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Workplace challenges for the visually-impaired - tech solutions to tackle a rising issue

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett July 5, 2024
Summary:
For people with visual impairments, ensuring tech is usable rather than simply accessible is vital to enable workplace inclusion.

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Visual impairment is more widespread than you might think. According to the World Health Organization, 2.2 billion people experience it around the world – although sadly, just under half of such cases could either have been prevented or have yet to be addressed. Moreover, an ageing population means the issue is only going to become more pronounced. The number of individuals experiencing vision loss is projected to increase by 55% between 2020 and 2050.

But there is a cost involved with all of this. In terms of lost productivity around the world, for example, the estimated impact is $411 billion. There is also the huge problem of wasted human potential and talent. To illustrate the point, only 45% of visually impaired people participate in the US labor force compared with 75% of the wider population. The situation is even worse in the UK where only one in four blind or partially sighted people are in employment, indicates research from the Royal National Institute of Blind People.

This scenario is not helped by a quarter of UK employers being unwilling to make the reasonable adjustments required by law to ensure their workplaces are accessible. As a result, it would appear many blind and partially sighted job candidates are being screened out during the recruitment process. The problem largely stems from a fear among employers that catering to their accessibility needs would be too expensive.

The challenges of being visually impaired at work

So, if apparently against the odds, someone with a visual impairment does manage to find a job, what challenges are they likely to face in the workplace and can technology help? Feargus MacDaeid, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of legaltech firm Definely, who is visually impaired himself, says:

I started my own company as it was the only way to feel job secure. The nature of work is about the bottom line, especially at major corporations, financial institutions or law firms. And the technology doesn’t exist for you to compete at the same level as your peers, so you’re always behind and you always feel at risk and vulnerable. It’s because of the way things are designed and built and the way information has historically and traditionally been presented. You can never be on a par with your colleagues. It’s why a lot of people with disabilities in the workplace experience anxiety and depression. You have to cope with mental pressures that others don’t even realize you’re living with.

Chris Lewis, Founding Director of Lewis Insight, is likewise visually impaired. He says that things are easier now than when he started as a telecoms industry and accessibility analyst 40 years ago, as little assistive technology existed then. But things are still far from perfect:

Technology designed for the visually impaired, such as magnification followed by screen readers in the late 1980s, are expensive, clunky and not immersive, which is what we should be aiming for as it’ll be when things stop being an issue.

A key challenge here, points out Mike Fox, Lead Developer at Lighthouse Works who is visually impaired too, is “poor software design”. Lighthouse Works is a non-profit business process outsourcer, which employs sighted, blind and visually impaired workers. Fox says:

Part of what I do is build web stuff, so I might want to create a link and make it look like a button. The problem is screen readers have no way of knowing I intend to change the link’s role as they can only see the underlying code. People build crazy contraptions and add any old tags, but screen readers don’t know what to make of them. It’s a huge part of the issue as things aren’t labelled correctly and so aren’t recognized. So, any number of things can go wrong as most software isn’t designed with screen readers in mind.

The world is built for the average person

To try and overcome some of these issues, Fox has developed a simplified user interface for Genesys’ Cloud-based call center applications, which Lighthouse Works’ call center staff use. Called EquiVista, the interface can be tailored in line with each individual employees’ visual capabilities. While Lighthouse Works is currently using the interface internally, it will be available for sale to other Genesys customers from September.

In general terms though, believes MacDaeid, the problem is that “the world is built for the average person”. This means that those who do not fit into this category are generally not catered to effectively. While it is particularly true in the case of websites and intranet sites, PC-based applications are far from easy to manage either. As he says:

When you look at the way information is presented digitally, it’s for people to read and see. The output is designed to be visually absorbed, not auditorily absorbed using assistive technology. So, assistive tech is used to access information presented in a visual manner and works on a linear basis ie it reads element by element, left to right, top to bottom in straight lines. This means when a visual person looks at something, I’m already 20 seconds behind. And when you scale that up, how many weeks and years do I fall further behind? It’s about the cumulative impact of things over time.

This cumulative impact is exacerbated by the amount of time and the high levels of repetition it requires to learn how to use any given computer system. MacDaeid explains:

Every task on a ribbon in Word, you have to learn over and over until it’s so engrained in your memory, you don’t have to think about it anymore. And that’s only one feature in one application, before you even get to reading the information you’re after.

The underestimated importance of usability

As a result, he like Lewis, runs his business mostly from his smartphone, although even so, he still requires help sometimes from sighted colleagues. The point, MacDaeid says, is that providing visually impaired people with accessibility features is simply not enough:

I love technology. Everything I do is due to my ability to access information using technology. But many big tech vendors, although they fully understand the investment required to make things accessible, fail to see that access isn’t enough. It’s the lowest bar you can set to provide access to information. Access doesn’t make me efficient or give me the ability to compete with my peers. Don’t be fooled into thinking the field is level because you’ve given someone access. It’s usability that I want. And access without usability equals exclusion.

Therefore, MacDaied and his Co-Founder Nnamdi Emelifeonwu designed the Definely system, which enables lawyers to create, draft and review legal documents in one place, with usability in mind:

We designed our solution for the edge, which is me, and we got the whole middle, so every other sighted lawyer, for nothing. You see that so many times when you solve a problem for visually impaired people. If it’s made things easier for me, it’s going to be a hell of a lot easier for sighted people too.

Lewis agrees that when designing systems, it is vital to support both accessibility and usability from the ground up:

Every app and every service should be born accessible. If it’s not, accessibility has to be included as part of the upgrade cycle, which just makes it an ugly add-on. As they say at the Helen Hamblyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art: ‘If you design for the edge, you get the centre for free.’

Lewis points to employers, such as telco BT, which has embraced this kind of philosophy with its Able2 support network for people with disabilities:

People with different disabilities become a sounding board when developing policies, and there’s also a group to ensure apps are developed with accessibility in mind. It’s baked into the company culture and its technology. Everyone’s aware people with disabilities are there because they can do the job, not just to fill a quota. BT, along with Salesforce.com, are among the few tech companies that do this because it’s supported at a high level – and it needs to be.

My take

In today’s largely ableist society, it is clear that little thought is generally given to the usability challenges people with visual impairments face when trying to use computer systems and applications. Such neglect appears to be systemic and, as such, much-needed change needs to come from the top.

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