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Support for those with hidden disabilities
Since the Disability Discrimination Act was first introduced in 1995, and it’s successor The Equality Act in 2010, support for both citizens with special needs and employees within local and central government has improved significantly.
Both Acts have undoubtedly helped drive changes but there is still a lot more to be done to conform to the legislation, not to mention to improve it. There is also a great need to raise awareness about the range of assistive technology solutions available today, their benefits, how they work and for whom they are most appropriate.
Good progress has been made with regard to meeting the ‘reasonable adjustments’ outlined in the legislation that address visible disabilities such as cerebral palsy, visual impairments or other physical disabilities. However, we cannot yet say job done. There is still much to do in integrating assistive technology tools with older, legacy computer systems and overcoming security and deployment issues.
Catering for hidden disabilities
However, at both a local and national level, government adoption of assistive technology (AT) has been inconsistent. It is in the area of hidden disabilities where we believe the greatest improvements are yet to be made. Hidden disabilities refer to conditions that have no physical signs to the outside world but are still disabilities under the Equality Act. They include, but are not limited to, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and mental health. (Very broadly and imprecisely the three ‘dys’ words imply, respectively, problems with written words, problems with coordination and problems with numbers.)
Because they are invisible it is easy to overlook these conditions unless managers and, indeed, employees have appropriate training. Adopting the dyslexia-friendly Workplace will help ensure that dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties are recognised and dealt with such that the dyslexic employee can give 100 per cent and dyslexic customers are not disadvantaged and inefficiently served.
As both an employer and a public servant, all public sector organisations need to realise the importance of understanding these conditions, how to recognise the signs and understand how making basic, reasonable adjustments can help improve the productivity of their employees and the lives of the public they serve.
Serving the public
Local government must provide information that is accessible to the people it serves and progress has been made in this area. Most public bodies at least now pay lip service to making their web sites accessible. However, it is a cop out – and arguably not an adequate reasonable adjustment to comply with the legislation – to just have an accessibility page which provides links which tell people how they can adapt their web browser to change colours or font sizes. We must appreciate that most internet users are still very unskilled, particularly the elderly and those who do not use computers in their work.
They are highly unlikely to know how to zoom or change font size in their browser, much less be inclined to chase down a page telling them how to do it and follow the instructions correctly. Most people don’t have the patience to do this. They want the information quickly and easily and will give up if they can’t get it.
Minimum accessibility level
So I would suggest that the minimum acceptable level of accessibility is to make sure that web sites work properly with screen readers used by blind people. Even when your web team have followed accessibility standards, have made sure that their sites have been validated to W3C standards, there is no alternative to live testing by users using the common assistive technology packages.
Users should be able to easily change text size – the three AAAs in the top right hand corner is now a practically standard way of doing this.
Users should also be able to change style to a choice so that, apart from the default appearance (which should itself have been tested to ensure that the colour combinations conform to legibility standards), they can also choose a high contrast layout or one with more muted colours which can be easier for those with visual stress.
Users should be able to select a text-to-speech service such as BrowseAloud, so that users with reading difficulties can listen to your web pages as well as read them visually. This can be useful to those with English as a second language as well as those with reading impairments.
Lastly, you website must conform to plain English standards throughout your text (see www.plainenglish.co.uk/free-guides.html).
Many websites link to Google translate as a means of providing a service to non-native speakers. Whilst this may be better than nothing it is probably not adequate for those with substantial difficulties, particularly ethnic minorities, as the quality of translation is still poor.
The recent BS 8878:2010 standard on web accessibility code of practice is essential reading for non-technical people who are commissioning web sites. Use it to discover the business, ethical and legal case for accessibility; a process for ensuring web accessibility; text to use in your procurement statement of requirements; and how to manage the project to ensure that it meets accessibility requirements.
Government as an employer
On the other hand, it is as employers that both local and central government have much further to go with regard to addressing the support needs of employees with hidden disabilities. It is important to recognise the signs, understand how it affects an individual and what steps or reasonable adjustments can be taken to provide the necessary support to help these employees succeed, both for their own well-being and the success of the organisation.
Many people who have hidden disabilities are very intelligent and are great problem solvers and managers need to be aware that staff who struggle with time-keeping, maths, spelling or reading may have a condition that does not reflect their intelligence.
Symptoms include a disorganised workspace, difficulty taking notes or a reticence to take part in meetings. Less obvious indicators could include an employee passing up on a promotion opportunity to avoid taking on extra paperwork or regularly calling in sick due to stress and difficulty working in an open-plan environment.
To address the specific support needs required by people with hidden disabilities, there are a number of basic and specialised technological products and strategies currently available. For people who struggle with reading, writing, maths, concentration or short term memory these systems can prove invaluable. When these are used appropriately they can greatly improve the productivity of the individual and the efficiency of the organisation as a whole.
These may be simple strategies such as using voice mail for basic communications rather than e-mail or written memos, or using voice recorders for taking notes. More technological solutions include text-to-speech software to listen to text rather than needing to decode it in order to aid reading comprehension and speed. Programmes such as Texthelp Read & Write and ClaroRead are each actually a suite of tools to help support reading and writing.
Onscreen word banks and predictive writing programmes are available to help with spelling and technical vocabulary.
Speech recognition software can convert ideas from the spoken word quickly into text for those who have difficulty writing, typing or spelling
Concept mapping software is particularly appropriate for people with organisational difficulties, such as dyslexia. However, it is also used at a corporate level across entire organisations for visualising concepts, organising information, collaborative planning and even small scale project management, so it doesn’t need to be thought of as assistive technology.
By the judicious inclusion of some standard tools on the deployed desktop, CIOs can ensure that a high proportion of assistive technology needs are met without having to make too many individual reasonable adjustments to the standard installed technology system.
Following the introduction of the government’s austerity measures in 2010, local authorities and other public sector organisations have explored ways in which to improve efficiency and reduce costs through technology. Local authorities like the London boroughs of Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea plan to merge their back office services and to provide economies of scale. This sort of programme can also provide a cost effective way to deliver assistive technology and support more effectively to members of the public and employees using systematic site licensing.
Because they are in your pocket all the time, mobile devices can provide an ideal platform for assistive technologies. Smartphones are particularly promising for people with dyslexia and other reading difficulties, as users can change the text size, colour and font for comfortable reading and even listen with text-to-speech.
Mobile is a very rapidly developing area, both in terms of the assistive technology available and the tools available to help with deployment and to meet information security needs. We believe that the main hurdle at this point is the will to get it done and not the technology.
for more information
Website accessibility check list
Does the website work properly with screen readers used by blind people?
Can users easily change text size?
Can users change style, for example, a high contrast layout?
Does your website enable a text-to-speech service?
Does your content conform to plain English standards?
Does your website offer a translation service for non-native speakers?
The British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) is a not-for-profit organisation which promotes the rights and interests of those needing assistive technology. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in assistive technology to help disabled people, including users, carers, professionals, charities, local authorities, schools, colleges, universities and businesses.
BATA aims to:
• Lobby for the rights and interests of those needing Assistive Technology
• Provide expert and impartial support and advice to government departments and agencies
• Educate and inform widely on the benefits of Assistive Technology
• Promote British Assistive Technology products and expertise at home and overseas
Ian Litterick is a founder and council member of BATA and executive chairman of iansyst Ltd (www.iansyst.co.uk), a supplier of assistive technology, consultancy and services for dyslexic and disabled people.