Equal Opportunities and Digital MediaEqual Opportunities within the Students' Union basically means that we will not tolerate any form of discrimination or prejudice of any kind. We also want to create a positive and welcoming atmosphere for all our students, staff and visitors. Student Council is one such place in which this policy is implemented. However, many student councillors do not realise that digital access is just as important as physical access.
This may sound very politically correct or that we may be over-reacting. But, many students cannot access the forms of digital media that we use to communicate.
For example: Blind and partially sighted students cannot use a screen reader with Microsoft Word documents. Word documents and other Microsoft formats are also inaccessible to those who do not use Microsoft - they use a closed format, which can only be accessed by prohibitively expensive programmes that may not even be available on some computers (e.g. those running GNU/Linux). So, many of the documents you might send out in attachments are completely or partially inaccessible to many students. This can be overcome by simply converting documents into an open format (see later section).
As with other equal opportunities issues, we have an obligation to ensure that digital information is accessible to as many people as possible.
How can we ensure information is accessible?
The real revolution in information technology was not just the Internet, but the emergence of technologies like the World Wide Web, that were designed with accessibility in mind.
All of these technologies share one feature: they are "open standards". By this we mean that their technical details are open to the public, and the public is free to produce software capable of using information communicated under these standards.
These are in contrast with "closed standards", e.g. Microsoft Word documents, where the technical details are kept secret so that the company can stop competitors making rival software without paying substantial royalties.
The effect of closed standards is that they require government intervention to ensure they are made accessible, and to date this has never happened. With open standards, on the other hand, it only takes some programmers' free time, or a little funding from a charity or concerned organisation, for software to be written to make a format accessible. Hence the web is accessible to every person on earth who can get access to a connected computer.
So, to summarise, to make digital media accessible we have an obligation to use open formats, or at least to always make a copy available in an open format whose content is identical to the closed format.
So what formats should we use?
- For simple text: plain text (TXT) or HTML
- For formatted text: rich text format (RTF) or HTML
- For complicated text and images (e.g. posters, presentations): portable document format (PDF) or HTML
- For spreadsheets: PDF, HTML or plain text separated by commas
- For photographs: JPEG or EPS
- For diagrams: scaleable vector graphic (SVG) or portable network graphics (PNG)
- For presentations: a PDF, a series of HTML pages or a series of JPEGs/PNGs can all be presented in slideshow form
- For audio: Ideally OGG, or if not, MP3 or WAV
- For video: Anything goes, but MPEG-2, DivX or XviD codecs preferred and MPEG or AVI containers preferred (Realplayer and Quicktime are a bit of a pain for a lot of people)
What formats should we not use?
Any format that is for a particular application, and where an acceptable format can be used instead.
For example, don't send Microsoft Word documents without an alternative copy as well, because it is a closed format, and Plain Text, RTF or PDF are good replacements. Other examples of closed formats include:
Microsoft Word (.doc)
Microsoft Excel (.xls)
Microsoft Access (.mdb)
Adobe Photoshop (.psd)
Making a comprehensive list for these is near impossible, so instead try to follow this simple rule:
If you can distribute a document in an open format, do that. If you can't (and this is rather unlikely once you have worked out how to do it) then try to find out if the people you are sending the document to can access it properly, to ensure you aren't inadvertently excluding anyone.
(reference would then be made to the as-yet unwritten guide on using and converting to open formats)