Skip to main content

Jonathan Mosen is an accessibility specialist and advocate, author, and broadcaster.  He is also totally blind. Jonathan called for an inquiry into this year’s census after he found it incredibly difficult for those with vision impairment to complete.

We, at the Service Innovation Lab team, asked Jonathan to visit the Lab to talk to us and other service designers about designing accessible services for those who are blind or visually impaired.  

Jonathan spoke about what it is like accessing (or not) services, how technology enables people, and what his hopes are for the future of accessible services.

Learn more about Jonathan and his work at, listen to his podcast The Blind Side, or follow him on twitter.

See below for the full transcript of the audio of Jonathan's presentation. 

>Transcript of Jonathan Mosen's talk about the importance of web accessibility
Siobhan: Hello everybody, welcome. We’ve got Jonathan Mosen here; he’s going to talk to us about accessibility. Jonathan was recently featured in a news article about the census when I think a letter turned up for him that meant he couldn’t actually do his census and I believe he said he didn’t know about it until he heard it on the radio so he probably knows that story a little bit better than me but um and then we thought well what a perfect time to figure out what how we can be doing our services better and learn and actually listen to the people who have the things to say for how it affects them. So, welcome Jonathan and I will sit down now and you can (laugh) do your presentation
Jonathan: Well thank you everybody it’s really a pleasure to have been asked to do this. As you can tell I have a disability but I’m here to prove to you that short people can give presentations as well. (laugh) And since we’re such a smallish group, what I propose to do is to deliver the sort of formal part of the presentation and then take questions or do any show and tell or anything like that and come around the front. That also works for me because, to give you a bit of background about me: I’ve been blind since birth and one of the bonuses ,you know it’s like the infomercials, one of the bonuses of my particular cause of blindness is that I got given a degenerative hearing condition absolutely free and I mean, you know, who could ask for anything more than that?
So if I do the presentation and then, you know, come around the front for questions and everything that’ll work well so hope you find it informative. These days, most people have a good understanding of what it takes to make the built environment accessible so I want to start there and begin by drawing a parallel between physical access and access to information.
So imagine that you’re in a wheelchair and you can’t get into a public building because of a long flight of stairs. Now an official inside that building that you want to visit walks down to the bottom of those stairs and lifts you out of your wheelchair and carries you up to that the top of that long flight of stairs. You’re then deposited on the ground because the official then walks back down the stairs, picks up your wheelchair, carries it up the stairs and then places you back in the wheelchair. Now these days most people would agree that that’s not acceptable, it’s a work-around. You’ve got into the building that way but the building remains inaccessible. It also means that if you’re in that wheelchair you feel humiliated, your dignity has been taken ahhh for a ride, and you’ve taken, taken a hit for that.
Now imagine that you’re blind and you use a computer or a smartphone equipped with a screen reading package and you receive an important document from a government department in the snail mail. Perhaps because of the way that it’s formatted or because you don’t have access to optical character recognition software, you’re unable to read that document and somebody from a government department or a helpful friend or a family member agrees to read that document to you. That is no less acceptable than the physical building scenario. As a blind person you’re not reading the document yourself; it's being read to you. The document isn’t accessible; the inaccessibility has been worked around. And in an era where all information begins life on a computer, there’s no excuse for not making every piece of government information fully and independently accessible to blind people who have the appropriate technology to read it.
Let’s start with first principles and look at the impact of blindness and in my view there are two fundamental barriers that can make blindness problematic. And that might surprise you, you might be thinking of dozens of things right off the top of your head that are frustrating about being blind, ranging from not being able to drive a car to identifying the can of dog food from the can of peaches. Believe me if you get that wrong at a dinner party you’re in trouble. But I contend that there are actually, those are symptoms of the two barriers of blindness, just two.
One is the information barrier. Blindness is fundamentally an information disability and I use the term information very broadly. Information can be the printed word, data that helps you determine who someone is or where someone is located. Anything at all that tells you about the world around you. Now, sight is a very dominant sense. You can process a lot of information quickly if you have it and most people of course do have it so naturally they become highly dependent on it so our society has been structured in a way to cater to the vast sight dependent majority. After all if the can of dog food had a button on it that when you pressed it, spoke the name of the product or for that matter a braille label, blindness would pose no barrier to identifying what that product is. Being blind doesn’t stop me from driving a car, but the way cars are built and our road system that is dependent on obtaining information visually are the barriers. A blind man, Mark Riccobono proved this when he drove a car almost a decade ago. He’s totally blind. The car was built to provide him with information in a non-visual form and he cruised the Daytona Speedway in the United States. This was no self-driving vehicle, this was a blind man making judgement about navigating his vehicle, when to turn, when he was getting close to something, because the information was being conveyed to him in a way that was accessible to him.
Now, this concept of society being structured in a way that causes certain ahhh people to be disabled is acknowledged in the wording of New Zealand’s own disability strategy. Its mission is, and I’m quoting, “New Zealand is a non-disabling society. A place where disabled people have an equal opportunity to achieve their goals and aspirations and all of New Zealand works together to make this happen.” And indeed an entire outcome is related to accessibility.
And that leads me to the second barrier of blindness: attitude. Some people who are highly sight dependent find it difficult to imagine how someone deprived of sight either since birth or perhaps later in life can possibly function. And when people’s notions of what’s possible are limited and expectations are low, discriminatory public policy results because an action or a failure to act doesn’t have to be malicious in order to be discriminatory.
