Sunday, July 3, 2016

The future of accessibility - through the lens of technology, policy and economics

Public Procurement Directive, Web Accessibility Directive, European Accessibility Act… in the context of these regulations coming into force, under revision or being discussed, Microsoft’s event on “The future of accessibility - through the lens of technology, policy and economics” brought together in a timely manner an interesting group of stakeholders.

Keynote speaker Mark Pollock set the stage. He told his personal story from loosing his sight at 22 to loosing the ability to walk years later. Mark found comfort in technology that helped him overcome certain barriers and gave him back a semblance of normalcy - at least in certain situations. Following speakers in the panel agreed with Mark that one of the biggest advantages of accessible or assistive technologies is to “feel slightly normal again” and that technologies such as Microsoft’s 3D Soundscape can help filling gaps “which I did not know I have”. Microsoft’s 3D Soundscape is a technology that helps blind users to more independently, liberating movement, and facilitating “normal” street experience. Kirstie from Guide Dogs UK shared her experience with this technology and how it helped her gain back some independence and freedom. 

While technology can liberate, legal and policy aspects play into ensuring these technologies are available to all users that need them. The European Commission explained their motivation for proposing a European Accessibility Act, underlining that the market development in ICT over the past 20 years has failed to create a truly harmonised and interoperable offer in accessible and assistive devices. And Prof. Anne Lawson from the University of Leeds expanded on the role of legislation and policies moving accessibility forward. Equality laws have been successful in some countries to push the accessibility agenda, but she sees the greatest potential in governments using their research and innovation agendas to push for accessibility. 

Robin Spinks from RNIB put the question out there: why is existing legislation not enforced? If you race down the highway, you get a ticket right away, but if you infringe on accessibility obligations, there are no consequences. One possible answer: the governments do not have their own house in order (meaning they are not very good in applying accessibility rules themselves, starting with making their websites and apps accessible….), so they are reluctant to police accessibility implementation in general. 

Geoff Adams-Spink, former BBC Age & Disability Correspondent, and moderator of the panel discussions, challenged the innovators panel to speculate on what the future will hold for accessibility. The panel members came from a background of touch based and eye controlled computers solutions for special education (Tobii), dyslexia screening (Optolexia), ICT consulting (Softjam) and the Internet of Things (Univera Sade). As varied as their background were their answers: speculations ranged from wearables to cloud computing, passing by sensors and the Internet of Things. 

While the innovators panel was convinced that the time has come for accessibility to go mainstream - with or without regulation - some pointed out that there still is the misconception that accessibility is only to be done for compliance reasons, that there is no room for creativity. But in reality, many of the features initially developed to help persons with disabilities, have become popular features for everyone: voice recognition, image recognition, zoom, predictive text… the list goes on. Also, people with disabilities often have a novel way of working around obstacles and to harvest this intelligence and translate it into new products, people with disabilities must be included in product conception and design from the very beginning. Treating accessibility as on add-on is expensive and counterproductive. 

Before concluding the event, Geoff Adams-Spink challenged his last round of panelists with the question of how to best pitch accessibility to policy makers. Shaheen Parks, analyst at Forrester, answered that beyond the profit and tapping into the market power of the disabled community, accessible solutions are proven to help in productivity and optimisation. Dr. Cara Antoine from Shell, would say that accessibility is simply the right thing to do - out of respect for the people. Robin Spinks from RNIB, would take several disabled friends along and invite the policy maker to use Robin’s computer to book him a flight - with screen magnification on and no way to switch it off. Then he would invite him together with his friends to a bar and to ponder about life. Robin Christopherson from AbilityNet would ask the policy maker to use his phone out in the bright sunlight and see how well he’d be able to handle that. 

Some good ideas we can all try out next time we come to explain to policy makers why accessibility counts. 

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