This is a Year 5 maths lesson created by a brilliant teacher at Fairley House School. To be fair to this teacher, it is probably my son’s fault that they went down the gruesome Roald Dahl path. Their first lesson with him he announced that one maths lesson a week would be problems based on animals and each child would take it turns to pick their favourite animal. Joe got to pick the first week and decided that his favourite animal was not a dolphin or a kitten or a giraffe, but a leech. After a lively lesson not just based on “if one leech can suck 10ml of blood in an hour…” but descending to “If it takes 24 leeches minced up to make a leechburger…” the tone for the year was set.
My sons are dyslexic and dyspraxic; this lesson takes that into account. The words, font and layout are clear, writing is kept to a minimum, the pictures support the text and the humour keeps it engaging. It is, pretty much, a perfect way to teach children with those special needs. But it is also a great way to teach kids without SEN. All the things which make it work for those with dyslexia also make it work for any child.
And that is the point of reasonable adjustments. People without disabilities can use automatic doors and lifts just as effectively as people with them. High colour contrast between walls and floors or countertops help people with visual impairments but don’t stop people with 20/20 vision using a building.
I had a rather long conversation with two lovely older women with visual impairments a while ago, complaining about the male/ female signs on toilet doors in pubs. They explained that the signs were often too small for them to work out which was which. One told me that she either had to hang around outside to see whether a man or a woman came out, which was not always practical and tended to get her odd looks, or take a best guess. As she explained “I don’t really mind walking into the gents; I’m blind so I can’t see anything anyway, but the gents do seem to mind.” Not everyone is as brave as her, but really, is it so difficult to put a large clear sign on the door? A big sign is just as easy for a person without a visual impairment to read as a small one.
I have had conversations on Twitter where people have suggested that spending money on inclusion benefits only the few and raises the cost for everyone else. I don’t think that has to be the case. Good design takes into account special needs and disabilities from the outset, because if it works for people who have difficulties then it works for everyone. It improves your design or your policy.
There are two examples from Barnet Council that I want to highlight. The first is the disastrous pay-by-phone parking policy, introduced by Councillor Brian Coleman and the second is the shift to online council services.
Pay-by-phone parking was particularly difficult for older people. At the time the policy was introduced 40% of people over 65 did not own a mobile phone. For many this was because the phones were difficult to use, either because of a hearing impairment or loss of finger dexterity. Currently only 3% of over 65s have a smartphone. Some people felt vulnerable using their phone on the high street. The policy did not work for them, and it did not work for a lot of other people. Footfall on the high street went down and so did takings from parking income. A lot of money was spent removing meters which are now being returned, slowly, to Barnet. If the equalities issues had been thought through at the outset this would not have happened.
Barnet, like most of central and local government, wants to move all of its services online. It is cheaper, is available 24/7 and there is the advantage of a written audit trail.
Here is a quote from Fujitsu’s research
At least three quarters of local government officers and local councillors think the use of the council website will increase over the next year.
Councillors are overwhelmingly of the opinion that their council is encouraging more people to use the council website for information on local service.
86% of councillors agree that having more people using the internet to access services saves their council money.
On the whole, councillors and officers alike think that local services provided through the council website are fairly accessible for different groups in their communities, including older people and the disabled.
These results also show how unaware local authorities are that over 60s in their constituencies are not advocates of their online channels, and would be unwilling to switch in the future. In fact, more than 70% of older people say that if more services were provided on the internet, they would still visit or phone their local council to receive services. So not surprisingly, a similar percentage also disagree with the notion that, ‘if more council services were provided online I would use the internet more’.
And herein lies the problem – the fundamental disconnect that currently exists between government expectations and older people’s behaviour.
If councils like Barnet want residents to use more online services then they have to do a number of things:
1. They need to encourage older people to go online, because if they don’t the policy will fail and the savings will not be achieved. That may well mean fronting up some money from their communications or IT budgets to fund lessons in digital inclusion and ensuring free internet access in libraries, including the ability to print off the web at reasonable cost.
2. They need to ensure that their website really is accessible, which means asking people who are not confident online to test it for them. Time outs and word limits, especially if they are not flagged, are a real problem for people who will assume they have made an error, not that the system was designed that way.
3. Ensure that multi-channel access – telephones, letters, face-to-face interaction – are still available to make sure that you do not alienate people.
If it works for older people who are not online, or not confident online, then it will work for everyone else.