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Robin is Head of Digital Inclusion and part of the globally-acclaimed accessibility and tech team of AbilityNet and has spoken at numerous events in recent … More about Robin

From The Experts: Global Digital Accessibility Developments During COVID-19

        Robin Christopherson MBE, Head of Digital Inclusion at UK tech experts AbilityNet, has been hosting a series of monthly webinars with senior accessibility guests from global brands such as Microsoft and ATOS, and UK giants like Barclays and Sainsbury’s. They’re talking COVID, the challenges and opportunities the crisis brings, agile adjustments, digital inclusion and much, much more. Want food for thought from global experts in inclusion? Key takeaways to help plan ahead? Read on.

        What impact has COVID-19 had on companies across the UK and beyond? I’ve been hosting a series of monthly webinars with senior accessibility guests from global brands such as Microsoft and ATOS, and UK giants like Barclays and Sainsbury’s. We’ve been talking Covid, the challenges and opportunities the crisis brings, agile adjustments, digital inclusion and much, much more.

        Top Tips From The Experts

        Visit our website for this evolving series of webinars for full interviews and transcripts, but in this article, I’ve brought together the top tips on Covid challenges and opportunities covered by my guests to date. Let’s start with the Chief Accessibility Officer (CAO) at Microsoft.

        Jenny Lay-Flurrie (Microsoft)

        Photo of Jenny Lay-FlurrieThe very fact that Microsoft has a CAO — an accessibility lead at C-level — demonstrates its commitment to accessibility (AKA ‘Digital inclusion’. Follow the accessibility guidelines and you end up with a product that is inclusive and easier to use by all.) Importantly (in my opinion) Jenny also has ‘lived experience’ of disability.

        Jenny began by emphasising the priority that all companies should place in digital inclusion;

        “It’s never been more important to think about accessibility during these times. I think while accessibility’s clearly been a priority for Microsoft… the limelight the pandemic has put on the need for Access has been pretty humbling and one hell of a learning journey.”

        Jenny is deaf and has, before Covid, always been accompanied by an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter. Since that first day of lockdown they’ve never been together in the same room;

        “We had to learn how to work remotely. This isn’t something that we’re used to doing. We had to really learn that skill set. I will tell you that was its own journey and I think every individual has been on their journey sort of figuring out how this works.”

        This is why having senior team members and decision-makers with lived experience of disability is so vital to ensure that accessibility is sufficiently and continually prioritized within your organization — and that decisions are based upon input from those who really know what both inclusion and exclusion looks like.

        Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk — its free customer support service for those with disabilities — saw volumes rocket after lockdown;

        “They doubled pretty much overnight. We’ve been steadily running at two to three hundred percent of volume expectations, and we’ve been running this for seven years.”

        Whether you decide to provide well-signposted channels specifically for disabled customers, or whether you ensure that individuals flagging a disability to the general customer support agents are provided the level of specialist support they need, the ability of users to get answers to questions relating to alternative formats, accessibility settings or assistive technologies is crucial.

        Video conferencing has obviously been one of the key technologies that has made 能买比特币的平台home working possible. After lockdown, the majority of questions that Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk received were about Teams. Because Teams was already accessible, they could then go on to address additional requests (most commonly-requested was AI-powered captions) without having to scramble to retrofit inclusion that hadn’t been sufficiently prioritized pre-Covid. Jenny says;

        “We’ve had a 20 year plus history with accessibility, but really our focus in the last few years of infusing it across a company stood us in good stead. It meant we have the foundation so that we could lift quicker. So yeah, it’s been one heck of a ride and, my gosh, very humbling. “I think there’s a pull, a natural human pull to go back to the way it was. I actually don’t think that is possible anymore. I think from a technology perspective, it’s definitely driven a ton of innovation and I think that there’s risks with that.”

        She goes on to highlight the challenge associated with disabled employees working from 能买比特币的平台home without physical support on-hand;

        “If you do put out something that’s inaccessible, the impact is far more profound because you, for example, don’t have the ability to just grab a pair of eyes. I don’t have the ability to grab a sign language interpreter and understand a video if it doesn’t have captions.”
        Raised hand icon on display in Microsoft Teams
        A raised hand icon on Microsoft Teams (Large preview)

        Accessibility has always driven innovation in digital products — and Covid has prioritized their implementation. Many of the new features in Teams, for example, were driven by a strategy of inclusion. Something as simple as hand raise (which lets the host see that you’re waiting to ask a question) was included after feedback from users experiencing anxiety around when to interrupt the conversation — but as a result had significant benefits for those with disabilities or impairments. Jenny says,

        “That’s got really cool implications for cognitive neurodiversity, let alone deafness and other disabilities … With every scenario like this one you do get an innovation boost.”

        A big thanks to Jenny for her insights into how an inclusion agenda has both benefitted Microsoft and its customers around the world during the Covid crisis and beyond.

