From screen readers and voice recognition apps to neurodiversity aids and pain management wearables, assistive technologies have the potential to transform the personal and professional lives of millions of people around the world.
Although assistive technologies are increasingly finding their way into mass-market consumer applications, a lot of people are still missing out. Only 1 in 10 people in need have access to assistive products, which impacts their ability to work and develop long-term careers.
“Virtually everyone is capable of doing everything with the right tools and aids”, said Dr. Nasser Siabi, CEO of Microlink, which specialises in assistive technologies. “We have to reframe the conversation about disability – there is amazing untapped potential.”
Making it easier for people to ask for help
Although attitudes are starting to change, there’s still a perception gap within our workplaces: 67% of leaders believe their technological set-ups and cultures are supportive, but just 41% of employees with disabilities agree. As a result, people remain unheard and problems remain hidden. “Employers have a responsibility to ensure there’s a workplace culture where people can ask for help”, said Pippa Stacey, Communications Consultant for Astriid, a charity that helps people with long-term health conditions find employment.
According to a survey by Accenture, 76% of employees with a disability are not fully transparent about it. “It can be daunting to initiate a conversation about assistive technologies especially when you are starting a new role”, said Pippa. “If you are highlighting a problem related to your disability to an employer, then one of the most effective ways of dealing with it is to also offer a solution”.
And there are lots of solutions that use both well-established and emerging technologies. For example, there is now an array of speech-to-text apps and services available, including a dictate option in Microsoft 365. “Speech to text technology has been a real game-changer for me”, said Pippa, who suffers from ME and blogs on chronic illness issues. “I also use an app to adjust the brightness of my computer screen, which helps to reduce some of the cognitive symptoms that I experience”.
Empowering people to achieve their best
Artificial intelligence is the driving force behind many assistive technology innovations – from smart reading and real-time captioning to facial recognition and posture correction. Research company Gartner estimates that by 2023, the number of people with disabilities employed will triple due to AI and emerging technologies reducing barriers to access.
“A lot of employers don’t realise the types of assistive technologies that are available and the difference they can make”, said Pippa. “It can help people have more control over their condition so they can do their best work and not fall victim to burn-out”.
With new assistive technologies constantly hitting the market, it can be difficult for employers and employees to identify the right solutions for the right conditions. Workplace assessments – some of which can be funded through the government’s Access to Work scheme – provide employers with practical recommendations to improve an employee’s comfort and productivity.
“Making your organisation more inclusive starts with understanding an individual’s strengths, skills, and challenges,” said Nasser, who is a founding member of the British Assistive Technology Association. “Assistive technologies can help to reduce condition related absence by 76% and increase productivity by 82%*.”
By making work – and workplaces – more accessible and inclusive, organisations will not only be able to tap into a wider talent pool but also boost competitive advantage. Gartner predicts that by 2022, organisations that do not employ people with disabilities will fall behind their competitors.
“Employers need to think about improving the productivity of their workforce while also addressing disabilities”, said Nasser, who was awarded an OBE for his contribution in helping over 300,000 disabled people transition from education into work. “Assistive technology can be used by everyone and create a level playing field in the workplace.”
This article was written by Helen Guyatt, a journalist, and storyteller. She has been writing about business and IT trends for more than 20 years for a range of publications and corporate clients. Helen often trades her keyboard for a baking bowl and enjoys making (and eating) copious amounts of cake. She is passionate about highlighting social and sustainability issues to help make the world a better place to live.