Why innovation should be accessible for all

Steve Gleason, former American football star, loves to tweet about his team’s latest victories. When he’s not on Twitter, he’s catching up on emails or reading to his son. Ordinary, everyday activities. But the fact that he is doing them at all is extraordinary. Because Steve lives with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), which has left him unable to talk or move. Steve is facing this with characteristic grit and determination, but also thanks to technology designed to assist those living with disabilities. And now he’s channeling his energy into an advocacy campaign underpinned by the belief that technology can transform the lives of people living with disabilities worldwide.

80 million people in the EU live with disabilities. 48% of these individuals are unemployed, whilst a third have never used the internet. And with a rapidly-ageing population, the number of citizens having to adapt to life with some form of disability is only set to increase. Even today’s digital natives will face ageing at some stage. The same technology which has become ubiquitous to all our lives can help people living with both physical and cognitive disabilities to participate more fully in every aspect of society, enriching society itself in the process.

But to achieve this, technology needs to become more accessible. Technology companies like Microsoft are already making commitments to better serve people with disabilities by making their products more accessible. Creating the right policy frameworks is equally important. The European Commission’s proposal for a European Accessibility Act (EAA) is a positive step forward in this regard, underpinning the EU’s efforts to implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

The EAA’s ambition to eliminate accessibility barriers isn’t just about securing a better functioning internal market; it’s about making the fundamental human right to equality fit for the digital age.

To make this possible, the EAA must strike the right balance between clarity and flexibility. Companies should understand what guidelines they must follow in order to reach a high level of accessibility. But to allow for innovation, it is also essential to avoid overly-prescriptive obligations based on today’s technology. Otherwise we risk inadvertently hindering the development and use of new solutions which could achieve outcomes in even better ways.

Instead of mandating specific features which each piece of technology must incorporate to be considered accessible, policymakers should opt for “functional performance requirements”. These would lay out what the technology should ultimately aim to achieve – e.g. allow for usage by persons with limited hearing, or limited vision – rather than dictating exactly how to achieve it.

Taking this approach would allow the mainstream digital devices we all use to be built with accessibility in mind, adhering to the principle of “universal design”. By working towards an end goal rather than a specific set of technical criteria, developers and designers can come up with new, creative means of technology intended for use by all. And by focusing on outcomes, we can also allow for the creation of specialist solutions such as the eye-tracking technology which has been Steve Gleason’s lifeline, or the 3D Soundscape technology which guides those with visual impairments through their towns and cities.

Taking this approach wouldn’t mean starting from scratch. There is already an existing EU accessibility standard (EN 301 549) developed with input from industry, consumers, academics and governments, that we can take inspiration from. And by modeling the EAA’s functional requirements upon those of the standard, we can also ensure that technological innovations which cater to people with cognitive disabilities such as dyslexia or dyspraxia are also allowed to flourish given that cognitive disabilities are currently not clearly reflected in the EAA.

Technological development doesn’t stand still. The EAA likely won’t come into force before 2023 and the scope for unknown innovations before then is immense. In the U.S. and Canada, it took just 5 years for smartphones to cross the tipping point for widespread adoption. Yet nowadays, few of us can imagine life without them. Nor is it possible to imagine what “must-have” technology we’ll be touting seven years from now.

Of course, no journey of discovery is without its road-bumps. Not every bright idea will work out in practice, not every prototype will make it to market. But those that do can truly make a difference. So let’s make sure our policies support innovation and create an environment of possibility in Europe.

Accessibility in technology should not be an afterthought, it should be celebrated, as a motor for innovation. The more solutions created to tackle the everyday challenges for those living with disabilities, the more human potential we are unlocking for society as a whole. More often than not, those living with disabilities have a novel way of approaching challenges which can in fact benefit us all. It’s time to let those using technology to improve their lives decide where it takes us all. If we all work collaboratively with one another towards new accessibility solutions, there are no limits to where imagination can lead us.

Adina Braha-Honciuc
Director Sustainability Policy, Europe

Adina Braha-Honciuc leads Microsoft’s Sustainability and Environment Policy in Europe.