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Steering digital inclusion from the driving seat: Q&A with Robin Christopherson, AbilityNet

When he helped co-found UK technology access charity AbilityNet in 1998, Robin Christopherson was already on his way to helping drive forward digital accessibility, and since then his work has continued to change people’s lives. He is now AbilityNet’s head of digital inclusion, after helping to grow the charity’s services. These services include website and mobile accessibility consultancy, which AbilityNet now delivers to companies including Microsoft, the BBC, HSBC and Sainsbury’s.

Christopherson has also led and worked on all manner of projects and campaigns to increase digital accessibility, particularly for blind and visually impaired people. This has included providing expert commentary for news sources such as The Guardian, and presenting on and testing new technology, whether that’s a driverless car or the latest smartwatch.

In recognition of his valuable contributions, he was surprised with a special award at the annual Tech4Good Awards earlier this month. e-Access Bulletin caught up with Christopherson to find out more about his work and get his thoughts on the evolution of accessibility.

- Tell us about your work at AbilityNet and how it’s changed over the years:

“AbilityNet has been changing lives since 1998 and, in fact, long before then, when it was two separate charities; FCD and The Computability Centre. The first did assessments and the second had a freephone advice and information line. Since then, those elements have grown to include a wide range of services including website and mobile accessibility consultancy (a team which grew from an initial piece of consultancy I did back in 2003) and for several years I headed that team. Now that team is delivering expert services to hundreds of clients including global names such as Microsoft and HSBC and household names such as Sainsbury’s and the BBC. That’s quite enough about my involvement, however, as that’s nothing compared to what AbilityNet is all about – and that’s empowering people through accessibility and technology.

“So much has changed in the last nearly two decades. In fact, so much has changed in the last two years. As a blind person I’m just one example of how tech has helped improve the life choices for people with disabilities. We now have all the power of computers with us wherever we go, and with a range of sensors – such as camera, GPS, accelerometer and compass – that can be incredibly empowering when perhaps one or more of your own senses don’t work.

“Whereas a disabled person used to have to purchase expensive (and often limited) devices, they can often now use mainstream gadgets, such as smartphones, that have all the necessary accessibility features built-in, and which offer thousands of apps that do the same functions for a fraction of the price.

“As a blind person I used to need a talking GPS device (£750), a talking notetaker (£1500), a talking barcode scanner (£150) and many, many more specialist devices – and that all had to be carried around in a backpack and each with its own charger – whereas now I have all that functionality and an awful lot more in one device. That same device is also almost infinitely expandable with each new app or service that comes along.”

- What kinds of work were you doing before AbilityNet?

“Before AbilityNet I was an IT instructor for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), and was able to play with (I mean ‘research’) incredible technologies such as screen-reading software for Windows, flatbed scanners that can read back-printed materials and talking notetakers. All those things sounded like a Dalek with a bad head-cold, but nevertheless helped open doors like never before for people with a vision impairment.

“In the UK today, 90% of jobs include a computer of some sort, and these technologies helped make many more careers possible. That said, 73% of people with a vision impairment in the UK are still without paid work, which is why I feel so strongly about the main aspect of my work today – regular public speaking to both conference and corporate audiences. If you’d like to see these strong messages about the empowering potential of tech, simply Google me or search on YouTube or Vimeo.”

- How has digital accessibility improved over the time you’ve been working in the sector? 

The accessibility of devices has transformed in recent years, driven in large part by Apple. Apple has led the way and shamed or energised others to follow. Disabled people are using their smartphones to aid mobility, manage their health, interact with colleagues, friends and society, play an active part in commerce and also have a lot of fun. The accessibility of the Mac and I-devices has ‘mainstreamed’ inclusion and, because of its influence on Android and other manufacturers, this has meant inclusion is now more affordable than ever before, and we have largely seen the end of expensive, specialist, devices.

“The accessibility of these devices has also impacted a second area, web and app accessibility. Apple’s developer tools have been designed so that you actually have to break accessibility in your app. So there are tens of thousands of apps to choose from that are now accessible – often replacing hard or impossible to use websites that haven’t been built with the benefit of such an environment. This has had a massive impact on choice for disabled people. As a blind person I would always first reach for an app which is a much more accessible, cleaner and more distilled user experience. Actually, I would first reach for Siri to see if the information or interaction I want can be done in a few seconds flat. If it works, this is a result. If it doesn’t, then I have only wasted seconds before firing up the app.

“Having said that, I actually use my phone considerably less since getting my smartwatch, which is like a quick window into my phone’s most commonly used features. It taps me on the wrist when I need to turn down the next street, it means I can pay for items without even taking my phone out of my pocket, and it lets me know how bad my night’s sleep has been – but behind the watch and all its services is always the phone.

“It is impossible to say which device or technology will have the biggest impact going forward, but undoubtedly at the heart of it will be the smartphone. It is almost impossible to underestimate the potential of the smartphone to transform the lives of disabled people. From hailing and interacting with an autonomous ride, to controlling your environment, to adjusting the settings on smart prosthetics, to interfacing with a world of information and services, the smartphone will carry on giving and enabling.”

- Is accessibility now more of a mainstream issue than it used to be?

“The concept of digital accessibility is now not only more mainstream an issue – it is, in fact, a purely mainstream issue. So, ‘accessibility’ (with its historical connotations of being solely for the disabled user, requiring extra budget and being a ‘bolt-on’ that may be dropped off) should probably now be replaced with the idea of ‘inclusive design’. Inclusive design is for every user and is factored in from the very start of any project, informing every decision along the way.”

- What can be done to improve the state of digital accessibility?