As someone who has designed blindness technology products and trained people in their use as well I’ve seen the impact that the digital age has had on blind people. For those with the tools to take advantage of it, it’s nothing short of a revolution and I want to spend some time explaining how accessible information has changed my life, my quality of life for the better because when you understand the difference that it makes, I believe it would be very hard not to be passionate about ensuring that New Zealand is exemplary in its provision of accessible information.
When I was a kid, I used to pester my sighted siblings who were older than me to read me the newspaper because even then I was a news junkie. Now, not only do I have access to my local newspaper on the web, I can read newspapers from all around the world and that is a remarkable thing because for the first time in history a blind person with access to the internet has more information at their fingertips than a sighted person who doesn’t have access to the internet. That is a huge turn around. Imagine the indignity of having to rely on a volunteer or a family member to read highly personal financial information to you or even worse, walking into a bank to ask a teller for your bank balance. And since everyone knows that if you’re blind you have to speak really loudly to them. (laughter) Being told by the teller at the top of their lungs “YOU’RE 500 DOLLARS OVERDRAWN, MR.MOSEN”.
Now I can conduct all my own financial transactions with privacy and dignity just like every citizen should. Imagine receiving medical information in a form that isn’t accessible to you so you have to rely on somebody to tell you something deeply personal, potentially life changing and maybe embarrassing. Now the online availability of medical records means that blind people equipped with the correct technology don’t have to be subjected to that indignity. Online shopping, has if you’ll pardon the expression, opened my eyes to the degree of consumer choice that exists. When I did my first online shop on the count… it was the Woolworths site in those days; I was utterly staggered by how many varieties of bread and milk there were. I really had absolutely no idea how many choices people were confronted with.
And the list goes on, suffice to say that blind people now have a level of independence and dignity and social participation that we’ve never had before. But that assumes two important things: first that website and other information are accessible and second that blind people own the tools to take advantage of accessible information.
Let’s look at the demographics of the blind community in 2018. Now, not every New Zealander with a vision impairment is registered with the blind foundation, that’s a point I’ll come back to, but in July 2016 there were 12,272 people registered with the blind foundation. Of those, in the 0 to 21 age group you had 9 %, 22 to 64 was 27 %, 65 to 79 was 16 %, and 80 plus a massive 48 %. While it’s important to realise there are exceptions and it’s always dangerous to generalise, we can make some assumptions about these numbers. With almost half the blind population over the age of 80, we know that many people become blind later in life due to age related conditions such as macular degeneration and blindness may just be one of the disabilities that seniors are grappling with. The onset of sight loss can cause grief and depression and while some people will be willing to use technology and other aids to mitigate their blindness, others will feel defeated.
Additionally, today’s seniors aged 80 plus may not have had access to computer technology when they were sighted or they may find the idea of using talking or large image technology too daunting with everything else they have to deal with. A very small number, you could probably count them on the fingers of one hand, in this group, the 80 plus, will choose to learn braille. I believe this picture will change somewhat in the coming years. The next generation of seniors to likely to be more assertive, they have money to spend on technology that can ameliorate their disability and they will be increasingly willing to do it. They will also be familiar with online access and other recent technologies before becoming blind.
For now, though, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of lower tech means of accessing information. These include reading important documents that could be produced in the talking book studio of the blind foundation and they could be distributed on C D from the blind foundation on behalf of a government department or they might be produced over an interactive voice response phone-based system. Traditionally, this kind of material has been read by human narrators, but increasingly, taking a document and converting directly to high quality digitised speech is a viable option.
The technology has advanced from speech engines sounding very mechanical and being purely synthetic to text to speech engines comprising digital samples of humans. They actually have people who they get to go into a recording studio for weeks at a time and record little phrases and phonemes, the building blocks of language so that they’re capable of saying anything. And this allows documents to be produced electronically …oops... that sound quite reasonable, let me see if I can back tab to the correct slide there ahhh because I hit the, this is where we run JAWS and we get JAWS to come to the rescue so this is a real world situation here. Ummm… ok… We’re going to run JAWS. Tell me where we are on the screen, so we’ll just let that come up. Normally I run my PowerPoint presentations without JAWS.
Okay and we’ll go back into the slide, and now I have my speech cranked up very fast and I use a mechanical sounding kind of voice because, there we go.
Mechanical female voice: Today’s high quality text to speech engines are almost indistinguishable from real human speech. This facilitates the rapid distribution of information in audio, either over the telephone or on CD, to benefit people who don’t have online access.
Mechanical male voice: The creation of text to speech engines now involves people with a wide variety of accents and vocal types going onto a recording studio to record phonemes, the building blocks of language. This allows the engines to say anything at all.
Jonathan: Right, so, there you had (background noise) there you had two examples of text to speech engines. One with an American accent and female, and one, um, that has an Australian accent. So we have two examples there.
Now I’m also excited about the potential that smart speakers have for delivering certain types of information to the senior blind market, people who don’t want to use a computer, the kind of person I was talking about who’s just daunted by the whole thing. But if the user interface is natural enough and intuitive enough, could get some information this way so clearly security concerns will mean that smart speakers will never be an appropriate delivery mechanism for highly sensitive or personal information. But they could be used for general government information that’s usually only available online.
