant, trustee and academic editor in the UK and whichever way I turn the kaleidoscope, whatever group of factors forms the composition in front of me, I always draw two major conclusions. These are that the factors in favour of wonderful progress are almost all there; and that what frustrates us all the time in this sector with its deep commitment, relatively good financial and technical resources, is the second factor; there is something small that is missing; something so small that we are more frustrated than we would be if we were less blessed with talent and money. That small but vital piece is, I think, a lack of a social imagination, the understanding that blind and visually impaired people want what we want and miss, O so badly, what we would miss in their condition. We may discover things about the interests and preferences of our pupils and clients that we do not like but, as I have said, that is hardly the point. Let us make the beginning of the new Millennium the decade of the intermediary; and let us start now.