Perceiving the true potential of technology

Robin Christopherson, head of accessibility at AbilityNet, says he owes everything to the freedom technology has provided
Written by Cath Everett, Contributor

Robin Christopherson is head of accessibility services at AbilityNet, a charity that provides a range of services to help disabled people use computers and the internet more effectively. He manages a staff of seven accessibility and usability consultants, specialising in websites, out of a total organisational headcount of 50.

Christopherson has worked in this field since 1996 when he became an assessor, handling queries on all aspects of technology and disability for the Computability Centre, a charity born four years earlier out of IBM's special needs department.

The Centre provided information and advice services, focusing particularly on helping to restore the productivity of staff who had acquired disabilities in the workplace. It later merged with the Foundation for Communication for the Disabled, a charity offering systems integrator services for assistive technologies, to form AbilityNet in 1998.

Christopherson is well positioned to appreciate the challenges faced by disabled people on a day-to-day basis, as he has a degenerative eye condition that has left him blind. Nonetheless, he gained an engineering degree from Cambridge University in 1992 before training to be a secondary school maths teacher.

Although he enjoyed the role, his vision impairment meant classroom management became an issue so he left to attend a nine-week residential IT training course at the Royal National Institute for the Blind's (RNIB) Manor House school, which has now closed. The RNIB subsequently hired him as an IT instructor.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in IT?
Before IT came along, the number of career choices for those with no or limited vision was very limited. Some people went into physiotherapy, but as we become more sedentary, there's less demand for that. Others did basket-weaving, but baskets are now brought in from places like China. There was also piano-tuning, but people can buy gadgets to do it now, so that's out of the window, too.

But IT has meant that the choice of career for people with vision impairments has hugely increased. It's been a horizon-broadener, because people can now work in offices in front of computers and do the full range of things required of them. They just need the right education, training and systems technology and they're away.

On a personal level, if I'd come along 10 or 20 years before and there was no mature technology on the mainstream side, such as Windows or on the assistive side such as the Jaws screen-reader, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be in the job I'm in now. There are many potholes along the path, but I owe everything to IT. Without technology, I wouldn't have got into higher education and I wouldn't have been nearly as employable.

How easy is it for people with vision impairments generally to make a career in IT?
Around 73 percent of people with vision impairments are still out of work, so it's difficult even with all this technology and the possibilities it offers. We're still in a kind of chicken-and-egg situation because a lot of people can't position themselves properly to take advantage of it, even though they'd love nothing more than to work.

It's about the expectations that are around you, from the day you're born through to education, the misconception that work won't be possible through to people not having the funding and training to get to grips with the assistive technology they need.

But there is the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and there's also a new law, the Discrimination and Equality Duty [the DED is aimed at public authorities], coming into effect in December, which goes further than saying employers can't discriminate if someone has a disability. It means that they have to be proactive and anticipate, for example, the requirements of disabled staff when making a choice of internal IT system.

In the past, it was an ugly catch-22, so if someone with a vision impairment was the strongest candidate for the job but couldn't use a system — which is very, very common — the DDA said the employer only had to make adjustments if it's reasonable and, if it's not, they don't. So if it would cost £5m to adjust a system, they didn't have to employ a candidate. With the DED, however, employers have to be proactive so the next time they buy a new system, they have to anticipate that they might be employing disabled people and factor it into the procurement process.

What technologies are available to help people with disabilities do their jobs more effectively?
If employers are forced to choose accessible options or specify accessibility when building a system from scratch, the end-product will be the better for it. There'll be a lot of employees who can't use a mouse because of the discomfort it causes them, or people without 20:20 vision who may have left their glasses at home, or staff with dyslexia who will benefit from being able to change the colours on screen. So it will have a knock-on effect when HR is dealing with other people who have specific requirements.

But I, for example, use an ergonomic keyboard, because I'm a touch typist. I don't use a screen or a mouse because I can't see the pointer on the screen so I do everything from the keyboard and it's actually more efficient. Often one keystroke will be equivalent to two or three mouse moves.

I also use the Jaws screen-reading software, which costs about £650 through the Access to Work scheme, plus a scanner to scan in documents that are spoken back and a mobile phone with a screen reader. Most of the more powerful Nokia phones and some Siemens ones use the Symbian operating system, which throws in the Talks screen-reading software for free. Otherwise, it would cost £150, but you have to get the phone on contract. You can't use pay-as-you-go.

However, I also get so many hours a week paid towards an admin person for dealing with paper, and Access to Work will pay my travel costs if I have to drive anywhere, although I currently walk to work. But it isn't a completely pain-free process and there are issues with it. Everything used to be completely funded under the scheme, but now employers have to pay £300 as well as 20 percent of the balance over £300, and the Government will pay the rest.

What advice would you give to someone with a vision impairment wishing to pursue a career in IT?
My advice would be to seek expert advice at every stage. Seek expert advice from the RNIB or AbilityNet because there's an awful lot of help out there you can get. You have to be quite forceful and determined, but set your expectations quite high. The technology is mature now so it's quite a good time to be a strong candidate not just in IT, but in any sort of office job that involves using IT.

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