Information Technology Ubiquity: the changing role of the intermediary
presented by Kevin Carey
at the School of Education, University of Birmingham, 1999
There are few better examples than Birmingham (the city in which we are gathered today) of the vicissitudes of changing technology; and even fewer examples of cities which have been laid low and then risen to new challenges. Birmingham was at the forefront of the first, brutal, industrial revolution based on coal and iron, so frighteningly described in Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop; its large factories and small workshops then had to embrace electronic engineering and, shortly afterwards, the birth of the motor industry. By the mid 1950s, the combined disadvantages of post war patch-up rather than reconstruction, management and labour inflexibility and imperial nostalgia (attributable, no doubt, to one of its most illustrious sons, Joseph Chamberlain), led to a period of slow but almost fatal decline; the workshop of the world almost became the junk-yard of England. And although you can still see traces of that sad era as you walk or ride around town, Birmingham's heroic revival is undoubted; from Symphony Hall to its industrial parks Birmingham has its face firmly set against the gales of the next century.
We, too, have had our periods of growth, adaptation and complacency. t much the same time as chimneys began to blot out the sun France, and soon afterwards England, made its first feeble efforts to provide special services for blind people; the 1870 Education Act was a straightforward acknowledgement that new, more sophisticated production required better educated people and the surprisingly late 1944 Education Act established universal secondary education. Meanwhile, the special schools grew and trundled, saved from total ossification by the dramatic intervention of retrolental fibraplasia (now known as Retinopathy of Prematurity). Since then, our sector of education has never been so controversial nor so reported on, from Vernon to Warnock, from Warnock to the most recent Green Paper. Most of what passes for discussion has actually been a futile and nasty argument about mainstream and special school provision, using language created and specifically used in the context of the "Busing" controversy in the United States. The growing - admittedly slowly growing - consciousness of children with useful residual vision on the one hand and the growing number of children with disabilities in addition to visual impairment has clarified the issues; and, with fewer children solely disabled by blindness using braille as the primary means of communication, to futility and nastiness can be added anachronism. But this false dichotomy cannot be held totally responsible for the low level and intensity of debate on other subjects, there has been what amounts to a cross-institutional sclerosis which is only now coming to an end; so what I want to do is to use the massive and rapid development of information technology as a central theme in describing what needs to change and how it needs to change, built around the central figure of what I will call the intermediary, the person who attempts to make sense of and add richness to the lives of blind and visually impaired people as they struggle with an ever more graphic and complex environment.
In this lecture I will attempt to cover the following eight aspects of my subject:
- Realistic visual assessment
- Criteria for defining approaches to information
- The transformation from technological scarcity to ubiquity
- The new IT criteria
- The limits of apprehension
- Description training and accreditation
- Limits to the National Curriculum
- Improved professionalism
1. Realistic Visual AssessmentThe visual acuity test we currently use to provide a measurable, as opposed to an arbitrarily functional, definition of blindness and visual impairment, was designed for agricultural and heavy industrial workers; it is, fundamentally, about what we can see in the distance and at most what we can see at three metres. It is also a static test, absolutely useless for sorting out who is and is not fit to drive or manage machinery with moving parts.
Most of us spend a huge percentage of our lives inside three metres, in our work environment and at home. Whether we are looking at a computer screen, watching television, planting flowers, reading a book or cooking, we do most of this work inside three metres. Our major activities outside three metres are driving and sport and as both involve movement, the current static test is useless.
Though slightly better if you can relate the ophthalmological diagnosis and prognosis to some schema of functionality, the medical data on the BD.8 is also pretty narrow. A diagnosis of albinism or retinitis pigmentosa, for instance, will tell us something about the way the retina handles the visual environment in certain circumstances but the only way that we can elicit a proper functional assessment is to carry out extensive tests in varying environmental conditions inside three metres.
The functional definition has the merit of being flexible but the defect of being messy; set down in Statute the idea that somebody is blind because he cannot perform tasks for which sight is required begs the question: "What tasks?"
