How accessible technology can help in our rapidly changing world

Posted on: May 20, 2020 by Neil Milliken

As the current COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated remote working for millions of people globally, communications platforms play a crucial role in enabling organizations to adjust and cope with new social distancing requirements. Remote and flexible working has tremendous potential to open-up employment opportunities for people with disabilities if delivered accessibly whilst at the same time businesses can learn from disabled employees about how to balance complex priorities whilst remaining effective and working from home.

Benefits and potential barriers for people with access needs

As new ways of working are being rapidly adopted as a result of the current crisis there are both benefits and potential barriers for employees and customers with access needs.

People who have been used to constant social interaction in the office are now effectively disabled from carrying out their normal mode of operating at work. Indeed, the changed focus and pivot to video calling has highlighted how important it is to communicate effectively through multiple channels. It has also brought home the impact of isolation on mental health, something that many people with disabilities and health conditions have experienced for years: many of us have developed coping mechanisms and virtual support networks and businesses can build upon this experience.

Public safety is also an issue as Urgent and Important communications that affect the health and wellbeing of citizens and employees are often not reaching some of the most at risk individuals because of poor accessibility. We have seen how inconsistent the use of captions and sign-language has been on state TV broadcasts; but thinking of colleagues we need to apply accessibility to our own remote working practices: Do video conferences have captions turned on? Are we doing the simple things like ensuring that communications are available through multiple channels and in different formats? Are we asking if people prefer video on or off? Whilst many people crave video, a good number of people with Neurodiverse conditions find having to maintain eye contact very difficult.

For many years the disability community has been advocating for more flexible working arrangements and the current crisis now presents both an opportunity to do things differently but also comes with its own set of challenges. Already we are seeing “zoom fatigue” as people struggle to understand the social cues that they would normally pick up during physical face-to-face meetings; and this may be particularly difficult for people with cognitive disabilities. Online meetings where everyone is talking at once can be particularly challenging for deaf or hard of hearing people and implementing captions is one way to ensure inclusion. Another stressor is the rapid transition to new tools and the learning of new interfaces which can be particularly painful if you are having to use assistive technologies.

Learning from the disability community and leveraging assistive technologies to help us adjust to our new reality

For example, noise cancelling headphones for so long the favorites of the frequent flyer and Neurodiverse community are now virtually a necessity when working from a crowded home.

Assistive technology has always enabled people to adapt and achieve things through alternative methods and interfaces and so knowledge of accessibility and interoperability will prove to be useful to businesses looking to adapt. As we are exiting the immediate confines of lockdown society, we won't go back to the old normality, so we can look to assistive technologies and the disability community's propensity to innovate to help organizations and society at large adjust to our new reality.

As we try to reduce the amount of physical contact in public spaces, I predict that self-opening doors, speech and gesture driven interfaces, biometrics and mid-air haptics can all play a role in reducing potential viral transmission through reducing the requirement for physical touch. This will be particularly important in frontline services and healthcare – the virus can potentially stay alive on surfaces for several days and in high traffic areas of buildings the ability to enter data, control devices and machinery reduces the risk of infection.

Everything has changed in the last few months, even how we are celebrating Global Accessibility Awareness Day this year has been impacted by COVID19: we are not hosting any in-person events and have moved 100% online. That is why our key theme for GAAD this year is “Inclusive Communications in Uncertain Times” because now more than ever access to information is vitally important.

Stay safe and think inclusive!

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About Neil Milliken
Head of Accessibility & Digital Inclusion and member of the Scientific Community
Neil Milliken is VP - Global Head of Accessibility & Digital Inclusionat Atos, member of the Atos Scientific Community & Atos Distinguished Expert. Neil is a leading strategist and community builder with over two decades of experience within the Accessibility and Assistive Technology fields and served as invited expert for the W3C Cognitive Accessibility Taskforce Neil is a member of the Board of Directors for World Institute on Disability, Non Exec Chair of the Board at Genius Within, member of the advisory board of the Valuable500 & Served as Chair of the Diversity Board for Institute of Coding. He is co-founder of AXSChat Europe’s largest twitter chat with a focus on Accessibility & Inclusion. Neil is dyslexic and has ADHD, he advocates for people with neurodivergent conditions as well as other disabilities and additional needs.

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