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“Accessibility: tomorrow’s problem – or today’s opportunity?”

Steve Tyler, the RNIB’s head of solutions, strategy and planning, says we need to change attitudes on accessibility or everyone loses

There are around two million blind and partially sighted people in the UK and this is set to increase with an ageing population. As we get older we can experience disability of various kinds, from mobility issues to sensory.

In one sense, this label of disability is entirely misleading – it’s simply what happens to you as you get older and therefore the things that make it easier to do the things that you want to do alter.

Depending on when and how you arrive at the place you have with regard to disability, your acceptance of it and its effect on you can vary. But people are people and these ‘disabled people’ could be your mother, your uncle or a friend.

In the case of blindness, for example, one in three of us can be classified as blind or partially sighted over the age of 85 and one in four over the age of 75.

You haven’t become a different person because of it, your interests, needs and wants are no different. It’s simply that you now have to deal with the world in a somewhat different way.

Blind people want to read books. Blindness does not dictate the books you want to read, nor for that matter your wish to travel, to shop, to look after their money, to make friends.

And here’s the amazing thing, technology has provided massive opportunity for people with disability and massive opportunity for companies, service providers and government to serve them.

The world has changed and today websites can be written in such a way that specialist technologies like screen-readers (that render websites into speech or magnify the site) can access them.

Tech companies take the lead

Software can be written in the same way and the world of mobile devices has altered the life chances of people with disabilities in a way previously unimagined.

Apple, Android and increasingly Microsoft products have a plethora of ‘accessibility’ features built in, there is no longer a special add-on that enables a blind person to work with an iPhone. It is simply part of the operating system to be enabled or not as you wish.

Accessibility is becoming part of the mainstream. Amazon has built eBook readers that render the book into speech or allow endless manipulation of the text for ease of reading and Samsung has made fully accessible TVs that can talk to you.

In short, there is no excuse at all for service providers to fail to reach out with their services to blind and partially sighted people and people with other disabilities.

The everyday expectation is changing in the consumer market, we want to listen to our email, we want to speak a text message. That is what technology is doing for us today, breaking out of the ‘traditional’ means of controlling our online lives, and indeed controlling our everyday environments.

As a blind person, I control my Sonos music system at home through an app on my iPhone. I watch the TV programmes I recorded via an app, I shop on Amazon, Ocado, and John Lewis through an accessible app or website. I buy coffee with my phone that delivers an accessible receipt and I bank and travel using the web or apps.

Disabled people complain on social media (of course)

The list is endless and, most of all, I can read books or newspapers as and when I like. All because those service providers have recognised that, like everyone else, I want to use their services, and most importantly, I have money and the ability to use the most powerful development that influences them and all of us – social media.

If I don’t like what I’m getting, I can tell the world about it.

So, no, access to services, products and systems are not for tomorrow, they are with us now. The ability to reach new markets, and the ability to make services distinct through great customer service is within our grasp today.

For many years, our ambition at RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) has been to ensure that platform providers of key operating systems and everyday technologies and products that people use are accessible.

Through partnerships, consultancy and specialist knowledge, we seek to ensure that accessibility is simply part of the experience. We knew that the phone you carry around in your pocket or the way in which you access the internet would become crucial in engaging with the immediate environment and would change lives.

Today, the biggest taxi company in the world (that’s Uber) owns no cars but I can flag one down with my phone. Today, the biggest search provider and creator of the largest mobile operating platform, Google, has become a verb in our language. Apple sees no distinction between a person with disability or without, they see a customer who wants a great experience and who might buy their product and service.

These companies have embraced the customer and they have recognised difference without the negatives.

Is our work done? Sadly not!

We’ve taken away, and continue to do so, the excuses for non-delivery of service to people with disabilities. But we need to change attitudes.

How can it be acceptable for government websites to be inaccessible today? How can it be acceptable that vast swathes of the population cannot shop, bank, travel, read what they want, be a citizen in the UK, play a part in their community, be real contributors to society in the way they want to, in 2016?

Government needs to take a lead in delivering meaningful access to its services for its citizens, and the commercial sector needs to change its mindset around what good customer service is.

The technology revolution will leave everyone behind if we persist in failing to take advantage of what it offers. Indeed, given the advances in what used to be a very niche proposition, those who fail to deliver services not only risk disenfranchising people with disabilities, but also risk failing to deliver to all of us in our preferred form.

Just as social media has changed the face of feedback by the population, the developments in technology are wiping away disparities in access for everyone.

Isn’t it time to take a long hard look at where we are in our provision of products, goods and services? Isn’t it time to remove barriers that are informed by outdated thinking and outdated principles of doing business?

This article was written for Government Computing and first published here