Accessibility professionals and assistive technology users have given the UK Government recommendations in an inquiry organised by the government’s Work and Pensions Select Committee.
The inquiry looked at how technology can help improve employment rates among those with disabilities, as part of the government’s response to a report on the disability employment gap.
During the inquiry, held at the House of Commons, assistive technology users were asked how technology supports them in the workplace, and two other ‘witnesses’ – Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion at technology charity AbilityNet, and Hector Minto, Senior Accessibility Evangelist at Microsoft – were called on to answer questions from a panel of MPs.
Christopherson talked about the usefulness of mainstream technology in providing assistive functions, explaining that mobile phone apps now allow him to do what used to require thousands of pounds’ of specialist assistive technology.
He told the Committee, “We have really moved away from the idea of ‘specialist’ being what disabled people need, to having to get the right advice, the right recommendations, to help people customise what they have on their desk in front of them or in their pocket”.
Responding to a question from Alex Burghart MP, on how government and employers can keep up-to-date with evolving assistive technologies, Minto said: “I don’t think you can claim to be disability confident, both in terms of accessing customers with disabilities or employing people with disabilities, if you don’t have basic technological experience.”
Minto also urged the need not to overlook users of older assistive technologies. He said: “There is a huge base of people using legacy software and legacy assistive technology. So, we must make sure we’re not saying, ‘Everyone move across to the built-in mainstream solutions’. People are still using JAWS, NVDA and Dragon Dictate, and our systems must still support those people rather than forcing them to use modern technology.”
In the first part of the inquiry, a cross-sector group of assistive technology users and trainers spoke about their experiences. Asked how she uses assistive technology in the workplace, senior civil servant Jo-Ann Moran said: “It is my equivalent of free access into a building … Effectively, assistive technology is my enabler to maintain full-time employment.”
However, Moran also said that assistive technology systems used in some parts of government are not reliable enough, explaining that this unreliability has held her back in her job: “My problem now is I will not go for promotion because of my IT. I am a top performer in my grade and I keep getting told, ‘Come on, go for it,’ but I cannot, because I am just not going to be reliable. If I go for a job working for a minister, a minister is not going to accommodate me when I say, ‘Sorry, my computer is not working today.’ That is where my barrier is at the moment.”
E-Access Bulletin asked Christopherson if the inquiry signalled a step forward for awareness of assistive technology. He said: “It is encouraging to see accessibility, assistive technology and the importance of digital inclusion being highlighted in this inquiry. For far too long (nearly two decades now) we have had legislation without action or impact. The result, we hope, will be more enforcement, more proactivity in applying adjustments to assist applicants and employees to perform at their best, and more business benefits for companies everywhere as they embrace inclusion and diversity in their products and processes.”
In a written response provided as part of the inquiry, AbilityNet CEO Nigel Lewis also explained the assistive benefits of mainstream technology, stressing the need for personalised recommendations in the workplace. Lewis wrote: “Giving disabled people access to the correct assistive technology means they will succeed in their role, which in turn raises awareness, challenges prejudices, promotes inclusion and encourages diversity in the workplace.”