The CTO/DCMS eAccessibility Summit: tale and keynote speech

At the end of August, I gave the opening keynote at the CTO/DCMS Commonwealth eAccessibility Summit. The delegates were Commonwealth policymakers - ministers, under-secretaries and advisors - and I saw it as an opportunity to plant seeds, so to speak.

The Summit ran over two days and was preceded by attendance at the opening ceremony of the Paralympics, which was pretty spectacular. I was scheduled to speak at 9:30am and was a little worse for wear having arrived home from the opening ceremony at 2:00am. Although the conference was about accessibility, delegates were not tech folk, so I decided to talk about what really motivates me - human rights.

As adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights is a prerequisite for membership of the Commonwealth and accessibility of ICTs for disabled people is born of human rights, I figured I would have a captive audience. Since I'm usually yapping in front of a room of fellow geeks, I was really excited and quite nervous about not talking tech.

The event was at the Institute of Directors and, oh the irony, I could not get Internet access. As I scrambled out of the house that morning on 4 1/2 hours' sleep, I had my iPad with my full speech on it in Pages, but realised that my cribs were in the cloud. Genius.

With 15 minutes between me and my keynote, I left my iPad on my chair and winged it. So, here is my keynote speech. I know for certain it was not delivered verbatim, but the seeds were definitely planted.

The keynote as it was written

Commonwealth e-Accessibility Summit
30th to 31st August 2012
Institute of Directors
London, United Kingdom

Keynote Speech
Sandi Wassmer

Co-hosted by
Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation
UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport

I would like to thank Professor Unwin and the team at the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation for this incredible opportunity to work together harmoniously and for the possibilities that lie ahead over these two days. I am honoured to be participating, discussing, debating and making decisions that will influence and shape ICT policy for the benefit of older and disabled people throughout the Commonwealth.

I would also like to thank the Minister, The Hon Ed Vaizey, for his informative speech today, for his ongoing commitment to eAccessibility and for keeping it on the agenda in the current economic climate. I am thrilled to hear that the BetaGov project is making such great progress. eAccessibility by default will be a fantastic achievement and an opportunity for other Commonwealth countries to learn from the GovUK team's experiences in implementing such a monumental project.

If you are thinking that the Summit materials reference disabled people, not older people, and are wondering if I have made a mistake, I can assure you I have not but I shall get back to this shortly.

Frank Lloyd Wright once said;

“All fine architectural values are human values, else not valuable.”

He never designed a building without visiting the community it served. He would understand the entire community's needs first before considering how to serve them. Smart man.

This Summit isn't just about technology or policy or the rights of disabled people; it's about the possibilities that technology holds for all members of our human family. Yet, it seems that human values have been lost in legislation and technical conformance, both of which are of course pivotal to achieving the objectives of eAccessibility and digital inclusion, but without the human element, neither technology nor policy can facilitate inclusion. After all, it is not laws but people who create a just society.

There are three words I want you to keep close to your hearts during the Summit –

Freedom, Equality & Dignity.

It is these three words that form the fundamental principles of all human rights; it is incumbent on Governments to ensure that the policies they create and uphold are underpinned by the human rights principles that precede them, the principles endorsed by all member states of the United Nations and throughout the Commonwealth.

Freedom to decide is the right to participate in the shaping of decisions affecting our own lives and of the society in which we live.

Equality of opportunity is the right to equivalence for all human beings in all life pursuits.

Dignity of person is the right to respect as a human being; to be afforded respect by others and to experience a sense of respect for oneself.

Without empathy, we will not achieve the Summit's objectives, and so we must hold the foundation of all human rights - freedom, equality and dignity - in our hearts, with compassion for all humankind; it was also Frank Lloyd Wright who said:

"The heart is the chief feature of a functioning mind."

There is also one little but very important word I want you to keep front of mind - Choice.

Choice is defined as the right, power and opportunity to choose, and importantly to do so with one's own volition.

Choice is essential in achieving and maintaining Freedom, Equality and Dignity.

Choice is also a vital component of economic stability; it protects consumers from the perils of market monopolisation and provides the right platform for innovation.

In turn, Innovation stimulates economic growth and we all need this more than ever right now. And herein lies both the problem and the solution.

Governments are obliged to provide equal access to public services for all their citizens, exemplified by UK Government's digital by default policy.

However, in industry the access in accessibility has been sorely misunderstood, as those advocating for the rights of disparate and now disenfranchised groups of disabled people assert that 100% of all ICT must be accessible to 100% of people 100% of the time, and this is just not possible.

Businesses are in business to make money and their first and foremost legal obligation is to their shareholders, which is why the concepts of reasonable accommodation and disproportionate burden exist, but it is the inherent subjectivity of these concepts that has given rise to the unrealistic expectations of those advocating around accessibility. Moreover, the diversity of impairments that fall under the disability umbrella, and the spectrum and range within each classification of disability paints a very complex landscape.