To give you an example I, through my company Mosen Consulting, operate a podcast it’s kind of a current affairs podcast on blindness issues and to experiment with this and to kind of widen to reach because we cover issues from a blindness angle that mainstream media tends not to be interested in, we created an Alexa skill for the Amazon Echo which is now the only device officially available here so that we can experiment with what happens when people try to access the podcast by voice. So it goes a bit like this. “Alexa, enable the Blind Side Podcast skill”
Alexa: Okay, here’s the Blind Side podcast with Jonathan Mosen. Welcome. You can listen to all the episodes of the Blind Side podcast, including new episodes, as they are released. For now, you’ll start with the most recent episode but you can change by skipping forward or backward, you can even say how many episodes you’d like to skip. The newest episode is “The Blind Side Podcast 76, New Mexico students talk with the space station, New Zealand census problems and reflections on the power of self-advocacy in the digital age.” Would you like to listen to it?
Jonathan: No
Alexa: The previous episode is The Blind Side Podcast 75, Our very own Alexa skill, adjusting Spotify podcast playback, Samsung Galaxy S9, Delta sees sense, ADA gutting passes the house, Anna Dresner’s new book, “You and your Apple Watch””. Would you like to listen to that?
Jonathan: Alexa, stop
Alexa: Goodbye
Jonathan: Alexa, what’s the weather like outside?
Alexa: Currently, in Grenada Village, it’s 20 degrees Celsius with partly sunny skies. Today, you can expect lots of clouds with a high of 20 degrees and a low of 15 degrees.
Jonathan: So, some of the initial tests that I’ve done with users of this have really got me excited because Alexa is permanently patient, there’s nothing touch related to worry about, um when you set it up, obviously it requires computer skills but somebody could come in and set up an Amazon account for the customer and get that initial configuration process done and once it is done, they can pretty much operate the entire thing independently and by voice.
Now, there are some social policy considerations which are in general I think beyond the scope of this presentation but they are worth mentioning briefly. A lot of the higher quality blindness related technology that facilitates employment is expensive. Some blind people in New Zealand presently find themselves in a catch 22 situation where they can’t get equipment until they have a job and they can’t get a job because they haven’t learned how to use the equipment that would allow them to go into a workplace and be productive.
Blind people with insufficient vision to see a screen or for whom viewing a screen is a time consuming process can access computers and smartphones using screen reading technology. This software runs in the background and uses text to speech to tell a blind person what’s on the screen. Optionally, a blind person can connect a refreshable braille such as the one I’m scrolling through my notes on now and they can be connected via USB or Bluetooth so that a blind person can read in braille what’s on the screen of a computer of smartphone.
For those who know braille, that has significant benefits such as the ability to easily determine formatting or to proof read in detail. Screen readers now come built in to all major operating systems including Mac OS, IOS, Android and Windows and for that matter, Chrome OS. So you can pretty much, if you know how to do it, you can walk up to pretty much any computer in the world now and make it talk. In the case of Windows, while Microsoft’s free option narrator is becoming increasingly capable, the dominant player is the third party screen reader called JAWS. It’s a powerful product and it was originally designed for blind people by blind people and it’s packed with features. Not only does it allow robust access to the standard Microsoft applications, it can also be customised to work in proprietary environments such as those commonly found in workplaces.
So if somebody gets a job at a call centre, for example, then maybe a little window on the screen that pops up when a customer calls in based, say, on caller ID that tells somebody who’s quickly glancing at the screen who the customer is, the kind of interaction that the company has had with them, we can set JAWS up so that by pressing a key, that window is automatically spoken, even just the relevant information from that window and that’s what’s allowing blind people to be so productive on the job. Windows, Android and in theory, Mac OS are sufficiently open that third party developers can create new screen reading solutions. Now that isn’t possible in the case of IOS because IOS uses a sandbox approach where Apple’s apps are pretty much isolated from one another and that means that unless um Apple put in some sort of screen reading API which they haven’t then no third party screen reader could be created for IO . Some people with usable vision choose to use screen magnification software as well as just making the text bigger it can invert and otherwise alter the colours of text for better visibility. The market here is like that for screen readers, all operating systems now come with some magnification features built in.
In windows, the most popular magnification option is, again, a third party tool called ZoomText which offers many more customization options than any of the three alternatives do. Windows’ screen readers used to rely on an off-screen model. I don’t often get to give this geeky slide but I’m sure that there’s a geeky element here so I can talk about this. Windows’ screen readers used to offer an off screen model and what that would mean is that they would put a device driver in the display chain to intercept screen data before it was sent out to the actual physical monitor.
So it kind of like chained itself and intercepted the data and passed the data through once it had been dealt with. Now they would then use a database of common graphical elements to inform a user about what was on the screen and the kind of control that was in use, often giving advice about how to interact with that control from the keyboard. As screen readers have made it onto Microsoft’s radar, there are now better techniques for giving screen readers access to commonly used applications like the Microsoft Office suite.
An API means that a screen reader can interact act now directly with a word document. For example, giving unambiguous information about the formatting and layout of a document and providing easy keyboard navigation between elements of the document if it’s well structured, if it’s making good use of styles. So a blind person ends up actually interacting with the document itself and not the screen. When a blind user goes into a webpage, the actual HTML is now loaded into a buffer in the screen reader which is constantly being monitored and refreshed as needed. And that’s important in this era of dynamic content, it allows a screen reader to offer keyboard shortcuts for navigating between elements on the page like headings, links and different form controls on the page so it’s a very efficient experience.
