In recent years, the technology industry has been experiencing a shift towards inclusivity. This spans demographic buckets such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. One significant stride towards inclusivity in the tech workplace has been placing value on hiring people with disabilities. More consciously inclusive hiring practices can be tied to a richer workplace culture, as well as greater accessibility in product creation or development. By considering the end user, companies can be assured that they’re developing technologies that account for a broad spectrum of differing abilities.
Assistive technology is an overarching term that refers to adaptive or rehabilitative devices designed to aid people with disabilities in accomplishing tasks, and enhance their quality of life. It has become a way for individuals seeking equality in the workplace to level the playing field.
“Technology is so vital for everyone but for disabled people, it's a gateway to a relatively normal life,” Owen McGirr said during an interview about his app developed to help disabled people speak.
Thinking of the End User
“It is absolutely vital and important to have people with disabilities in your company. When you have people with disabilities on your team, testing what you’re building, they help find the gaps,” said Jennifer Zhang, accessibility program manager at Microsoft.
Inclusion for tech companies can bridge the gap between end users and creators. Currently, companies may not realize the barriers that their products have until after they are released.
Examples include websites not compatible with screen readers, training videos without captions, or audio descriptions and electronic documents whose images do not have alternative text.
"There's no better way to make sure your products are inclusive for truly everyone than having people creating, writing the code, or designing it that have disabilities. By including them in the fabric of the company, you will make sure your products when they go to market are truly inclusive for everyone," said Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring at Microsoft.
Some real-world examples of companies utilizing the end user or people with disabilities include:
- Matt King helped Facebook launch its automatic alternative text initiative. This system uses artificial intelligence to describe photos for people who are visually impaired.
- Carolyn Pioro worked with Tecla, a company that creates assistive technology for people with physical disabilities, to make smartphones more accessible. With her help, Tecla has been able to create devices that help their end users: people with upper mobility impairment, including Carolyn herself.
- Owen McGirr created his own app to help disabled people speak. As an end user, Owen knew what he wanted in the SayIt! app: a way to speak to people. Other apps were either too expensive or poorly designed. His app can even recognize abbreviated words.
By hiring and retaining individuals with disabilities, companies can gain a competitive edge over other companies. Not only do they gain the benefit of individuals who have the talent, skills and creative solutions for solving problems they face every day, but companies can also increase profits through technologies that are highly marketable, widely relevant and useful.
Small Steps to Take
Inclusion can begin in smaller ways as well. Think about your next company event or conference. How accessible will it be for all individuals?
Will your venue include:
- Step free access from streets, parking lots and to the stage
- Scattered reserved seats and areas for service dogs
- Preferred seating for people with vision impairment
Will your presentations have:
- Live speech to text transcriptions
- Videos with captions
- Slides that can be viewable by everyone
Think about your office space as well. Is it accessible to everyone?
Minute changes to an office environment can make more of a difference than you’d think. These could include widening a cubicle entrance by removing a panel, or including a larger monitor for visually impaired individuals. Check door handles by trying to open them with a closed fist.
Larger steps include investments in multi-sensory safety alarms and smart technologies. These can include screen readers and devices to assist people with mobility impairment issues. Assistive technology for people with disabilities helps them execute not only wheelchair functions but connects them to mainstream technology.
When we think of mobile technologies in terms of their impact on society, we think of the possibilities they have to simplify our lives. However, we don’t consider the barriers they present to people with mobility and motor impairments. Millions of people with severe mobility impairments are unable to access such devices and cannot take advantage of the benefits that are available to their peers. Komodo OpenLab is the creator of Tecla, a series of assistive devices that allow people with physical disabilities to access mobile technology through the adaptive switches they already use.
The latest iteration, tecla-e, enables control of multiple Bluetooth devices, is compatible with smart home technology, and provides caregivers with tools to monitor a user. Access to off-the-shelf devices, including iOS and Android-powered phones and tablets, computers, and Internet-enabled appliances promotes a more sustainable development of inclusion than segregated products and services that only serve people with disabilities. With increased independence, users can live enriched lives where gaining access to the digital world opens new opportunities and fosters the dignity that comes with inclusion.
The technology industry is under a transformation to include all end users in the development process. By including all individuals, companies gain valuable resources and the ability to help a larger market sector.
This article was written by Sara Carter. She is the Co-Founder of Enlightened-Digital, an online technology magazine. An avid programmer, she's passionate about technology's potential to level the playing field for all, and positively impact a variety of industries.
If you’re interested in learning more, email our team of assistive technology experts at firstname.lastname@example.org to assess your needs and help you decide if Tecla’s switch interfaces are right for you.