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Organisation in the Spotlight – The Employers’ Forum on Disability: Blue Chip Access

By Dan Jellinek and James Scott.

The creation of the Employers’ Forum on Disability (EFD) Business Taskforce on Accessible Technology (see News, this issue) is a sign that the UK’s and the world’s largest companies and organisations are beginning to take accessibility seriously.

The taskforce aims to help global ICT suppliers and regulators understand what organisations need from IT products and standards if they are to employ and do business with disabled people.

So what kind of body is the EFD?

The forum claims to be the largest and most active organisation of its kind in the world. It has campaigned since 1991 for more accessible and inclusive workplaces, collaborating with disabled people, government and businesses to help make it easier for firms to employ disabled people and serve disabled customers.

It has published numerous guidelines advising its members on how to improve provisions for the disabled, on topics such as employment, customer care, IT, e-commerce, e-recruitment, the built environment, product development, corporate responsibility, procurement, health and safety, occupational health, marketing and communications.

Among its highest profile projects is the Disability Standard, which the EFD claims is the only management tool available that allows organisations to accurately measure their performance on disability, including access to IT. In 2007, some 116 UK and global private and public sector employers used the standard.

The forum also sponsors the Great Place to Work Institute’s Disability Excellence Award, which has been won three times in a row by the investment bank Lehman Brothers. The bank’s exemplary measures include some innovation with technology such as an intranet sites for disabled employees and a scheme whereby hearing-impaired employees are given a Blackberry portable email device to carry at work, which is activated via pre-set alert information in case of emergency evacuation from a lift or building.

The EFD says it has been promoting the benefits of accessible IT in several ways for many years prior to the establishment of its new taskforce, including the publication of a practical guide to accessible web design and the delivery of accessibility training events. Despite these services, however, the body acknowledges that poor practice does continue among UK businesses.

“Poor practice relating to access to technology has been well publicised, such as the 2004 Disability Rights Commission report on Access and Inclusion for Disabled People,” EFD spokesperson Liz Nightingale told E-Access Bulletin. “Since this report was published a number of organisations including EFD members like Legal and General and Lloyds TSB, have been working hard to demonstrate best practice around accessible IT.”

Despite the progress, the forum knows there is still plenty of work to be done if it is to achieve its ultimate stated goal of completely outlawing discrimination in the workplace. Nevertheless, its founder and chief executive Susan Scott-Parker is determined that this objective will be achieved.

Scott-Parker, a Canadian who has lived in Britain for 25 years, established the forum in 1991. Since then it has grown rapidly to its current size of 400 members including 120 global companies, which between them employ eight million people, or some 20 per cent of the UK’s workforce. Members include Barclays, whose group CEO John Varley is current EFD president; and Royal Mail Group, whose CEO Adam Crozier is chair. And the forum’s prestigious ‘President’s group’ read like a who’s who of British business, from Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy to BT’s chief Ben Verwaayen. The purpose of such a senior grouping is to signal to colleagues, customers, and government that disability is a strategic business and societal priority, the forum says.

Scott-Parker has also been involved in many international projects in the disability arena including helping the International Labour Organisation ILO establish the Sri Lankan employers’ network on disability and pioneering the world’s first leadership program for people with disabilities, in partnership with consultants The Coverdale Organisation. In 2000 she was honoured with an OBE.

It is a sign of how seriously the forum now takes accessibility therefore that Scott-Parker has stepped forward to chair the new taskforce herself.

“The taskforce is a continuation of our work around accessible IT and our long-term goal is to develop guidance to help our members confidently measure and improve the accessibility of internal systems and external services,” says Liz Nightingale. “We are also pleased to be represented on IST/45, the British Standards Institution committee responsible for creating BS8878, the first British standard on web accessibility. This is due to be published in the first quarter of 2009.

“One of the biggest objectives for the taskforce this year is to engage with key players in the IT industry and we are delighted that representatives from some of these organisations are meeting with taskforce members in the middle of June to informally discuss the business case for disability. We see this as the beginning of a very exciting and meaningful collaboration which will result in barrier free IT for all employees”.

Ultimately, the goal of all the forum’s work could be summed up by a phrase which appears in its citation to the three-time winner of its disability excellence awards, Lehman Brothers – ‘disability confidence’.

“We are looking for an approach to disability that is above and beyond legal compliance,” says Rhiannon Suter, research and innovations manager at EFD. “We are looking for ‘disability confidence,’ meaning that the company understands the benefits and has the flexibility to remove barriers for groups of disabled people, but also make adjustments that enable individuals to contribute.”

If the new taskforce can achieve this for the use of technology in the workplace and its development for the consumer, all its goals will have been achieved.


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