        Now let’s turn to the ever-so-slightly important issue of accessible banking…

        Paul Smyth (Barclays)

        Photo of Paul SmythPaul Smyth is a fellow MBE recipient, and founder and leader of Digital Accessibility at UK retail bank; Barclays. It goes without saying that effective access to online banking is very important and, during this period of the pandemic, absolutely essential. Imagine the impact of delivering those services in a way that excludes around 20% of your customers — and in a way that often makes it harder for the other 80% too. A commitment to accessibility and providing sufficient support to disabled and vulnerable customers is key.

        Paul chose to focus first on supporting disabled and vulnerable customers:

        “I always thought that accessible customer service comes down to three things; offering flexibility, choice and personalization. I think now, in this Covid crisis, there’s maybe two more things that are important for brands to respond to; about being responsive and being responsible … and again making sure they can do their banking how, where and when they want.”

        At the onset of lockdown, the use of cash and branches reduced significantly. Barclays proactively reached out to all disabled and otherwise vulnerable customers, outlined extra support and services available, made sure that those customers were fast-tracked when they used phone banking along with NHS workers, and elected to provide specialist support through their main number and not a special one “buried away”. Both this approach and that of Microsoft to provide a specific support line for disabled customers are valid — the main thing is that people can easily find out about the channel and easily find the information and support they need when using it.

        Barclays also put in place some very practical measures aimed at bridging the absence of ‘hands-on’ support that vulnerable customers may experience during the pandemic. These included contactless wearables, that the customer could top up for family or friends to then take to do their shopping without having to give them their credit or debit card, as well as ’Cash to the Doorstep’ for those who are shielding. Finally, Barclays reviewed its talking ATMs to confirm that user journeys spoke well for blind and visually impaired customers.

        Image of a man standing at a cashpoint
        A Barclays ATM (Image source) (Large preview)

        Paul then turned to digital banking. He confirmed that millions more are now using its website and app to do online banking.

        “For many of those customers that are quite new to digital and being forced to do it, it’s great that we have our main website and app that you know are accessible — they’re accessibility accredited by AbilityNet. We’re serious and committed about that, we go to great pains to make sure they’re [ATMs] are technically accessible and we do disabled user testing to give a great experience for a greater number of people.”

        Barclays has also seen a massive increase in features such as cheque imaging to process and pay a cheque using your mobile’s camera. To help all customers get to grips with these novel new capabilities, Barclays has also created simple guides for those new to digital, on how to use and get the most out of their online and mobile services. Being simple, and inclusive, they will be accessible and understandable to the broadest possible audience.

        Paul also had much to say on Barclays’ response to Covid when it comes to its employees. For those with a disability, they were quick to duplicate at 能买比特币的平台home any assistive kit needed at work. As lockdown went on, they had a ten-fold increase in similar requests from other employees without an impairment and, as a result of needing to process the needs of those with disabilities, were then more readily able to put into place scalable solutions for the broader workforce — getting ergonomic chairs and monitors out in volume. They didn’t take a reactive role, however, but proactively invited requests for equipment driven by awareness campaigns.

        With regards to transitioning back to the workplace:

        “We ensured that diverse voices of all employees were canvassed in terms of how and when they might return to the office, rather than relying on the decisions of senior leaders in their spacious smart 能买比特币的平台home offices.”

        Paul also flagged that more socially-distanced workspaces going forward might have advantages for disabled employees, such as better wheelchair access and lower noise levels.

        He concludes;

        “So it’s really important that we amplify the voices of the disability community in particular as well as people with a whole wide range of backgrounds, to make sure we’re going in eyes wide open to review the ways we’re going to be working from 能买比特币的平台home and the tools that everybody needs to succeed, as well as how the offices of the future are also going to be slightly different from what we have now.”

        A huge thanks to Paul for some really practical and impactful tips on what prioritizing inclusion looks like in practice. Now let’s turn to a truly global tech giant…

        Neil Milliken (ATOS)

        Photo of Neil MillikenNeil Milliken is Global Head of Accessibility at ATOS, host of AXS Chat and winner of the 2019 Business Disability Forum award. We got started by talking about the shift to 能买比特币的平台home working and how this was handled in such a massive organisation as ATOS. As an early adopter of flexible work patterns, ATOS were well-prepared for the shift to 能买比特币的平台home working:

        “As an organization, we were actually doing flexible working quite some time ago, so it’s been really quite good for us in that we were fairly well prepared, not just technologically, because we had the set‑up to enable people to work from 能买比特币的平台home, but in terms of organizational mindset. Because actually a lot of the stuff about working from 能买比特币的平台home isn’t about the technology. It’s about trust. It’s about understanding and allowing your employees to work on their own without micromanaging and seeing them. That said, you know, we still need to make sure that all of the accessibility features work on remote. We need to make sure that people have suitable environments to work in, and that’s problematic if people are working from 能买比特币的平台home.”

