Access all areas

The government and groups rep­resent­ing disabled employees are making­ renewed efforts to persuade CIOs to commission websites and in-house systems that can be accessed by people who have difficulty using off-the-peg technology.

Organisations that use IT are among the targets of a series of initiatives aimed at making digital systems more inclusive.

There are eight million disabled people in the UK, according to charity the Shaw Trust, many of whom cannot read documents, surf the web, make a phone call or use a keyboard without adjusting their systems or plugging in assistive software and hardware.

Disability takes many forms and covers a wide range of impairments. Some people have sensory disabilities covering difficulties with sight, hearing and speech. Others are physically disabled and have problems with mobility.

A large group suffers from cognitive impairments that include dyslexia and learning difficulties. And there are those who struggle with the debilitating effects of diseases such as depression, arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

In many offices there is another increas­ingly vocal group of people who experience discomfort using IT — those who suffer from repetitive strain injury (RSI), as a result of excessive use of a mouse or keyboard or from sitting incorrectly at a desk.

Despite legislation such as the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) which requires organisations to make their IT accessible, up to 96 per cent of websites do not meet minimum accessibility standards, according to accessibility charity AbilityNet­.

The DDA specifically requires firms to make reasonable adjustments to their sites to accommodate disabled people and yet not one case has come to court in the UK.

The impact of not being able to access electronic content is highlighted by blind historian Paul Jarman who complained on an academic forum that his screen reader software cannot read out the digitised images of books that are increasingly only available to him online and electronically.

“Visually-impaired academics are many times worse off than they were 10 years ago,” he says. “And the major­ digitisation projects of the future – such as the British Library’s project to digitise all British newspapers — are slowly ensuring that the final nails are being hammered into the coffin.”

Campaigners argue that organisations that fail to make their IT accessible are not only cutting themselves off from a valuable pool of potential customers and employees, but are also failing in their social and legal responsibilities.

Accessibility, they say, is good for every­one, not just disabled people, because the discipline it enforces makes content and systems simpler and easier to use. In any case the numbers of disabled people is ­going up as the online population ages.

So what is the problem? Awareness is one hold-up. Those who buy IT don’t know that they should be asking for accessibility. “Those responsible for procurement I have spoken to are unaware of the accessibility features that have been developed by companies such as Microsoft, IBM and Apple,” says Maryrose Brennan of the Employers’ Forum on Disability.

The Employers’ Forum, which runs the Business Taskforce for Accessible Technology on behalf of its 400 company members, is preparing guidelines for procurement managers that will help them specify accessible IT and ensure that suppliers have provided what their customers asked for.

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