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Hello Digital : Digital Disaster


Logo: Hello Digital. Typeface retro with 'Hello' in block capitals, grey text. Speech bubble points out of the letter 'O' again block capitals with white text on a blue background.

On Wed 21st September I attended Hello Digital’s conference part of Digital Birmingham’s Digital Festival along with loads of others. It was packed. Judging by the twitter feeds for #HD09 everyone had a fantastic time

I didn’t. Despite being told there would be British Sign Language Interpreters (SLIs) booked – they weren’t. The event started at 8am. They called Birmingham Institute for the Deaf at 10am and the SLI (Sign Language Interpreter) finally arrived at 1.30pm – 5 and half hours after it started.

I question my place in Digital Britain.

What will it take take for Deaf and Disabled people to be a real part of so called Digital Britain?

Why do we have to fight for our access needs so much? Where are there no live subtitles streaming online at conferences? Where’s the audio description? Why arn’t websites compatible with screen readers? Why can’t conferences get the access right? It’s been 13 years since the Disability Discrimination Act came into force.

Every time you plan to go to an event you’d expect to literally do two things – you fill in the form (usually online), have your attendance confirmed and you simply turn up on the day.

Every time I (and any other Deaf or Disabled person) want to go to an event we literally have to organise our involvement in it.

I have to seek out the contact email for the organisers (sometimes even that takes some doing), send email(s) requesting whether they will provide British Sign Language Interpreters or not. I always include a list of interpreting agencies (cuts down 3 email conversations). A couple of weeks usually goes by before they get back to me to confirm – in meantime the event places are filling fast and I’m still not registered.

The morning of Hello Digital – what do other delegates do? I assume arrived, grab the name tag and programme, follow the smell of coffee and get on with networking before it all begins

I turn up early I have to meet the SLIs so they sign BSL and not SSE (Sign Supported English – not a proper language unlike BSL), check out where they will stand in the room so I don’t end up at the other side of the room crinking my neck and squinting my eyes.

I’ve learned conference organisers don’t want the interpreter on stage next to the speakers (‘Other side of the stage please’) so I usually have to battle to get that right (SLI table tennis anyone? SLI signing on the far right – speaker talking on far left. Right. Left. Right. Left ….).

In the case of 4iP Recasting the Net they wouldn’t let the SLI’s on stage despite their insistence it was the best position and made the SLI’s sit in semi-darkness (you need good lighting on the SLI’s to see them properly) whilst the stage was lit up. 4iP were filming the event to steam online and didn’t want the interpreters in the way of filming. To make matters worse no uploaded videos have been subtitled and my request for that remains ignored.

I emailed Hello Digital on 24th August, received confirmation same day stating that they would arrange BSL support. I arrived at 9.20am on the day and the organisers tell me they are ‘sorting it’. Finally one arrived – some 5 hours after the event started.

I’m profoundly Deaf with severe hearing loss regarding high frequencies e.g. speech. I might talk ‘well’ but I am Deaf. Without SLI support I’m stuffed. I don’t use induction loops cos all I hear is muffled speech, they pick up ever scratch, sneeze and cough – for me they are a pain. Have you tried lip-reading from 20+ feet? Sustain that for 8 hours solid? Exactly – no. That was out of the question too.

twitter logobecomes my Digital Access. Whilst everyone else focused on providing commentary and their thoughts to the event unfolding I’m using twitter to follow the speeches. It became a lifeline. I might as well have stayed at home.

Helga Henry from Fierce Earth opened proceedings as the Hello Digital Conference Chair at 9.30am  – by all accounts her intro was very amusing.  I wouldn’t know. I couldn’t hear any of it. I watch people laughing. I don’t laugh. I tweet @hellodigital:

‘Where are the British sign language interpreters? It’s started!’

Next up Councillor Tisley – so … mm what did he say? I’ve no idea. I try again:

Cllr tisley up STILL no sign of the sign language interpreters in the rm thank god Twitter is now my digital deaf access!

@paulbradshaw kick-starts #battleships I focus on spotting friendly faces in the audience and follow the twitter stream. I give my position and add:

‘Now where’s BSL interpreters I can’t follow zilch’

Great! Sion Simon’s up. Now I was really looking forward to his speech. Can’t follow a bloody thing. I’m picking up the odd comment via twitter – rock and roll and cars stand out mmm what else did he say? I’m getting very, very upset.

