In this month’s Ascend Asks, Bert Floyd, Senior Manager, Assistive Technologies, TD, shares his insights on the future of assistive technologies and its impact on building inclusive workplaces.
By Carolyn Ayson
Senior Manager, Enterprise Project Delivery Excellence, TD Bank Group and AVP, Student Affairs, Ascend Canada
Inclusion is more than a commitment, it’s an action. And it begins with building equitable spaces in our workplace and communities. The emergence of assistive technology (AT) has significantly benefitted people of all abilities by improving capabilities, providing more opportunities to complete an education and participate in the workforce.
Assistive technology is any device, software, or equipment that helps people interact more successfully with their environment. Some examples of assistive technology are text-to-speech, screen magnifiers, ergonomic keyboards and mice, headsets or low-tech tools such as pencil grips.
According to the World Health Organization, 15% of the world’s population (an estimated 1.1 billion people) identify as having some form of disability. This represents the world’s largest minority, and the only minority group that any of us can become a member of at any time. In Canada, almost 22% of the population — aged 15 years and over are living with some form of disability that affects their level of freedom, independence or quality of life.
Given data on the disability community, it makes good business sense for companies to make their systems accessible to everyone. How can employers better support these efforts?
Bert: For starters, employers should be asking vendor-partners if their products and services meet accessibility standards. Accessibility requirements should be embedded into proposal requests and contract templates. When a software application or platform meets the accessibility requirements, individuals with disabilities will be able to use them and have the tools to be their most productive selves. By actively partnering with vendors who meet those standards, employers send a strong message of commitment to create a diverse and inclusive workplace.
Employers should also focus on providing accessible communications. It’s important that newsletters, presentation materials and other widely distributed communications meet the accessibility standards and can be fully understood by every employee. All of the MS office products include an accessibility checker that works just like a spell checker. It’s a great tool to create accessible documents that can be consumed by all.
When we look at employment numbers, Statistics Canada shows employment rates for working age adults to be 59% for persons with disabilities compared to 80% for persons without disabilities. What do you think employers can do to support hiring of more people with disabilities?
Bert: As part of the interview process, be prepared to offer accommodations to people who request it. Ensure you have this infrastructure in place so you can actively promote a culture of inclusion.
Great point. I can share one example. Years ago, I hired an individual with a disability. At the interview he was supported by a job coach and the job coach also supported him at work for the first two weeks. This was such a positive experience for the team. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us have shifted to working remotely. Considering these changes, what are some things we can do as allies to create a more inclusive environment for people with disabilities?
Bert: Always ask your audience if they need any accommodations, whether it’s online or in-person events, team meetings or socials. Asking in advance allows you to plan, make necessary arrangements and avoid any challenging situations to ensure that all your attendees feel engaged, comfortable and included. Apart from creating a more equitable environment, this sets a strong tone that it’s not only okay to ask for accommodations, it’s encouraged.
Looking ahead, what are some accessibility needs that we should be addressing? Are there any trends or upcoming innovations in the Assistive Tech space that excite you?
Bert: I believe the future of AT is integration. Microsoft, Google and Apple are embedding assistive technology into the computing devices we use every day. You are already carrying around some amazing assistive technology in your pocket. Magnifiers, speech-to-text, digital assistants, screen readers, high contrast modes and more. When mobile devices are combined with Artificial Intelligence and cloud computing, the possibilities are endless.
We have seen apps that don’t just convert spoken words to text, they can also describe the sounds, like birds chirping, someone chopping vegetables or alert someone to a siren approaching. Recently, a person who is blind was able to complete a 5km run independently with the help of a device that used a camera and audio output to keep them on the running path. What excites me a lot is augmented reality. Google is working on glasses that can project information onto the lenses that appears to the user on top of things they are viewing through the glasses. For example, if the AI recognizes a person, it can display their name above the individual. It could display information about the building you are looking at or navigation information. Instead of looking at a device for information, you will look through the device which combines the real world and digital information into the user’s visual stream.
With the scale of research and innovation happening right now, the future is going to be amazing for the disability community and everyone!