Accessibility and the ‘New Normal’

Aaron Prior, Industry Executive for Central Government for Microsoft looks at how inclusion is crucial for ‘the New Normal’ on Global Accessibility Awareness Day #GAAD.

Looking Back……

When asked about my profound interest in Accessibility, I like to tell people that I was there at the very start-in a time when Accessibility wasn’t even a term and Inclusive working meant that the office had a wheelchair ramp.

It was the late 1990’s and I was working for a Central Government Department at the time and was a part of its fledgling IT Support Team. We had a single blind user within the Department, who had a number of hardware adaptations to his computer (proto- screen readers and braille keyboard) that frequently failed to cooperate each morning at bootup. And so started a regular morning routine of troubleshooting.

Because of my ‘interest in supporting disabled users’ (as my boss phrased it) I was given the opportunity to join the Disability Rights Commission as a ‘Technology Consultant’- the DRC were looking into how rights for Disabled people could be improved through a new piece of Legislation (what would become the Equality Act 2006). Our Leader, the great Sir Bert Massie, wanted to seize the opportunity to move from a world that saw disability as a separate ‘hurdle’ and instead look at it as basic human Equality.

My favourite quote from Sir Bert was: “Technology can liberate…. It can free the creative mind from the limitations of the body…. But without care it can also trap and isolate”

From Disability to Equality…..

The Equality Act (2006 & 2010) was a step forward- cementing concepts like ‘Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust’ and the subsequent ‘Public Sector Equality Duty’ made considering the Equality Impact on Disability of any internal or external change a mandatory. With the arrival of the ‘Public Sector Accessibility Regulations 2018’ we finally had legislation that called for Audits and Evidence of Public Sector compliance- something that the Equality Acts lacked. This in turn has caused Accessibility & WCAG2.1 compliance to form a part of Government Procurement Frameworks, further driving decision makers towards considering Accessibility at the start of any Business change.

2019 was going to be a year of Accessibility Focus across both Government and the Tech Sector….. sadly, a little issue called Brexit took away everyone’s attention.

Perhaps 2020 would be the year it all truly changed, and true Inclusion by Design would be born?

The COVID-19 Wrecking Ball…

Without a doubt, Covid-19 has had an unparalleled impact on Tech adoption: I hope you’ve all seen the Covid wrecking ball meme (if not, give it a quick Bing/Google). It has forced both Public and Private sector Organisations to lay down their long held fears around Security and Governance and jump head first into the cloud era- on the one hand I applaud this- it must be great news for all? My worry is that in the rush towards this online collaborative nirvana, those process and considerations we spent years fighting to have in the Equality Acts could easily be forgotten and brushed aside, with a promise to ‘review it all when the situation calms down’. We mustn’t step backwards…. We mustn’t lose all we have gained over 20 years.

The New Normal & Final Thoughts

My plea to you dear reader is this: when thinking about ‘the New Normal’ make sure Inclusion is right up there at the start- for both your staff and your customers. Even if you work in the Private Sector, try using the ‘Equality Impact Assessment’ framework (used by the Public Sector) to map out how your new way of working will impact your staff and customers. Lets use this situation as a springboard to go even further.

 

Aaron Prior is an Industry Executive for Central Government for Microsoft. Before that he spent 25 years in the Public Sector across a number of Departments, in both Central and Local Government. For all of that time he has had a strong a focus on Accessibility which extends beyond work, and often lectures on Accessibility, Inclusion and Neuro Diversity at local institutions. Aaron also sit on techUK’s Accessible Tech Group.