Buying equipment for non-standard needs

However, accessibility extends far beyond mere physical access and ensuring that your ICT systems are inclusive is just as vital. Let’s find out why and look at the key role that effective procurement strategies can play in the accessibility equation.

Duty of care
The spirit of the law is much clearer than the detail. We have been required to make “reasonable adjustments” to avoid discriminating against disabled people since the inception of the current law in 1999. Since 2006 additional legislation in the form of the Disability Equality Duty (DED) has added to the critical mass of regulation in this context.
   
Framed specifically to cover public sector organisations, such as the health service, local government and education, the DED augments the original Act to actively promote disability equality. Thus public sector employers and service providers are asked to incorporate an inclusive approach into all their activities as a duty of care. In this way, the needs of disabled people are on the agenda from the beginning (i.e. at the procurement stage), and not factored in as an after thought or retro-fitted as so often has been the case historically.

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, retro-fitting accessibility is usually a lot more costly and sometimes just plain impossible. Make accessibility a cornerstone of your ICT purchasing criteria.

Build in accessibility
Building in accessibility sounds simple, but when procurement is outsourced to a third party, how can we be sure that the chosen service providers understand the needs of disabled users and staff and make the right recommendations on their behalf?
   
There are over 9.8 million disabled people in the UK and we have a growing representation of older employees in the workforce, for whom associated conditions such as failing eyesight and dexterity problems like arthritis may occur. We have an ageing population with over 40 per cent of the population over 45 – the age at which the incidence of disability begins to increase. 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.
   
In addition, the Health and Safety Executive reports that upper limb disorder (or repetitive strain injury) is responsible for over 4.2 million lost working days a year, affecting over half a million employees. A recent study also estimates that over half of us could benefit from adjusting our computer set-up to improve our comfort or efficiency due to physical or vision impairment impacting negatively on our PC use.

Establishing need

The individual user will know their own needs better than any IT department or support service. Needs may change over time, however, especially with degenerative conditions and as a result of the ageing process itself.
   
By carrying out a mini-audit of each new end-user, you can get some idea of what their requirements are. Perhaps a follow up questionnaire through appropriate channels (depending on who the end user groups are), will help to assess changing requirements and encourage more consultation to ensure computers are modified appropriate to need.
 
A flexible tool
The computer is a highly flexible tool and although the standard keyboard, screen and mouse set-up cannot be used with ease by everyone, there are many simple adaptations and modifications that can improve access for the many “non-standard” end-users amongst us.
   
The moral, legislative and financial arguments for factoring in accessibility are indeed compelling, but how can they be achieved?
   
AbilityNet frequently comes across organisations where despite user ID log on, end users cannot even make simple changes to the system such as larger fonts for silver surfers, alternative screen colours or access to built-in features like windows magnifier.
   
ICT systems and networks are often 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 or a visitor to use a recommended adaptive solution – an impossible feat if security protocols have imposed a technological lock-out.
   
Where PCs are essentially providing a hot-desking environment (such as in a library or school for example) with multiple users who have differing needs, you need to ensure that such settings can be stored as a user profile and accessed at log on for immediate effect. If the end-user cannot implement his own changes, he becomes very dependent on the availability of – usually – very busy front-line staff who have a plethora of other responsibilities to manage at the same time.

Third party solution

Such issues need to be discussed before committing to a service contract. What might first seem to be a cost effective agreement will prove the converse if the service provider charges individually each time the system has to be un-locked to facilitate basic changes to be made for an end-user, be it an employee or a visitor.
   
When a new third party solution is installed, staff should still be able to customise the interface and software for a wide range of end-users with differing requirements. These changes may include mouse, keyboard or display settings or the use of keyboard shortcuts instead of a mouse. If your systems prevent these changes being made, you are accommodating neither staff nor visitors adequately.

USB drives
Many software solutions are now available on a USB drive that can be lent to the end-user in question, rather than installed. All the staff member has to do is plug in the device loaded with the appropriate programmes and personal preferences and the software can be accessed immediately. However, this presupposes that the system allows pen drives to be used.
   
Using pen drives, nothing has to be modified on the main computer. This means that individual needs can be met without running the risk of being unable to turn off an AT solution that other users do not need.
 
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, ability to change display settings, use a USB pen or in checking that the navigation layout of an application makes sense when accessed without a mouse.

How accessible is accessible?
A potential checklist might include a wide range of questions such as:
•    Will the screen size and type be suitable for all learners? What about visually impaired children for example?
•    Will new hardware be compatible with common access technology software packages and hardware devices?
•    Can alternative keyboards and mice be plugged independently of computer support services?
•    Will vision impairment software interface effectively with work-based applications?
•    Will accessibility features in the operating system be available?
•    Can users have roaming profiles e.g. a vision impaired user who needs magnification software? Can they log on anywhere?
    Can the software launch independently so they do not have to rely on staff?
•    Can a photophobic (light sensitive) end users reverse the screen colours to white text on black on any of the library computers?
•    Can a dyslexic user who prefers a green background to help them read more efficiently  effect this change without help from staff?

Unique solution at Defra
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) found a unique solution to the accessibility challenge, as Windows Vista was rolled-out across the organisation whilst simultaneously introducing new Lenovo X61 laptops to the majority of employees.
   
Working closely with Defra and its technology partners, Microsoft and IBM, AbilityNet ensured that all Special Needs Users were supported through the transition – the first phase of which involved some 3,000 members of staff. With the ultimate objective of facilitating a changeover that was as seamless as possible, AbilityNet ensured that neither access, productivity nor comfort, were compromised during the process.
   
The adoption of a new system can be stressful for those using non-standard equipment. Many end-users are completely dependent upon the effective operation of their hardware and/or software solution, if it malfunctions or ceases to perform, they cannot work at all.

Unforeseen implications
Early intervention was strategically important as there were unforeseen implications and unprecedented areas of risk such as the locking down of the Vista Ease of Access Centre (the range of built in accessibility tools such as the Magnifier, Narrator, On-Screen Keyboard and the adjustment of screen colour settings). Such modifications can make a crucial difference for those with vision impairments or dyslexia, for example.
   
It was essential to check whether commonly used assistive solutions such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, Wivik, Zoomtext and Jaws were fully compatible, as well as some mouse and keyboard alternatives, which were found to lack the necessary drivers to provide the full range of functionality required. As the project progressed it was vital to coordinate the supply of patches and upgrades to ensure optimum performance.
   
As a result, Defra has adopted a much more forward thinking approach to accessibility and active future proofing is now on the agenda.
   
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 oractice, testing, accessible IT kits, and consultancy.

Tel: 0800 269545
E-mail: enquiries@abilitynet.org.uk

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