Despite the lower cost of some android devices, IOS is the most popular mobile operating system in the blind community because of the powerful screen reader built into it called VoiceOver, it’s just a much more mature product. Apple invented a breakthrough paradigm for touch screen access, something that blind people used to fear and consider inaccessible, it was just considered automatically that touch screen equal inaccessibility and the breakthrough came from Apple back in twenty oh nine.
The idea is a simple one; that a blind person explores the screen by touch and they hear what is under their fingers and then they confirm when they want to actually engage with an element by double tapping that element. This paradigm is also being picked up by Android which is catching up and becoming increasingly capable but still has a long way to go compared with IOS and it’s also now used on Windows devices equipped with touch.
The gestures set varies a little bit from operating system to operating system or even screen reader to screen reader so that can create a bit of a learning curve for blind people as they try and work out how to engage with different content. The blind community isn’t immune to the move away from personal computers to smartphones for certain types of tasks. Mainstream apps such as Google Maps and Apple Maps are accessible, not all mainstream apps are accessible, it’s the same way as any other operating system, and they have to be designed in a way that makes use of the accessibility provisions of the operating system.
Blind smartphone users are surfing the web and clearing their e-mail, texting and using social media. A wider range of books is available than ever before to blind people because of kindle and I Books being accessible. In the old days we would have to wait when a best-seller came out and if you were at a workplace, everybody was talking about the best-seller around the water cooler and blind people would have to wait until it was recorded by the blind foundation onto talking book or put into braille and sometimes it just wasn’t because it’s impossible to modify every book in that way.
Nowadays, though, you can just grab the best-seller from I Books or Kindle the moment it comes out like everybody else if you have the tools to do that. Blind people are also using commercial providers of audiobooks such as Audible dotcom. There’s also a wide range of blindness-specific smartphone apps available including optical character recognition so if I’m at a restaurant and I need to take a picture of a document, I can snap it and read the menu.
Blindness-specific navigation apps, they tend to tell you a little bit more than navigation apps for sighted people so sighted people would generally just want directions whether they be walking or driving “at the roundabout take the first exit or turn left onto the street”. But of course a blind person wants to know what businesses am I passing? what’s the street ahead of me called? because you can’t get that information visually. And so blindness navigation apps do that as well. Colour identifiers, always very important and if I don’t look right, then the colour identifier app has failed.
Light detectors, I have no light perception at all so sometimes my kids leave the lights on and I can wander around with the light detector and save myself a bit of electricity by turning the lights off. Object identification help with visual tasks so you can summon up someone from halfway around the world and ask them any number of questions, really.
Currency identification apps so if you’ve got a whole bunch of notes and you don’t know what they are, it avoids you being, well, robbed blind as it were. Let’s scroll to this one, if government can identify that a blind person can read electronic information, then in my view there’s no reason why such a blind person should ever receive a piece of printed information in the mail. Since, um, Siobhan mentioned the census, what happened to me in that instance was bizarre because I have actually filled in the census twice before online and they did a fantastic job of making it an accessible experience. The difference between this time and the last two times was that this time of course, the codes were being sent by snail mail in print.
So I got the code and I pointed by I Phone at the census letter with the code in it but at the top, I think it was at the top, but somewhere in the census letter, was some text in Te Reo Maori which is absolutely appropriate, I’m not complaining about that, but what it did mean was that my O C R software was getting confused about what language it was scanning. And so I had my letter, I was capable of completing the census online, what I couldn’t get was the code. And so I called Statistics New Zealand and I said to them “look, I’m perfectly capable of doing this if I can just have a way of getting the code in an accessible format. Can you give it to me?” and at first they said “Yes, we’ll e-mail it to you” and then they said “no, we can’t” and they ended up sending the Wellington regional manager for the census to my house just to read to code.
Whereas, in Australia in the twenty sixteen census, blind people were able to call a number and say “look, I’m blind, here’s my details, can you text me or email me the code?” and in Australia they did that no difficulty at all. Also by way of contrast, blind people can now vote independently over the telephone and that involves completing the statutory declaration that says, you do it over the phone, that says I’m blind and I can’t complete the voting process in the normal way. At which point they will text or email you a code and you call back on Election Day or whenever voting is open, you give that code, which makes you anonymous because you’re talking to somebody else, someone different from who you registered with, and you cast your vote. So there’s already a precedent for this within the New Zealand Government that somehow Statistics New Zealand isn’t following and that really comes back to some of the preliminary discussions we had before we formally got going about silos and there being no coordination about how to deal with questions like this. So information will have started on a word processor and my code that I was so desperate for would have been generated by computer and then it was printed out so rather than being printed out it simply needs to be distributed electronically in an accessible format.
Now, in terms of what format you use, Word, HTML and PDF are all viable and accessible formats. The caveat here is that it’s important not to distribute a PDF file that contains an image of a document. I did write to the office of the Minister of Statistics with a complaint about census process and I got an acknowledgement to my complaint about inaccessibility and it was contained in a PDF file that contained an image of the reply. I had to write back to the minister’s official and say “you know that complaint I made about the inaccessible census? Well your reply’s inaccessible.”
