Today (20 May) marks Global Accessibility Awareness Day (or GAAD for short). And so, I wanted to share some thoughts on what technology is doing to open up opportunities for people with disabilities – and what we need to put in place to make sure that it is an enabler, not a blocker. [NB I am using the term people with disabilities rather than disabled people in this blog, to reflect the fact that this is a global day and that people with disabilities is the most universally recognised global terminology.]
Assistive technology is for many people with a disability the difference between having a job and being economically inactive. More than that – it can be the difference in enabling people with disabilities to thrive and excel at work – and that includes people in managerial or senior positions, or in roles demanding specialist knowledge and experience.
We are seeing a welcome shift to talking about “productivity tools” and a focus on increasing effectiveness and efficiency for all, rather than seeing assistive technology as “special equipment for disabled people”. Some of our Members, for example, are now allowing employees to access assistive technology from the company intranet in the same way that they access “mainstream” software- removing the need to ask and eliminating the fears of potential stigma that comes with it. This is particularly important when you consider that 34% of people who responded to our Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey in 2019 said they did not ask for adjustments because they were afraid their manager would treat them differently.
Meanwhile, accessibility in mainstream IT is improving all the time. Last month, as part of our Global Symposium, I had the pleasure of speaking with Clare Barclay, CEO of Microsoft UK, who shared the constant innovations that they are making to bake in accessibility to all their products, whether that is being able to “pin” a sign language interpreter in Microsoft Teams, in-built accessibility checkers and alt text options, or ever-improving speech to text technology. Of course, much of this progress has been accelerated by COVID-19 as many of us switched to working from home and online meetings, and, as lockdown eases, we see examples of the tables being turned with people with disabilities the experts in navigating this brave new world. I recently also had the pleasure of hosting a panel discussion to help launch the Shaw Trust Power 100 and one speaker – and previous power-lister – Adi Latif, spoke about how, as a blind man, he was used to asking his friends to read out restaurant menus to him. Now, with menus increasingly available only via QR codes, avid-tech user Adi was the one to whom his friends turned for support.
So, what is needed for the future? First, we need to think about how we ensure all future IT products become inclusive by design for everyone. We need to get away from accepting that IT systems will inevitably require multiple layers of ‘add ons’ to make them accessible and instead put mandatory standards in place to ensure IT product development is inclusive by design with the involvement of disabled people at design and in user testing. User involvement is also critical in making sure we avoid unintended consequences – for example, algorithms in recruitment portals that automatically screen out candidates with gaps in their CV, or AI which does not recognise someone with a facial disfigurement.
We also need to open up assistive technology for everyone who would benefit from it. Too often, access to assistive technology remains an in-education or in-employment privilege, primarily due to the duty on education providers and employers to make reasonable adjustments. For people who are trying to enter education or enter employment, AT solutions are often too expensive for them to have access to. And here there is a real Catch 22; in many cases AT is needed to achieve what is needed to enter education or employment in the first place – even at the basic level of completing an online application, writing a CV, or taking part in an online assessment, or interview.
So, we at Business Disability Forum are championing a ‘Tech for life’ model – a model in which seamless tech support is available to people with disabilities at every stage of their lives – including the critical stage of transition from education to employment. In the UK for example, programmes like the Disabled Students Allowance and Access to Work do not “talk to” each other, meaning that students leaving education may be left without the technology they need, precisely at the time they need it most. A ‘technology for life’ model for a lifelong provision of tailored technology solutions would acknowledge movement between education and employment and provide access to assistive technology for all aspects of people’s lives.
The purpose of GAAD is “to get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital access/inclusion and people with different disabilities”. So, I urge you to think about how you can open up access to technology within your own organisation – and enable everyone in your workforce to thrive.
Business Disability Forum’s Technology Taskforce has created lots of resources on assistive technology and more – to find out more or if you are interested in joining the Taskforce please get in touch and email Lucy Ruck, our Taskforce Manager.