Computing for a diverse workforce

A standard PC, screen and mouse set-up is often the norm in the workplace. But are the needs of the end-user taken into consideration? Carrie Saint Freedman from AbilityNet investigatesWhether you are an employee or a visitor to a library offering computer access, a standard PC, screen and mouse set-up seems to be de rigueur. This formulaic approach to equipment assumes that each individual interacts with the same set-up in the same way resulting in the same levels of comfort and efficiency. In the sophisticated world of IT, this attitude seems rather anachronistic. Whilst we may apply great personal choice and discretion to other essential business items (pens, cars and even chairs), our basic tool – the PC – is selected, in the majority of cases, with absolutely no regard to the user whatsoever.
Despite the legal, moral and commercial arguments for doing so, many workplace professionals are unaware of the simple and inexpensive adjustments available to get round mouse and keyboard difficulties, as well as vision problems and other conditions such as dyslexia and ‘RSI’.
DDA legislation has been in place for over a decade now and whilst we are well aware of its requirements as far as physical access to buildings is concerned, we may be less alert to its applications in other areas of the workplace.
Disability Equality Duty
More recently, since 2006, the Disability Equality Duty (DED) has been framed specifically to cover public sector organisations including hospitals, local and central government, schools and colleges. This amplifies the original wording of the Act to actively promote disability equality as employers as well as service providers.
The architects of the DED hoped that it would bring about a shift from a legal framework in which change relies on individual disabled people (whether customers or employees) complaining about discrimination, to one in which the public sector itself becomes an agent of change.
There are over 9.8 million disabled people in the UK and a growing representation of older employees in the workforce, for whom associated conditions such as failing eyesight and dexterity problems like arthritis may occur. 40 per cent of the English population is now over 45 – the age at which the incidence of disability begins to increase.
A Health and Safety Executive report suggests that Upper Limb Disorder or ‘rsi’ is the most common cause of workplace health problems, totalling in excess of 4.2 million working days lost a year and affecting over half a million employees. A further survey reveals that one in five PC users report some degree of pain or discomfort related to an input device – i.e. a mouse. And this figure rises steeply depending on the level and intensity of PC-based work in which the individual engages. In fact, a recent study estimates that over half of us could benefit from adjusting our computer in some way to improve our comfort and/or efficiency.  

Non standard requirements
Seemingly ‘invisible’ issues such as dyslexia, eye strain, backache, headaches or hand/arm discomfort are very common. If left unresolved, these can have a huge impact on morale and performance and lead to absence from work. In many cases they can escalate and result in prolonged sick leave and early retirement.
For employers, identifying the right solutions for staff with ‘non-standard’ requirements and providing them with the training they require to operate their new equipment often requires outsourced expertise.
Specialists like AbilityNet deliver hundreds of face-to-face, in-depth, workplace-based assessments a year enabling staff to increase productivity and comfort, stay in work, return to work or even to get a job for the first time. As a result, employers have been able to fully comply with their legislative obligations.
The very nature of this service means that it can be a lengthy, expensive and tiring process for the individual concerned. The relevant member of staff will be unavailable for several hours during which the assessor will try out various combinations of hardware and software with the employee to find the optimum solution. If the staff member in question has a problem which is exacerbated by tiredness such as ‘RSI’, a vision impairment or a degenerative disease like MS, such a protracted period of concentration is also likely to be extremely arduous.

Remote consultancy
Bearing these issues in mind in tandem with decreasing budgets especially in a recessionary climate, AbilityNet has developed a range of innovative approaches to providing the same levels of expert consultancy at a fraction of the cost.
The ‘remote’ model depends on a combination of:

  • Telephone or Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP)
  • Online Remote Assistance (where the consultant accesses the end-user’s computer remotely through a broadband internet connection, to make adjustments to settings as required)
  • Use of a webcam to see the workstation and observe any mouse or keyboard difficulties
  • Loan equipment – so the end-user can experiment with a variety of adaptations to check suitability before purchasing
  • Training using the above technologies