So, we’ve got a lot of work to do and I think it’s inherently solvable with the will to find some sort of government-wide strategy or some sort of clear set of guidelines that must be adhered to for information to be made accessible. So, that’s what I had by way of formal comments and it’s a real pleasure to have been able to give you some insight, I’m happy to talk further, answer questions further about any specifics of the technology or anything at all, really. So I appreciate your attention. (Applause)
Siobhan: Would you like to sit down?
Jonathan: Yeah, why not?
Siobhan: I’ll grab a chair
Jonathan: Do you want me to come out from behind this thing?
Siobhan: Here, watch out for the table
Pia: Can I ask a quick question first? Sorry, I’m Pia, Hi. The question I have is I think that part of the problem is that everyone keeps trying to do ad hoc solutions to what is actually a systemic issue, right? Um, so I guess trying to get to that how to holistically make, not just government but society accessible to people um I’d love to hear cause there’s a lot of just, you know, “could we just do this, and just do this, and just do this” there’s a lot of little things we can do, you know, could we have web accessibility standards more broadly applied, those kind of things. Can you give us your big picture blue sky what good would look like in the future if we ignored all the constraints of the current and any ideas about what could or should be put in place to get there?
Jonathan: You know, I think that they’re almost there in the United States certainly in terms of many services. So, when I visit the United States, as I have to quite regularly for business, it’s almost like, at least in an accessibility context, it’s almost like sort of going to nirvana because I seldom walk into a building where there aren’t braille labels on lifts and on floors.
All the hotels I go to have braille labels on hotel room doors so, you know, often even when I go to a hotel in New Zealand I’m kind of wandering around trying to remember which was the room I was in based on familiar landmarks or something like that. And people have said to me in the past “well, America can do it because of scale” and maybe that’s true but in a way I view the accessibility challenges we have a little bit like the fight to gain Te Reo Maori the precedence it deserves some years ago where there was this argument that said there’s no point in having a Maori TV channel or making information available in Maori because hardly anybody speaks it and of course the answer to that is hardly anybody’s going to speak it unless there’s information that people can access in it and they can immerse themselves in it.
And so I think that we just need to decide that inequitable accessible society is the right thing to do and in making that decision, you know, just say it’s inappropriate to do anything otherwise and so I would expect that government websites would be fully accessible and to be fair, they generally are these days, I think there are some state sector-wide guidelines to do with government websites and they do seem to be doing the trick. Whenever any information from the government is being prepared at that kind of inception stage where the officials get together and they think about how are we going to co-ordinate this, let’s think about communication strategy.
I would like to think that people will say “okay, so what needs to be done to ensure that this is accessible to people who can’t get the information visually” and if they don’t know the answer, then there are people who do and they should be brought on board so I think it’s about consideration and a determination to be inclusive.
Nadia: My name’s Nadia, hello. I was used to be in the team that delivered the government web accessibility and usability standards and there is at this stage theres a reasonable, well a understanding that they exist, that there are standards that are applied across government but they’re not always universally applied and I think there’s been a drop in understanding about or even acknowledgement or awareness that they exist more recently.
So as we put out more things, more and more websites and interfaces then they’re being forgotten. So there’s a possibility that we’re putting out stuff that’s going to be less accessible. The other thing is I think from your point you just made then about getting people to think about these things up front, I think that’s a really great idea, I’m not quite sure really how best to get that into their mind-sets, we have spent quite a bit of effort in trying to get communications team in government to understand accessibility.
We often get confronted with a counter argument which is “well, that’s not our intended audience”. (groans, really?) We do get that from comms teams saying “that’s not our intended audience” and we have to really strongly argue. So doing things like the presentation you’ve just given us and us putting it out and putting it under like a digital banner, for example, is really good at pushing the point. And we know, I think the statistics are something not just for people who are blind, but for people with disabilities that it’s actually a very reasonable proportion of people in New Zealand, it’s like one in four or something like that who have some type of disability that makes it hard for them to interact with digital devices and things like that.
Jonathan: Yes, yes absolutely I mean I think you see figures like one in five New Zealanders have some sort of disability or something like that. And I think New Zealand has, again probably this is a little bit beyond the scope of what I’m here for but, New Zealand has a real problem of participation by disabled people in key institutions.
I can’t immediately think of a prominent journalist or broadcaster with a disability in New Zealand and yet that is quite common in other western countries. In the United Kingdom, they’ve had a blind person who got all the way to Home Secretary which is number three in the UK government, he’s a guide dog handler and every time the guide dog did something crazy it was national news. (laughter)
So, they’ve had senators in the States and governors who are blind. My anecdotal, sort of I know the blind community pretty well in New Zealand, and my anecdotal observation would be that I think the number of blind people participating in the public service has declined, maybe even disabled people generally.
And so, it’s a little bit like, you know even back, I can remember back to the Bolger days, the Jim Bolger days of his administration, and once he fired Winston Peters as Minister of Maori Affairs I don’t think they had anybody else who was Maori who could do the role. So it’s great to have people who empathise with the challenges that we face, but nothing can take the place of personal experience and somebody who’s living this actually having influence over the way that public policy is directed and in New Zealand, I think we have a real crisis of invisibility of the disability community, I mean we had a deaf MP who’s now lost her seat, so we’ve got nobody in parliament at all with a significant, recognised disability and it’s a shocking situation.
Nadia: I can think of one person (inaudible… Yes, the state services commissioner) who was a senior manager in statistics New Zealand prior to being a disability commissioner and also a Paralympian, but she’s the only person of prominence that I can think of.

