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Online technologies can bolster vulnerable audience participation

Use of the internet is dramatically changing everyday lives. How many of us now send an email instead of picking up the phone or shop online instead of going out to the high street? Similarly the proportion of online research we conduct has increased rapidly. We run numerous web surveys and online focus groups every month and have recently conducted online focus groups with respondents with disabilities to discuss experiences of rail travel.  As it was International Day of Persons with Disabilities day yesterday I thought I would share some experiences from where we’ve researched the views of disabled audiences.

When researchers think of gaining the views of vulnerable audiences, including those with disabilities, it tends to be assumed that a face-to-face approach should be adopted.  From our experience this is not always the case, in fact the reverse is often true, respondents were more open to share their views on an online forum than in a face-to-face discussion group or on a one-to-one basis with an interviewer.

Following these groups we asked participants to share their views on the experience of taking part in an online discussion.

“I found the online discussion very convenient to use from wherever I am based. I have started using Google Plus whereby you can conduct conversations there and it’s interactive too. The key point has to be making technologies and information readily accessible for anyone.”

“I enjoyed this type of discussion because I was able to give my opinion as in a face-to-face group one has to wait and someone speaks all the time.  At least this way people can express exactly how they feel. We had to wait for others to type their opinions, yet I know that I can express it better writing then speaking.  I did enjoy what I did and do not think I would change things.”

One participant even blogged about it

“I feel there is necessary place for e-learning and online forums as participation processes as it encourages people with disabilities to come forward and from what I gathered from the online forum’s experience more disabled people feel comfortable being upfront online rather than voicing publicly in open spaces. Overall, mruk were excellent and more forum research should be conducted this way as long as these research companies continue to meet the accessibility needs of participants through various means of technologies then this will go a long way in terms of time and cost saving issues for everyone involved.”

Some of the individuals who participated in the online focus groups used assistive technology to enable them to use their computer. For example, blind respondents used screen readers – devices that speak the text that would normally appear on a monitor. This worked very well, and, as the group moderator, I noticed that these responses were actually displayed quicker than those typing their answers! Increasing amounts of technology (such as assistive technology and voice recognition software) are removing barriers to online participation.

I think the best advice I could offer is, if in doubt, ask the participant what would work best for them.  What works for some may not work for others, which is as you would expect in any other group in society, so why should disabled people be any different.  It’s our job as researchers to make participation as easy and stress free as possible for all our audiences.

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