On Brian Cox, Accessibility and why we shame those with learning disabilities.

So I watched the first episode of Wonders of life the other night and I really enjoyed it. One of the best things about it was this: I watched it with someone who has done far less science than me, and he ended up pretty chuffed that Cox had explained the acidity thing to him so simply – something he had struggled with before.

It reminded me of echoed opinions of my friends during the last Wonders series. Yes, they said, they found it complex, but they now know some stuff about supernovas. It might be a small win but it’s still a win.

Luckily all I have seen so far on this series are some pretty funny spoof criticisms. But I recall that the last time Brian Cox aired a Wonders series (Wonders of the Universe), the most distasteful criticism I found was the idea that he had made science too simple. He was dumbing it down. And this is apparently bad (as well as being a bit ridiculous, because Cox’s shows had a fair amount of complex ideas in them).

I’m going to have to step up here and say that if it has been presented in more simple terms, it’s a very good thing indeed. Not only does it apply to a vast percentage of the general population who otherwise might not be exposed to such information and might find it interesting, but it’s better for people with learning disabilities. Granted, the language is not quite at the level for a learning disabled person to get the most out of it, but think about it: last Sunday’s programme was entertaining and cinematic, used familiar and comfortable tones that weren’t condescending, was aired at prime time, and catered for various levels of intelligence – Cox talked through more complex things conversationally and then provided simpler definitions afterward, and text appeared on screen with handy facts about animals such as their Latin names (although this itself presents an accessibility issue to people with sight problems as the text was way too small for me to see accurately).

Many people don’t agree with the ‘trying to target too many people at once’ approach and it does have it’s downsides (such as giving people information overload), but I’m not a fan of restricting those with learning disabilities to just the one approach – that cuts them off from taking in more information if they feel they are able to.

So why have I been thinking about this so much recently? Well. I work a day job to fund my degree, and in this job I spend most my time helping people make sites accessible.

From my work with disability I can see two main reasons why this criticism of ‘simpleness’ exists. The first is that the critic  considers ‘simpleness’ to be just a product of laziness or something similar, and the disabled person simply doesn’t exist in the mind of the critic. This doesn’t mean the critic is a bad person or anything, just that they’re not aware enough of disabled people to factor them in.  They probably don’t encounter many disabled people in real life, and disability issues are probably not high on their priority list. You see it all the time in web projects; where a client wonders why the hell someone with autism might get agitated by autoplay features, or why wide margins might help someone with tunnel vision. It’s just a lack of knowledge on their part.

The second reason is more problematic. This is where the person is aware of the ability deficit, but is reticent about the need to change things and include them, even reticent about interacting with them. In psychology, this is called the ‘Othering’ effect (and here’s a handy definition of it). Othering of people with any disability happens naturally in humans, and it’s so persistent that no matter how open-minded you are you can still be stealth struck by it. Coming into contact with the Other can make people uncomfortable. And it’s a lot easier to blame the person that’s making you feel this way rather than address it yourself (I have been blamed a lot for this in the past on account of my wielding a walking stick and a limp). So it becomes the other person’s problem. Why can’t they just learn? How can they be so stupid? And thinking like this soon descends into an idea that we shouldn’t be making shows about complex topics using accessible terms. Why bother, because people who aren’t currently interested in science won’t be interesting in watching it.  Or why bother, because people who can’t learn easily probably won’t learn at all. Well, to me, this sounds rather like Bruce Lawson’s adage of the restaurant owner who refuses to add wheelchair access to his restaurant because ‘nobody disabled ever comes here.’ As Bruce Lawson rightly points out, this is flawed logic.

So the problem with criticisms like this is that they shame people with learning disabilities, no matter how unintentional this is on the part of the critic. There’s a handy fact page from LDPride that shows how people with learning disabilities are most commonly affected by negativity (and it’s backed up by plenty of papers too – hooray references!).

One further point: another idea put forth was that there should be more complex shows with strictly complex language and blackboard equations throughout. Now, complex shows are not a bad idea, and that thought actually quite excites me, but sciencey types like me are already in the game – we already know where to find scientific information and we probably already have access to journals and the like, so this would really just be preaching to the converted. That’s not a crime, but it’d be nice to tackle the potential conversions first (and I’m going to stop using marketing terms now… ick!). People being exposed to science is a good thing, and maybe one of those people will have a learning disability, and maybe all they needed was a simple explanation that sparks the desire to know more, and maybe some time in the future they will pursue a career in science, and contribute some valuable research.

So it’s been quite constructive to look at science broadcasting through the lens of a totally different field – that of web accessibility. And quite fitting as well, since Wonders of Life is essentially looking at biology through the lens of another field – that of physics.

The bottom line is this: Accessible science benefits us all. So Carry on, Coxy.