This technology enables a ‘barrier free’ approach where neither the location of the assessor nor the client is significant. Avoiding travel reduces environmental impacts as well as saving money and time, whilst the process itself can take place at the pace most appropriate to the individual concerned, taking into account both their condition and their other work commitments.  
The whole exercise can be broken down into shorter sessions or halted whilst a certain device is ‘test driven’ and assessed for suitability.
According to AbilityNet’s own figures, over 90 per cent of assessments are suitable for the remote assessment model.
With a loan bank of over 1,000 items AbilityNet’s remote assessment team can even lend clients a laptop if they need to try out a solution which involves pre-loaded software – speech recognition technology for example.
Explains Karen Maxwell, AbilityNet’s remote services manager: “The flexibility of our infrastructure and the technology involved is such that we can turn around a remote assessment within a week of a referral being made.  
“The ‘remote’ nature of the encounter means that both parties can concentrate on what is important and stick to the agenda. Client feedback shows that people find the service convenient, focused and, more importantly, extremely successful.”
Remote need not mean cold or distant, the quality of user interaction has led to a 94 per cent+ satisfaction rating amongst users year on year.

User requirements
When the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) began a major desktop refresh programme, employees’ specific requirements were high on the agenda.
During the rollout of Microsoft’s Vista operating system while simultaneously introducing new laptops to the majority of employees, the impact on disabled staff was considered at the outset.
Peter Barber, head of Defra’s business relationship management unit, says that bringing in external expertise was crucial in ensuring the programme progressed smoothly: “The key was to ensure that neither access, productivity nor comfort were compromised during the process,” he says.
Adoption of a new system can be stressful for those using non-standard equipment. System and application upgrades can be especially problematic for those using adaptations, as glitches may leave them unable to work at all.
AbilityNet worked alongside Defra and its technology partners Microsoft and IBM to ensure that staff with special needs were supported through the transition, identifying the correct adjustments that were needed and providing support for deployment and training.
AbilityNet’s Henry Allcock carried out much of the initial ‘telephone screening’ of nearly 140 DEFRA employees who had special computing needs. DEFRA’s project management was delighted to find that around half of these clients’ problems were resolved during the screening process itself saving a lot of time, effort and expense down the line.  
“Typical scenarios involved cases of vision impairment requiring a simple means to enlarge the contents of the screen, a case of screen glare needing some minor adjustments to screen brightness and positioning, and a user who just needed instructions on how to make changes to accessibility settings in the operating system,” he reports.

The importance of training

Training is vital in the context of adaptive technology and organisations have to meet the diverse training needs of staff who are both supporting and using new equipment. Customer-facing, staff servicing the needs of end-users in public facilities like libraries, UK online and Learn Direct centres, are also tasked with bridging the ‘digital divide’. ‘Providers of goods and services’ to the public are obliged under the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act to make the ‘reasonable adjustments’ necessary to ensure that their equipment is accessible.  
Realising the drain on financial resources that training can represent, AbilityNet has developed a low-cost learning platform as a portal to over 50 courses which range in content from software specific tutorials for those using particular packages such as screen reading solutions, to generic disability-based guidance for those with dyslexia, physical problems or vision impairment making use of the standard keyboard, screen and mouse difficult. The materials are provided with the support of manufacturers and accessibility specialists from across the UK and internationally.
Many useful introductory courses are free, such as those dealing with some of the Accessibility Options within Windows for example, or basic guidance on healthy computing. Learners can work independently in their own time and with the addition of personal support from an AbilityNet tutor if they require it through voice, text or video in real time.
E-learning can be augmented through complementary activities including on-line discussions, forums and ‘webinars’ – the cyber equivalent of a seminar. Here the trainer can reach and interact with widely dispersed groups, even at short notice, broadcasting material via video or desk top and communicating through text, speech or whiteboard.

Designed to facilitate independent learning, the courses can be accessed ‘on-demand’ and are modular in composition, enabling students to build upon prior training and set their own pace.
Says AbilityNet development director, David Banes: “The cost of training is a major barrier to full compliance with the DDA and the creation of a truly accessible and inclusive workplace.
“Sometimes the expense of teaching an individual to use an adapted computer system may even exceed the investment made in the technology itself; whilst waiting for the required training to take place can be a dispiriting experience when the individual is prevented from doing their job properly in the interim.
“This one-stop training solution will provide high quality courses on-demand, help rates of staff retention and hardly dent your training budget.”
Looking ahead, Banes believes that innovative approaches towards accessibility developed by specialists such as AbilityNet, combined with ever more sophisticated and user-friendly solutions delivered over the internet, will result in truly inclusive technology in the workplace and beyond.

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