Disabled people have so far lost out on many of the benefits that technology has brought. But changes are on the way
Technology is supposed to make it easier for everyone to live and work, but for the 10 million disabled people in the UK, many of whom find it difficult to use a conventional keyboard and screen, life is much harder than it need be.
Everyday business activities such as accessing information or using email are complicated or impossible for those with physical or sensory impairments, because websites and in-house systems cannot be adjusted to cater for their needs.
On the face of it these adjustments seem simple enough: the ability to make text bigger, change colors, have onscreen text read aloud or to plug in special hardware and software. In fact many alterations that disabled people need can be achieved just by changing Windows settings.
However, many organizations have struggled to make their IT accessible. Until recently only organizations with a high proportion of disabled users, such as government departments and banks, took much account of the fact that their customers and employees might not be able to use a screen and keyboard unaided.
Accessible IT may sound like a good idea, but to many CIOs it looks complicated and expensive to provide for a comparatively small number of users. But things are changing. Firms increasingly recognize that the UK's Disability Discrimination Act puts the onus on them to carry out "reasonable adjustments" to their websites and in-house systems to make them usable by everyone.
Improved and less expensive accessible technology makes it easier for even severely disabled people to access IT, and more difficult for IT departments to cite cost as a reason for not taking action. So far as expertise is concerned, there is an increasing number of accessibility specialists.
And there is pressure from a generation of tech-savvy older people determined to stay online and work into their 60s and beyond -- one-third of disabled people are now between the ages of 50 and 64.
The business case for accessible IT is that companies without it are missing out on a market among disabled people worth at least £80bn (US$159 billion) per year; and passing up a hardworking and loyal addition to their workforce. The case though is being made more cogently than ever before.
In response, CIOs are taking on the accessibility agenda. Last year the Royal Mail , a public company with a long track record of catering for its disabled employees, put its money where its mouth is and paid for the publication of the IT directors' guide to accessible IT, produced by the Information Technologists' Company.
"There is a big opportunity for IT directors to take a lead on this issue," explains Royal Mail Group's enterprise IT director, Wendy Powney, who was behind the initiative. "You can ensure that accessibility is part of your policy. You can make certain that members of your department are aware of their responsibilities and enrol them in the process. You can talk to suppliers about the accessible systems you require."
Royal Mail has set up a 20-strong diversity group, which has built accessibility into the company's formal design processes. Behind the diversity group are individuals who have an interest in disability and can use their authority to get things done. However, Powney acknowledges the organization still has some way to go, particularly in being able to get a fast turnaround on requests for special equipment and adaptations.
More recently, a group of IT heads from a clutch of blue chip organizations held an inaugural meeting in London of the Business Taskforce on Accessible Technology, which aims to put the business case for accessible IT, influence regulators and lobby suppliers to improve the accessibility of their products.
The group, chaired by chief operating officer at HMRC, Steve Lamey, could provide a boost to the uptake of accessible IT with a heavyweight line-up that includes B&Q, BUPA, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Goldman Sachs, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), Intercontinental Hotels, KPMG, Lloyds TSB, Royal Mail, Sainsbury's and the Serious Organized Crime Agency.
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