Pia: What can we do today? We’re a tiny little lab of people who are across agencies; we tried to, sorry Pia again, we tried to work with lots of agencies around the design and delivery of better public services, we try to apply a service design approach, we try to comply with you know all kinds of different stands including accessibility, in fact every time Nadia’s been excellent in keeping us honest in that respect. What would you suggest for service design and delivery people across government I guess about what can they to do today to actually help?

Jonathan: It’s hard for me to know how quickly the cogs, the machinery of government can really be turned around. I um, I would be interested. Sometimes you’ve got to know when to fight your battles and in the case of the census, I decided that it was a battle worth fighting because everybody is required to do the census, it’s a legal obligation as well as probably a sort of moral obligation too to participate in it.

And I seriously considered making a protest by taking a trip to Australia on census day which would exempt me from having to fill in the census and make the point that if it’s not accessible, I’m not doing it. But I did do it and now I have lodged a formal complaint with Statistics New Zealand and if that doesn’t yield results, I will go to the Ombudsman and if that doesn’t yield results I will go to the UN Convention and exercise the rights I have there because in the end, everybody reaches a point where they’ve just had enough and for me the census which was so easily solvable, you know, somebody in an office somewhere could have had the pragmatism to text me a code, you know? I mean even if there isn’t any kind of formal system in place, if somebody with a little bit of gumption had thought “look, you know, he’s got a point. If he can complete the census online why can’t we give him his code online?” and somebody had manually intervened. I’m not aware that there’s any kind of legislative reason why my code wasn’t texted or emailed to me, I don’t believe there is one. So, you know, somebody either lacks initiative or just doesn’t care enough and it really, it finally pushed my buttons so in terms of what I’m going to do, I’m going to see this one through until I get a firm commitment from Statistics New Zealand and hopefully from the wider government framework to say “look, we’ve got to do a better job of considering information access at the inception stage”.

