Research by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology highlights how technology can remove barriers to employment for disabled people, writes Geena Vabulas, Policy Manager for Assistive and Accessible Technology at Policy Connect.

When you read, ‘technology for disabled people’, what springs to mind? Robotic arms? Stair-climbing wheelchairs? The reality of how technology is helping (and harming) disabled people in 2022 is far more widespread and powerful than these headline-grabbing examples - and this is particularly true when it comes to the workplace.

The power of assistive and accessible technologies (ATech) in employment

The following examples demonstrate the huge potential of ATech to remove barriers for disabled people in the workplace:

Samira is an unemployed computer science graduate who has a visual impairment. She uses screen reading technology on her laptop to navigate job sites and decide where she would like to apply.

Julia is an experienced accountant who was recently in a car accident and injured her neck and wrist. She is struggling with mobility and pain issues - typing is particularly difficult. Julia starts using a speech-to-text feature to avoid typing while her wrist heals.

Alex is dyslexic and an electrical engineering apprentice. He needs to complete short forms when he’s out at job sites, so he uses a free app on his mobile to have text read aloud to him and occasionally check his spellings.

What does digital inclusion really mean when it comes to disability?

Unfortunately, the reality is that many people are prevented from being digitally included in the workplace. Let’s look at those examples again:

Samira found a job that looks like a perfect fit using her screen reader. She follows a link from the job site to the employer’s application portal. When she tries to complete the online form, however, she cannot because it has not been made compatible for screen readers. She starts the search over again. The employer misses out on a fantastic candidate. Later, the employer says they would love to have more disabled staff but that disabled people never apply.

Following her car accident, Julia explains to her manager that she is finding traveling into work every day painful and tiring and she feels self-conscious dictating her work in the open plan office. She requests remote working but is told that company policy requires everyone to work in the office. She is signed off work and eventually leaves her position.

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The good news is that ATech can be a powerful tool for inclusion - and not just for people who identify as disabled. Let’s return to Alex:

Alex’s friend, Myles, is also on the apprenticeship course. Myles doesn’t really like reading or writing but was never diagnosed with any specific difficulties. As part of induction, the lecturer shows all the students some free ATech options available on their devices.

Myles tries the same mobile app as Alex to support his reading and later shows it to his mum when she’s filling out forms at the GP. Both of them find it helps with their understanding and makes paperwork easier.

So, how do we make the workplaces of today and tomorrow digitally inclusive for all?

The challenges of digital inclusion are significant - not least because ‘disability’ covers such a broad range of experiences and impairments, just as ‘digital’ encompasses a vast range of technologies.

Government is starting to take the lead on these issues, with ATech featuring throughout the National Disability Strategy, including a proposal for a National Assistive and Accessible Technology Centre. But, we shouldn’t just leave it to government - there’s so much we can all do to push for inclusion:

Employers

  • Ensure recruitment and internal systems are digitally accessible - stipulate this during procurement processes.
  • Embrace inclusive digital practices as standard, such as highlighting free accessibility features and offering remote working to all, regardless of ‘disclosure’.
  • Join the government’s Disability Confident scheme, to access lots of free resources, including information about funding ATech and other disability support through Access to Work.

Tech developers

  • Adopt inclusive by design - work to build technologies that are accessible from the beginning and don’t need add-ons.
  • Ensure co-production with disabled people - this is key to developing truly accessible tech.

Individuals

  • Learn more by reading the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s Talent and Technology report.
  • Listen to disabled technology experts via social media, including Scope’s The Big Hack and AbilityNet.
  • Remember that almost 20% of the working age population of the UK is disabled; many people have hidden or invisible disabilities - you never know who might be facing a digital barrier.

Together, we can build inclusion into the fabric of our working lives.

Digital Accessibility specialist group

BCS has a community of IT professionals and enthusiasts who are passionate about digital accessibility. Awareness and understanding of digital accessibility issues among IT professionals is key to ensuring that everyone, regardless of physical or mental disabilities, can access the IT services that are becoming central to an individual's life.

More about the Digital Accessibility specialist group