Enabling IT for all

Enabling IT for all

Carrie Saint Freedman explains how IT firms can address the issue of accessible technology

Experience tells us that accessible technology is neither difficult nor expensive to achieve, but it is dependent on the activity of campaigning organisations and individuals.

Groups such as the national computing and disability charity AbilityNet, professional bodies such as WCIT (Worshipful Company of Information Technologists), the BCS and forward-thinking industry leaders help promote the mindset among IT directors.

The promotions also help to bring about adjustments required to accommodate disability in the workplace.

In most offices there is a growing and increasingly vocal group of people who experience IT-related repetitive strain injury (RSI), as a result of using a mouse, excessive keyboard use or sitting at a
workstation incorrectly.

The recent age discrimination legislation has cast the spotlight on challenges presented through an ageing workforce, and a range of associated conditions such as vision impairment and arthritis.

Half of Japan’s 127 million population is over 50, for example, and many other developed countries are mirroring the trend.

Many companies strive to ensure systems are not locked down, allowing modifications within the operating system, and the addition of hardware and software alternatives to cater for individual requirements.

Success is challenged by an inability to control the wider technological environment. We might all be equal in front of the screen, but once we venture onto the internet all bets are off.

Despite legislation, 95 per cent of web sites are still inaccessible to individuals using specialist adaptive technologies like screen readers and voice recognition.

In contrast, able-bodied visitors benefit from accessible web sites, finding the destinations 35 per cent easier and quicker to use – ­ a fact that eludes the majority of web designers and creators.

If the traditional web poses questions, what does the advent of Web 2.0 technologies herald for disabled people in the workplace?

Latest research conducted by AbilityNet among disabled users suggests that Web 2.0’s potential is tremendous.

Robin Christopherson, AbilityNet’s head of accessibility services, says Web 2.0 technology facilitates communication, collaboration, networking and team working without necessitating mobility.

“In this way it enhances opportunities for disabled people who can, by virtue of technology adapted to their needs, work from any location at any time using tools and solutions such as VoIP or desktop streaming,” he says.

“Flexible working and homeworking also represent a good deal for the employer, who can choose staff from an even wider pool, and retain valued employees whose disability may prevent them from being able to participate physically in the office world on a regular basis.

“Greater efficiency and productivity in tandem with reduced expenditure and overheads can only benefit the bottom line and enhance the profitability of any enterprise.”

The downside of Web 2.0 is obvious, however. Christopherson says many of the collaborative systems represent an exaggerated version of the problems inherent with the internet as a whole.

“Although user-generated content should be, and indeed is, subject to the same legislation in theory as all other content on the world wide web, most users are blissfully unaware that they are often imposing a technological lockout, using adaptive software and hardware to access their computers,” he says.

“By its very nature Web 2.0 is establishing a creator community, enthusiastically expressing itself without training, guidance or accessible templates.

We all have something to say and virtually no understanding of the need to say it in a way that can be heard by all.”

Ironically, Web 2.0’s greatest benefit, as far as disabled employees are concerned, lies in its potential to create a personalised and customised IT system cheaply and effectively through internet connectivity.

AbilityNet has been delivering advice, assessment, training and support through online services for more than a year now. Thousands of users have benefited from self-assessments and remote assessments delivered through videoconferencing as well as remote support packages accessed via the internet.

Remote assistance allows the assessor to make rapid interventions, such as changing icons, fonts, colour settings and tuning of the keyboard and mouse to encourage immediate confidence.

A full evaluation of needs and potential systems necessitate the observation of the user – ­ the way they are seated, their workstation arrangement and setup.

AbilityNet provides the service through Skype and webcam, which also enables the client and consultant to see each other and build a closer relationship.

The charity has supported services with on-demand training and an open-source learning platform. It is also exploring how knowledge can be effectively shared through collaboration tools such as peer-to-peer and wikis.

More organisations are recognising the value of Web 2.0 resources to support training and education. “The knowledge and skills carried and shared through the use of these new tools is immense, and with that comes an opportunity to create communities that will benefit hundreds of thousands of people,” says David Barnes, AbilityNet’s director of development, who oversees the organisation’s collaborative innovations.

“The technological toolbox, however, needs to be selectively and strategically used, not only to generate output that is accessible to users, but also with an interface that is equally accessible, to facilitate the sharing of experience with disabled people who use adaptive technology.

“The experience of this group is an equally valuable example to businesses selling products and services on the net. These potential internet users represent a spending power in excess of £120bn ­ – a highly significant market sector.”

So the challenge created through using Web 2.0 in the workplace is as great as the opportunity. Technology can unlock the experience of disabled users, customers and employees.

But experience shows us already that real change will only occur when the individuals responsible for procuring the tools involved choose to insist on good accessibility.

The vision of a world wide web that is truly universal, democratic and accessible to all is still some way off.

Carrie Saint Freedman is press officer at AbilityNet, a charity that helps people adapt and adjust their IT. Call the freephone helpline on (0800) 269 545.

The AbilityNet web site provides detailed fact and skill sheets for free, on all the above and more atwww.abilitynet.org.uk

IT and disability

There are about 10 million disabled adults in the UK who are covered by the Disability Discrimination Act. (Source: Family Resource Survey 2003 to 2003).

More than 6.8 million disabled people are of working age, which represents 19 per cent of the working population. (Source: Labour Force Survey, June 2005).

Only 50 per cent of working age, disabled people are employed compared with 81 per cent of non-disabled people of working age. (Source: Labour Force Survey, June 2005).

Incidence of disability increases with age; nine per cent of adults aged 16 to 24 are disabled, the proportion increases to 44 per cent in the 50-to-retirement age category. (Source: Labour Force Survey, June 2005).

Reported cases of RSI are growing, with 2,000 plus cases pending in the UK and an estimated incidence nationally in excess of half a million. (Source: RSI Association).

RSI affects as many as one in four computer operators, a figure that could be reduced significantly with the right support, equipment and training.

One of the causes of RSI is the large number of two-fingered typists that use computers for a considerable part of the working day. (Source: TUC).

A survey of 15,000 US adults showed that 60 per cent could benefit in terms of comfort and productivity from modifying their computer setup. (Source: Forrester Research 2003).

In 2004, 40 per cent of the English population was over 45 – the age the incidence of disability begins to increase. (Sources: National Office of Statistics, Census Update 2003 and Labour Force Survey, June 2005).