“The single most impactful development that will see a seismic shift is for the UK Government to actually enforce the law. This sounds odd, but I explained it in a recent open letter to the government (link to Robin’s letter: http://eab.li/23 ).

“To summarise, it’s been a legal requirement to have an accessible website since 2003 and yet we estimate that more than 90% of websites in the UK still don’t even meet ‘single-A’ standard [of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines], let alone ‘AA’, which is arguably the legal requirement.

“The trouble is that authorities don’t appear to feel that checking for compliance is their job. Instead it’s been left to individuals or those representing them, such as the RNIB, to help enforce the law. You can barely leave your car one minute over time without getting a parking ticket, but where are the government’s wardens of the internet? The law on accessibility matters too – arguably much more so for those disabled users directly impacted, and more widely for our digital economy.

“Why leave it to disabled individuals to enforce the law? That seems wrong to me. One reason is that for a long time, the UK Government probably felt that their own house wasn’t sufficiently in order. They were doing the equivalent of speeding or parking on double-yellow lines themselves. But now, the government portal, gov.uk, is pretty accessible and so I say that now is the time. Let’s get this initiative underway and get companies to sit up and take note.”

- What have been some of the most exciting projects you’ve worked on over the years?

“This is going to sound quite pedestrian in light of the amazing technologies available today, but I think that AbilityNet’s ongoing involvement in the accessibility of Microsoft products is something I’m most proud of. When I consider how many people we’ve potentially helped by assisting in the accessibility of Microsoft Windows and Office, etc, I’d have to say that this was some of our work that I am most proud of.”

- What has been your biggest achievement?

“I’d hope that my involvement with the UK Government Digital Strategy, and my blogs and public speaking, have impacted people’s lives for the better. I’m also very proud to have been a judge in the recent Global Mobile Awards in Barcelona, and to have received two recent awards: runner up in the 2015 UK Digital Leaders Awards (after Baroness Martha Lane Fox) and the special award at this year’s Tech4Good event.”

- How did it feel to receive the Tech4Good Award?

“It was amazing, although I was totally unprepared, unlike the winners of the other categories, who had been shortlisted in advance. I had just finished my on-stage presentation about the power of tech, and suddenly they were asking me to stay on the stage, and presenting me with an award. The Tech4Good Awards are for the best of the best – recognising people and products that are changing lives for the better – so to be part of that excellent process is truly humbling. I’m still getting over the shock!”

- You recently tested a driverless car. Tell us about that.

“I had a taste of potential future adventures behind the wheel when a colleague gave me the opportunity to ‘drive’ his Tesla [a company that makes self-driving cars]. Okay, so I wasn’t actually driving, but I sat in the driver’s seat with my feet off the pedals, while my colleague summoned the car into auto-drive mode.

“I could feel the wheel turning in my hands as the car smoothly moved out of the parking space, after being beckoned by a click of a button on the keys. If it were legal to use a fully autonomous car on UK highways, it would have been at this point that I drove off into the sunset. However, currently it’s only legal to do this off public roads, so instead, we reversed the process by pressing the auto-park button and I slid back into a parking space. For many people, that doesn’t sound like much of an earth-shattering experience, but growing up and knowing that my vision would get worse until I had none, I thought I’d never be able to drive. However, things are changing fast.

“Below is a link to my blind driving adventure captured on video, complete with my day-dream sequence inserted for good measure.”

(Link to a YouTube video of Robin driving: http://eab.li/28 ).

- What have been some of the most important developments in technology for blind and visually impaired people in recent years?

“The top three most significant developments for blind users are, in order: 1. The smartphone. 2. The smartphone. 3. The smartphone. If I had to give my top ten, I suspect that the other seven would be the same. To give the merest inkling of how broad the uses of the smartphone are for vision impaired users, take a brief look at the AppleVis site that catalogues hundreds of people’s favourite accessible iOS apps, both mainstream and specialist.” (link to AppleVis site: http://eab.li/22 ).

- Are there any accessibility developments that you’re excited about for the coming years?

“One area that is seeing significant growth is wearables and the ‘quantified self’. This basically means that gadgets which monitor your steps, exercise and heart rate are encouraging a healthier lifestyle and gathering vast amounts of data which can assist on a personal diagnosis level and also on the level of ‘big data’. Apple is leading the way in these areas; the Apple Watch, for example, is totally accessible and can monitor a wide range of activities.

“As a blind person I can use the stair-stepper workout to go up and down the stairs at home (who needs a gym?) and all my calories burned and hear trate activity are measured. This data can provide valuable information for monitoring individual health, but Apple also has a much broader programme (called ‘Research Kit’) that is taking anonymised, aggregated data and making it available to medical research projects on a scale never available before.

“Another area that has huge potential is the connected home, also known as the ‘Internet of Things’ or IOT. We’re all familiar with devices like heating thermostats being controlled via an app or smartwatch, but what isn’t often appreciated is that those apps are often more accessible than the device’s own interface.

“Now imagine if your cooker could talk to you via an app and tell you when it had reached the correct temperature. It might help a blind person like myself be a better cook. Imagine if your doorbell had a webcam with face-recognition technology – how helpful would that be for someone with dementia who lives alone? What about a medicine dispenser that tells you if you’ve forgotten to take your tablets or can inform the doctor if you need a fresh prescription? Many of these technologies already exist.

“For disabled and older people, wearable technologies and smarter homes will undoubtedly deliver greater choice, control, peace of mind and independence. While it is impossible to say which device or technology will have the biggest impact going forward, at the heart of it will undoubtedly remain the smartphone.”

Follow Robin Christopherson on Twitter using @usa2day (link to Robin’s Twitter page: http://eab.li/25 ) or read more at AbilityNet’s website, at the following link: http://eab.li/24 .

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