But it’s a shame to me that somebody wasn’t able to defuse the situation and say “we need to have a systemic way of solving this for next time and we’ve got five years. In the meantime, here’s an email with your code”.

Pia: It’s that systemic reintroduction of empathy which I think and people being able to take personal responsibility for solving a problem.

Rachel: I kind of, I guess I’ve got some background having worked on the census in the past. Sorry it’s Rachel, Rachel Prosser. Having worked on the census, the systemic solution is “okay, we’ll default to human to human. So, we’ll go the extra mile and send someone out in person” that’s the kind of backup I think that they go to and that’s its very ahhh because it’s so heavily rules-based, to get consistency, it can be quite hard.

Pia: But it doesn’t need to be, a person taking the responsibility saying “actually, I can just do this”

Rachel: Well, but there are rules for what you’re allowed to do in a private sector so people are actually trained and queued to not take initiative. It’s funny. To be so protective of privacy and codes that they are so inculcated with being careful that they go, which is why we went to a manager.

Pia: But isn’t it funny that a manager going to a person’s house is seen as less of a privacy issue?

Rachel: But it’s kind of trust and face to face

Pia: But that’s not. A person coming to my house, that’s violent; a much bigger encroachment of someone’s privacy.

Rachel: That’s an interesting one isn’t it? Because I mean some people, I mean it depends, ahhh if you’re in a Te Reo Maori, the face to face thing…

Pia: I would find it an encroachment of my privacy

Rachel: That’s really interesting people different people would consider that going above, I think it’s been really useful for everyone to consider that one but...

Pia: I’m just worried we’re going to go over time, so any other questions or comments? Anyone, Glen, Siobhan…

Glen: You were saying before it’s quite an expensive barrier to get in. How much do all of these tools cost?

Jonathan: If you’re looking at something like JAWS for Windows, you’d be looking at around about 800 US dollars so probably about 12 or 13 hundred dollars. And obviously that’s on top of the computer hardware that you’d need to buy. Now there are open source and ahhh solutions and also there’s Microsoft’s own tool which is probably adequate if you’re just going to be using the Office suite and doing a bit of web surfing in edge.

It won’t give you the same ummm quality of life or experience as a paid solution and that’s one of the concerns too, that when you have funders making decisions it’s hard to explain that actually, an investment of say, 1300 New Zealand dollars for a screen reader could actually be the investment that helps a blind person to get a job and become a taxpayer and pay that 1300 dollars back in tax and more. This comes back to silos again.  What the individual government department cares about is “we’ve got to be careful not to unduly exhaust our bucket of money” and so there’s nobody looking at the outcome from a state-wide holistic approach and saying “okay, so maybe we’re going to have to dip into the regional health board, district health board’s budget to buy them this thing, but actually, the state’s coffers could be better off as a result cause we’ve invested”.

In an iPhone and Android its built in. iPhones are pretty expensive, of course although Apple is trying to position themselves at a range of price points now. And the voiceover screen reader is on every iPhone and it’s fantastic, I mean as more and more people move away, especially for consumption, I think for blind people creating content like if you’re writing documents, books, working with PowerPoint, that sort of thing, Windows is still the best way to go. But if we’re talking really consumption, then the iPhone is a fantastic tool.

Hamish: I do have one question, I was interested that it was the Te Reo that was in the way of the reader. Often when I’m using web services, the browser will prompt me to translate Te Reo to Estonian or something like that. Is that a common problem for other readers that you use?

Jonathan: Can you repeat, is what a common problem?

Hamish: Te Reo, the language. Maori.

Jonathan: Oh. I haven’t come across it before and since I’ve reported my issues, I have learnt that some people who have flatbed scanners for Windows and who run, you know, pretty powerful OCR software on there were able to get at their codes. But I think what we should be aiming for is not a game of chance like that but should just be universally accessible. I’ve not had that problem before, usually if I get, to be fair I don’t have a lot of interaction with government now that I think about it, I think the last major interaction I had with government was completing my passport application and that was great. I mean that was a really accessible process. Obviously I had to get the photo taken and such but everybody does, but it was a really straight forward process. So, no I haven’t across it myself before.

Rachel: One of the things, sorry, it’s Rachel again.  One of the things I’ve been working on is digital inclusion, more broadly, and digital capability building and one of the things that strikes me, part of the reason these documents aren’t accessible is that people we don’t use the tools, we don’t use Word and things like that well at all. People learn to do it really randomly and so they don’t know about document styles and a lot of the basic fundamental underlying literacies that make everything benefit everyone are not really in place and I think we’ve got a consistent, I don’t know if it’s a, it’s more of an observation than anything, but I would love to see us be better at using, just cause it would make everyone’s life easier to edit documents if we just use the styles and the tools that we have better. But that’s not really much of a consolation in the short term.

Pia: But also, to go back to the digital inclusion, the co-design of the people affected is key for me and I think that’s certainly coming through for me. And given that there’s the digital inclusion kind of group being set up, given that there’s a piece of work around digital rights, which I think is critical for this, you know, making sure that in any form of digital rights set up in New Zealand that inclusion and accessibility is a key part of that as it is the declaration of human rights and basically in all this investment in digital government actually enabling people to interface with government in whichever way suits them regardless of their, you know, cause everyone has complexity in access and personal personalisation so rather than trying to build these lowest common denominator things, actually building them in a way that can be consumed in a miriad different ways is possibly a key thing as well. But we’re right at the end of time, I think Siobhan did you want to wrap up anything else?

Siobhan: I guess what I would say is Jonathan doesn’t just complain about the census, he does a lot of other things, and he has a podcast that he mentioned earlier and you can go to his website

Pia: I’ve just been tweeting it for anyone

Siobhan: and see a lot of the cool other stuff he does and I imagine that he does also a lot of other really awesome things cause he’s told me he’s spends a lot of his time in the States and doing a lot of cool stuff so, it’d be great for you guys interested to go check out some of the other things he does and I’m sure that we can all learn a lot more from the things that he’s put out.

Jonathan: Gosh, I need to hire you as my agent. (laughter) But yes, if I can be of any help or anything I’d be delighted because I was so, I was feeling pretty despondent, it’s no fun to feel like you’re a second class citizen in your own country so when I got Siobhan’s email it was a real lift to think that there were people who were thinking about this and really taking it seriously so, I’m grateful for the opportunity, I really am.

Pia: Thank you so much



Post your comment


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments

Have your say about this page

Is there something wrong with this page?

Last Updated

Page last updated: