As previously published on Stuff.com
December 3 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Brittany Keogh reports on how developments in technology are making the workplace – and our homes – more accessible and inclusive for all.
While many parents around the country nag their teenagers to switch off their gaming consoles, Wellington mum Vulori Daunibau smiles when she watches her 14-year-old son Sai play Xbox.
Video gaming has always been one of the sports-mad boy’s favourite hobbies, but, until recently, he hadn’t been able to play properly in five years.
In 2013, Sai lost his left arm above the elbow when he was hit by a bus and dragged 40m while on a family holiday in Fiji.
After the amputation he struggled to use a traditional video gaming controller because they’re usually designed to be held with two hands.
The launch two months ago of Xbox’s “adaptive” controller, which has two large domed buttons as well as many of the features of a standard controller, made gaming much easier for Sai, Daunibau says.
“It’s really boosted his confidence. It’s very accessible. It only took him a few hours to get into it.”
For the first time since his accident, Sai was able to play his favourite game, NBA2K18, as easily as his mates.
He was one of the first people in New Zealand to try the new technology, an opportunity for which his mum said the family was grateful.
“He feels he’s been recognised, even at that age with a disability.”
The adaptive controller is an example of “accessible” technology – “tools which aid independence, empower people to be quicker, faster” – Microsoft’s Jenny Lay-Flurrie says.
The product, including its packaging, which can be opened without scissors, was designed “for and with people with disabilities”. Microsoft worked with United States war veterans on the development.
Hiring people with a range of disabilities is part of the tech giant’s strategy to create better technology for all, Lay-Flurrie says.
“Some of the product teams here are constantly banging on my door asking me to go find talent who are deaf, talent who are blind. When I smile and I say, ‘why do you want that’, they say ‘well, because they think inclusively, they think accessibly’.”
Lay-Flurrie says audio books are an example of how digital technology designed for people with disabilities benefits everyone. They were designed for the blind but have become mainstreamed.
“That’s the potential of accessibility. Whether you have a disability or not, they may empower you in your life.”
On Monday, Microsoft is launching a product which Lay-Flurrie, who is deaf, hopes will give the deaf and hard of hearing community more independence – a “really high quality” captioning system embedded into programmes such as Skype and Powerpoint.
Lay-Flurrie has experienced the difference accessible technology can make to the daily lives of people with disabilities.
“I think any individual with a disability, myself included, you just want to get on with a job – whether that’s being a mum, going to meetings, getting kids to and from places, responding to mail,” she says.
“The job of accessibility is to make that easier, to reduce costs and barriers and just to empower people to be more productive, more engaged. Tech has a really, really important part to play in all of that.”
CCS Disability Action access manager Raewyn Hailes says the move to make society more inclusive of people with disabilities is about fairness.
“It is important to just validate people so that they are able to live in an ordinary way like the rest of us. So that they can have their own money to spend, be able to go to work and be in the space of other people, just feel like they’re contributing to the community.”
The self-described “gold card holder” says attitudes are changing along with technology.
“As a kid I didn’t really see children with impairments. People with impairments weren’t really visible. Today, there’s so many things that mean that people with impairments can be involved and just things that their peers do.”
Hailes credits young people for leading the way when it comes to accessibility.
“It’s a generation that’s grown up where there haven’t been barriers. It’s been more about ‘this is what we want so we’re going to do it’,” she says.
But inequity still exists. While some people with disabilities have access to tools and advocacy that can help them reach their full potential, “many, many people don’t have those skills or access to community who can support them with those skills,” Hailes says.
“They end up perhaps living in a more restricted way simply because they don’t know what they could be achieving.”
This is evidenced in New Zealand’s rates of unemployment and underemployment. In June last year, disabled people were twice as likely to be unemployed or underemployed as non-disabled people, according to Stats NZ.
Of those with disabilities who were employed, one in five wanted to work more hours.
Minnie Baragwanath, chief executive of Be Accessible, says these figures are unacceptable.
“If you think [about how] 25 per cent of the population has some kind of an impairment, what are we missing out on currently if we’re not inclusive?
“If someone hadn’t created the computer that allowed Stephen Hawking to speak, how would we ever have known what was in his amazing brain? By not making technology inclusive, it’s not just the person who misses out, we as society miss out.”
Baragwanath is legally blind and says if technology was not accessible she wouldn’t be able to do her job. She uses screen-reading software and magnification programmes when using a computer.
To ensure people with disabilities thrive at work, companies need to invest in the development of inclusive technologies, include people with access needs in the design process and make sure people can access the technology they need, as well as training and tech support.
“Employers who understand the value of employing someone with a disability or access need will as a matter of course make sure they have the technology they need to do their job as they would with any employee. But it’s not a given unfortunately that that happens.”
In an effort to change this, Be Accessible is working with Microsoft to create an innovation lab where they can show how organisations the latest accessible technologies and how they can be used, Baragwanath says.
“We recognise the value of having a business you can point to and say ‘now here’s an example of how easily you can kit out an office to be truly inclusive’. It’s not rocket science.”