Improve disability rights? The government can’t even make a tweet accessible

If the Disability Unit was serious it would be working on addressing the real issues affecting disabled people in Britain today

James Moore
Saturday 08 January 2022 15:04 GMT
The government’s Disability Unit was slammed on Twitter for a post about braille
The government’s Disability Unit was slammed on Twitter for a post about braille (Getty/iStock)

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“Want to know why #Disabled people are so angry all the time. This is a government department for disabled people and they can’t even make a tweet celebrating something for blind people accessible.”

This was penned by Twitter user @LadyAurelius in response to the spectacular foot in mouth thread posted on the social media network by the UK government’s Disability Unit ostensibly in celebration of World Braille Day.

“Did you know? Braille is inspired by the way French soldiers used to communicate at night,” it declared. “Learn five interesting facts about braille.”

Whether the above actually qualifies as a fact is, I’m told, open to question. But we’ll park that because it’s small beer when compared to the biggest problem with the thread, which @LadyAurelius and many others highlighted: it isn’t accessible to visually impaired people.

The fascinating “facts” that “you might not know about braille” appear on in a video featuring a soundtrack of bland synth based muzak with one of those generic vaguely ambient dance beats. There is no audio description, no voice track nor, I was told by a visually impaired friend, is the video particularly accessible to screen readers, which translate the text displayed on a computer screen into a form that blind or partially sighted users can process.

That’s right: here you have a government unit that claims its aim is to “break down the barriers faced by disabled people in the UK” posting a video about a reading system used by some visually impaired people which isn’t accessible to any of them.

This sets a terrible example. Yes, I know this is a cliche, but it is so farcical, so patently, painfully ridiculous that it has to be said: you really couldn’t make it up.

The pile-on was predictably swift, and brutal. And yet the government’s lackadaisical social media monitors were apparently too busy watching cutesy cat videos to notice. So the thread stayed up and the problem with it went unaddressed.

This does rather speak to the issues disabled people have with the unit, which is located within the Cabinet Office. Its true purpose appears to be less about improving the lives of disabled Britons than it is about buffing up the government’s deservedly dismal reputation when it comes to disability rights.

It isn’t just the video’s lack of accessibility that’s problematic. It also services as a cynical exercise in virtue signalling. Hey Britain, it says, did you know there are these blind people, and they have this cool special alphabet they can use that they can read super quickly (which might be true but does rather play into the myth that the visually impaired are gifted with super-powered touch, taste, hearing and smell to compensate). Ooh, and look at these awesome six-key typewriters they use. And, right, braille books are also bigger than ordinary books. Plus it’s an alphabet not a language.

I mean, this is schoolroom stuff. Braille was revolutionary when Louis Braille invented it. Even with the technological aids available today, it remains invaluable to the part of the visually impaired community that uses it. It has transformed lives, something the Disability Unit appears to have little interest in doing.

In attempting to capitalise on Braille Day, it didn’t just offer an inaccessible video. It couldn’t be bothered to say something vaguely thoughtful, like, I don’t know, “On this day we call upon supermarkets to make more use of braille”, which isn’t featured on food labelling, for example.

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No, what it says is look, braille! Isn’t it great? Now, that’s the blind people dealt with. What next? I know. Let’s do five fascinating facts about wheelchairs so we can tick them off next.

If the Disability Unit was serious about its stated aim it ought to be working on addressing issues like the fact that the Royal National Institute for the Blind found only 27 per cent of blind and partially sighted people of working age were in employment in 2015 – a sharp fall from the 33 per cent in in 2006. Or the fact that 39 per cent of blind and partially sighted people of working age said they had some or great difficulty in making ends meet in the same research. Or that 35 per cent said that they sometimes, frequently or always experienced negative attitudes from the public in relation to their sight loss.

Episodes like this do rather explain why 31 per cent of those who participated in the RNIB’s My Voice research, in which all the above findings were published, said they were rarely or never optimistic about the future.

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