“You’ll find it on the internet.” How digitalisation impacts the lives of people whose voices often go unheard

As a rule, government and official websites make no allowances for users with special needs. At the same time, even some IT specialists prefer to use paper as an alternative. These were among the findings of a unique piece of research which was part of the Promoting Human Rights in the Digital Era project.

By Iuridicum Remedium (IuRe) (guest author) · July 6, 2022

The findings came out of two focus groups held in March this year at the Teiresias Centre of Masaryk University, Brno and the Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University, Prague. The first sample included people with a variety of special needs. For them a smartphone is an essential tool which can in many ways compensate for their disabilities. For the visually impaired the main benefit is voice output, plus the ability to magnify text. People with impaired hearing like video conferencing apps, the facility for interpretation into Czech sign language and various transcription apps.

Focus group participants are also aware of the risks associated with digital technologies, including not only targeted marketing aimed at exploiting their “weak sides”, but also the impact on their privacy and safety in general. One respondent with impaired vision gave the example of touch payment terminals:

“With a smartwatch I can pay contactless and not have to enter a PIN. But not everybody has one. It also happens that couriers making a delivery often don’t have a touch terminal. I have to endure the humiliation of dictating my PIN to a stranger, which I dislike very much for obvious reasons.”

The law on the accessibility of websites is not observed

Participants feel the design of official websites is a significant shortcoming. This was especially obvious during the pandemic, when government websites were a key source of information.

“We are dependent on people who can hear, the sites are really terrible, there are no subtitles, no translation into sign language”, was the assessment of a hearing-impaired participant.

Another commented:

“All sites should be accessible to all sections of society. The visually impaired should be able to expand or shrink a page. Information in video form with translation into Czech sign language should always be available for the hearing impaired. Of course, the reality is that some sites have it, but it should be universal.”

This participant referred to Act No. 99/2019 Coll. on the accessibility of websites and mobile apps which is intended to ensure that groups with disabilities can freely access the web.

“All websites should be accessible to all sections of society: there should be the function of enlarging and shrinking text. Information should be also provided using video with Czech sign language. We have had the Accessibility Act here for three years, but unfortunately state institutions are slow to implement its requirements and it takes an awfully long time to get anything done.”

Another pointed out that this is not such a big technical problem. Accessibility needs to be taken seriously and integrated into the development phase:

“Simplifying a lot, it boils down to a fairly basic set of rules. If the developers stick to them, the pages will be much more accessible.”

Not entirely voluntary digitalisation

The second focus group included people who do not use digital technologies for a variety of reasons. For some of them, modern technologies are something completely new and unknown. Others are quite expert, and for this very reason are wary of them, for example due to privacy concerns.

“I plan to get the Facetime mobile app. Its main usefulness is to help us communicate in Czech sign language so we can connect. Because not all deaf people are familiar with written Czech.”

Stories about “forced digitalisation” were heard across the group. Travel and buying tickets was mentioned, when a person without a smartphone, and as a result without an app, is at a significant, often financial, disadvantage. The same is also true of shopping and banking. Participants also noted that more and more booking of medical tests and vaccinations is done online, at the expense of personal contact.

One participant described an incident where officials at a government office told an elderly woman to find information about her problem on the internet. This leads to discrimination against older people:

“I am only seventy one and I have problems with this. My sister is eighty five and it is totally beyond her. I believe we seniors should have the same rights as anyone else.”

“I really think we seniors are discriminated against to a certain extent. People keep telling us: look for it on Facebook, find it on the internet.”

Non-use of digital technologies is not just a question of age. Several participants said that long-term working in the IT field and their experience of IT failures in crisis situations had, paradoxically, led them to mistrust technology.

“I ran away from Prague to the countryside to get away from technology, just because I had learned too much about it”, one participant confided. “We should have the right to escape all theses invasive technologies stalking us at every step.”

Another said that besides the widely touted digital route, traditional paper methods should still be available:

“I don’t want to waste paper, I don’t print a lot of things, but on the other hand I don’t want to be dependent on the electricity supply.”

Sensitivity about encroachment on personal freedoms was shared across the group. One participant was very blunt in explaining that not wanting to use digital technologies was his business:

“It is primarily a matter of my personal choice: if I don’t want to, I don’t want to, and I don’t have to explain why I don’t want to. There is nothing I need to explain to anybody about what my issue is, because we live in a free country.”

Journalists will also comment on digitalisation, technology and their impact on society

The findings of the focus groups are just the first in a series of outputs from the Digital Era with a Human Face project. They will form the basis for extensive research within the journalistic and media community over the next few weeks. This is first such study in the Czech Republic in terms of its scope and focus.

“Use of digital technologies is taken as a given, and yet for a variety of reasons almost one fifth of Czech household do not have internet access and a quarter of adults do not have a smartphone. Regrettably, in Czech media there is not much discussion about this and other challenges of the digital era,” Hynek Trojánek, PR coordinator for the project, explains.

TV moderator and university lecturer Václav Moravec, who attended one of the focus groups, adds:

“Journalists and media professionals have a profound influence on how we perceive digital technologies. This research will provide data that has been lacking in the Czech Republic. Not only that, it will be the foundation for a university course aimed at providing basic information and awareness among journalists about the impact of digital technologies on human rights.”

Research Information

The research took place as part of the Promoting Human Rights in the Digital Era project, supported by the Human Rights Programme funded by Norway Grants 2014-2021. The project is a collaborative venture of Czech NGOs Iridium Remedium (IuRe), the Prague Center for Media Skills (PCMS), the Center of Artificial Intelligence Journalism of the Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University (FSV UK), the Institute of State and Law of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and Norwegian NGO Electronic Frontier.

The article was first published here. Read in Czech.

(Contribution by: Hynek Trojánek, PR, EDRi member Iuridicum Remedium)