Ep. 20: The Digital Accessibility Journey: From Good to Great


10 min read

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Announcer: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon: Future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.


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Toby Mildon: Hello, and welcome to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I'm Toby Mildon. And on this episode I'm joined by Professor Jonathan Hassell. I've known Jonathan for a very long time. We go way back. So he actually recruited me at the BBC when he was the Head of Usability and Accessibility, and I worked with Jonathan as his Project Manager. And then Jonathan left the BBC and has set up his own digital accessibility consultancy which is Hassell Inclusion. And Jonathan is prolific in the digital accessibility industry, having written the the British Standard on Web Accessibility, and most recently been working on the International Standard. So Jonathan, welcome to this show.


Jonathan Hassell: Thank you, Toby. It's great to be with you.


Toby Mildon: Can you just give us a bit more of a background about how you got into digital accessibility, and then some of the most recent work and projects that you've been up to? 


Jonathan Hassell: Sure. So I've been doing this now for almost 20 years. I got into it around about the turn of the century. A couple of things happened at the same time. Firstly, I started at the BBC. My job was the Editor of Standards and Guidelines, voted the least sexy job title of all of the people around me. So my job was to make sure that everything that we did in the digital space, anything that was good, best practice from across the organisation, we captured that, we codified it, we shared it. We had about like 400 different websites, loads of red button services over time, mobile phone apps, all of those sorts of things. It was my job to try and work out what good looked like, how to get people to agree on that, and how to put that down.


Jonathan Hassell: And week one was my boss came to me and said, "The BBC's always cared about how people with disabilities are able to get our services. In the past, that's been things like captions on the TV. Now we're in mobile, and desktop, and web, and all of these sorts of things, how do we make sure that we get good at that?" So it was my job to try and help the BBC get good at that consistently across all of those different websites, those different mobile apps.


Jonathan Hassell: And the other thing that happened around about the same time was that my nephew Carl was born. He was born with spina bifida. He uses a wheelchair he has a slight learning difficulty, and he's slightly autistic. So I had a personal stake in what I was doing professionally. And really over the last 20 years I've been taking, if you like, the experience that I was able to generate initially at the BBC, and then compare and contrast that with my colleagues in other parts of the industry. That resulted in the British Standards that we created in 2010. And over nine years, up until May last year, May 2019, when we introduced the International Standards. So ISO 30071-1 is the standard that I took everything that we've done in the UK, all of the things that I was then doing and my team were doing at Hassel Inclusion to try and help organisations internationally get good at this. Working out, if you like, if the things that worked in the UK would work in Scandinavia, would work in Korea, in Japan, in America, Australia, wherever it was.


Jonathan Hassell: And we put all of that together, and a lot of what we're doing at the moment is helping large organisations go on that journey. There's a lot in that Standard and a lot in our minds that, if you like, compresses all of the things that lots of very, very good people on accessibility have learned over years and years. So our job now is really to go in to try and help organisations accelerate. It shouldn't take you seven years to get good at accessibility like it did for most of us who've been doing it for years and years. You can now springboard off of our experience. We can help you get there in a lot shorter time. So that's what we do now.


Toby Mildon: How does the British Standard and the International Standard that you've written compare to other standards or frameworks out there? For example, when we talk about the Web Content and Accessibility Guidelines, or which we affectionately refer to as the WCAG guidelines, there's several things out there like that. So how... In a nutshell, what do they include, and how do they compare to the likes of WCAG? 


Jonathan Hassell: Yeah. So the way of thinking about it is, "Who are the standards for?" WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, they are for the people, if you like, on the coalface. They're for the people coding websites, developers. They're for people designing websites. They're for people who are putting the content on the websites. They're brilliant at doing that. They help them understand exactly what they need to do. Problem these days is that actually you need to think about this a lot broader than the people on the coalface. It's the rest of the people in the organisation.


Jonathan Hassell: For example, if I'm the project manager or the product manager, I wanna know things like, "How long is this gonna take?" If we haven't been doing accessibility to now, "How much more is this gonna cost me? Is there a best way of actually doing my job as somebody who organises all of these people to enable them to deliver this stuff in the most efficient way?" And actually, certainly, in 2020 it's not just websites anymore. It's internal tools. It's things like Zoom and all of the things that we're using in lockdown. It's mobile apps. Maybe you're an organisation that has digital stuff outside your premises: Kiosks, ATMs.


