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Technology and disabled entrepreneurship – Open for Business?

By Tristan Parker.

Few businesses in the modern world do not make use of digital technology. But how does this affect the half a million disabled people running their own businesses in the UK? This was the question posed earlier this month by the Information Technologists’ Company (ITC) as they debated the motion: “This House believes that it is harder for disabled entrepreneurs to compete in the fast-moving digital age.”

Speaking in support of the motion was Penny Melville-Brown, senior consultant at Disability Dynamics ( http://www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk/ ), an organisation offering equality training and consultancy. She argued that as well as poor access to technology, the technology itself was also holding back disabled people in business.

Citing a study from the Office for Disability Issues, Melville-Brown said internet use by disabled people is around 25% lower than the rest of the population. Additionally, she said, disabled people have generally lower skills than the rest of the population, with 50% of disabled people having no qualifications at all, meaning that IT skills will also be lower. “There is very little . . . accessible training and accessible learning around IT”, she said.

Data from the Office for National Statistics indicates that disabled people are more likely to be self-employed than non-disabled people, but this statistic reveals only half the picture, she said. Although starting one’s own business offers various benefits such as flexible and home working, and easier use of personal accessibility equipment, disabled people are often forced into this position because of difficulties in gaining or retaining employment in other areas, said Melville-Brown.

“Disabled people are really pushed towards self-employment because they still face such incredible discrimination when they’re trying to get jobs,” she said. It is often the case that they have no other option than to set up for themselves because they want to work”.

Even with some technology literacy, such as the ability to send emails, many people with disabilities remain unable to perform basic IT functions such as creating spreadsheets and downloading attachments, she said. This puts businesses run by disabled people at a huge disadvantage. Many businesses of today would struggle if they were forced to use paper invoices for all work, or had PowerPoint taken away from them, said Melville-Brown – problems which apply to many disabled business owners. “There is absolutely no question that technology at the moment has very little concept of accessibility and actually puts disabled entrepreneurs like me at a significant disadvantage”.

Opposing the motion was Andrew Thomson, Director of Sign-now.com ( http://sign-now.com/ ), a web-based translation service enabling easier communication between deaf and hearing people. Technology can be of huge benefit to disabled people in business, and is often unfairly labelled as prohibitive to employment, Thomson said.

“As a disabled person, the reason I’m against [the motion] is technology actually cannot speak for itself”, he said. “Technology is created by man, and you can change it to meet your needs. Technology doesn’t stop disabled people gaining employment, I think it’s attitude that stops employment – society’s attitude.”

Any technology must suit the needs of the user for its potential to be fully exploited, and different assistive technologies will be appropriate for different people, Thomson said. “Technology has to meet your needs individually. For example, the cochlear implant [providing a sense of sound to some deaf people] – that’s technology, it’s fantastic. It meets the needs of mainstream society and it’s appropriate for people who acquired speech and English as their first language. But for me, I actually sign through videophones and interact with other deaf people.”

Overall, new technologies have enhanced quality of life for people with disabilities and have “given us access to the mainstream world”, said Thomson. “It is a powerful tool and we should embrace it, not criticise it.”

Ben Fletcher, a consultant at IBM, agreed, saying that given the choice between living as a deaf person 20 years ago and living in the present, he would choose the present: “20 years ago there wasn’t email, there wasn’t Facebook – access at that time for me as a deaf person would have been much harder. I would have been at home unable to engage. Now I can contact clients directly and make social contact.”

However, Fletcher also agreed with Melville-Brown that barriers remained: “We need to campaign to try and change technology at the same time as we’re using it and see how it can help us achieve what it is we want to achieve.”

Gary Macfarlane, founder of BlueBadge Finder ( http://www.bluebadgefinder.com/ ), a service allowing people to find nearby disabled parking and other services via their mobile device, said the technology industry needs help to improve. “We have to try and assist the industry”, said Macfarlane. “It’s not always their fault. They don’t know why, how, or what equipment disabled people are using, and I think sometimes the disabled community can give feedback to make them more aware.”

Nick Goss, managing director of Goss Consultancy ( http://www.gossconsultancy.co.uk/ ), said a lack of knowledge about what kinds of accessible technology were being used was a further barrier for disabled people in business. “How do we know how many disabled people are using IT, how do we know what needs and support disabled people may need when it comes to providing accessible IT?”, he said.  What was needed, said Goss, was “credible data” about what kinds of IT disabled people are using and how they are using it.

Goss also highlighted another major obstacle for many disabled entrepreneurs – funding. Acquiring funding was seen as a barrier to running a successful business, including the government’s Access to Work scheme ( http://bit.ly/3cUeb2 ), which many criticise for being difficult to negotiate, he said.

Speaking from the floor, one delegate said Access to Work was fine in itself, but was insufficiently publicised. “[The cost of accessible technology] is high, but the government is quite generous with its Access to Work funding, especially for entrepreneurs. But that’s a best-kept secret by the government. They never publicise it”, he said.

Kevin Carey, Chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, said disabled people had “benefited absolutely” from information technology, but had also been “disadvantaged comparatively”, since despite individual successes, the gap between disabled and non-disabled people was increasing.

“If disabled people are going to hope to be entrepreneurs in a competitive global market,” said Carey, “we have to be much more careful about what markets we want to put these people into, instead of thinking there’s some sort of global technology solution that would work for everybody if only the prejudice would go away and the engineers could do their job.”

So, after all the opinions had been advanced and exposed to heated discussion, what was the outcome? A vote among all those present revealed that technology was seen overall as more of a help than a hindrance, albeit narrowly, with the motion being defeated by 28 votes to 23.

Even most of those who had supported this position, however, agreed that further improvements can and should be made. A key message to emerge was that although there is much accessible technology available, most of it is created on a ‘specialist’ basis, suggesting the industry still refuses to accept the premise that accessible technology can be beneficial to all users, not just those with disabilities. The debate continues.

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