Building an inclusive digital world

A more inclusive virtual space benefits everyone – not only people with disabilities. Design, especially when designing for ability rather than disability, can improve lives – the words of Rama Gheerawo, director of The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art in the UK. In fact the disability community offers great value to designers. Gheerawo explained this in more detail at the Inclusive Africa Conference held in May: “People with disabilities are lead users and innovators for designers. They are extreme users who challenge designers to make changes that benefit everyone.”

Take closed captions as an example. The practice of dictating the spoken word in a video to text allows the viewer to read what is being said. It was invented in the 1940s by a deaf actor and his cousin, but today it benefits everyone – regardless of hearing ability. Consider, for example, watching a video with a speaker whose accent you struggle to understand. Closed captions offer a solution!

Voice recognition technology is another example of inclusive design that benefits everyone. People with limited hand dexterity can use the technology to access the digital space, but the general public also benefits. Advancements like Siri and Alexa have allowed artificial intelligence to recognise your voice, respond or perform an action based on your command.

The value that the disability community offers is so great that Gheerawo argued that: “Inclusive design can help you predict the future.”

However, to build a more inclusive digital world, new designers or technology students need to learn about the basics of inclusion. Businesses also need to build accessibility into their approach from the beginning. Jennison Asuncion, head of Accessibility Engineering Evangelism at LinkedIn, argued that people need to held accountable for the products that they design. He added: “If you are going to make something accessible, you need to be intentional about it.”

Asuncion also stressed the need for people with disabilities to be included in the development of products in a way that is fair. If businesses, for example, ask a person with disability to test their product, there should be compensation involved. This would great better inclusivity, but also create job opportunities.

While some strids have been made, there is still much to do to better include people with disabilities. Kenya has taken a step in the right direction by adopting the first-ever ICT Accessibility Standard in Africa.

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