Jonathan Hassell: So really, what the ISO standard is about, is to say, "How do you get good... As the people managing a digital team, how do you get good in making sure they can deliver accessibility efficiently and repeatedly? And then, how do you get good as an organisation? How do you make sure that it's not just your website, but it's actually all of the aspects of your site?" So fundamentally, for example, as a head of D&I, you wanna make sure that any staff that you have who have a disability are able to get a good experience of working in that organisation. How do you make sure the tools they're using to do their job every day have actually been procured in the right way to make sure that they're fit for purpose for everybody. So it goes a lot beyond... If you like, it's the framework around that that says, "Get the technical things right, file will [07:21] ____, but how do we make sure that we can deliver this in a way that fits our values, our ethics, actually our business reasons for doing all of this as an organisation?"


Toby Mildon: Yeah, 'cause you and I do a lot of work together, and day-to-day, we speak to the likes of senior user experience designers, we speak to developers, we speak to product managers or product owners, project managers, people that test websites, these are the kind of day-to-day people that we talk to in this space. But for a diversity and inclusion leader or practitioner or a HR director who's responsible for diversity and inclusion in that business, why should they be paying particular attention to digital accessibility, and do you have any interesting statistics as well that you can share with us? 


Jonathan Hassell: So the first thing I'd want to say is that I like 2020 better than 2019 and 2018. Diversity and inclusion now feels like it's embracing disability, it's actually part of D&I and that's a great thing. And one of the brilliant things that's been happening is things like The Valuable 500, who've been really spearheading that... Really, that kind of mission to try and enable D&I people to understand how important is to make sure that their organisations are diverse and that diversity includes disability.


Jonathan Hassell: And one of the things that they're doing, all of these D&I managers is being encouraged to make commitments. We want people with a disability to be able to be employed by our organisation. Fundamentally, once they are employed, we want them to be able to thrive. And for me, digital accessibility, which is what we're talking about, is if you're part of the implementation behind that. I don't think that in 2020, somebody who has an access need or somebody who needs to use technology in a different way to other people because of a disability, a condition, an impairment that they have, I don't think that they're going to be able to thrive in an organisation unless the software is accessible for them.


Jonathan Hassell: So the way we look at things is that it's great the role of the D&I population is really waking up to this. But it's not just about... If you like good intentions, it's not about quotas, it's not about saying, "We want to have more people with disabilities working for us." It's about saying, "Okay, well, how are you gonna make that happen then?" And actually, a lot of those D&I managers need to work with IT managers or procurement managers to make that happen.


Jonathan Hassell: Let me give you a couple of examples. 20% of the population have a disability in most Western countries. That's actually going up year on year, and there are a lot of massively talented people who have disabilities in there that you would want to recruit for your organisation. I'm speaking to one of them right now. There's a lot of, "We pick the best people to work with that has inclusion." And so therefore, we need to make sure that we can recruit people with disabilities. But when they come and work for us, that they're gonna be able to use all of their capabilities and we're not gonna get in the way with a lack of understanding of what they need in terms of reasonable adjustments.


Jonathan Hassell: So for example, if you want people with a disability to come and work for you, then you need to make sure that your recruitment website doesn't filter people out by misunderstanding what their means on an application form might be. If there's a video on a website that says you really, really care about diversity and inclusion, but it doesn't have captions, I, as somebody who might have a hearing impairment would say, "Well, you really don't care about diversity and inclusion because actually you're not including me in the video that's talking about it." So the first thing is making sure the IT people, the people who are actually delivering your web presence really get this stuff.


Jonathan Hassell: Second thing is, let's take the other reason why it's really useful to be thinking about digital accessibility from a D&I viewpoint. Somebody said that one of the best talent pools you can recruit are from people you already have. Fundamentally, we are all living longer than we ever have, the 65 and over population will nearly double over the next three decades. So what that means therefore is that people need to work longer. I'm not gonna get my pension for anywhere as early as I would have done in previous years. So you need to make sure that all of the older population who are working for you are actually able to do their jobs well as the things that happen with aging happen.