All three kinds of definition, the acuity measurement, the medical diagnosis and the functional all, unfortunately, reinforce the medical model of disability which directly links common disabilities with impairments; and a mixture of these three definitions leads to access to public and voluntary sector special benefits and services again all based on a medical model.
So, what we need is a new framework for assessing visual impairment which plots limitations in the performance of a wide range of objects, covering functionality inside three metres and includes mobile as well as static phenomena.
2. Criteria for Defining Approaches to InformationAny detailed work on functionality inside three metres will immediately produce three classes of visual impairment; children who can:
- see nothing or cannot clearly distinguish objects;
- see objects but cannot distinguish enough detail to apprehend the whole content of the object;
- apprehend the full richness of the object with optimal customisation.
These three broad classes can be applied in all kinds of environments but I particularly want to consider them in the context of multi-media access and whenever I discuss IT I am, unless I specify otherwise, thinking of multi-media, so if you want to form an accurate mental picture you should think much more about televisions and much less about text on a PC screen.
The division between the first and second groups, often expressed as total blindness through to light perception on the one hand and useful but not clear residual vision on the other, is critical because it draws a line between those who can only apprehend content from a multi-media soundtrack and those who can benefit from the pictures. The first group will also need access peripherals, such as braille bars and synthetic speech as primary communications devices to access simple text. The second group may well use identical devices but they will be operated more for support than for primary access; this second group, we know from research, fights tooth and nail, screws its face up and almost touches the screen, spreads 48-point print on the floor and walks among it, rather than classifying itself as blind, requiring braille. This group requires IT customisation outside the scope, for instance, of the Windows/Intel (Wintel)package which only provides x 3 magnification.
The third group can, as legislation increasingly emphasises access, increasingly benefit from standard commercial customisation. Its main problem is not apprehension but speed.
I am not convinced that most people are well enough aware of the division between the second and third groups. There is an intuitive - though it ought to be much more scientific - grasp of the difference between the braille reader or primary audio user and the very large print user but not such a ready grasp of the gradations within the ranks of those who use vision as a primary information source whether they use speech synthesis or not. An important factor to remember here, particularly in the context of multi-media, is that almost all people look at text and pictures and listen to sound simultaneously, it's called watching television and, again, that is what you need to think of, not consulting a CD-ROM OED, as I proceed with my argument.
The most difficult problems for people in the second group - and for some people in the third group - are:
- Uncertain information acquisition capacity, dependent on the environment
- The inability to accurately scope the extent of apprehension.
The first problem is simply illustrated. I lower my hand-held telescope and ask a passer-by where the red bus down the street is going; I then run for it. I walk confidently out of a modestly lit interior into blazing sunlight and cease to function, or I walk the other way and cease to function. We all know instances of this, of the values of even and uneven lighting, of concentrated and ambient illumination, of high contrast and bright but not glaring colour schemes; but the other problem is much more difficult. I can illustrate it best with an example in real life. Imagine that you go into a highly ornate cathedral which has a gargoyle-infested ceiling; now imagine that all that you can see is a surface with the patina of the upper side of a Mars Bar; you know it isn't entirely smooth but all you can see are shallow points and depressions. That is how many images appear to people with low vision when they look at static pictures; the problem obviously magnifies with the degree of visual change between succeeding frames in multi-media.
It is one thing to know that you are not seeing the whole picture, that you are missing the richness of its detail; but it is quite another, and here is the crunch, not to know that you are missing something. Again, let me give you four examples from paintings:
- The first is a Breughel genre picture, crowded with people, animals and artefacts. The viewer sees the outlines of big objects but smaller objects are more difficult and the rich detail in some of the bigger objects is obscure. Other than grasping the structure of the picture, it really has nothing to offer. This is unfortunate but its consequences are relatively simple.
- Next, think of a picture of Monet water lilies. The viewer picks out the outline of the flowers but nothing else. The problem here is that the point of the picture is not the flowers at all, it is a study in water and light. Not only does our viewer not see the picture clearly, she is bereft of any understanding of its point.
- The third example is an Escher drawing; think of Ascending and Descending and you will immediately realise that the essence of the picture is that it is a joke. If you grasp the structure you might get the joke.
- Finally, and this is by far the most serious case, there is a poster of a soldier. The viewer can make out a male figure and enough of the uniform to know that it is a soldier. Our problem here is what it means. The soldier, on first examination, is a fine, patriotic figure, but his face wears a whimsical expression, he wears an ear-ring; the background alludes to Picasso's 1907 Les Demoiselles d'Avignon which marked the beginning of Cubism; and the calligraphy refers to a Gill font. What are we to make of this? The soldier, far from being a patriot may be a pacifist; or perhaps it is patriotic to be a pacifist.
It is my contention that by concentrating too much on the structure of images we have failed to grasp how important is their meaning. Just as to parse Flaubert is not an adequate response to the text, so to grasp objects in Monet is not an adequate response to the painting; and when we come to the poster we have to remember that we do not live in an age of unquestioning, unself-conscious expression characterised by the huge oil paintings in our municipal art galleries. We take our patriotism with large doses of fizzy drink. We live in an age of parody, irony, allusion, collage, recursive reference, deconstructionist playfulness and above all, perhaps we live in the age of style. As I have said before, St. Paul might have plumped for Faith, Hope and Charity but for our age the key motifs are sex, money and style; and the greatest of these is style.
Does this matter? Well, people in Stalinist Russia were killed for crossing the line from "Socialist realism" into parody and while I'm not suggesting it is as serious as that, the very least we can say to our pupils if they cannot apprehend the meaning of a work is that they have missed something which we, as intermediaries, must either fill in or admit that there is a gap we cannot fill. As with many other matters, we have to make a judgment about how much time and effort we and our pupils should spend on trying to compensate for loss of apprehension; but if we are not honest, if we do not admit the pupil's limited apprehension, if we stay silent, as we most often do, then we cannot complain if a shortfall in apprehension is confused with a failure of comprehension. We might honestly want to say, and should want to say, that because this child is visually impaired it cannot fully apprehend this picture; better that than a child who is simply blind being branded as stupid.
Frankly, I think this is a vital area and one which we have at least subconsciously played down; but the advent of the hegemony of the image, particularly the moving image, raises this topic anew. As long as what blind children missed was the soap opera where a character says one thing with his words and something quite other with his face, we could dismiss this as a trivial deprivation, but with the oncoming ubiquity of multi-media technology we will have to face the issue. So, next, let me sketch the history of IT and access technology and outline what is changing.
3. The Transformation from Technological Scarcity to Ubiquity
I promise you, you are not going to believe what I am about to say; nobody does. Within five years 80% of the population will have direct, personal access to computer technology. I know what you're thinking, how is the personal computer market going to expand that rapidly? Well, it isn't. Now think again. How many of us have mobile telephones; well, coming up to half the adult population at the moment but in Finland mobile phone ownership is just about 100% and later this year new mobile phones will come on the market that are Web enabled, driven by Wireless Access Protocols and delivering information in Wireless Mark-up Language. Some of you will have seen tiny notebook computers that look like the mobile phones of ten years ago and some of you might even have seen the most recent generation of mobile phones which have a qwerty keyboard and you begin to get a picture of the future, of devices where the telephone, the means of accessing the Web, and the micro computer processor merge into one device.
Now think again. How many of us, particularly those who rent their television, will switch to digital television in the next five years. Sales are already way ahead of government forecasts, particularly as the cost of set-top boxes has fallen through the floor. Figures show that purchases are higher in the bottom two social classes than in the top two; digital TV will be an 'underclass;, as well as a middle class, phenomenon. So, what you have is a common domestic consumer electronics device but the engineering doesn't get in the way.
What we have to do is forget our image of computers, beginning with the men in white coats or khaki uniforms (because the Internet started as a military project), forget exclusivity and impenetrability and think of the good old telephone and television with computing power either hidden inside them or made available down a telephone line from a remote site. What you have is a convergence between the computer, the telephone and the television; we haven't got a name for it yet other than a thing in the corner.