It’s gone 10am Sion is in full flow – a sinking feeling, anger and confusion is going round my head. I try again:


have they not been booked? #hd09

I spot the induction loop sign, turn my hearing aids to the T switch and guess what … IT’S NOT SWITCHED ON! That gets me tweeting again.

@hellodigital is also tweeting but not responding. I request people to RT (re-tweet) as the #hd09 feed isn’t picking up my tweets.

So big thanks to @LSpurdle @willperrin @citilab @rayduff @talkaboutlocal @dominiccampbell @cyberdoyle @littlelaura (who put up a picture of one of my tweets) @katiekatetweets @benjibrum @gabrilleNYC @wrinklydragon @CandocoDance @chrissyhammond @wesharestuff @greenwichlive @paulocanning

From Birmingham, Barcelona to New York my plea went global. So did about 12,000 followers. When i realised this I felt less alone.

The Learning Disabled Hate Crime Conference #CSA09 was taking place in Birmingham same time as Hello Digital. It’s a major and very crucial event discussing attacks and assaults on people – because they are disabled. It is serious – attacking and killing a disabled person is not seen as a hate crime by most police forces. Check out their conference here Their first video here.

Twitter message from @wesharestuff it reads: @alisonvsmith your interpreter issue is creating discussion at our consultation.

I leave after Sion’s speech finishes to find out what is going on. I’m upset, I’m trying to be calm and polite. The response? ‘we are sorting it … we will have one for 1.30pm’. I say ‘It’s not good enough I’d have missed most of the conference by then’. ‘… arriving 1.30’. I know from body language and expression I’m being told off. I should be grateful. I’m also told  ‘sorry it was something we had on a list to do and didn’t’. I’m speechless.

I get escorted to the first workshop session by the conference organiser and directed to sit in the front row of the lecture space. The induction loop is now on. I stay a short while then leave. I can’t deal with it and feel I’m in the wrong session. I can’t handle the flash photography jarring my eyes and brain as I’m concentrating on lip-reading the panel members from 20 feet away. I give up.

I wonder into ‘News Innovation in a new media age’. I spot the masking tape going round the room – it’s the tape over the induction loop. I sit down by the wire. It works. I relax a bit and tweet:

Now in news innovation session #hd09 no BSL interpreters till 1.30pm Completely unacceptable! Scraping by odd word via induction loops.

A question gets asked I realise the induction loop’s not working with the mic on the stand in the audience. I pip up but it’s no use it’s not working right.

I’ve had enough by now and weighing up whether to run out, hid in the toilet and cry.

Twitter message written by @alisonvsmith: Feeling extremely isolated as a Deaf person at @hellodigital. Will we ever have events that DIGITAL INCLUDE Deaf / Disabled People? #hd09

It’s now 12.30pm 3 hours since arrived. Nearly lunch time. An hour to go before the BSL interpreter arrives. Lunch is difficult …

1.20pm I go back to the Reception Desk again – the interpreter has arrived. Yippee – just in time for my Digital Surgery one to one session.

I’d like to say the rest of the day improved – it did … but marred by feeling of complete isolation. My digital surgery was brilliant – one to one with @paulhendeson and @paulbradshaw joined us. Lots of advice for Pesky People blog. Lots of food for thought. I even tweet that Andrew the SLI has arrived.

David Rowan’s keynote speech was great – visual and interactive and signed! The screens even cropped Andrew the SLI in a smaller box on the screen – fab. Unfazed David didn’t cut in front of him cutting off the sightline. At last I get something from it (besides the fab complementary yearly subscription of WIRED).

It ends as it started … flash photography and me leaping out the way.

I don’t go to the After Party … I am sure it was fun.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. 23/10/2009 09:41

    Totally unjust, yet sadly the shameful norm. The resilience of deaf / disabled people amazes me. My experience is secondhand, through an ex-girlfriend of three years who was deaf and a new close friend who is paraplegic. I only have to imagine for one minute how frustrating your experience must’ve been to end up angry and saddened. I simply cannot conceive how I would feel if such barriers were experienced daily.

    I will never forget when my ex, who had been trying in vain to get a job for a long time, went to an interview only to find there was no interpreter present. They said sorry and that was it, no interview, no job! Briefly she was inconsolable. She didn’t have the energy to make a complaint, which I think she regretted, all adding to the negative experience and baggage. Totally unnecessary and totally disgraceful.

    I commend you for your blog and I hope Hello Digital and other organisations take heed.

