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Accessibility: everyone’s business

Making your products and services accessible benefits everyone. But how do you start? The Lab at O2 looks back at its recent hackathon and offers tips from what it has learned.

There was a certain buzz in our office. You could feel the energy and excitement in the air. Some 60 of us got together recently (25 October) at our O2 campus in Slough to take part in a hackathon focusing on accessibility.

United by a common goal

We were a truly diverse bunch. Among us were developers, designers, accessibility specialists, and even psychologists. Our backgrounds were varied, but we are united by one goal: to come up with tech ideas that would improve the lives of people with disabilities.

We had some charities with us, including RNIB, Leonard Cheshire Disability, and the Digital Accessibility Centre. Transport Systems Catapult and Wayra start-up GiveVision brought their experience of accessibility technologies to the table. Tesco and RBS/NatWest, our business customers, came as hack teams.

Those of us from O2 were a diverse bunch too. We came from across the company – from the website to business intelligence, to O2 Drive, to digital signage. Our British Sign Language (BSL) speaking colleagues from our Manchester Store of the Future lent their support. We had our Accessibility team as well as The Lab, our innovation engine, who organised the event. Three of our store managers came all the way from Devon and Plymouth just for the day.

Everyone’s business

No matter where we came from, we all agreed that accessibility is not just the business of the ‘accessibility department’ – it’s the business of all of us.

One in five people has some form of impairment, according to the Office for National Statistics. Even if we do not have our own access needs now, we may find ourselves having difficulty moving around or seeing things as we get older.

If we can better understand the needs of people with access needs, then we can come up with better products and services for them. Ultimately, this benefits everyone.

Over an intensive 12 hours at the hackathon, we listened, we asked questions, and we shared what we knew. We drew our ideas on paper, flipboards, and post-its. We wrote lines and lines of computer code. Sometimes we ripped up what we drew and started all over again. And we laughed, breathed fire (lunch was curry), and mulled over our final ideas over pizza (a hackathon never goes without pizza).

One team came up with a system of technologies to predict and respond to people’s access needs when they’re out and about. Their vision was that one day, disability would no longer pose problems so that no one would be considered disabled. This team was aptly named ‘NoLabel’. Another team came up with an app to reward people for helping others amongst other ideas.

Tips on accessibility:

We learned a great deal from the charities and one another. For businesses wanting to embed accessibility into what they do, consider this advice:

Think of the users. Before you start building something, think of all the different people who would be using your creation. Even if you want to come up with something for a specific group of people, others may be able to use it. Or it could be that your idea is not specific enough; in which case you might need to narrow down your target user group for your idea to make a more significant impact.

Make it sustainable. Think about the long term. Build stuff that lasts. Technologies today may come and go in a matter of a couple of years. Make sure that what you build will endure technology fads.

Make it simple. If you’re looking to create a software or an app, make sure that it’s easy for people to figure out how to use it.

Speak the right language. Many people with access needs do not consider themselves as being ‘disabled’, so the words that we use must reflect this. For example, a deaf person who uses BSL is perfectly capable in her daily life – the only distinction being that rather than speaking English, she speaks BSL.

Recruit the right people. To create products and services that are genuinely suitable, you need staff who can bring knowledge and perspectives of various impairments. Having a diverse workforce who understands the needs of your target customers will be crucial.

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