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Wednesday, 3 November, 1999, 08:30 GMT
Getting the disabled online
Computer
People need practical help to get online
Disabled people stand to benefit from the UK government's plans to increase access to the internet for people from deprived families.

Campaigners say disabled people are most likely to be concentrated in lower-income families and to be on benefits.

Disablilities
But they believe a number of obstacles have to be overcome before the dream of a broad-based UK online community is achieved.

Organisations such as the National Autistic Society and the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) have been at the forefront of making the internet more accessible to the disabled.

The RNIB has been adapting its website to make it more accessible to people who are visually impaired.

And the Employers Forum on Disability, which brings together well-known companies to promote disabled access and equality, is about to launch a website.

Other organisations deal with the practicalities of getting online.

AbilityNet, for example, gives advice to educators and employers about what they have to do to make their computer systems more accessible to the disabled.

Bill Fine, a senior consultant at the charity, said: "The government wants to minimise social exclusion. More and more services will be made available on the internet in the future. Some may be only available on the internet.

"We are indeed beginning to see catalogues which are exclusively available online. If people do not have access, they will miss out."

Support

He said the government's pilot initiative to provide computers for 5 a week was good, but people would also need extra support.

He added that people had been confused by the government's announcement over discount computers and thought they would be available now when it only announced pilot schemes.

Mr Fine hoped the schemes would identify the more practical problems people could face in getting online.

"My worry is the gap between the theoretically wonderful and the practically achievable," he said, adding that it was not just a question of having low-cost college courses to train people to use the computer.

People might also need ongoing support at home.

Disabled people may need adjustments to their computers. Some were fairly cheap and involved changing the tuning of keyboards.

Others were more complex, such as voice-activated computers for the blind, which could cost 120 for the product and as much as 300 for a half day of training.

Adaptations

AbilityNet helps assess disabled people's individual computer needs and helps people to access funds which help pay the cost of adaptations.

"Getting the hardware is just 20% of the problem. Some 80% is support and training."

Mr Fine said some organisations which were using the internet to help disabled people get into work had come up against problems in providing ongoing support.

One large project had advertised for "computer buddies", but had received little response.

"The government's intention is worthy," said Mr Fine, "but every fibre of what I know says the best idea in the world will not help anyone. Only the practically achievable enhances life."

For information about getting online, contact AbilityNet on 0800 269545.

See also:

30 Jun 99 | Health
Immune link to autism
27 Sep 99 | Sci/Tech
Disabled go to work on the Internet
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