In an exclusive interview, we spoke to Henry Fraser about how he uses digital technology to work, socialise and organise his life, and how it can let him down.
Henry Fraser is a mouth artist, best-selling author and public speaker. He is a passionate advocate for disability rights since an accident at 17 left him paralysed from the shoulders down.
His first book and Sunday Times Bestseller ‘The Little Big Things’ is a motivational memoir exploring the life lessons he has learned since his accident. His second book will be published next year.
Access to the online world allows him to manage his multifaceted career. But a lack of online access information means he is often prevented from doing simple things, like booking restaurants, totally independently.
We asked Henry about the role digital technology plays in his daily life and what online accessibility means to him.
Access to digital technology allows me to work independently
“The way I use technology is pretty basic, I use a mouse stick with a stylus attached to the end and I work my way through websites, social media, etc. on my iPad”
Henry creates his artworks in a similar fashion, with a paintbrush attached to a customised mouth stick. It has a rubberised mouthpiece, an adjustable end and can be fitted with a paintbrush, pencil or stylus depending on what he is working on.
This is how I type, text, tweet and write when I’m only physically able to use my mouth as I’m paralysed from the shoulders down. pic.twitter.com/KuhtnVk9lf
— Henry Fraser (@henryfraser0) October 17, 2019
It’s this technology that allowed him to create his first masterpieces after an illness left him bed-bound in 2015. Using the app Tayasui Sketches on his iPad, he began drawing with his stylus. He credits the app for helping to reignite his love of art, without which, he says, he may not have ventured into pencils and paint.
“That’s the only technology I really use to access things. It’s a very rudimentary style of accessibility, but it works for me.”
Access to my iPad gives me independence and privacy, unlike other technology
The way he uses technology has changed in the ten years since his accident.
“When I first started, I was using iNavigate and voice control capabilities within Mac. Though after I got the iPad and the customised mouse stick and stylus, it gave me this next level of independence and intimacy which other technology didn’t.”
“I couldn’t really be in a room with others and use voice control. But the iPad setup meant I could be in the room with my family or friends while watching TV and still be responding to emails and messaging friends at the same time. It’s a level of independence that no other system offered me.”
It’s technology like this that allows Henry to run his life independently. From checking emails and using social media to booking and ordering online.
A video of me mouth painting but from my point of view (filmed with a camera on my head).
I’m only physically able to paint by holding the brush in my mouth.
Now you can what I see when I paint with my mouth. pic.twitter.com/WFza6iKAgj
— Henry Fraser (@henryfraser0) September 30, 2019
He himself admits that his career success since his accident has been helped by his access to social media. He regularly posts motivational content to his 103,000 Twitter audience and 40,000-strong Instagram following. It’s also where he first struck up a conversation with his, now, good friend J.K. Rowling.
Severe lack of online accessibility information when booking venues and restaurants
But online access barriers for Henry are less about website layout, colour contrast or HTML. Instead, the problem is the lack of accessibility information available online for venues, restaurants and event spaces.
So many websites are not transparent about whether their venue is fully accessible or not. Lots of places claim they are on their website, but you turn up and although the building might be accessible inside, there are steps to actually get in the place.
“I’ve turned up to so many places that haven’t been wheelchair accessible, or that haven’t had accessible toilets. Too many people think that wheelchair accessibility is just about having a bathroom which is accessible, rather than considering the actual route to the toilet being accessible.”
As the first point of contact for a business, Henry feels more websites should be providing this information clearly and upfront. To get around the problem, he normally has to email or call companies to get the information he needs.
“Always having to email companies is the most frustrating part for me. Like last year, I wanted to see The Christmas Carol at The Old Vic with a group of school friends. I submitted three separate emails to their online contact form, with no reply.”
“I eventually called them up to ask and the guy on the phone told me I should have called before to ask about wheelchair accessibility. Yet nowhere on their website or elsewhere online did it say, ‘Call us to ask about wheelchair accessibility or arrange wheelchair accessible seating’. It’s an awkward phone call to have to make. Apparently, no one had received my emails.”
Poor online experiences deny disabled people their independence
Businesses like restaurants and venues often rely on these online-first experiences in order to guarantee in-person transactions. It should be where the customer journey begins. But instead, Henry says, it’s where customer service often fails disabled users.
“It’s annoying for me to have to continuously phone people to get the information I need, but I have to remind myself that I can actually call up and request that information. I have to ask someone to make sure my phone is in the right place before I can call, though.”
Reflecting on his own needs, and those of others in the disabled community he says, “It’s not easy for me, but it’s doable. People who are Deaf and hearing-impaired, for example, can’t just call up and ask.”
A quick response to an online contact form “the best you can hope for”
A good online booking experience for Henry normally still involves making contact with the company and getting a response several hours later.
“It’s rare that I’ve wanted to book somewhere, emailed the website and got a response straight away.”
“There’s a pub in Waterloo called The Thirsty Bear who has been brilliant. I’ve booked with them a couple of times and within hours they’ve replied. They’re really good. But they are a rare misnomer in this situation, most places are terrible.”
“It’s their quick response and the fact that they are willing to help, reply to you and be honest about the accessibility on the premises. I always appreciate it.”
It’s the businesses that lose out, too
For Henry, who lives in Hertfordshire, trips to London have to be planned. Limited time in his busy schedule and the cost of private taxis mean that visiting London almost always involves meeting large groups of friends.
When a venue is slow to provide accessibility information, it’s not just Henry’s business they miss out on. It’s the whole group’s.
Every year, several of Henry’s friends from Dulwich college arrange a Christmas lunch. Each year they try a new venue. But because information about wheelchair access online is often sporadic, missing or misleading, it normally requires a trip in person before they can book.
“A friend of mine, who lives in London, actually has to go there and physically look around the venue and check that my wheelchair can fit through the doors.” Rather than risk turning up, as he has often done, and being unable to get in the building; “it takes a lot of physical effort to ensure places are fully accessible.”
Simple changes online can make a very real difference
Companies should not be putting the onus on disabled users to make their service work for them. Making access information clear, providing alternative methods of contact and being responsive to requests are, Henry says, small asks.
In an ideal world, you would never have to email companies and venues to request access information. It should be readily available. It should be given, freely.
Henry’s experience is all too familiar. When disabled consumers are failed online, they’re the ones forced to make accommodations to receive the same service as non-disabled users. Businesses may lose out financially, but it’s the disabled community who pay the price.
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