Lisa Bertolini, an accessibility expert at Accenture, has been using a wheelchair her entire life. She was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) when she was six months old. For individuals with SMA, walking, breathing, talking, even swallowing can be difficult. Incredible advancements in technology help Lisa function in her work as an executive and enable independent living at home. For work, she finds the combination of her mouth joystick and on-screen keyboard helpful for typing. She uses Dragon Naturally Speaking, a speech recognition software package, for long text segments. For life at home, Lisa has a robotic arm attached to her electric wheelchair that allows her to independently get a drink, eat food, move her feet for comfort and tidy her home. Lisa has increasingly achieved new milestones of independence in her personal and professional life.
Lisa’s experiences speak directly to the ways in which evolving technologies can help advance accessibility and inclusion for people with physical disabilities. And she is not alone. According to Accenture’s recent , Lisa is one of 75% of persons with disabilities who expect technology will play a more prominent role in their lives over the next three years. What does that mean for your employees and your customers? What might it mean for the design of products and services?
It’s a good time to ask those questions, as we’re fast approaching Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), on May 19. It’s also a good time to remember that while accessibility brings to mind the removal of physical barriers, it also means a great deal more.
Important questions to steer future decision-making
Accenture’s 2022 annual Technology Vision research effort included a global survey of 24,000 consumers from December 2021 through January 2022 to capture insights into the use of, interactions with, and beliefs about technology in people’s everyday lives. Among our respondents, 5,671 (23%) disclosed that they had a disability. An analysis of the findings from this particular group of consumers offers insight into the broader meaning of accessibility.
Two key findings, in particular, suggest meaningful questions and/or actions companies should consider about their workplace designs, the support they offer employees and how they design and market their products and services.
- Many people with disabilities (40%) reported purely negative or mixed emotions surrounding their experiences with technology.
Those negative or mixed emotions ranged from overwhelmed, isolated, anxious and concerned, to feeling frustrated and disappointed.
Perhaps that finding shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that less than 3% of the top one million websites in the world offer a fully accessible experience. But that statistic should beg a few questions:
- Are our customers able to easily navigate our website interface, find products and place orders regardless of visual, auditory, developmental, or motor disabilities?
- Are we designing and developing technologies, apps and/or platforms that embrace inclusive design techniques and are compliant with globally defined accessibility standards?
- Is our technology interoperable across a variety of devices, including assistive technologies such as screen readers, web browsers, and other accessibility tools?
Answering these highly relevant questions will become even more critical as companies ramp up their use of artificial intelligence (AI). Seventy-five percent of respondents with disabilities expect the number of times they interact with AI to increase over the next three years. AI powered tools are increasingly able to recognize and learn from human intent and emotion, and then to act accordingly. Its potential to broaden markets and better lives is real. So is, however, the concerns about what AI learns inadvertently—and the biases it might develop as a result.
- Sixty percent of respondents with disabilities agree that more of their life and livelihood is moving into digital spaces. And 10% say they are so intertwined with technology that they view it as an extension of themselves.
From remote work easing the challenges of commuting to online grocery shopping with delivery to telehealth appointments and social media, technology has enabled increasingly inclusive experiences at home and work. Consider that 41% of our sample (versus 34% of respondents without disabilities) mostly or entirely depend on digital technology for personal safety. (The free Be My Eyes app is a relevant if long-established example. Introduced in 2015, the app connects users to an individual with good vision, who can then act as a guide in real-time.)
Almost half of our survey sample (47%) also reported that they mostly or completely depend on digital technology (e.g., computing, connected or online technologies) for mental and physical well-being. There are many technological supports for mental health in a range of areas, including self-care, therapy and symptom management. Tech tools are also helping connect individuals with specialists more readily. For example, parents of children with autism can tap VR to help them better connect with specialists. These same tools can help parents expose their children to simulated environments safely, to prepare them for future real-world encounters.
Questions to ask here include:
- With AR/VR wearables, how might we address accessibility issues, such as the weight of these tools? What about the physical movements currently required to fully experience AR/VR?
- How might we provide assistive communication (e.g., audio descriptions) to make our offerings, including AR/VR, more inclusive?
- People with disabilities already find the most personal value in advanced technologies that ease home life and interactions with existing technologies (appliances and such) at home and at work. Lisa’s use of smart home technology, for example, enables greater control of her home and work environment by allowing her to manage the temperature, adjust lighting, lock doors and control TV/mobile devices independently. How can we make those technologies even more inclusive? And how can we define the white space?
- How can we best address the rising role of technology in the lives of people who report living with a disability? More than half (56%) of our respondents with disabilities expect organizations to provide inclusive products and services to help them carry their online preferences and assets (such as digital identities and avatars) across platforms. How can we get that done?
Answering these questions will not only help companies improve current accessibility and inclusivity, but also prepare for the future—in particular the rise of the metaverse. Accenture defines the metaverse as an evolving and expanding continuum of technologies, including, for example, virtual reality (VR); augmented reality (AR); apps driving new experiences; design tools and digital assets—all powered by AI and underpinned by connectivity technology such as 5G and cloud. Shaping an accessible, inclusive metaverse will mean close collaboration and cooperation among various stakeholders across the ecosystem of platforms and partners—corporate, government and nonprofit—working right alongside people with disabilities and other diverse populations.
Keep human needs and wants front and center
Three-quarters of respondents with disabilities agree that the next technology revolution needs to be led by human-centric experiences, giving people more control over their data.
For those with disabilities and those without, keeping humans and societal considerations front and center will determine how technology helps or hurts the world in the years to come. As our Technology Vision 2022 thought leadership states, “Trust will be paramount; existing concerns around privacy, bias, fairness and human impact are sharpening as the line between people’s physical and digital lives blurs.”
With appreciation to our contributors: Regina Maruca, Emily Kish, Gabe Schmittlein