Accessibility takes centre stage at charity tech conference

Accessibility was put centre stage at the Charity Technology Conference. The Civil Society invited AbilityNet Accessibility and Usability Consultant, Adi Latif to close the CPD accredited conference in its 14th year. Adi wowed charities with his personal story and in explaining how bad design disables.

Showing a picture of a cute baby with his head superimposed, Adi shared how a teacher noticed he was having difficulties reading the board aged 7.

"One day as a seven-year-old kid in Glasgow, Scotland, I was sitting in class. The teacher asked me to come to the front. She could see I was struggling to see what she was writing on the board.

"As a result, they discovered that I have a genetic eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa, which would result in me becoming incurably blind.

For tips on how to adapt technology if you're visually-impaired visit My Computer My Way

"My life changed after that and I became very dependent on other people."

"At school, I'd have a teacher come in with me and take notes for me. People recording textbooks for me so I could listen to them. When I was doing exams, I would have to have people read the exam to me and I would dictate the answers to them, I still remember memorizing essays for English. 

"Weirdly enough, I still remember a quote from my essay 20 years ago. It read 'Notice Neptune, comma - because I had to tell them where to put the commas - taming a sea horse comma thought a rarity full-stop'. So it's pretty different in those days. You know, it's pretty challenging."

When he was younger, Adi's disability impacted daily life. 

"When we travelled as a family, I was pretty useless," he told the audience. "I couldn't read the maps.  We'd only go to Blackpool (we were a working-class family) - I couldn’t help out in any way. When my fellow friends would be working, doing part-time jobs such as a paper round, I felt really left out of something I can't do.

"Heck, I wasn't even able to read the magazines other teenage boys would be reading."

How society creates barriers, not the disability

However, Adi places responsibility for his sight loss with 'society' rather than the medical condition that caused his sight loss. 

"There are two ways to look at disability," he explained. "The medical model states that you're disabled because a certain part of you doesn't work like the general population. So according to the medical module, I'm disabled. I'm not able to do things because my eyes don't work as well as your eyes.

Read AbilityNet's list of useful apps for students with sight loss 

"The social model states that a person is disabled due to the environment they live in. In the 90s and before when people were blind, they lacked a lot of independence. But now a lot of that independence is possible. Thanks to technology. Someone blind or disabled can become an accountant, a high court judge, director, or work at a call Centre; be a lecturer or be a student."

"Someone blind or disabled can become an accountant, a high court judge, director, or work at a call Centre; be a lecturer or be a student."

Providing independence through technology

Technology, says Adi, has provided "newfound independence" for himself and other disabled people.

"It doesn't depend on any medical breakthrough, you know, to make the blind see. Potentially it can give equal access to the same information as my sighted counterparts. Technology has prevailed where medicine you can say it's failed for me."

"Through the use of a screen reader, I can have software read from the screen to me. I can read a web page or I can read a book faster than someone sighted. I can have books in an electronic format and they don't need to be recorded for me like I did when I was at school. I can work on spreadsheets and I can create PowerPoint presentations. I can use a Mac laptop; I can use a PC.

Read AbilityNet's introduction to screen readers

"When driving, now I am the designated navigator. I tell people when to turn left and right. I may not be able to read the departure board boards and a change station, but I've got apps that will tell me what platform a train is leaving from. I can even flag a cab now virtually of course by using things like Uber".

Mobile technology enables disabled people

Adi also spoke as to how "The mobile phone opens up a brilliant new world for me, never seen before."

"On my mobile phone. I can turn on the screen reader and I can explore the screen by moving my finger over the screen and the information is read out to me. If you own an Apple or an Android phone, you have a built-in screen reader you just need to know how to turn it on – or, more importantly, to know how to turn it off.

And yet, bad design means some apps and websites don't work as they should do for disabled people.

"I'm thrown quite literally in the dark when it comes to websites or mobile apps that are not designed accessibly. My independence is stripped away and I have to forego buying something or accessing a service or rely on the helpfulness and generosity of other people."

