Developing intelligent enterprises: Accessibility is a journey not a project

  • National Newswatch

Virtually every day some new breakthrough technology is released with the potential to transform the workplace. The pace of change is dizzying. And the demand is rapidly growing among Canadians for seamless access to new tools wherever they work - in the office, at home, on their smartphones. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the embrace of digital work tools and has also brought into sharp relief the negative impact on employees and organizations of gaps in access to them.Such gaps are especially challenging to Canadians with disabilities. For workers with vision, hearing and mobility impairments, for example, accessibility is not merely about learning a new design, finance or HR software. It is about equity in access that meets the unique needs and circumstances to let everyone achieve their full potential.In Canada, more than six million people aged 15 and over identify as having a disability, according to the Canadian Survey on Disability. Data also shows 59 per cent of Canadians with disabilities aged 25 to 64 are employed compared to 80 per cent of Canadians without disabilities. Furthermore, people with disabilities earn less than Canadians without disabilities (12 per cent less for those with milder disabilities and 51 per cent less for those with more severe disabilities) and are more likely to live in poverty.Governments the world over — including here in Canada — have passed laws that mandate workplace accessibility, such as the Accessible Canada Act, for good reason. But, as Return on Disability Group CEO Rich Donovan notes, “The biggest challenge for Canadian companies is to avoid the 'compliance trap,' in that mere compliance will not lead to outstanding business results.”We know from data that inclusive workplaces are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets, three times as likely to be high-performing, six times more likely to be innovative and agile and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.Intelligent enterprises, whether in government or business, adopt and adapt new technologies to promote agility, innovation and resilience in fast changing times. The adoption of new technology needs to go hand in hand with more inclusive products.At the heart of this approach is the belief that intelligent enterprises understand that they cannot afford to waste any of their teams' skills or talents, that inclusive enterprises are stronger, more effective enterprises.We all must continue to challenge ourselves to do betterAchieving real accessibility is not a narrow exercise of purchasing an “accessible product”,  adjusting specific lines of software code or securing a “check-off” list of strict compliance with standards, guidelines. The goal should be to develop and deploy accessible and inclusive solutions, and that means it must be acknowledged that technology is only one component of the desired outcome. The design process itself has to have Canadians with disabilities at its centre. Building upon this user-centric design, the solution must be developed and tested against real world conditions and where remaining deficiencies may exist, proper accommodations should be considered.After all, solution accessibility is a journey not a function. It is unlikely that there is a singular approach to make something accessible for everyone. Different approaches and trade-offs are necessary considerations and multiple solutions may be required to address all needs. This is an involved and complex process that needs to unfold in a considered, reflective manner that will go wherever the needs of the end users lead. All the more reason to begin the inclusive design process from the get go.As is often the case, new innovations are fundamentally changing the way we connect and interface with our technology and this will provide new options for solution accessibility. Think of the number of ways we now use voice interactions to access technology on our mobile devices, and in our homes. Conversational user interfaces and chatbots are rapidly being integrated into software applications to enhance the level of interaction for all users.What is important is that the final implementation supports the needs of an intelligent enterprise's people. We are all learning new things all the time and finding better ways to create inclusive tools and applications. We need to remain committed to working  together — technology companies with enterprises and government, and Canadians with disabilities — to share and apply what we have learned and to learn together as we embark on the accessibility journey collaboratively.It is only with this spirit of partnership — with governments, with the input of Canadians with disabilities, with businesses — that we will achieve the real accessibility benefits that we all want as a society.Nicole Windmann is the Vice President of Inclusive Design and Accessibility at SAP, the market leader in enterprise application software, helping companies of all sizes and in all industries run at their best.