‘Assistive technology’ could mean almost 200,000 more workers – and an $11bn boost to the economy

The boost would also come from the $2.1 billion a year that would be saved on benefit payments, says IBM

If more attention was paid to accommodating disabled people in the workforce, 186,000 new productive workers could be employed. This would result in a massive boost to the economy — to the tune of $11 billion, according to two IBM specialists who develop technology that helps disabled people use computers.

Disabled people’s abilities are underused. “[And this is] the most challenging social issue we face,” says Mark Bagshaw, of IBM Sydney, who works with the company’s Human Ability and Accessibility Centre.

Digital technology has a major role to play in helping disabled people gain access to the workplace, where computers and the internet are now essential elements, he says.

Bagshaw bases his calculations on statistics that say one in five people has some degree of disability and that, while 74% of able-bodied people who are of working age have jobs, only 44% of disabled people are employed.

The boost to the economy would come not only from extra productive workers gained but also from the estimated $2.1 billion a year that would be saved on benefit payments, says Bagshaw.

The most obvious example of “assistive technology for the disabled” is voice translation of text for blind people, says John Evans, the head of IBM’s Accessibility Centre. Boston-based Evans spoke on a recent visit to New Zealand.

“The visual landscape [of assistive technology] is very large,” he says. But performance can be improved in a number of ways — from producing more natural-sounding speech to designing websites using the recognised standards for easing use by the blind and partially sighted.

For example, these standards mean all the graphic elements of a website carry “text tags” describing them; these can then be read by a voice device. Colour combinations should have reasonable contrast too, to help here.

The New Zealand government has developed accessibility standards to improve access for disabled users, as well as for those who have only basic computer equipment and a low-speed internet connection.

Modern PC operating systems and browsers can provide some assistance for the disabled, such as text enlargement and contrast enhancement, but more people could be helped if this was a normal feature of websites, Evans says.

The Accessibility Centre has also been working on a digital wireless networking infrastructure, to provide real-time captioning of visual material for deaf people. It is also exploring technologies to provide live sign language over the web, Evans says.

Bagshaw is physically disabled himself and, while he says this gives him insider knowledge (particularly of the capabilities of people with spinal injuries), he was a little reluctant to take on the Accessibility Centre job.

He has worked for IBM for 27 years in ordinary roles — work that “provided respite from dealing with disability every day”, he says.

Stephen Bell is married to Robyn Hunt, director of a company that advises on website accessibility.

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