    Best wishes,

  2. 23/10/2009 10:00

    I think it was appalling that it was something on a to-do list that was never done – that’s more about lack of preparation and awareness. 4iP’s attitude at Recasting Power towards the position of the BSL guy, however, was possibly more shameful, because they explicitly decided to exclude you and others for the sake of broadcast aesthetics.

    More constructively, as someone who’s organised events in the past it would be good to have some advice on how we can make sure it does not put people in the position where they have to organise themselves.

  3. 23/10/2009 10:32

    Terrible treatment but all to common place unfortunately

    My wife is profoundly deaf ( – her blog about deafness and cochlear implants) and we run into a lack of understand far too many times

    The events we miss because there are a lack of deaf friendly facilities are numerous

    I’m sorry it went so badly for you

  4. 23/10/2009 10:52

    Hi Alison
    I can only apologise again for the day and for the frustration and isolation that you must have felt during the morning. Once we’d realised that an interpreter had not been made available we did do everything we could do to obtain one as soon as possible for you.I know though that there is nothing I can say to compensate for the trauma and let down this caused. The day does also highlight the issues we had between the induction loop system and the live streaming which need to be addressed for the future along with the procedures that we have in place to make sure delegates needs are fully met. I am glad though that the day picked up when the interpreter arrived and it was good to see him up on the stage alongside David Rowan. There are lessons learnt here from our end which we will carry forward – I am only sorry that it has been at your expense and enjoyment of the day and that on our part is wholly unexcusable.

  5. 23/10/2009 11:23

    Hi. Really glad you’ve posted this. Your points give an important insight into problems that go completely unnoticed by the vast majority of people. What you’ve experienced is profoundly sad and a complete indictment of the general attitude towards the DDA.

  6. 23/10/2009 13:05

    10 out of 10 to Digital Birmingham for the hands up on this one. Well done.

  7. 23/10/2009 13:14

    LittleLaura tweeted about this and I read it with great interest. Makes me think about what I am doing and am I accessable. Thank you for an insightful article.

  8. 23/10/2009 13:26

    by the end of the day i believe you were sitting on the stairs next to me and i could see how upset you were. I have deaf friends and i understand how hard it can be, though i don’t even get close to fully understand it. It was a shame you were left out like that, hope the lesson’s learned now.

  9. 23/10/2009 14:52

    Many thanks for this blog post. As an event planner it makes me extremely sad to hear that we are still not effectively meeting the needs of our colleagues with disabilities at our events. Events planners may be interested to know that there is a great guide provided by JISC TechDis (a Service that the organisation I work for funds) called ‘Accessible Events: A good practice guide for staff organising events in HE’ – although it says for staff organising events in HE – it is relevant for all event organisers and a really useful document.

  10. 23/10/2009 17:10

    Found this post via Techradar and I have to say that I’m almost physically sickened by what you were put through. It takes a special sort of contempt to tolerate putting a disabled person through emotional and physical humiliation like that.

    I take the view that part of this country’s problem with accessibility is that it’s regarded as a series of standards, tick-boxes, and “good practice guides” (with all due respect to the above commenter. It shouldn’t be. Whatever happened to people thinking ahead with their brains and not bureaucratic guides?

  11. 23/10/2009 17:11

    Thank you for all your support and feedback – I’m stunned at the response – it was something I didn’t expect.

    I’m grateful for the reply from Nicola Bryant from Digital Hello to my post and appreciate my experience and issues raised will be taken on board. I look forward to working with Digital Hello on future events and will give my help and support to make other digital events accessible for Disabled people wanting to attend.

    I’m going to put a blog post together about making events accessible and using BSL interpreters – I’m getting sense that is what people will find useful.

  12. 23/10/2009 17:53

    Alison – I hope one day very soon I’ll be able to read a blog post from you that makes me feel proud of how we are delivering on digital inclusion and participation rather than ashamed of how far away we still are from
    achieving that. Your post is grim reading for someone who sits on the Hello Digital board – but also essential reading and brilliant. You are getting territory here where, like all the best blogs, you are both a jewel in the crown for the West Midlands and also a thorn in the side. But maybe that’s what we need right now.

    I should also say that it was very big of Nicola Bryant to be the first to come on here with an official apology, but I would hate to think that anyone would believe Nicola did anything but a fantastic job in organising Hello Digital under incredible pressure. I think there is a collective responsibilty here and – as one of the board members – I have to shoulder some of that respnsibility and offer my sincere apologies for having failed you.

    So where do we go from here? Clearly we have a lot of work to do if we are going to achieve what we’d all like to see and position the West Midlands as being a model for digital inclusion and participation.

    Screen WM regularly hosts meetings of many if the main creative industries events organisers – including ourselves, ACEWM, AWM, Fazeley, Creative Republic, Producers Forum etc. Perhaps we could engage you to present to the group’s next meeting on what steps we could and should put in place – as standard, not as an afterthought – to ensure the region’s events are as good as they should be? I’d welcome any thoughts on this and other suggestions from you and other readers here.

    • 24/10/2009 10:43

      Hi Jason,

      I really appreciate your message and taking on board the issues I raised in the blog.

      I’m glad you make the point about the amount of organisation required for the the Hello Digital event and know at ground level there was a huge volume of hard work and stress involved in it’s organisation and I would never in a million years knock that.

      I was Artistic Producer of DaDFest International 2009 (Disability Arts Deaf Arts Festival) in Liverpool last year. I know the sheer level of work required to put an event together. With DaDaFest it also involved stewarded blue badge parking, 4 road closures, ramps on street corners, road signs, audio description, 25 ood BSL interpreters, Plantype, Braille, Large Print as well as 300+ Disabled and Deaf artists.

      The whole philosophy around setting up Pesky People is to work within the digital sector and advocate change so that Disabled and Deaf people are included and represented.

      I look forward to hearing more details of the creative industries group meeting and happy to make a presentation to them.

  13. 23/10/2009 22:45

    I read your post this morning but have only just had chance to reply. I remember retweeting your tweet to say the signer hadn’t arrived, and from hundreds of miles away I felt your frustration. I am glad the hello digital crew have replied on here to you and said sorry. I am also glad you posted and raised awareness of the issue. I can’t understand why anyone would not want a signer near the speaker especially when video will take the work out to a wider audience, many of whom could be deaf, but there you go. nowt as queer as folk. I was glad to see the signer arrive eventually and be on the screen.

    I attended the hello digital conference remotely as you may have gathered, and I would just like to say it is the best I have been to. I have watched many, and learnt a lot without leaving home. It was exceptionally well organised and supported, and a credit to them all. Kudos to the brummies. It is patently clear they will learn from this so every cloud has a silver lining and your input has done some good. Sorry it hurt. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

    Rainbows only happen with sun and rain. Chin up and keep rockin.

  14. 24/10/2009 14:48

    I’d like to add more credit to Nicola for responding – and to Jason for offering not just a response but involvement too. It would be great to match the leadership Birmingham shows on social media with the related essential leadership on accessibility. That’s not about Birmingham, but about how technology develops generally.

  15. 24/10/2009 16:05

    Reading this I was reminded of going to a talk in the early 1990s to hear the disability activist David Hevey speak. His book, The Creatures that Time Forgot, is a must-read on the subject of representation of disabled people in photography. But he also spoke about access to media and access to the debate about representation in the media (which is what this post is about). In his book he says: “….we have to take the fight against constructed oppression (whether by non-access or representation) into the camp of the oppressors”.

    Your challenging of that oppression is really significant, especially as we were all complicit in it (including me, having been part of the Hello Digital operations group and having worked for Digital Birmingham during the conference’s development). But there’s a long list of events over the past year (both conferences and unconferences) that haven’t addressed your needs. Birmingham’s digital community prides itself on its plethora of offline meetings and events but we should work a bit harder on the participation front at events so that you can contribute fully to discussion and debate both offline and online. Having your experience mediated and skewed through twitter is far from adequate.

    Jason’s offer is a really useful one out of which I think some recommendations for best practice can emerge and perhaps even a route to funding for event organisers to make their events fully inclusive. Maybe the place to start is with the Hello Digital fringe and public participation programme (happening throughout 2010) – ensure they meet and exceed a set of minimum standards that Alison’s organisation can help shape. I’d certainly like to see Birmingham leading, rather than playing catch-up on issues such as this.

    • 24/10/2009 19:09


      I agree whole heatedly with what you say. I’m all for working to make the digital activities in the WM completely accessible – for all Disabled or Deaf people and artists out there (where are they hiding?). David Heavey’s book is brilliant and sadly still relevant all these years later.

      Pesky People started because of the concerns that we disabled and deaf people were being excluded from the digital world. We are disfranchised and we have to fight our own corners. When people are having to fight just to get independent living support, Disability Living Allowance and tackling daily discrimination in the physical and virtual world trying to participate in events as an artist or in social activities is hard work.

