There are clear laws about access for people with disabilities and how to accommodate them. Ross Linnett, CEO & founder of Recite Me, considers how it’s going.
Assistive Technology (AT) is an attractive market for UK tech companies – they can tap into a potential £1.8bn by innovating in this field. But it’s not just about cash. Quite simply AT unlocks opportunities for people otherwise excluded because of how they process information and language.
Last year the Extra Costs Commission (ECC) revealed that British businesses could miss out on £1.8 billion each month by ignoring the accessibility needs of disabled customers and their families*. More than 12 million** people in the UK have a disability, so accessibility isn’t a niche issue.
My interest in AT started with a personal need. I was a relatively confident, high achiever in school but until I’d finished formal education I was over-compensating for my (at the time) undiagnosed dyslexia. I developed the Recite Me technology more than seven years ago because I knew how it felt to be ‘locked out’ of inaccessible websites.
It’s not just about dyslexia. For a blind person, simply being able to surf the net; access internet banking; book a holiday; file tax returns; work remotely, or use a mobile app to navigate around a strange place is only possible IF web and app developers build AT into their products and services. The inclusion of AT can also support people with learning difficulties; tech-savvy older people and those with conditions such as ADHD.
The technology isn’t just about ticking an accessibility box, it enables companies to appeal to a wider pool of potential customers, plus existing and potential employees. It’s good business sense as well as demonstrating a genuine commitment to inclusivity – aka ‘doing the right thing’.
I believe the UK can hold its own in this area. The development of accessible platforms is a global issue, in which UK tech plays a big part. And it’s no coincidence that this area has grown in response to the Equality Act (2010). Quite simply, if your website doesn’t meet certain design standards, then you could be sued for discrimination.
In the US, Apple has set the standard for digital accessibility: it’s a requirement for app developers wanting to get their products into the App Store. Recently Microsoft announced an overhaul of its accessibility and inclusion offering within Office 365, and I’m also seeing significant positive developments in and around the UK’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’, not just over in Silicon Valley.
Whether it’s the development of an app to help people with learning difficulties to cook or shop, in a step-by-step, accessible way that takes into account difficulty with sequences and memory; or SwiftKey Symbols, an assistive app for people with autism – designed to help communication with friends and families – there are ideas turning into products throughout the UK.
Assistive Technology even has its own new trade show in the UK: The Assistive Technology Exhibition & Conference, which holds its second event this November www.ateconference.com
And it’s making waves in politics, with an active representation body, BATA, assisting in the establishment of an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Assistive Technology.
My own heroes in AT include disability organisations such as the RNIB, British Dyslexia Association, and Scope, both in the work they do advising disabled users and in pushing for better practice. And inspiring individuals like Sarah-Jane Peake of Launchpad Assistive Technology who is a leading UK consultant, trainer and BATA board member.
Despite those leading the field there is still much work to be done, so do we need policy or just action from companies to continue and succeed on this journey?
I think we need both: employers must understand what’s possible and available: tech is changing fast, so too is Assistive Technology. It’s not just about complying, there needs to be training for HR departments and line managers as well as disabled employees.
As Sarah-Jane Peake of Launchpad Assistive Technology says: “Once you have seen the benefits that AT brings to disabled and older employees you realise that more inclusive technology is something that can benefit everyone.”
The UK must continue to ask and answer difficult questions about accessibility until inclusion becomes the rule and not the exception.