Accessibility and inclusion in the public sector
By Chris Bartlett, Public Sector – Local Government Lead, SoftwareONE UK
Today, the words on the lips of every HR department are ‘accessibility, diversity and inclusion’. There are more than 3.7 million disabled people in work across the UK, with each of these employees having unique insights and ways of working that, when tapped into, can bring enormous value to the public sector. To realise their value, public sector organisations need to ensure they create a working environment that enables and empowers all employees to do their job effectively.
The public sector is also under regulatory pressure to provide tools for disabled employees to work as productively as able-bodied staff. Regulations introduced in 2018 made it compulsory for councils’ internal and external websites to be more accessible, specifically, they must be ‘perceivable, operable, understandable and robust’. Many councils are already on a journey towards improving accessibility, but what they really need is a robust strategy to improve accessibility in the workplace.
The accessibility gap
Currently, there is a gap between the number of councils with disabled employees and the number with an accessibility strategy. In a recent Freedom of Information request, 95% of UK councils said they had at least one disabled employee. The FOI data showed that many councils provide accessibility tools for these employees – such as screen magnifiers, and dictation and voice recognition tools – but that this is done on an individual basis. However, only 38% of councils have an official digital inclusion and IT accessibility strategy in place.
In the face of budgetary pressure, severe cuts and under-funding, it can, of course, be difficult for councils to prioritise more comprehensive accessibility strategies. However, the current case-by-case method means many gaps are still being left; it’s clear that to create a truly inclusive workforce, something will have to change.
Building a strategy
A digital inclusion strategy, which brings together the HR and IT departments, is where councils must focus their efforts. By putting this in place, councils will meet regulations and support neuro-diverse and disabled employees to work to the best of their abilities, and harness their often-untapped skills and insights. The good news is that most councils are committed to turning the tide, with almost three quarters of councils planning to invest in making IT systems more accessible in 2020. The key components of such a strategy should include:
- Joining HR and IT: Public sector HR teams looking to boost inclusion are not technologists; equally, those in IT may have a firm grasp of the tech but lack the understanding of how it can help in the workplace. When it comes to accessibility, IT and HR must combine their expertise to establish and introduce tools that support the needs of all employees and make the workplace more inclusive.
- Taking stock of what already exists: Investing in new technology can be daunting for cash-strapped councils. However, many of the modern software suites that are already used by councils have built-in accessibility tools. For instance, Microsoft 365 offers Soundscape to support employees with blindness or low vision, and simple built-in features like Read Aloud or Colour Filters can be hugely valuable in supporting workers with disabilities. By harnessing these built-in accessibility features, councils can consolidate cost savings and support disabled staff to maximise their talents.
- Educate your workforce: Often, employees are unaware of accessibility technologies on offer at work. Councils’ HR and IT teams can also team up here, to educate staff on what is available, and how to use it. Workers will then be empowered and informed on using whichever solution is suited to their disability. The rest of the workforce can also benefit from further understanding on the tools available – Focus Assist (again part of Microsoft 365), for instance, can be useful for reducing distractions for all staff, not just the neurodiverse workers it was designed for.
Finally, councils can take comfort that the 2018 regulations recommend not to make these changes all at once. By implementing change incrementally, councils can avoid setting unrealistic expectations and instead introduce long-lasting and sustainable transformation. By having a set of tools and processes on hand, councils will be able to onboard disabled employees from the get-go, rather than on a case-by-case basis. This, in turn, will help to create a more inclusive and productive workforce.
Faced with budget cuts and limited resources, UK councils often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to improving workplace accessibility. However, the overwhelming commitment from councils to prioritise digital inclusion despite these difficulties indicates a positive future. By incrementally building out a digital inclusion strategy that makes use of tools already at their fingertips, councils can move closer to a more inclusive, diverse and accessible future – without incurring huge cost in the process.