Developments in assistive technology over the next few years have the potential to be “truly, truly transformatory” for disabled people, a fringe event at the Conservative party conference heard this week.
Neil Heslop, chief executive of the disability charity Leonard Cheshire, who uses assistive technology himself, said that technology was “a massive force for good, if appropriately leveraged”.
But he added: “As the economy becomes increasingly digitised, there are risks and dangers for people with disability missing out on those opportunities.”
He said that everybody working in technology recognised that it was not perfect and “still has a very, very long way to go” in terms of accessibility.
But he said that “the core thesis is that we are as a society at an inflection point and what we do and don’t do now and in a small number of years actually has the potential to be truly, truly transformatory”.
The fringe event was hosted by Leonard Cheshire and the technology giant Microsoft.
Hector Minto (pictured, second from right), “accessibility evangelist” for Microsoft, said that technology was “reaching further into society than it ever has before”, including the billion disabled people on the planet.
He said: “We cannot design society digitally without purposefully including people with disability.
“Otherwise we miss the one in seven [people who are disabled], and the price will be high.”
Minto said that “every other industrial revolution the world has encountered” had paid a price for having to “add disability later”.
He said there was now an opportunity to “wire in accessibility” into what was being done and he pointed to a free plug-in for the widely-available Microsoft PowerPoint software that he then revealed had been producing live subtitles for the meeting.
Minto said Microsoft was increasing the number of disabled people it employed because it needed to include them “in our workplace, in our product groups, in our design teams”.
And he said the company was also asking its corporate customers around the world to “unlock” the assistive technology that was already built into Microsoft software.
Steve Tyler (pictured, far left), director of assistive technology for Leonard Cheshire, told the meeting that support with technology was often available when disabled people were in education or in work.
But he said: “What about before you’re in work? That’s the time when you need to engage with technology.
“Virtually every job that we do today has an element of technology, and that is increasing as time goes on.
“So for me, a key part of what we need to do is invent a new mechanism that allows funding prior to work to engage people in technology and engage them in the learning and training and the use of it.”
Hannah Rose (pictured, far right) told the meeting how assistive technology – including the use of speech recognition software, which allows her to dictate into her computer – had helped her pass her GCSEs, A-levels and a degree, after becoming disabled as a teenager.
She later secured a job as a vetting officer with Cheshire police, following a work trial, where she has now worked for 10 years.
She said: “It gives me that independence to carry out a fulfilling job, like I am serving a purpose, like everybody else in that office.
“None of this would have been possible without having that assistive technology.
“Without work I would be lost. It’s great to be able to contribute to society like any other person, and without the access to assistive technology this wouldn’t be possible.”
The meeting also discussed the wider issue of disability employment.
Dave Bracher, campaigns manager for Spinal Injuries Association, said: “There has to be a way of getting the message out there that employers who are not employing disabled people are really missing a trick, because of the skills and qualities that those people bring to the party.
“I am not saying that I am any more special than anybody else in the room as an employee but what I am saying is that my experience of spinal cord injury, the year I spent in rehab, the three weeks I spent with locked-in syndrome, communicating by blinking… that gives me skills and qualities that any employer should be looking for.”
Sarah Newton (pictured, second from left), minister for disabled people, told the meeting: “It isn’t acceptable that half of people with disabilities who want to work and could work are not in work. That is a lost talent pool for the whole nation.
“There’s a lot of talk at this conference and the last conference about post-Brexit Britain and the future of our country after Brexit and one thing for sure is that we need to make sure that we are using all the talents in our nation going forward, and that must mean enabling more of those people to get into work and to thrive in work.”
Heslop (pictured, centre) said: “If any large-scale organisation does not have a representative number of people with disabilities in its workforce [which he said was about 19 per cent]and frighteningly few organisations achieve that today, anyone who doesn’t should be dissatisfied and should be committing themselves to creating an inclusive workplace.”
He added: “Anyone in a leadership position has to accept [that], and this is true of large charities like ours.
“I’m completely dissatisfied with the proportion of disabled people we employ, and we are taking steps to get much better.”
Tyler said there was “scary but increasing evidence” that employers were looking at people’s social media profiles at the earliest stages of recruitment and if they saw that those people were disabled they “are rejected before they even get in the door”.
He said: “We need to find ways through technology of highlighting/flagging/preventing that kind of stuff from happening.”
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