      Funders to take on board that accessibility has to be funded on top of project costs. They also have to take responsibility to guide applicants on the costs and fund it. With dwindling budgets other priorities take president.

      Only Arts Council England pays for consultants to write funding bids for disabled artists recognising that many don’t have the skills to do so (and their disabilities prevent them from applying) yet doesn’t advertise the fact. I know – since they’ve employed me to write Grant for the Arts applications and mentor those artists.

      Disability access can be expensive and yes it’s additional hard work for organisers. In time it can be second nature. Also with the right initiatives in place that also encourages participation and engagement from digital artists within the Disability or Deaf communities it would be even more fantastic. We want to be a part of the sector not on the fringes.

      I tweeted that I wanted to set up a fringe event around Hello Digital – maybe I didn’t try hard enough to see if anyone was interested. Any offers to see this happen?

      I’m doing Pesky People in a voluntary capacity (working towards being a social enterprise) and I still need to continue finding work myself as a freelance arts consultant.

      I’m looking forward to taking on board Jason’s offer to present to the digital and creative industries organisers meeting and also discuss what can be done strategically in the region so disabled people become part of the very vibrant digital scene that exists in the region.

      I’m feeling privileged already having received a great deal of help and support in blogging and now the Pesky People’s digital make over – Birmingham leads in many ways – lets make it lead in the area of accessibility too.

  16. 24/10/2009 23:42

    Hi Alison,

    I’ve been away on a trip since the Hello Digital conference ended, so have only just picked up your blog post.

    I really am sorry and sad to learn of your experiences, moved by your willingness to share of your self in this way and interested to address the issues you have raised.

    As you know rhubarb radio were one of the partners commissioned to support the delivery of the Hello Digital event, mainly around the streaming etc. On reflection I think we could have better supported people with disabilities, such as those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

    In addition to the range of issues you highlighted, a live audio to text facility would have made a meaningful difference to the experience for many people within the venue and for those attending the conference online. On reflection this is an option we could have presented.

    Without in anyway wishing to dismiss your experiences during the day or diminish our collective need to take better care around issues of inclusion during events, I am aware that all of the audio streams have been archived and could still benefit from an audio to text treatment and made available on the dedicated hello digital site Let me know what you think and I shall speak with the event partnership about this on Monday. In any event I shall seek to research the existence of any such relevant software.

    As has been indicated, I too would look forward working with you, so we can better deliver our willingness to be fully inclusive and enabling.

    rhubarb radio

  17. Mary Parsons permalink
    25/10/2009 17:23

    I had personal experience of similar issues in late 80s, early 90s – it beggars belief that it is still happening. How long is access to digital technology going to continue to be an add-on rather than integral?

  18. 27/10/2009 22:30

    Hi Alison. I’d just like to say thank you to you for raising awareness of these issues and congratulations for having the courage to openly divulge something that must have been so traumatic for you. Hopefully, your generosity in sharing this will help to improve things and heighten awareness of the need for change.

    As a disabled person myself, I share many of your frustrations and understand only too well the distress, humiliation and breach of equal rights which is caused, sometimes on a daily basis, by such negative attitudes and discriminatory and neglectful practices.

    Fortunately, there are organisations and individuals out there who do have the insight, positivity and willingness to create better access for all and to treat people with the respect with which they deserve to be treated. Whenever I encounter these places and individuals, it makes me feel so much more empowered and valued, so there is hope!

    The one question I always have to ask, though, is if one place or person can do it, why can’t another?

    Personally, I think it’s more to do with the fact that they wont, rather than that they can’t. As you say, people still seem to think that they can completely dismiss the disability discrimination act and that they can treat disabled people with prejudice and contempt which they probably wouldn’t dare show to non-disabled members of society. That knowledge sickens me every day, but as long as there are people like you who are prepared to stand up for their rights and for what is right, that will hopefully go a long way towards making changes in society, not just in the removal of unnecessary barriers, but in the reversal of attitudes aswell.

    You truly are an inspiration to disabled people everywhere and I applaud your honesty and sincerity. I hope that changes have now been made, to ensure that neither you nor anyone else ever has to go through such a horrendous experience again.

    Out of bad can come good.

    Thank you for making me feel a little less isolated.

    Good luck with all that you do and if you’re ever looking for anyone to help you campaign on behalf of disabled people, please feel free to contact me via Rhubarb Radio.


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