Accessibility on the agenda

DDA legislation has been in place for over a decade now and whilst we are well aware of its requirements as far as physical access to buildings is concerned, we may be less alert to its applications in other areas of the workplace. How do we ensure that our workplace systems are accessible to all employees?

Build in Accessibility
There is one simple answer to this multi-faceted question and that is: “Make sure that accessibility is on the agenda at the beginning, in other words, build it in!” Easily said, but difficult to achieve in a frenetic corporate environment where money is time, budgets are stretched and awareness is low.
    
Whilst HR, Health and Safety and Occupational Health professionals may have some level of understanding of the issues concerned, knowledge of what accessibility actually means in practice is still hard to come by amongst those responsible for procurement in many organisations. A lack of ‘joined up’ thinking can have a profound impact on staff wellbeing and productivity, as well as restricting compliance with legislation like the DDA and DSE regulations.
    
We are all aware that employers have been obliged to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to avoid discriminating against disabled employees since the adoption of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1999. Since 2006 however, additional legislation in the form of the Disability Equality Duty (DED) has been framed specifically to cover public sector organisations including hospitals, local and central government, schools and colleges. This amplifies the original wording of the Act to actively promote disability equality as employers as well as service providers.
    
This is a proactive and dynamic process that requires organisations to incorporate their duty of care into everything that they do, by embracing an inclusive approach rather than ‘retro-fitting’ by making adjustments at the end.
    
The architects of the DED hoped that it would bring about a shift from a legal framework in which change relies on individual disabled people (whether customers or employees) complaining about discrimination, to one in which the public sector itself becomes an agent of change.
    
There are over 9.8 million disabled people in the UK and a growing representation of older employees in the workforce for whom associated conditions such as failing eyesight and dexterity problems like arthritis may occur. Incidence of disability increases with age – whilst 9 per cent of adults aged 16-24 are disabled, this increases to about 44 per cent in the 50 to retirement age category and over 40 per cent of the English population are now over 45, the age at which the incidence of disability begins to increase.

A highly flexible tool
The computer is a highly flexible tool and although everyone cannot use the standard keyboard, screen and mouse set-up with ease, there are many simple adaptations and modifications that can improve access for the many ‘non-standard’ end-users amongst us.
    
A Health and Safety Executive report suggests that Upper Limb Disorder or ‘RSI’ is the most common cause of workplace health problems, totalling in excess of 4.2 million working days lost a year and affecting over half a million employees. A further survey reveals that one in five PC users report some degree of pain or discomfort attributable to a non-keyboard input device – i.e. a mouse.
    
This figure rises steeply depending on the level and intensity of PC-based work in which the individual engages. In fact, a recent study estimates that over half of us could benefit from the use of accessible technology to improve our comfort and/or efficiency due to physical or vision difficulties which have a negative effect on our use of ICT.
    
The moral, legislative and financial arguments for factoring in accessibility are indeed compelling, but how can they be achieved?

What is reasonable?

A reasonable interpretation of DDA compliance in the context of IT is to ask: “Does the system allow the needs of the user to be catered for through reasonable adjustment?”
    
Procurement of a system or application that does not support reasonable adjustment will be no defence in court or at a tribunal, and importantly may well involve you in making expensive alternative adjustments. Remember that ‘retro-fitting’ accessibility is a lot more costly than remembering its importance at the beginning and making it a cornerstone of your ICT purchasing criteria.

‘Locked-down’ systems

Systems and networks may be ‘locked-down’ – this means that they offer a standard desktop to all users whether or not they wish to modify their computer (there are for example many useful features available for free within Windows to change the appearance of the screen or the reaction of the keyboard and mouse). New drivers and/or software may be required to enable a member of staff to use their recommended adaptive solution – an impossible feat if security protocols have imposed a technological ‘lock-out’.
    
This makes ‘reasonable adjustment’ in the terms of the DDA virtually unattainable from an ICT perspective. Even if such solutions – voice recognition, screen readers, magnifiers etc can be installed – you may find that your provider will levy an extra charge for amendments to the desktop that vary from the ‘vanilla state’ and these additional charges will need to be factored into the purchasing decision.
    
Adaptive software can be resource hungry – to support individual needs you will need to plan for sufficient memory and processor speed, video cards and sound cards. If the system is networked with minimal local storage capacity, you will want to make sure that it can cater for the most common adaptive technologies (ATs). Organisations like AbilityNet provide a technical testing service and will create a matrix encapsulating which ATs are compatible with which systems.
    
When a new third party solution is installed, the end user should still be able to customise the computer to meet their needs. These changes may include mouse, keyboard or display settings or the use of keyboard shortcuts instead of a mouse. If your cutting edge call-management system, accounting system or customer management system prohibits these changes being made, you are not providing for your employees needs. In addition, if staff are ‘hot-desking’ or you are providing public access, you need to ensure that such settings can be stored as a user profile and accessed at log on for immediate effect.

Changing needs
The individual user will know his or her needs better than any IT department or support service. Needs may change over time however, especially with work-related conditions such as eyestrain or ‘RSI’. Many employees may have the requisite knowledge and understanding to make their own adjustments independently either to the system itself (increasing font size for example) or to the kit they are using (exchanging a mouse for a trackball perhaps).
    
If your organisation dictates that all such desktop changes are driven centrally, they will inevitably be accompanied by a waiting period during which due diligence is paid to procedure and health and safety issues etc. During this time the employee concerned may well experience discomfort at their workstation and frustration at not being able to complete tasks effectively. It is arguable in fact whether given such a situation, that ‘reasonable adjustment’ is being properly observed at all.

How can you tell?
Most suppliers will tell you that their solutions will support disabled people. The question is to what extent and at what cost? Ultimately, how accessible is accessible?
    
To elicit a reasoned response it is important to ask the potential suppliers to answer a checklist detailing the ‘reasonable adjustments’ that can be made. A simple range of tests can check important factors such as responsiveness to keyboard shortcuts, reflection of display settings or in checking that the navigation layout of an application makes sense when accessed ‘mouse free”. Call on advice to help you draw up such a checklist, with examples of what evidence to seek for proof.

Follow a clear process
As with all procurement you need to lay out a clear and simple pathway to get the information you require. A good process would involve the following steps:

  1. Identify your high level questions
  2. Communicate the weighting given to access to vendors
  3. Decide which guidelines you will assess the product against
  4. Apply the guidelines in the form of a checklist 
  5. Seek further clarification for any checkpoints for which insufficient evidence is provided.

Where to find help
Along with other experts, AbilityNet provides a range of support services to help procurement professionals through this complex process including:

  • Training on Accessibility, the Law and Best Practice
  • Online Resources including eLearning (www.abilitynettraining.org)
  • Testing – reviewing shortlists of potential vendors
  • Consultancy – Creating criteria and outlining an evidence base

For more information
If you would like any further details or discussion of any of these issues contact us at www.abilitynet.org.uk or e-mail david.banes@abilitynet.org.uk or john.liddle@abilitynet.org.uk

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