Jonathan Hassell: Most people who are aging don't hear as well, see as well as they used to. They can still be massively influential in your workplace, but you need to make sure that if they can't read the text on the screen, that you do something about that so that they can continue being a valued member of your team. So it's really, for us, about making sure that when people say, they think about disability and when they say they think about people whose needs are different digitally than everyone else, as a D&I manager, you actually reach out across the organisation and say, "I can't do this on my own. I need my IT people to go with me on the journey." That's what we help organisations to do.


Toby Mildon: Yeah, I quite like what you've said in the past about three different levels of usability or impairments, so you've got people who have a permanent impairment, so for example myself. I was born with a rare genetic condition, which means that I'm a wheelchair user, and then I use assistive technology, so because I can't lift my arms, I use Dragon Naturally Speaking to control my computer. Then you've got people who are temporarily impaired, so they go on a skiing holiday and they break their arm, and therefore they can't use their keyboard for a few weeks while their arm is in plaster. And then you've got people who are situationally impaired, so they're carrying something in one arm, but then they need to interface with an electronic device, and therefore using voice control might help in that situation.


Toby Mildon: Can you just explain a bit more? Because I think this is a really good way of opening up the conversation in organisations, because I've spoken to businesses who are quite frankly a bit fearful around talking about disability. They also think that it's not a big problem, because the data is telling them that only perhaps 1% of their workforce is declaring a disability. But we know that about 16% of working age adults in the UK have a disability, and organisations invariably do employ more disabled people than the numbers are telling them. So yeah, can you go into that a bit more? 'Cause I think it is a useful framework to use.


Jonathan Hassell: Yeah, absolutely. I think the thing that's kind of really key, when we think about it, and especially that last category, the situation impairments, what we tend to think of is people using the digital tools on the move. And a lot of the time we're thinking of if you have a company that makes a product, if you have a website that people can buy things from, then at least 50% of purchases actually happen on mobile rather than desktop. Put simply, we're using digital stuff out and about all of the time as consumers. But that's as important for employees as consumers. If I've got a mobile workforce, you know, sales people are out and about, then they're gonna be doing things in a mobile way.


Jonathan Hassell: At the moment, if we think about the COVID lockdown working-from-home situation, most people are not actually using all of the things that they have on their desk, 'cause they're not at their desk at the moment. They're in their home office trying to get by, and so they may be using an iPad rather than the PC, laptop that they use at work all of the time. They also may be in a situation... I've tried to minimize disruptions on this particular podcast, but my family is around me in my house all of the time, and I am not alone in that. That is our common experience of lockdown. Until the kids go back to school, it's difficult to concentrate on one thing, and you're having to move rooms all of the time. So everything is mobile, and so it's massively important... If you like, in some ways COVID has maybe made us all situationally impaired. None of us can get to the offices that may be the place that we normally work.


Jonathan Hassell: So the way I tend to look at things is people in the disability, yeah, around about 16% to 20%. People who are older are not necessarily thought of quite so much in terms of the workforce, but I think that's the direction that we're going in. Again, that's another 20% of the population. And when you look at people who have accidents, people who cannot be paying their full attention to technology, so because they're doing something else at the same time, we're actually up to 100%. And I'd say a lot of the people coming through, my other nephew who doesn't... He doesn't use a wheelchair, he doesn't have "a disability" in the same way, he uses Netflix with captions turned on, like most millennials, because he doesn't do one thing at once ever.


Announcer: He's like watching TV programs and texting his friends at the same time. Part of his attention is on the TV, but he's not really fundamentally listening to it. So when something crops up that sparks his attention, he's already missed the text before it, what the person said before that word that just grabbed his attention. But it's still there on the screen in the captions.


Announcer: And what we're finding is that there are more and more things that, if you like, have been created for people with a disability, as if they were the only people who needed them, that suddenly become everyone's need. Everything from curb cuts working for people who use a wheelchair, but also every mum who's got a toddler in a pushchair. This is what's happening, and this is, if you like, the joy of what we would term inclusive design, is that when you focus on the needs of people who have a different need, you feel, to everyone else, suddenly you find that if you actually solve that need, it's entirely possible you solve lots of people's needs that you weren't really thinking about when you did that. So literally everything you do in this space could potentially help entirety of your workforce and not just people who you think may have a disability.


