Digital accessibility is not a ‘nice to have’, says RNIB

Amplifying the voice of blind and partially sighted people is essential to putting their needs front and centre of innovative tech. AbilityNet talks to RNIB chair Eleanor Southwood in advance of her appearance at this year’s TechShare Pro

Community engagement is dear to the heart of RNIB Chair Eleanor Southwood.

Eleanor, who is also a local Councillor in Brent, North West London, has spent the majority of her career aiming to reform public services, and to take a leading role in that reform.

In her role at RNIB that means listening to the needs of those who are blind or partially sighted and making their voices louder.

“I think there is a tendency to privilege the professionally-interested,” says Eleanor. “We need to shift the culture to people with lived experiences of [being blind and partially sighted]. It’s a source of your legitimacy for challenging the rest of the world,” she adds.

Working in partnership with communities, and businesses

Part of RNIB’s mission is changing people’s perceptions as to what it’s like when “you’re out and about and you can’t see,” says Eleanor. “It’s an expectation of mine as chair, that every team within RNIB works with blind and partially-sighted people as part of their everyday.

Read how AbilityNet’s Tech4Good Awards helped grow the vision of Be My Eyes

“We want real-time experiential information about how people are experiencing the world and whether, and to what extent what we are doing is helping to make that easier [and] so we are engaging a lot through social media. We want to build a capability to be able to digitally take on board feedback much quicker and in real-time.”

A smarter future for all

RNIB has recently worked with Amazon on an advertising campaign that shows how technology can benefit people with sight loss. Eleanor describes devices such as Amazon’s smart speaker, Alexa as “the future”.

“Our [RNIB’s role] is working with companies at as great a scale as we can get, so ideally globally but certainly nationally to build in features at the start that will help make devices or particular tech more usable and ensuring that blind and partially-sighted people don’t miss out, and are not left behind in the development of that tech,” says Eleanor.

“We work collaboratively with many of the world’s leading tech and innovation brands including Google, Samsung, Amazon and Microsoft. Our goal is to bring about a society where inclusive design is fully embedded into product design, development and refresh cycles.

“We believe that hardware, software and services should be accessible to blind and partially sighted people on the same terms that it’s accessible to everyone else.

“Our recent collaborations with companies like Samsung and Lego demonstrate the potential for delivering not only an accessible product but a step change in the way that companies think about inclusion.”

Using tech to reduce social isolation

Potentially, the advent of smart speakers also helps to reduce social isolation. “It’s a way to connect; to navigate the world, and to navigate your way towards those human connections. Part of what RNIB is here to do, is to equip people with the confidence to use that tech; and to deliver the sense that it can be of use to them rather than a thing to be feared,” says Eleanor.

“With advances in tech comes an increased risk of digital exclusion as well and so it becomes more important than you can navigate the world we live in, rather than seeing the world of digital connection as somehow separate,” she adds.

Eleanor will be part of a panel discussion at this year’s TechShare pro discussing how to encourage business to ensure digital inclusion is a must-have for tech innovation.

Limited tickets are still available at https://abilitynet.org.uk/techsharepro2019