6 things we learned about accessibility at TechShare Pro 2019

TechShare Pro is the UK's leading accessibility and inclusive design conference, and this year's event was over two days, giving even more opportunities for connecting, sharing and learning.

Detailed below are 6 things we learned about accessibility at TechShare Pro 2019. Join our mailing list to be kept up-to-date with more of the latest news from TechShare Pro 2019

Group shot of attendees at the end of TechShare Pro 2019, standing together on stage smiling at the camera

1. How to motivate 145,000 ‘nerds’ to care about accessibility

How does Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer encourage the company’s staff to care about accessibility? “When I’ve got 145,000 nerds to motivate here at Microsoft, there’s no bigger motivator than innovation,” Jenny Lay-Flurrie told the Accessibility Leadership session at TechSharePro 2019 last week.

“We’re all a little bit magpie-ish. For non-Brits, that means we like bright, shiny objects. Whether that’s what we build ourselves, like Seeing AI or the Xbox Adaptive Controller or (innovations with partners). As an example of such innovation, she quickly added: "In fact, an exciting thing is that we’re announcing today some new hardware through an amazing partner Logitech (find the Logitech story here).

“They have actually built some gorgeous boxes of switches and all manner of brilliant stuff that’s going to empower folks using the adaptive controller (i.e. gamers with physical disabilities) to figure out how best to make that work for them."

Addressing the audience at Google's London headquarters in St Pancras via video presentation, she said: "How can you innovate and take the bar higher every single time? And that’s really the goal."

The captioned livestream of this session is below:


2. Accessibility leaders were wannabe historians, vets and racing car drivers

Many of the expert accessibility leaders at TechSharePro, the likes of Apple, Google and Barclays, never dreamed of working in accessibility. 

Christopher Patnoe, Head of Accessibility Programmes at Google, told delegates in the leadership session at TechShare Pro that he ended up in his role because he ‘screwed up’. “You learn by your mistakes; I got ‘button-holed’,” he says. “I was the lead TPM (Technical Programme Manager) on Google Play Music at the time before Google had made a commitment towards accessibility.

“One of our test engineers came into our meeting and she turned on VoiceOver and I heard ‘button, button, button, button’ (this is faulty labelling of page elements which means blind website users will be unable to use/understand/enjoy a web page or parts of it). I said, ‘What’s that?’ and she replied ‘This is Play music (the Google music app) for someone who’s blind’. I said ‘Well that’s stupid. How do they use it?’ to which she responded ‘That’s why I’m here’. That really affected me, I’d been in the industry for almost 20 years at the time… and I’d never heard the word accessibility.” 

Accessibility leadership panelists on stage at TechShare Pro 2019This started Patnoe’s journey into becoming an accessibility specialist. For Sarah Herrlinger, Director of Global Accessibility at Apple, the interest came alive when she worked with children with special educational needs while in Apple’s education division. “I started going to schools and talking to teachers and kids and quickly realised that it was the most important work I was going to do. This led to going back to product marketing to be Product Manager for everything we make, and from there going into the role I’m in right now, which is more about holistic accessibility across everything Apple does." 

Did they ever think they’d end up working in accessibility? No. “I wanted to be a historian, and then a singer,” says Patnoe. Herrlinger says she always wanted to do a job which helped people. “I wanted to be a vet or something like that.”

For Paul Smyth, Head of Digital Accessibility at Barclays, a racing car driver was top of the list before he became an Accountant. As someone who is visually impaired, he started noticing ways that business could change to become more accessible to himself and others and kept progressing to his current role.  

3. We’re on the cusp of an era of ‘universal design’

Panelists on stage at TechShare Pro, giving a global perspective on accessibilityIn Norway, where businesses can be fined up to 15,000 euros a day for not meeting accessibility requirements, accessibility is not referred to as accessibility. Instead, it's referred to as ‘universal design’, Malin Rygg, head of authority for universal design of ICT in Norway - Difi, told delegates at TechSharePro 2019.

