Accessibility an investment in innovation


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By Ron Hooton, CEO, Vision Australia

Vision Australia is a company serving pioneering services to Australian clients who are low in vision and blind. Headquartered in Australia, the company’s clinics are held in 29 other locations and provide outreach services to the Northern Territory and Tasmania.

There are two new priorities that CIOs must consider when making investment decisions.  Disruptive technologies are everywhere, but how many organisations really understand how to develop systems that are truly innovative and accessible to clients and employees who have a disability?

Firstly, let’s examine why it is crucial that IT systems need to be accessible to people with disabilities.

The numbers vary across the western world, but the reality is stark: the unemployment and underemployment rates for people with disabilities are much higher than for the general population.

In my area of focus, up to 60 per cent of people who are blind or have low vision are either unemployed or underemployed.  Employment rates for people with disabilities are low –less than 3 per cent in many workplaces.

These are shameful statistics and as a society we are the poorer for them. Ensuring that our physical and electronic infrastructure is fully accessible will help break down these barriers to employment – and open the way for all would-be consumers to buy your products and services.

We all understand accessible toilets and wheelchair ramps.  The need for accessible information systems is equally compelling.

Vision Australia has more than 100 staff who are blind or have low vision (15 per cent of our workforce).I can assure you that accessible systems allow our vision impaired employees to be as productive as the fully sighted workforce.

Equal opportunity for employment is a fundamental human right. Yet too many organisations systematically deny employment opportunities to people with disabilities by investing in technologies that are inaccessible.

So what can be done?  

Vision Australia’s enterprise architecture principles state that all our systems will be accessible for people who are blind or have low vision.  

By having this requirement we remove a barrier to employment. This requirement also sends a message to the vendor community to make their systems accessible.  

Change will only happen if enough customers make a stand. Only then will enough suppliers respond by making their systems accessible to all.

So here is the call to action: Do the decent thing, ensure your websites are fully accessible and only buy systems that are equally accessible.

Driving innovation in systems….

Procuring new business systems seems to be getting easier.  Products such as Salesforce come with seemingly infinite capability, limitless flexibility and seamless integration.

While limiting your selection to only accessible systems does reduce choice, any additional cost is worth it not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it will broaden your potential staff and customer pool.

What’s more, organisations should regularly ask themselves if they have the right people to take advantage of the immense capabilities of packaged systems. In a world where new competitors emerge rapidly, often with disruptive business models, no-one can rest easy.

Established businesses need to be as innovative as start-ups and this is likely to come from creative exploitation of information and communications technologies.

It seems doubtful that Uber sat down and thought let’s use a waterfall methodology to develop disruptive applications. It seems more plausible that a really creative person, thinking about disruptive technologies had a great idea.  From there, perhaps a lean start-up model was used to build a limited function application for real market testing, failure, learning, more market testing and so on.

So how does an established enterprise emulate our emerging competitors, match the creativity and innovation?  I don’t have a proven answer to this question, but I do know that it doesn’t lie in asking the same people who have done the job for years to design tomorrow’s system. But here are some principles I apply:

  1. Diversity of thinking.  For inspiration I often look to Blair and Liam, twin twenty-one year old digital natives who were early adopters of Xbox Live. From an early age, they collaborated with hundreds of thousands of other gamers to on Halo, not knowing who they were working with, rarely if ever working with the same team.  How many twenty-one year olds digital natives do you have in your team?
  2. Are clients and potential clients directly and influentially involved? Clients have a big role to play in the innovative design of public facing systems.
  3. Am I leaving the best to last, maybe? The ICT professionals. The mantra once was that ICT projects were business-led, IT delivered.  Not anymore! ICT professionals have a vital role to play, alongside their business colleagues, in describing the art of the possible.  

Whether you are in business, or like me, in the not for profit space, we all need to be inquisitive, creative and forward thinking in helping organisations imagine a different future.  It isn’t just about infrastructure anymore. What I am looking for is innovation from my people -the CIO and the ICT team.

There are plenty of competitors to CIOs at the “top table”.  Chief Marketing Officers, Chief Operating Officers and line of business executives increasingly have great knowledge of and vision for exploiting technology.  By driving innovation in systems development, and focusing attention on making systems accessible to everyone, irrespective of any disability they may have, CIOs can take the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in two areas vital to the future of modern businesses.


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