Disability and technology: an upside for everyone!


At the Digital Enterprise Show (DES) in Madrid on May 26 we assembled a group of presenters to look into the issue of technology and disability. I have been looking at the subject for the last 3 years through reports working with Telefonica. In the reports I sized the disability market and began the process of mapping the technology space to this hitherto hidden market. The reason it had been hidden is that technology was very specific to each disability and was very expensive. The main change that has propelled the topic into mainstream discussion is the smartphone. It acts as a commoditised hub for bringing accessibility to many disabled people. Add to this the emergence of wearables, sensors and the Internet of Things (IOT) and we have the beginnings of a mainstream approach to making accessibility for many disabled categories an issue for all industry players and indeed for everyone in business and society. The fact that such a session appeared at a major enterprise-focused event such as DES is a good indication of the topic going mainstream.

The numbers are compelling: there are roughly a billion people in the world with different sorts of disabilities. Analysis in the initial report shows the largest category being hearing impaired, followed by those impaired visually, cognitively and physically in that order. The absolute numbers are not the issue; we now have a possibility of helping a large proportion of these people. And, don’t forget, the able-bodied also have a need on a temporary or situational basis to use some of this highly accessible services – for example when driving or recovering from a temporary injury.

During the panel I outlined some of these key themes from my previous research and then asked Vodafone, Atos and Telefonica to present their high-level thoughts.

The Vodafone Foundation from Spain showed how they are using mobile technology and cloud platforms to deliver services to the elderly and disabled to get people better connected. Enhanced interfaces are being developed to allow even those with just head movement to interact with the digital world.

Atos gave examples of how they have been working since 1998 to build accessibility and inclusivity into programme frameworks. Their experience shows how difficult this has been in areas like education but how it is gradually emerging from under the Corporate Social Responsibility shadow to be considered in a more mainstream light. More recent examples in areas like e-health show how combining applications development with wearables and the technology surrounding people with disabilities can help educate individuals as well as improve services surrounding them.

Telefonica, the sponsor of my two initial reports, presented how the accessibility issue is coming out of the shadows of Corporate Social Responsibility and is entering the activities of the main Lines of Business (LOBs) of the telecoms service provider. E-health also figured in Telefonica’s initiatives both in Europe as well as in Latin America. The company is using its geographic reach and overall scale to help promote accessibility and inclusion. Telefonica also showed an app which it has developed in conjunction with the university of Madrid, to present an accessible television experience to the two million Spaniards who require some form of audio description, subtitling or sign language to enjoy television and cinema programmes.

The message is clear: place accessibility in the early components of applications and services design and build it into the development programme and it will contribute to a cleaner, simpler design with a simpler interface which everyone will find easier to use. If the needs of the different disabled groups are taken into account, then the mass market’s experience will also be better.

The need to raise awareness of the issue at every company, public sector organisation and even household is what we need to make a success of this and bring all disabled into the digital era from a personal and work perspective. Accessibility is not an issue to be isolated in the CSR parts of a business, but should be brought out into the LOBs and considered as part of every market offering. In addition, all of this technology is opening up employment opportunities for people who would have previously been excluded from the workforce.

Accessible technology will help everyone, so let’s encourage inclusive design and a more open attitude to let the world’s disabled billion benefit from the technology, employment and the benefits of the Digital environment in which we all live.

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