We at AbilityNet often talk about accessibility as simply designing better tech and digital service for everyone. Now, a European Standard has been launched with such design in mind and the concept is gaining pace. The Standard is officially titled EN 17161:2019 ‘Design for All - Accessibility following a Design for All approach in products, goods and services - Extending the range of users’.

“It’s like a management ISO, said Alejandro Moledo, policy coordinator at the European Disability Forum speaking at the conference. There are requirements for entities which are public or private to ensure they have a design for all approach. It states that they need to have leadership, staff training on accessibility and knowledge of different accessible requirements with the aim of addressing all users.”

Speaking on the first day of the two day conference in the session - Carrots v Sticks: A Global Perspective, Moledo also said that the upcoming European Accessibility Directive should encourage a universal design approach among businesses. He said the threat of losing business for those that didn’t practice universal design was huge. “We are talking about a market of 500 million people. If you don’t live up (to being accessible), the market authorities will be able to stop you selling your product.”

The captioned livestream of this session is below:


4. A wave of Freedom of Information requests is testing Public sector bodies and universities on accessibility

By September 2020, UK public sector websites are expected to comply with legal accessibility requirements (some are already required to do so). In the HE and public sector session at TechsharePro, we learned from George Rhodes, accessibility consultant at the home office, that the sector is already being questioned about its commitment to inclusive digital design for disabled people.  

Rhodes said: “I’ve already seen an increase in the number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests emerging. I’ve been keeping an eye on the FOIs coming out and there’ve been many. Public sector bodies have started receiving questions about how they are moving towards becoming accessible,” he said. Anyone is entitled to submit a FOI request to a public sector body.

Find a captioned video of this session below:


5. Tech giants are gamifying accessibility for staff with challenges and rewards

First of all, don’t ask managers to nominate staff for your Accessibility Champions Network, advised Emanuela Gorla of Barclays in the session on Accessibility Champions at TechShare Pro '19. That doesn’t work. “People need to have a personal interest,” she said.  

The 'Building an Accessibility Champions network' panelists at TechShare ProGoogle’s solution has been to turn accessibility practice into something staff can eventually earn an equivalent version of martial arts style ‘black belts’ for. They go through a series of five belts, ie levels of progression on accessibility. This does seem to work, said Chris Patnoe, head of accessibility programmes for the company. He also advocated lots of praise, recognition and freebies. 

The companies speaking in this session run internal Accessibility Champions Networks which often consist of hundreds of staff.

Michael Vermeersch, chair of the Accessibility Employee Resource Group at Microsoft, announced that the tech company would be launching something similar to Google. He said there would be accessibility badges for staff with four basic levels to work through and the potential for more. Level one will be knowing basic methods of presenting and communicating in an inclusive way, level two is practical action around accessibility and encouraging others, three is knowing how to do accessibility within the job role and four is for those working fully in accessibility roles. 

Read our piece on the Accessibility Champions Network at the BBC to find out how such a network can operate.

Find the captioned livestream video of this session below:


6. What big companies think about AI, accessibility and ethics

To what extent are the big data sets which are being collected for AI and Machine Learning potentially invasive in disabled people’s lives? And to what extent are they helpful? Should there be more regulation around what companies do with such information? These were some of the many questions being pondered in a deep and varied discussion on Ethics, Machine Learning and Disabilities, at TechShare Pro 2019. 

One audience member asked whether machines should attempt to identify disabled people who are using assistive technology? Christopher Patnoe, head of accessibility programmes at Google said he could “See both sides” of the potential arguments for and against this.  

He explained: “If we were able to determine if someone had a need for assistive technology and one they don’t know about … it would be really helpful for us to disclose in real time - did you know that you could have a magnifier in your operating system? But we don’t want people to be sort of tracked and identified and create a situation where we’re targeting you because of a disability. So being able to understand what someone needs and doing that in a private way to allow them to learn more about the technology (could be a good thing). It gives an opportunity to have a better experience to use the technology that is useful. But you don’t want them to have a browser tag saying this is a person using a screenreader (ie categorising the person as disabled),” he suggested. 

The captioned livestream video of this session is below:

Further reading

Visit the TechShare Pro 2019 section of our website

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