These developments, as I said earlier, present their own particular kinds of problems for VIPs. Initially many people were shut out of computing because they did not have access, training or simply did not have the money to pay for the equipment but in this age of ubiquity it isn't going to be the cost that shuts people out. What will shut them out undoubtedly is the inability to use the information. Remember what I said about the soap opera; it's socially disadvantageous to be out of the television dialogue but if you are out of the IT loop this will have serious consequences because IT will not only be concerned with education, training and employment - the Government's neo-Cromwellian agenda - but it will be crucially concerned with all entertainment, retail, banking, health, and citizenship.
The concept we need to get well embedded at this point is that of comparative disadvantage. The new technology will not make anybody absolutely worse off but being shut out of it will mean a widening gap between those who are connected and those who are not. Let me give you a handful of examples: blind people could no doubt put information into circulation with a typewriter but could not read information produced by it; blind people were made no better and no worse off than their sighted peers by the invention of radio but were comparatively disadvantaged by movies and television; you get the idea. So although this new wave of ubiquitous technology will not absolutely damage anybody's life chances, and might even improve those of some VIPs, when you look at the ratio of advantage by VIPs and the rest of the population you can see how the gap widens. VIPs will have more information than ever before but their proportion of all information will decrease; they will be able to process more text than ever but will be ever slower than their fully sighted peers; there will be access devices but they will come on stream after the general release of products, so they will be working with legacy technologies.
Having explored this, I want to say just a few words about the access IT industry and what is happening there. We are all familiar with braille displays, screen magnification and speech synthesis. When we were all working in DOS there was a time when "blind" and "computer programmer" went together but with the rise of the graphical user interface (GUI) - commonly thought of as Microsoft Windows - and the decline of in-house software writing the association faded. Access technology has not done a particularly good job, particularly with GUIs but as time goes by what were thought of as accessibility features are being built into general products as part of what is called the "design for all" movement; this proposes, correctly, that good design for special needs is good design for everyone. Thus, there is a degree of screen magnification in most current software packages, more and more computers have a speech synthesis capability and it is easy to imagine that the only access technology that will still be provided by niche suppliers five years from now is braille displays. For intermediaries this has the disadvantage that instead of the specialist supplier with all that in-depth knowledge of VIPs, what you will have to tangle with is the monster manual and the tangled help tree. If you stick a client down in front, let us say, of Microsoft Office, how do you customise the kit for an individual's needs. Do you do the colour and contrast first or the font and size of the print? I don't know but I soon will when some current research on customisation is completed.
I should, here, deal with one more subject which relates to customisation. When I was conducting some research a couple of years ago into the way that VIPs function with workstations in public libraries, one of the questions which people kept asking was which was the user's primary access medium, was it screen magnification, voice synthesis or the braille bar. My reply was another question: when you are watching television what is your primary access medium, the picture, the sound or the text? Of course the answer in every case was that people watch and listen to television simultaneously; so that is the way we should deal with VIPs and computer devices. There is some but not very much merit in testing whether children can read text without speech prompts but it will become less relevant as speech and text are produced from the same computer file. I want to emphasise that point particularly for those of you who might deal with dyslexic children; this obsession with text only is not only anachronistic, it is cruel and foolish.
In summary, then, we have this ubiquitous technology working in a multi-media environment which will be affordable for almost everybody and which will be involved in every aspect of our lives; what are the challenges this presents to us as intermediaries between VIPs and the world outside? that is my next topic.
4. New Criteria for Accessibility
I now come to the central part of my presentation dealing with the five criteria for accessibility which we need to look at carefully as intermediaries; they are:
- Manipulation; and
Setting aside as important but no longer central, the issue of access limited because of economic means, I want to look at the barrier to access caused by physical limitations. The fact that I cannot see presents obvious access problems, some of which technology can overcome, some not. Specially designed access technology, such as that I used to prepare these remarks, gives me braille and synthesised speech access to digital text but it does not give me access to graphical information and pictures. Of course, a Web page designer might use an "Alt" tag to append a description of a graphic or picture which would at least tell me what I am missing; but no amount of explanation, no matter how sympathetic and subtle, can realise the smile of the Mona Lisa for a congenitally totally blind person. My access problem is, however, very special and atypical of the population which is legally classified as "blind" or "visually impaired"; and there is a huge group of people outside these classifications who find it difficult to access a Windows/Intel (Wintel) machine in default mode; as many as 15% of the working population cannot read Times New Roman 10-point characters to which many Wintel machines default. As sight problems increase by percentage with age, that figure necessarily rises in people past 60 and there is emerging evidence that the onset of declining visual functioning commences at nearer to 40 than 60. You might then want to consider access to on-screen material by people who are driving a car or riding in an ill-lit train or simply making sense of data at twilight on a park bench. Suddenly you can see that the population that cannot read Times New Roman 10-point in some set of circumstances might be as high as a quarter of the whole population.
I am sorry to have to mention Microsoft, but I have been having a fascinating dialogue with its people on this point. Microsoft has a special Access Wizard which, in effect, asks people to self-classify as physically or mentally disabled in some way. Every time I talk about the market case for accessibility they send me to the Disability Access Unit and I go back to Marketing. To ask people to self classify as inferior before they can access a system is crazy marketing, as well as being insulting.
Now if you add all the other people who might have problems with a standard system, such as those who have hearing difficulties, those who have problems with keyboard and mouse control, you have another huge market segment. Some people will have serious, congenital conditions which make access more difficult, but many of us simply have arthritis or hands like packets of sausages. We would not classify ourselves as disabled but we do need our systems to be customised.
Because so much of the information in the system is vital to the way we live, customisation cannot be a peripheral bolt-on paid for by the Rotary Club. Perhaps one third of the population, but more likely more than that, requires general design which allows customisation to a level which makes access possible for most of the population. Access to public sector information ought to be guaranteed by law; and accessibility should be a factor in public tendering and purchasing policy and in licensing regimes. As for banks and supermarkets and the like, good design is good marketing. The scenario I most often deal with is that of the multinational company which designs products that exclude 30% of the market and which then comes to my tiny charity expecting to be given free consultancy on filling the gap.
Another problem in access is diversity. I understand why the commercial market will continue to set standards retrospectively but there is no reason why the public sector should not produce front ends that have the same look, feel and functionality. It takes a person with poor sight approximately 90 minutes to learn the special access features which allow him to interrogate an on-line public access catalogue (OPAC), so why should he have to learn a different system for Social Security, Health Direct, the National Grid for Learning and, indeed, any other Government Department?
All systems, then, as a minimum requirement, dictated by marketing not altruism, should have the following customisable features:
- Symbol size, font and separation
- Foreground and background brightness, contrast and colour variation
- Speech pitch, volume and speed
- Key striking
- Frame delivery rate
And these characteristics, when set, should be portable between systems and machines.
The topic of information apprehension is particularly difficult to deal with because of the current political correctness which says that everybody, with proper training, can do everything. This is not true and the preservation of the delusion is particularly cruel to those for whom it was created as a supposed kindness. We have to face up to the fact that information ubiquity will seriously shut many people out, just as automation is shutting out those who only have physical strength to offer. Remember what I said about the Mona Lisa; we, as intermediaries, have a difficult and painful task in acknowledging limitations to apprehension; I will later look at how we deal with this problem but for now I want to look at some basic rules.
- First, separate essential information from tangential self indulgence
and decorative flourishes. There are cultures, such as Japan, where
this rule cannot apply because there is no distinction between the functional
and the decorative; and there is a scattered but growing tendency, roughly
termed "post-modernism" that doesn't recognise hierarchies or distinctions
in content but forget all that for now; the first thing to do is to
make the key information clear.
- Secondly, use structure to inform content rather than for effect.
Again, there is a strongly held belief in some quarters that you can't
separate structure from content - notably in the concrete poetry movement
and, of course, in formal music - but, again, we have to be firm on
this point in order to show relationships, if any, between pieces of
content; a good example of this is the use of the genealogical family
tree which actually makes more intuitive sense than a paragraph of prose.
- Thirdly, use basic causal, chronological and incremental systems to
sequence information. This was once so embedded in our culture through
Aristotle that it hardly needed stating but it does now. You should
always try with on-screen information to create an information sequence
and a sequence of sequences.
- Finally, indicate the status of the on-screen array to indicate whether it is raw data presented uncritically or data processed into knowledge and information. This is particularly important for VIPs who process information slowly because they need to decide rationally whether they want to trawl through uncritical dross or whether they want highly organised and respected information.
There is room on the Internet for art but not for artifice; people have to remember that they are not corresponding when they use the Internet, they are publishing and even broadcasting and by using public channels they have an explicit obligation to the public. There is an organisation which performs light touch regulatory duties for the World Wide Web known as the World Wide Web Consortium and it has an accessibility arm known as the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) which you should visit at w3.org/WAI to seek guidance on good design.
I have already referred more than once to apprehension problems in different guises, talking about the soldier, the soap opera and the Mona Lisa but it can't be mentioned too often because it is, frankly, the most important but one of the most ignored aspects of what we do. I will come back to this shortly.
Once when my wife and I hired a car in Lyons, planning to travel down the Rhone, she became trapped in the inevitable one-way system which shredded the careful route planned from a city centre map. I urged her simply to drive with the sun on her right and she would end up on one or other of the banks of the river as, of course, she did. But we sometimes need intricate rather than broad navigation and it is not a natural gift, it has to be taught. Currently, because designers can navigate what they have designed, information navigation is the Cinderella of IT systems but without it, as I have pointed out, trade will not flourish; so, on the basis that business wants to make money, there's some room for optimism; you can't buy a video programme or a tin of cat food on the Internet if you can't navigate your way to the product you want.
The difficulties often arise because of the sloppy structure and design of information by content creators. If you look at the average Internet site it is prodigally inefficient, burdensomely superfluous, taxonomically illiterate and structurally unsound; if the same people designed supermarkets they would fall down but, as nobody could have found the products, at least there would be no shoppers inside. One of the convergences most greatly to be desired is that between Hollywood, for all its faults, and hypertext.
At the very least, information should be available in four ways:
- Sequentially (eg by chronology, magnitude, importance &c)
- Through key words
- Arrayed in menu trees of nine so that screens can be accessed through the telephone key-pad.
Navigation presents particular problems for VIPs who do not have good orientation; remember that hypertext does not only operate in the two dimensions of up/down and left/right but through links it also works at a multiplicity of levels, rather like three-dimensional snakes and ladders, so people always need to have a strong grasp of where they are and how to retrace their steps.
What applies to navigation applies to manipulation. A system cannot be genuinely interactive if the information cannot be worked on and augmented. Most forms and other interactive devices I have seen are as wooden and syntactically opaque as most applications software. Again, I think that the market will sort some of this out, particularly in interactive entertainment, but it will need a very different and creative attitude from the public sector. We will all soon be filing benefits claims and tax returns on digital forms so this is an area where VIPs need particular help.
Last but not least there is expression. Almost all of us will ingest more information than we create but content creation is an important economic engine. What is more, it - again, possibly counter-intuitively - presents opportunities for people who would normally not be thought of as content creators. Because of the teamwork required in multimedia production - think of the contrast between Proust writing his one great work locked in his apartment and the number of people in the end credits of a movie - people with relatively narrow skills bases can work together to produce high quality content, not necessarily great movies but at the very least community television. Another important aspect of content creation is that this might actually be a better way of teaching IT skills rather than the sequential, didactic manual.
Let me tell you a story. Last year a dyslexic sculptor wanted to activate organ pipes randomly; he set up a bright red wheel and when you turned it, it drove a PC which triggered vacuum-cleaners and hair dryers which in turn activated the organ pipes. He also fancied interactive video, so he would show an eye on the screen and if you poked it, its owner would scream, alternatively, you could please the subject by scratching his on-screen back. He also wanted a poem with a bunch of hot links to album sleeves and snippets of music. So, the sculptor did the organ pipes, a multi-media team put the videos together, I wrote the poem and sorted out the musical hot links and somebody else found the pictures I wanted.
There is, though, a more mundane item of self expression that we must always remember. I talked earlier about style; send a naff looking CV to a potential employer and it doesn't matter how good the content is, if the presentation is bad the content won't count. I think it is vital that all VIPs, including blind children, learn the basic rules of good layout. This is why I would encourage teachers to concentrate on writing and editing in Grade 1 braille and only using Grade 2 for speed reading. If you use a braille display in Grade 2 you don't get an accurate picture of black print layout. One key point here; for VIPs the requirement is often to minimise by cramming things together whereas people who see like things spread out.
5. The Limits of Apprehension
I now return to the big taboo subject, the limits of apprehension and I want to set this in context. There are three segments to the curriculum:
I think we all understand what we mean by the National Curriculum; and we might refer to Orientation and Mobility, Daily Living Skills and perhaps communications skills as the additional curriculum; but what of the hidden curriculum? Well, I would define this as providing children with the skills they need to operate effectively in society as socialised, negotiating people; for me that means making friends and enemies deliberately rather than accidentally; displaying, dating, mating; confronting, withdrawing; in other words, I'm talking about al the body language related subjects which we talk about ad nauseam but never get round to working on with SAT-driven children.
So, you have all this stuff to deliver alongside the mainstream teacher. What do you include and what do you leave out? How important is it to slow down the frame delivery rate of a moving picture to explain how a horse's limbs change their motion between canter and gallop? How important is it to explain an ironic physiognomy? How important is calligraphy? Of course, as intermediaries we make these decision all the time but to what extent are we making rational decisions and to what extent are we simply improvising on the basis of experience? And do we teach the same subject differently because our child has a different kind of impaired vision and because he wants to be a journalist and she wants to be a lab technician?
What is information for? Why does it matter? Must it be purely functional? Are VIPs aesthetically deprived?
This is a horrible knot of questions which seeks to probe us so that we come out into the open and admit it. Come on now, we're largely text-driven, starkly functional, aesthetically indifferent, under immense pressure to deliver the National and additional curriculum and constantly worrying that our charges already have too much to do. I know; so, what we must do is to take a cool look at the limitations of intermediaries and ensure that we can operate at maximum efficiency within those limitations. Here are some basic rules:
- First, and most obviously, children with different levels of visual
impairment require different kinds of descriptions; "blue" means eminently
more to a person with residual vision than to a congenitally totally
blind person who can only 'parrot' the concept but never apprehend it.
- Secondly, although structure, content and significance are all intrinsically
important in a piece of information they are not necessarily contextually
equally important. To take the example of a painting, you might look
at it as an art critic with a particular eye on the structure; you might
look at it as a social historian with a particular interest in the content;
but you might, as an historian be most interested in the significance
of the information. Because a VIP can't make any sense of a picture
in the context of an art class it does not mean that the same picture
might not be important in a history class. If, for instance, you look
at Renaissance religious painting you will see that through time it
becomes increasingly dependent on Graeco-Roman classicism; this is an
interesting art point but it also has political and theological significance.
- Thirdly, although it is a somewhat occidental trait, arrange content
in a descending hierarchical order of importance. This allows the hearer
to grasp key points first but it also establishes an easy method of
cut-off; in some contexts you will have to go further down your hierarchy
than in others.
- Fourthly, significance, as well as content and structure, change through
time; what is vibrant in one age may be alluded to nostalgically in
the next without a single element being altered.
- Fifthly, never confuse criticism with metacriticism; your job is as
faithfully as possible to communicate the intentions of the content
- Finally, as if all that wasn't enough; remember the post-modern tendency towards irony and playfulness; the first five rules tend towards being literal and this last is the joker.
That is a very tall order which needs to be taken very seriously and
in that light you might wonder whether you will have enough time to do
anything properly. There are two answers: the first is that we will all
have to learn in the age of information overload how to cut our losses;
there is no point shying away from this, it will just have to be done;
you can't operate in a state of permanent intermediary description. And
remember, most of this stuff is going to be blinking and scrolling and
moving; the cinema will come unto the classroom as the classroom has stubbornly
and snobbishly refused to go unto the cinema. Secondly, we need to be
more efficient and that means taking description and other intermediary
functions more seriously, learning them methodically as part of training
and applying them in a rational, focused way.