In order for industry to have any graspable solutions, those advocating on behalf of the rights of older and disabled people must work together and not simply on behalf of the exclusive needs of their constituents. Not only does this make accessibility untenable from a commercial standpoint, it only confuses matters when it comes to awareness, as there is no cohesive message. As it stands, accessibility is throttling innovation and this must change.

Attitudes towards older and disabled people place some of the biggest barriers to inclusion. If we are to get accessibility right, in the first instance we will need to eradicate prejudiced and inaccurate assumptions about any human characteristics that place limitations on people’s ability to participate in and contribute to society.

Not long ago, people with certain characteristics were held by society as being less worthy and less human than others. Indigenous peoples were barbaric animals, Jews were money-grabbing crooks, Blacks were violent criminals, Homosexuals were immoral perverts, and people with mental or physical impairments were freaks who needed to be institutionalised.

Although these views now seem shocking, despite the incredible progress that has been made since the creation of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such views still exist in society today.

Throughout this Summit, we must all take stock of our perceptions of ageing and disability. We need to judiciously question our thoughts, beliefs and assumptions about the similarities and differences between human beings.

We all belong to the same human family. We are all Homo sapiens; we share the biological characteristics that define us as human and distinguish us from all other sentient beings. All human beings are equally human. No human being is more human or less human than any other.

Us humans are a splendidly diverse species, with many perceivable, and plenty of not perceivable, differences. There are the characteristics of individuals, such as abilities, sexual orientation and age, as well as those of members of different human populations, such as ethnicity, language and nationality. However, our innate similarities are far greater and far more significant than any differences between us.

And now I will explain where older people come in. In the UK today, the Over 50 population are responsible for 80% of the nation's wealth, 60% of its savings, 40% of its spending, and is growing faster than any other age group. It is estimated that in 20 years' time, people aged 50+ will account for almost 50% of all UK adults.

And this is where age and disability intersect. Most disabilities arise in adulthood and prevalence increases with age.

Only 1% of UK children are disabled, whereas at the other end of the spectrum, 66% of those aged 85+ have a disability. Moreover, the natural signs of ageing that occur in all of us but are not classified as official disabilities are the hidden statistics. Deteriorating sensory acuity, decreasing mobility and fine motor skills, and the reduced ability to process cognitive load are inevitable.

I was listening to a talk by Chade-Meng Tan from Google that was introduced by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, who reiterated some staggering statistics that were given by a physician at a recent conference in Paris. He said that 70% of people by the age of 55 will have one chronic illness, which rises to 90% by age 65.

The relationship between age and disability can no longer be ignored, yet from all standpoints - technology, policy and advocacy - age and disability are still viewed as completely separate.

The focus of all ICT should be on optimising user experience by ensuring that task completion is as easy and enjoyable as possible. In an inclusive society, this also necessitates an equitable experience. Designing for diversity will require the flexibility to adapt to the changing demographics of our populations and the rapid pace of technological advancement, and an understanding of the challenges that diversity presents.

There is, and always will be, a shared responsibility between good inclusive design in mainstream ICT and standalone assistive technology, but there is also a middle ground.

Apple's inclusion of accessibility features in its covetable mainstream consumer products is a result of Steve Jobs' belief in providing an end-to-end user experience, but the advent of mobile apps - which for the non-geeks in the room are actually just small software applications brilliantly branded and marketed by Apple as Apps - has opened up enormous opportunities for innovation and evinces that people are task driven.

Nevertheless, Apple's products are cost-prohibitive for many UK citizens and for the majority of citizens in many Commonwealth countries, which is why Google's open source platform, Android, offers unparalleled opportunities for the wider mainstream consumer market to benefit even further. Although Microsoft’s relationship with Nokia is yet to bear any real fruit, the shift in emphasis from desktop PC’s to mobile devices, particularly in the consumer marketplace is already spawning affordable alternatives to standalone assistive technology. However, as Facebook and Twitter have demonstrated in their struggles to capitalise on their market positions, the burgeoning digital industry needs to grow up.

The middle ground is wide open for creative and compassionate technologists to provide older and disabled people with the great digital experiences they deserve, but only if the policies Governments create achieve the right balance to facilitate innovation.

I would like to thank the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport once again for the opportunity to participate in the Summit. I am proud to have been part of the progress made around eAccessibility here in the UK, but there remains much to do and many challenges ahead. The opportunity afforded by this Summit for Commonwealth policymakers to work in consort in responding to these challenges is significant.

I would like to leave you with the words of Albert Einstein, who said;

"Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors"

Thank you.


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