Toby Mildon: Yeah, and actually you're touching on one of the pillars or the business cases around digital accessibility. So I know we talk about, say, the legal and the ethical case. So we've got the Equality Act in the UK, for example, which talks about the accessibility of products and services. And, ethically speaking, if you have a careers website and you're saying that you're inclusive, but your applicant tracking system or your careers website is not accessible, then you're not really being congruent with that statement. Then there's the financial case. So, for example, it costs a lot more to service a customer if they have to ring up your call centre because they can't access your digital services. So if you've got customers that are having to phone you up because they can't use your website, then that's costing you money. But I know one of the cases that you get particularly interested in or excited about is the innovation side of things. Have you got any kind of interesting examples of how innovation has happened, Jo? 


Jonathan Hassell: Example stories, yeah. So, historically, the keyboard was created for a blind countess at the turn of the 19th century. She couldn't write to her lover because she'd just lost her sight, and so the first working typewriter was created for her. Alexander Graham Bell was trying to help deaf people when he invented the telephone, which is kind of ironic really when you think that most deaf people hate the telephone. These things that are there in our common parlance actually a lot of the time were... The impetus for their creation was to look at people for whom the status quo... So in that case, not being able to write so easily, so wanting to use a typewriter; not being able to project your voice a long, long way, so wanting to be able to have the telephone to do that. If you like, looking at what Malcolm Gladwell would term the outliers is the thing that helps you move beyond the status quo, and that's where we get massively excited.


Jonathan Hassell: We've done stuff where we were creating sign language recognition systems for teenagers who are autistic to try and get them from college into work and to help them understand the new signs for their new job and to help their new colleagues who don't understand any Makaton sign language understand what signs to use to communicate with them. Well, that plus some of the other things that we were doing suddenly became tools that could help people who'd had a stroke, who were rehabilitating in hospital actually get better in a much more supported way. So supported by technology, rather than necessarily always having to be supported by an occupational health advisor, who most of the time wasn't available especially if they were an outpatient.


Jonathan Hassell: So what we found is that, over time, a lot of the things that we've done that initially we thought were for a very small number of people with a particular condition change the way we thought about things. And then suddenly people... Microsoft came to us and said, "That thing that you were doing with our Kinect technology to help kids with the sign language, we think could help kids who are blind with their mobility studies. Could you help?"


Jonathan Hassell: We've done stuff, as I say, in the hospital sector. And all of that took... Actually one of our developers who was working through to now being massively in demand in VR and AR technology, so he's now working with the likes of Universal Pictures on the sort of Jurassic World-type virtual reality experiences that you could get if you are able to get back to the shops at the moment and into arcades. So what we found is that a lot of organisations who think, "Oh, this is a small number of people, and they need something different from everybody else. And that makes it hard for us." What we've said is, "That's an opportunity, actually."


Jonathan Hassell: If you want to stop just being also-ran, everyone's doing an app in this area at the moment, ours has no real unique selling points than everyone else's, then continue as you are. But if you want to actually break out of that, if you want to do something that really changes, that moves the bar, then you need to look for opportunities where you have to think harder. You have to do something different. And what I found is listening to people like you, Toby. And lots of other people for whom various different types of technology that work absolutely fine for me didn't give you a good experience. So it's kind of like, "Okay, how do we change that?" And part of that change... Yeah, is to think different. Yeah.


Toby Mildon: Yeah. One of those examples is we were talking with a bank, weren't we, about ATMs or cash machines, and how for me sat in a wheelchair an ATM is quite inaccessible. I can't reach the ATM anyway 'cause I can't lift my arms, but then I'm reliant on a care assistant to help me use the machine, which means giving them my PIN. So we were talking about how can we use mobile phones, for example. So could I use... Which I've always got my mobile on me. So could I use my mobile phone screen to withdraw cash? And then, as long as I'm in close proximity to an ATM, it dispenses the money.


Jonathan Hassell: Yeah, there's a few security things to kinda get right in there, but I think we defined a potential future direction for banking that would help everybody. No one wants to stand in the queue whilst the person at the front of the queue spends ages trying to get the cashpoint working. If we could all actually get it working on our phones while we're in the queue, so all we're doing when we get to the cashpoint is literally just putting our phone on it, it recognizes what we want, and it gives us the money, suddenly the experience works better for everybody. That sort of thing falls naturally out of the conversations that we have, but the rest of the world doesn't think that that's the place to do innovation. These are all of the opportunities, I think. And if you take that into an employment context, I think there are huge opportunities at the moment that we're seeing from the whole working-from-home thing.


Jonathan Hassell: A lot of things that... A lot of people who had disabilities, who were in the workforce, yourself included, let's say, you've always worked from home for us because we know that's how to get the best from you. If you spend all of your time going between places when digital technology works so brilliantly, just as long as we can make that happen. So how do we have the best from our staff? Well, actually working from home, using the digital means of doing things has really helped that. We could have been doing that a lot more, a lot earlier, if a lot more companies had actually listened harder to people who were asking for it.


Jonathan Hassell: So I think that's the thing. The one thing I would say there is that for every person who challenges the status quo and says, "Actually, can I define work like this, please? I would like... To get the best out of me as an employee, I need these certain things, whether it's a bit of assistive technology because I'm blind, and I need a screen reader." Or, for that matter, whether it's, "I actually need to work different office hours because I have kids or an elderly parent who I need to care for." All of these things are, in the moment, can seem inconvenient. But if you step back and think, "What are the opportunities behind that?" There can be some amazing things happening.


Jonathan Hassell: I'm just really looking forward to seeing how we progress forwards from this imposed new normal that we've got. I'm hoping that some of the things that I'm seeing from research of people saying, "Actually, what was so great about the office anyway? Let's debug the whole thing. What was great about it? Social interaction with people. Yeah, let's keep that. What was awful about it? That commute. So how do we get the good bits and throw away the bad bits because we thought differently for a while." That's the sort of stuff that has always been available, I think, if people have listened to people like you, really.


Toby Mildon: Thanks, Jonathan. And, hopefully, people are listening to me. [laughter] So for the diversity and inclusion practitioner who's listening to this interview, what is one really tangible action that they can take to really start to get the ball rolling on digital accessibility and digital inclusion? 


Jonathan Hassell: Sure. So I think the first thing is to track the, if you like, employment experience of your staff. So if your website has not been audited for accessibility, that could actually explain the fact that you don't have any staff in your organisation who have particular types of disability. If I can't use it with a screen reader, you are not open for me, if I was blind, for being an employee. So auditing your website. Actually, if you've done that, the next thing would be... Chances are, you're using e-learning in your onboarding if you're an organisation of any size. Is that accessible? So as somebody who uses the keyboard to navigate around things, can I actually complete my onboarding with your e-learning, or actually, do I need to kinda get somebody next to me to help me do that? Well, that person next to me is not there at the moment if we're all working from home.


Jonathan Hassell: And then just that I guess the last thing that there will be to test things like all of your holiday booking system on your intranet, your expense system. Can people actually use these things if they have different types of disabilities? If you can't actually get a job with an organisation that has somebody with a particular type of disability, then that's awful, and that organisation is actually prohibiting you from being able to work there, which doesn't seem legal to me. But it's almost even worse if you let people in and then the experience that they get in the organisation disables them. They have all of the capabilities, but you haven't provided the technology that works for their preferred ways of doing things. You have disabled them, not the other way around. And so how can they thrive? You're one of the best project managers I've ever worked with, but if I gave you dreadful tools that you can't use, I've just ruined your effectiveness for me. That's what the employers should be thinking about.


Jonathan Hassell: So that is the start of a whole journey through getting good at this, but just checking to see where you're at at the moment. Nobody wants to be discriminatory, but a lot of it happens. So we can help, if you like, do those audits, to check the temperature, to see whether or not you are being the sort of organisation that you really wanna be.


Toby Mildon: That's brilliant. So how can somebody get in touch with you if they are interested in learning more about digital accessibility, or they want to start with by doing an audit, for example? 


Jonathan Hassell: So people can go to our website www.hassellinclusion.com. On there is something we call the scorecards. You can answer questions for about 20 minutes. What that will do is it would give you a score for where you are on your journey, from awareness in digital accessibility, all the way from being, if you like, best practice in the world. And also, the next steps you can do, no matter where you are on that journey to getting better in that and how you can benefit from that as an organisation. So yeah, check out the scorecards on our website.


Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Jonathan, thank you ever so much for joining me on this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. As always, I've really enjoyed talking with you. And thank you for tuning in to this episode of the show. Hopefully, you've enjoyed my conversation with Jonathan as well. And if you know anybody who's interested in the topic of diversity and inclusion, or indeed, digital accessibility, please do share this episode with them so that they can learn about this stuff too. Until then, I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. Goodbye.


Announcer: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.