6. Description Training and Accreditation
This is going to be the shortest section because what I want to say is so obvious that it won't improve with embroidery. Intermediaries whose job it is to make the visual world as real as possible for VIPs need to learn how to describe things. They need to be properly trained, examined and accredited in description so that they can do the equivalent of a radio presenter describing a scene or an object. If this mans you all have to be seconded to an art college or take part in creative writing classes, so be it; but it's got to be done.
Just think for a few seconds to see if you could accurately describe your own house; how good are you at looking at a building and estimating its height, looking at a river and estimating its width or looking at an empty stadium and guessing how many people it will hold? How many different shades of green can you name, do they match up to botanical species and do you know one tree from another? But, come to that, what good is a leaf colour to a person who can't clearly see leaves? You might want an urban colour palate rather than the traditional, natural one. Personally I learn through AA yellow, mailbox red, Everton or Coventry City blue. It's best if the colour is a constant; "like an orange" isn't much use if there are six varieties of orange all slightly differently coloured.
Do you know what a parabola is? And do you need to?
That's enough of that.
7. Limits to the National Curriculum
You will remember earlier that I referred to three kinds of curriculum, the National, the Additional and the Hidden. I just want to look briefly at the first of these. I suspect, as I have said, that VI children are being overloaded and that it is their social and negotiating skills that suffer but, putting that to one side, let us assume for the moment that they are delivered the full National Curriculum as set out by statute.
Your pupil goes through school learning a variety of skills and then,
one day, she is isolated, not allowed to talk to anybody, not allowed
to look anything up, penalised for imitating; yes, it's called an examination.
Let us then say that our school leaver applies for a job in an office
team; she does not get an interview, not because she has no teamwork skills
but because her solo achievement score was low. This does not seem like
a very efficient way to run an education system supposed to prepare people
for real life but this system particularly penalises people with narrow
skills bases, people who cannot see, or hear or who think slowly. All
three kinds of people might be invaluable in a team but below average
when working in isolation. I think that in our desire to treat VI children
equally we have fallen into the trap of wanting to treat them identically
with sighted peers. Our age is apt to confuse equality of concern and
respect with uniformity of input and outcome.
8. Improved Professionalism
In closing I only want to say two things. The first is that the job you do is impossibly difficult, so don't get down-hearted. I've asked you to think about the role of an intermediary and the harder you think about it the harder you know your task will be. In the days when VIPs could go into sheltered employment or operate a switchboard it was difficult enough but in our more fluid, volatile world, with the information deluge, it has never been more difficult. Don't worry, just recognise it.
And, finally, because it is so difficult you have to hang together or, in the old phrase, you'll hang separately. One of the sadnesses of my whole career in visual impairment is the poor level of professional self-regard, self-appraisal and mutual support. It works at an individual level but I never get the sense that the whole professional body is speaking with one voice, in support of this or against that. these days the world is about branding and marketing; VI is an excellent brand for attracting support, sympathy and funding and it is well marketed by such organisations as the GDBA and the RNIB; VI work is one of the few sectors where money isn't really a problem though we could all do with more of it, we always could; but I believe that the output is poorer than it should be for the input. This is not because people don'[t work hard, they mostly work too hard, but because there isn't enough mutuality, cross fertilisation and support; there is a poor sense of knowing when to compete and when to collaborate. Now I quite understand why that might be true for fund raisers who compete in the market but that shouldn't affect professionals; you have to put your profession above your bureaucracy.
To be an intermediary, a translator, puts you in a position of immense power. Enjoy using it, for only then will your students learn to enjoy themselves.
©This material is the intellectual property of Kevin Carey, Director HumanITy. It may be copied or quoted in part or in whole in any format as long as it is properly acknowledged and not exploited for commercial purposes.