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Interview – Susan Scott-Parker OBE: Fighting Talk From Taskforce Commander

by Dan Jellinek.

The inaccessibility of job advertising websites to people with disabilities is an “emerging scandal,” delegates heard earlier this month at the e-Inclusion Ministerial Conference hosted in Vienna by the European Commission.

The source of this stinging rebuke was Susan Scott-Parker OBE, founder and chief executive of the Employers’ Forum on Disability (http://www.efd.org.uk/). In a world where, increasingly, employers are choosing to advertise positions solely online, inaccessible recruitment sites pose a “huge problem” to jobseekers with disabilities, Scott-Parker said.

“We see inaccessible psychometric tests, application forms that don’t work if you have dyslexia. If you put a sign up saying no disabled people need apply, people would get cross. But thousands of jobs are like that. Surely if an employer chooses not to allow a disabled person to apply online, this is an employment rights issue?”

Combative words, but from a surprising source perhaps? After all the EFD, which Scott-Parker founded in 1991, is funded by and serves the very companies she appeared to be excoriating. Its 400 current members between them employ eight million people, or some 20 per cent of the UK’s workforce, including many global players such as Barclays, whose group CEO John Varley is current EFD president.

Speaking to E-Access Bulletin a short while after delivering her Vienna speech, however, Scott-Parker said it was in her members’ interests to realise the scale of this problem and take corrective action.

“We’d like to tip off members that there might be legal challenges,” she said. “It is best practice, if millions of people are not being excluded. Firms need to require people like online psychometric testers to prove they are accessible before they use them, particularly where they insist people can only apply for jobs online, which is increasingly the case, even for jobs that don’t require computer literacy.”

Companies need to ensure they provide alternative routes to job application that are taken as seriously as applications received online, Scott-Parker said. It was no good providing alternatives if applications received via those routes are perceived as second-class, she said.

Use of inaccessible recruitment sites were not the only corporate IT failures to come under fire from Scott-Parker in Vienna. Another was a failure by some organisations to make proper and timely adjustments to internal IT systems for employees with disabilities or who became disabled through the process of ageing or accidents.

This represented a costly waste of resources: “All the investment in the individual fails if employers choose not to make adjustments, and the employee moves onto benefits instead of remaining at work,” Scott-Parker said.

A third key issue was a failure by employers and the IT industry to train IT staffing accessibility issues and the use of assistive technology, she said. “People shouldn’t be accredited: how can you be accredited as an IT professional if you can’t adapt a system so everyone can use it? And if you’ve got assistive technology but the IT department doesn’t know about it, there is no point.”

Training costs could be controlled by building it into the existing regular retraining programmes undergone by programmer and technicians, Scott-Parker said.

“In each course they do, there needs to be something about adapting for the human. I don’t think it would cost much for Microsoft to put on [their training] curriculum how their technology could be adapted so everybody could use it.

“We’ll never crack this if the IT profession don’t know how to use accessible technology. All we’ll do is have better and better kit that just sits there.”

Technology companies have a double responsibility, to be suppliers of accessible technology and to be accessible employers, Scott-Parker said. And in today’s tight financial climate, an integrated approach to accessibility could give ICT suppliers a competitive edge, she said. “I would like to see the ICT industry itself an exemplar of employing disabled people. The timing is now right, because the more disabled people you employ inside an IT giant, the better understanding you have of the needs of a client such as Lloyds TSB, which employs hundreds of disabled people.”

Although the EFD works across all aspects of employment, IT accessibility has been placed among its top priorities recently, with the creation of a Business Taskforce on Accessible Technology (see E-Access Bulletin, issue 102, June 2008: http://www.headstar.com/eablive/?p=193).

To date the taskforce has met three times, and is still building its membership, which stands at around 20 organisations including Accenture, GlaxoSmithKline, HM Revenue and Customs, the BBC and Sainsbury’s Supermarkets.

The group is working with accessibility charity AbilityNet to collect examples of the benefits to business of an accessible approach, “We are trying to produce a compelling rationale for businesses,” Scott-Parker said.

Also in the pipeline, though still in its infancy, is a paper-based audit tool allowing major organisations to check where they are on a scale of 1-5 in terms of their current ICT accessibility practices.

“It will be a maturity model, from nowhere to excellent, looking at business processes and governance systems,” Scott-Parker said. “If an organisation is at level 1-2, they could face legal exposure. We would not expect anyone at level 5 yet: I would fall over.”

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