The Disability of Distance

Clean air, tracts of open country, empty beaches. Isn’t living in rural Scotland just grand! Oh yes, if you don’t mind poor public transport, rain in monsoon dollops and nary another screen reader within fifty miles. Two things occurred this week, within hours of each other, emphasising this Disability of Distance.

The first was one of those rare occasions when I smugly felt the equal of everyone else. A friend and I were going halfers on a birthday present, and, since she works, I’d offered to do the cyber equivalent of window shopping, if I could find suitable web sites. I spent an afternoon wandering the relevant sections of the QVC site. Most enjoyable! The screen reader chattered away, video clips played and I found lots of possible pressies. Heavens, I made a start on the Christmas list! Relevant details were typed into my talking mobile and I sent a text to my pal listing the best buys. No different from what others might have done, except it probably took me slightly longer. Much is made of silver surfers, but, in fact, many of my friends would never think of doing any shopping at all in this way. Instead, they would jump in the car, or the early bus, and wheech through to Dumfries or Carlisle. Although buses are an option for me, a successful shopping expedition requires a sighted human companion. Mr. Dog and I have never discussed his tastes in fashion, perfumes or modern Scottish fiction. Furthermore, we don’t visit those towns often enough to have intimate knowledge of their geography; the drop kerbs, beeping crossings, the worst potholes. One of the disabilities of distance but, with the assistance of a compliant computer and accessible web sites, easily overcome. In fact, on such a blustery and showery afternoon, I’d a much more comfortable time, sitting at a warm computer, rather than slopping around stuffy shops with a sodden Mr. Dog.

However, a phone call that evening bumped me back to earth. An acquaintance had bought a computer and, six months on, it still wasn’t working. He’d a screen reader about which I knew nothing and, since I hardly knew him and he lived at a distance, it wasn’t practical to suggest any of my network of White Knights who wrestle with my particular system. The chap wasn’t familiar with even basic computer jargon. His was the generation who’d coped with the disappearance of the 78.

Searching for vocabulary, I floundered. Searching for solutions, I despaired. Explanatory manuals on CD or tape are excellent but incur cost and usually assume some computer expertise. Having already spent a fair amount of dosh and achieved only increased hypertension, he was, understandably, unwilling to spend more.

I hung up the phone, dispirited and depressed. It’s frustrating enough to spend valuable time swearing, while the computer either sits in bolshie silence or constantly reiterates some phrase which bears no apparent relation to whatever was the current task. And, to have had that for six months!

But now, what with the DDA and the championing of inclusion in the name of political correctness, surely all anyone has to do is contact the local further education college? That’s what I thought, last summer, when a voucher arrived in the post, offering me free entry to any one of a list of short courses. No Introductions to Victorian Novels, no Mandarin for the Monoglot. These were courses at a level aiming to explain how to tie one’s shoelaces or butter toast, but the list did include an Introduction to Vista and the bumph did assure that all disabilities were accomadated, courtesy of the government.

I contacted the college. Some time later, I hung up the phone, dispirited and depressed. I’d wasted a call on an Expert whose conversation made it abundantly obvious he had no idea what a screen reader was, what it allowed its controller to do and how this was done. Certainly, I had been assured that the whole course was there, on the college web site. But I’d no assurance that the site would be accessible to my screen reader nor that instructions would accommodate someone driving their computer only via the keyboard.

I signed up. Well, the weather last summer wasn’t conducive to gardening and I did have that government sponsored voucher. And did I soon learn everything I needed to know about Vista? Was the course indeed accessible?

I never found out. Unfortunately, to access my free use of the web site, I had to log in. With a password provided by the college. One of those illogical ones; random letters, punctuation marks and numbers. Nothing as obvious as, “Lae us in.” Or “Gae us a go!” On the one occasion when I had a sighted person with time to spare to read this gobbledegook into the computer, the site had crashed. A crisis caused by flitting to a new campus, a helpful person down the phone explained, encouraging me to be patient and try again in a few days. And did I? No. By the time the constellations were once again in conjunction and sighted help was available, I’d discovered the essentials of Vista.

Ah well, at least I wasn’t constantly pestering the college down the phone and they didn’t have to train an Expert in the mysteries of screen readers. Just think of all the money I’ve saved them!

© Charlotte Bennie 2009