When it comes to going global with accessible IT, the future is now

Business Disability Forum. Marketing photos

By Neil Milliken, Head of Accessibility and Digital Inclusion, Atos

As more and more businesses find they have to consider their work not just on a national but an international scale, the phrase ‘full accessibility’ takes on a new meaning. At Atos, for instance, we have around 100,000 employees located in more than 70 countries – so how do we ensure accessibility for all when we are working at this scale?

For those in IT and technology, this is a very pertinent question, because IT is central to our new global style of working. It isn’t a challenge that we can ignore if we want our systems to work for everyone.

Global Accessibility Awareness Day in May made it a good time to consider this question, and certainly it was great to see that so many organisations like Microsoft, Orange and Barclays share how they met the challenge at an event we held at Atos to mark the day. We used IT to make this event globally accessible too, in keeping with the theme: we held events in the UK, US, France, Spain, Austria and India, and live-streamed the UK event with closed captioning.

This kind of approach is key to accessibility on a global scale: it is about providing a standard service regardless of location or country. New technology and IT systems provide a huge opportunity in doing this, because they provide a single platform for customers and employees to use all over the world. But this also means they need to work, and to work perfectly, for everyone.

home-worker-image-obscured-person-using-a-laptop-with-mug-of-coffeeThis means taking a single approach which has been shown to work with your IT systems locally but then adapting it for different locations, working styles, and countries. At Atos, for example, we are seeking to do this by taking our UK model and using it as a blueprint for our work internationally.

The key elements of this blueprint? First and foremost, a holistic approach that goes beyond the technology itself. Our work on accessibility naturally included practical solutions such as assistive technology and overcoming any potential compatibility barriers with existing IT systems, but it also meant changing the way we approach governance around IT to incorporate more portable devices, flexible working and availability of specialized software.

A good way in to establishing this new way of working is to use an ‘tried-and-tested’ method, which for us was the ‘Accessibility Maturity Model’ developed by Business Disability Forum’s Technology Taskforce. Applying the Model when developing our approach to accessibility also meant we could use

Taking a holistic approach also involved building knowledge of accessibility among staff. We did this with specific training on accessibility for colleagues but went further by including accessibility in our standard development methodologies and creating a world first Accessibility Apprenticeship program.

Another element to this is building on that knowledge base and encouraging employees to exchange thoughts and learning. We did this at Atos though our enterprise social network and our think tank the “Scientific Community” which produces thought leadership for the organisation, publishing blogs magazines and white papers and also keeping people up to date with “learn with Adrian” sessions every hosted by our CEO Adrian Gregory.

One way to keep up the knowledge exchange is to engage with others working in the same field within a safe space. With us at Atos this came in the form of Business Disability Forum’s Technology Taskforce, where senior people from a range of sectors come together to discuss our work around accessibility and share ideas.

Key to the holistic approach happening, though, and central to the success of any accessibility initiative, is senior buy-in. You need this not just to affect changes in thinking or procedures but also so you have a highly visible person to champion accessibility. At Atos, this started with our Head of Strategy but we now have support from our Global CIO as well. On a global level, this also means securing the buy-in of regional managers so that you can be supported in implementing the same changes at different locations and have a senior figure to support that rollout.

The last element, and one that is very much relevant in the world of IT, is keeping track of developments in the sector, and in 2017 those developments are happening as fast ever. We are seeing increased automation, huge advances in AI and even, with Elon Musk and neural lace, research into how computer systems can interface with the human brain. This is all very interesting to watch, and indeed some of it is still very much at the theoretical stage: but there’s no doubt that at some point it will have a bearing on accessibility and the way this is delivered for employees and customers.

Perhaps most immediate impact is from automation, and indeed there is an imperative for businesses now in reskilling workers for the new economy that automation and AI will bring. But again this is a major opportunity – for in creating these new roles, we can put accessibility at the centre of employees’ remits from the get-go.

We have still got a way to go on digital accessibility in the business world, and accessibility as a whole. But the rewards for making progress are obvious. As many people point out, this is the right thing to do but is also a commercial imperative: significantly, the biggest calls for greater accessibility come from customers, even more so than staff. At Atos some of our highest customer satisfaction ratings come from disabled people, for instance, because of the accessible features we have implemented. Furthermore for any organization hoping to be successful it pays to harness the talents of every member of staff – and key to that is removing all possible barriers.

These developments can all be harnessed in making businesses more open and inclusive for everyone, and the benefits that follow: it just remains to meet the challenges of those developments.

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