        Neil emphasized the importance of virtual face-to-face contact, but also warned of overload:

        “I think there is a real Zoom fatigue. I’m amazed we have people on this webinar because everybody’s doing a webinar! Me included. We have been doing AXS Chat for six years. It is great to turn the video on to get the visual cues from someone. As a very visual person, that lag between what is being said and the microsecond delay actually puts a fair amount of strain on you. I know that’s not relevant to you so much. But it certainly is among the dyslexic and neurodiverse community.”

        As a blind person, I can still see the benefit of having my camera on so that others can get visual signals while I speak, but others may wish to have theirs off for a host of reasons including bandwidth, visual overload, self-consciousness of their appearance or background or a whole host of other personal circumstances.

        Neil also talks about a proactive approach to up-skilling employees:

        “We work quite closely with organizations like the International Association of accessibility professionals, as does AbilityNet, so we are both parts of the UK chapter there. I have been working with them on strategic leadership certification in accessibility.”

        I couldn’t agree more with Neil here. Professionalizing accessibility within your leads and champions is an important element to ensuring an adequate level of knowledge of both guidelines and testing techniques.

        He also flags the importance of identifying future accessibility champions via the apprenticeship route:

        “At the other side, shifting left, in terms of not leadership, but people to deliver, we have been working on apprenticeships. It’s actually quite hard to find enough people to address the scale of the problem with the skills that we need in the market. So we determined a few years back, that we needed to grow our own skills and we started doing apprenticeships. When we found that people were interested in poaching our former apprentices, I thought maybe this is a signal that we need to go wider.”

        As a result, ATOS decided to collaborate on a standardized approach to accessibility apprenticeships:

        “Again, working with AbilityNet and Shell and Barclays and a consortium of other organizations, we have created this accessibility apprenticeship standard. It’s for accessibility specialists. It’s the equivalent of a foundation degree; so the first year of a degree — a Level 4 apprenticeship. That’s almost ready to go. I expect that we should be ready to have a first cohort at the beginning of next year… all being well, because Covid is definitely throwing a spanner into the works with things right now.”

        Lastly, let’s hear from another company delivering a key service during Covid; Sainsbury’s.

        Bryn Anderson (Sainsbury’s)

        Photo of Bryn AndersonBryn Anderson, formerly of SiteImprove, is now an accessibility specialist at Sainsbury’s and a key part of its on-going mission to be market-leaders in digital inclusion in the retail sector. Himself disabled, he flags how digital inclusion shot to the top of the agenda during lockdown:

        “I’m visually impaired, born with albinism and certainly I did not identify as someone who was disabled, which was a lot down to my parents … but I find myself identifying with it more and more. Especially during the pandemic, it really carried weight. And the topic, accessibility, disability, it was really mainstream. We were having tech huddles and digital huddles of hundreds of people. 600 people on the calls and accessibility and disability are at the top of the agenda. So incredible in that respect but it does not mean that people understand it, right? …Just because it is being talked about, does not mean that everyone understands it.”

        I think Bryn’s point here is key. Even though it’s crucial to get buy-in for digital inclusion at the highest level — with the protection of time and resources required to ensure it’s achievable and maintainable in the long-term — it still takes a concerted effort for all those who are involved in digital in any way to get to grips with what inclusive design looks like in their role and daily tasks. Moreover, it’s vital that they hear first-hand from disabled colleagues or guest customers to have the confidence that their interpretation of the accessibility guidelines is appropriate. Don’t do accessibility in a vacuum — involve those with lived experiences and make sure this approach is formalized and frictionless — not ad-hoc and erratic.

        I asked Bryn whether Sainsbury’s’s long-standing prioritization of accessibility helped it during Covid:

        “If we take the business as a whole, we were well-prepared in that a lot of people understand what inclusion and accessibility is. Our drivers, pre-Covid, would make exceptions for people, help to carry shopping on the delivery front, and like you mentioned, we have had an accessibility agenda for some time.”

        And it seems that Covid has thrown a new focus on the importance of ensuring that its products are accessible and reflect a user’s preferences:

        “I was reporting on iOS statistics in the build-up to Covid about font scaling … what is the percentage of sessions completed with a larger font setting? It was 30% of the iOS sessions, which is huge, right? So, that knowledge is there. So we knew that, actually, I beg your pardon, it was 27, it went up to 30 through March, April and May which is also interesting.”
        Sainsbury’s app on a smartphone
        Sainsbury’s shopping app (Image credit: Mark Gaddes at AbilityNet) (Visit the AbilityNet website for more information.

        Further Resources

        If you’ve found this article useful, here are a few more I’ve written recently on related topics:

        You can read all my articles on the power of tech and inclusion on the AbilityNet website.

        Smashing Editorial (ra, il)