"The bad digital design prevents me from using the technology that's enabled my independence. So in a way, I am made disabled once again, as I was when I was a teenager. You see, it's not a person's impairment that makes that person disabled is the barriers placed by society and it's the person's needs not being met."

Demonstrating how easy it is to make someone disabled, Adi showed a slide written in Klingon (the fictional language from Star Trek). He also showed an advertisement without audio narration turned on and with no visuals.

All the audience could hear was a musical score and there was no way of following a narrative. Next, we closed our eyes and listened to the audio description. 

Where apps are well-designed, Adi can read a website - he says - faster than a sighted person, demonstrating how he uses VoiceOver to navigate the web.

"People with disabilities end up becoming great problem solvers and great at challenging conventions because the world isn't really designed to meet their needs as well as benefits to being blind."

"There are some embarrassing moments, too," Adi added. "I once went to a bar on my own and I had my cane, my white stick, it was folded up and I was just sitting there minding my own business. And a woman comes up to me and she says, are you blind? I was thinking, it's not really a conversation starter. 

"I said, what makes you ask that question? She's like, well, you're either blind or you've been staring at my chest for the last 10 minutes."

Useful apps for blind people

There is a range of apps that can help people who are blind. "There’s an app called Seeing AI designed by Microsoft, and it uses artificial intelligence to describe the world around you. So it reads texts to me and can describe people to me and can read currency, it's really, really powerful.

"Another app called Be My Eyes, it crowdsources eyes. So as a blind person, I can press the button on Be My Eyes to connect to someone and they can help you if you drop something in the floor or if you're lost in a park and you can get over like I was a couple of weeks ago, they can, they can be your eyes.

Read more about Be My Eyes an AbilityNet Tech4Good Winner in 2018

The benefits of accessible design

Designing for disabled people has a number of benefits, not only for those who use accessible apps and websites.

"Currently, it is estimated that around 20% of the population has some form of disability and it's growing. So, it’s the biggest minority group in the world. It’s a sustainability issue. If we don't design inclusive solutions, we're preventing people from being independent longer, and then we were kind of helping our future selves.

"If you haven't actively asked the question, can someone disabled use our product. Then you can definitely be sure that you've built barriers affecting the reach of your product and limiting the return on investment of your product. The spending power of disabled people and their families is, is over 249 billion pounds a year just in the UK."

"And research shows that if you make your product some more useful to people who are disabled, then you're making it more usable to everyone else."

Not making your technology accessible also means you are in violation of the Equality Act 2010.

"You're discriminating against someone who's disabled. It's a violation of their human rights, and this obviously can lead to bad publicity and associated legal costs. In the US, lawsuits have gone up over 200% in the last year, and they're going up in the UK," said Adi.

"However, the number one benefit. For making your product accessible is that it’s a great source of innovation. You’ve heard the saying necessity is the mother of all innovation, and disabled people provide great design challenges.

"You know, a lot of things we take for granted now, such as text messaging, predictive text, um, even the voice for Alexa…I was at a talk today by Robin Spinks (RNIB) and he was saying that Amazon, the speech that they use for Alexa, was developed for people who are blind."

So, in summary, the digital world is inherently barrier-free. There is such a promise of equality like never seen before. However, if inclusivity is not considered in the design of your services and products than in digital solutions are going to be filled with biases and barriers preventing disabled people from using them.

How AbilityNet can help 

AbilityNet has a range of products and services that can help you make tech more accessible including consultancy, design reviews, auditing and user testing. 

AbilityNet provides a range of free services to help disabled people and older people.

Call our free Helpline. Our friendly, knowledgeable staff will discuss any kind of computer problem and do their best to come up with a solution. We’re open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm on 0800 269 545.

Arrange a home visit. We have a network of AbilityNet ITCanHelp volunteers who can help if you have technical issues with your computer systems. They can come to your home, or help you over the phone.

We have a range of factsheets which talk in detail about technology that might help you, which can be downloaded for free. You may find our factsheets talking about voice recognition and keyboard alternatives useful.

My Computer My Way. A free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones.