How can technology become the ultimate ally for inclusion?

18 Jul 2018

Gerry Ellis at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Accessibility and usability consultant Gerry Ellis spoke at Inspirefest 2018 about how technology should be for people of all ability levels.

Technology can provide us with profound new ways of viewing the world, learning opportunities, and chances to meet and connect with like-minded people. It creates a space for education, bonding and expansion of minds.

Unfortunately, people with disabilities can often be restricted in how they use technology due to design omissions and an overall lack of consideration.

Accessibility is crucial

Gerry Ellis is an accessibility and usability consultant working under the moniker Feel the BenefIT. Ellis is also a software engineer with Bank of Ireland and has been involved in various initiatives to promote universal design thinking and inclusion among technologists. As a blind man, Ellis’ unique outlook and experience are vital.

As he began his keynote at Inspirefest 2018, Ellis explained that more than 1bn people in the world experience disability, according to data from the World Health Organization. Here in Ireland, approximately 600,000 people live with a disability of some description. For Ellis, the main aim is to ensure these people can experience technology in the same enriching ways regardless of their level of ability.

Gerry Ellis as illustrated by Liza Donnelly at Inspirefest 2018

Illustration of Gerry Ellis on stage at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Liza Donnelly

He spoke of the decline of trusted intermediaries that help those with disabilities. Put simply, technology is no longer something we just encounter in the workplace – it is leaking into everyday activities. “Companies and governments are driving people to use technology on mobile devices and at home, not in their offices any more.

“Mobile devices are displacing and replacing old, paper-based options.” This can create roadblocks for people living with disabilities as they may be unable to complete digital tasks such as applying for a passport online easily, and the analogue option often no longer exists. “If the mobile device is not accessible, there is no alternative.”

Accessibility is a chain, Ellis explained. From interoperability with assistive devices such as Braille assistants and screen readers, to the website itself and any third parties involved – if one link is broken, none of the steps after that can be completed.

Major tech developments such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and big-data analysis are heralded as the harbingers of a new era of convenience and digital experiences.

However, Ellis said there is a gap in development. “Usually [the technologies] are developed by young, highly educated and highly motivated people” but these people often don’t consider disability.

Gesturing around the room, Ellis noted all of the obstacles in the way for people with disabilities, from stairs to signs on doors, and warned that these same biases could be baked into AI and other tech, which would “unintentionally but undoubtedly lead to unfairness and segregation for people with disabilities”.

Immeasurable benefits of technology

Technology can also have massive benefits for people with disabilities. Ellis recalled how the purchase of a GPS device helped him know when his bus stop would be coming up, meaning he was no longer late when drivers forgot to give him a heads-up. Innovations such as this humble GPS have a “disproportionate benefit” for Ellis and others.

He called for universal design and ongoing discussion with stakeholders throughout digital product design processes and adherence to standards, which is “not that difficult”.

He summed it up: “Technicians cut code, develop GUIs, create APIs. They develop all this technological stuff. When push comes to shove, technologists are changing the lives of people.

“They can change them for ill or for good, and it takes very little to move from one to the other.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects