Truly inclusive technology

As the population continues to age, the issue of inclusion is set to rise up the IT department's already busy agenda

According to the Office for National Statistics' Labour Force Survey 2005, while 9 percent of UK adults aged between 16 and 24 are currently covered by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), this figure increases to 44 percent in the 50 to retirement age category. The report also indicates that some 6.8 million disabled people or 19 percent of the working population are of working age, although today only about 50 percent are in employment.

Bill Fine, principal consultant at AbilityNet, a charity that provides a range of services to help disabled people exploit computers and the internet more effectively, believes that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

"We think of the issue as a disability triangle with three sections. The point at the top covers severe impairment. There are relatively few people in there, but it's extremely important and has a disproportionate effect on organisations' image and morale. So if you get it right, the company will have a good image. If you get it wrong, you're in the newspapers," he explains.

The middle segment includes people not protected under the DDA, but who suffer pain and discomfort due to conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or repetitive strain injury, says Fine. It also incorporates those with particular conditions such as red and green colour blindness. "This can be very limiting and threatens over time to become more so," he says.

The final section of the triangle, meanwhile relates to the healthy majority, but this is not to say that their potential future requirements should not be considered. "If people are doing more than they're able to give, they might be fine today, but it's like crossing the road without looking. You're safe until a car hits you, and that applies to things like banging away at a typewriter for too long," warns Fine.

This all means that inclusion is an issue IT managers need increasingly to be aware of, not least for risk management purposes. In legal terms, the key legislation in this area to date comprises the DDA, which was passed in 1995 and requires organisations to make "reasonable adjustments" to accommodate the needs of people covered by it.

In 2005, however, the Act was updated to include the Discrimination and Equality Duty (DED), which becomes active in December 2006. Although it applies only to public authorities, the DED makes it their duty to be proactive and anticipate the requirements of people with special needs, which includes delivering accessible IT systems.

But dealing with this situation is not as tricky as IT managers might think. One tactic is simply to factor accessibility requirements into the procurement process from the outset.

Fine explains that when inviting tenders for IT systems, it is possible to make it "a requirement on suppliers to demonstrate how they're going to meet the requirements of the DDA. It's called Paragraph 23B and can be inserted by purchasers of IT systems to make it clear that accessibility is mandatory and, if it's not included, you won't even read their bid".

Accessibility features include ensuring the system can be accessed by means other than a mouse, that it can be understood by a screen-reader, and that it includes magnification software.

But other simple, everyday tools can make the lives of people with special needs easier - it simply requires a bit of lateral thinking. Providing tools such as instant messaging or collaboration software to staff with hearing impairments means they can use the telephone less. Devices such as BlackBerrys can also help hearing-impaired staff communicate more effectively using email, particularly when out of the office.

"One of our engineers, who is deaf, fixes power issues in telephone exchanges," Adam Oliver, head of research for age, disability and corporate social responsibility at BT Research, explains. "However, because engineers don't have keys to all the exchanges, sometimes it's necessary to phone ahead to get access. But he couldn't do it because of his hearing impairment and so we gave him a BlackBerry. This meant that he could send an SMS from his phone to organise the visit, which has made it much easier to communicate."

Useful tools for employees with vision impairments, meanwhile, include the Jaws screen-reader; BT's Text facility, which reads out SMS messages sent from mobile phones to landlines; and the Browsealoud text-to-speech software for web and intranet sites.

Other devices starting to appear on the market, however, include Braille-based PDAs and BT's broadband-based videophone, which not only has a larger audio range than a traditional telephone, but can also be employed by personnel wishing to use sign language.

The telco is also developing a digitally amplified phone, which has a hearing-aid chip built in, and a natural audio conferencing device, which is runs on voice over IP. Oliver explains: "It places each person on a conference call in a different place so you can move them around if you want them in front of you, behind, to the side, or whatever. It's useful for people with sight loss and hearing loss, because sometimes not being able to hear is about clarity, and separating people out makes it easier."

Both products are expected to arrive on the market within the next couple of years. But the Government's Access to Work scheme means that purchasing such offerings is subsidised and so has less impact on the IT budget. Under the terms of the initiative, employers pay £300 towards any support considered necessary as well as 20 percent of the balance over £300, while the Government pays the rest.

But whether or not employees qualify for such aid, the issue of social inclusion is not going to go away. "Accessibility is not just about a few people that have got an obvious disability. It affects everybody, including a huge number of people who experience discomfort, which limits what they can do. But in order to get the most out of their staff, it is crucial for organisations to understand that computers take second place to their requirements," says Oliver.

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