#683 Creating a Business Case for Digital Accessibility with Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet

In Internet Marketing Podcast, The Digital Marketing Blog by SeanLeave a Comment

In this episode, we’re joined by Robin Christopherson MBE. Robin is also the Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet and joins us to discuss how marketers can create a business case for accessibility.

In this episode we discuss:

  • What is inclusive design?
  • Is awareness of inclusive design improving?
  • The biggest changes to accessibility legislation in the UK and Europe over the last decade
  • What is ambient computing?

Referenced on this podcast:



If you have feedback, you’d like to be a guest, you’d like to recommend a guest or there are topics you’d like us to cover, please send this info to marketing@sitevisibility.com

Show Transcript:

Scott (Host):

Hello and welcome to the Internet Marketing Podcast, brought to you by SiteVisibility. I’m your host, Scott Colenutt, and with me today is Robin Christopherson, and we’re going to be discussing creating a business case for digital accessibility. Welcome to the podcast, Robin.

Robin Christopherson:

Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Scott (Host):

No problem. So can you talk me through a little bit about AbilityNet, the company that you work for, your goals at AbilityNet, and then a little bit about your specific role in AbilityNet?

Robin Christopherson:

Great. So yes, I work for AbilityNet, as you say. It’s a charity to do with technology and disability or impairments of all kinds. We’re fortunate enough to have been around for a while. This is our 25th anniversary this year, and it’s like being paid to play with tech and the best kind of tech that actually helps people in really fundamental ways.

So people with disabilities for whom choices would be really, really limited otherwise, it’s such a leveler, it’s such a door opener. For me, I’m blind, for example. I can’t do many careers, but technology enables me to work as an IT consultant for AbilityNet. For other people, it might be to be a coder or whatever it might be using speech output.

And if you look at all the other disabilities, all the other impairments as well, it might be some special equipment, it might be voice recognition, it might be helping with mobility to overcome some sort of physical issue to be able to get around, to get to work or to get to the shops or whatever it might be.

So AbilityNet is all about helping make sure that people can have as many opportunities, as many choices as other people do. So I’m really, really lucky to be working for such a brilliant organization.

My role, head of digital inclusion is more on the advocacy and consultancy side of things, although I do help with delivery. We have a range of services to help organizations make sure that their websites and apps are inclusive. We do assessments for individuals in the workplace or at home or in university for example.

So there’s a range of services and I’m slightly involved in most of the areas of AbilityNet, but my main role is in advocacy, making sure that it’s always on the agenda of government and other policymaking bodies, etc. And speaking to people like yourselves on brilliant podcasts like this to help get the message across about how accessibility is absolutely relevant and important to anyone working in IT. And marketing is absolutely no exception and hopefully we’re going to be able to explore that.

Scott (Host):

And so what’s your experience just in the marketing side and the marketing industry?

Robin Christopherson:

So marketing is all about reach. It’s all about having a relevant message. If you spend a lot of time curating and crafting what your messages are that you’re going to get out there, making sure that you have done as much as you can to reach people where they are, etc. social media, email, newsletters, all that sort of thing, just imagine if a fifth of the people that you are reaching out to can’t access that messaging, can’t take advantage of those discount codes or whatever it might be because they can’t access that technology either visually or from a reading point of view or from a cognitive understanding point of view, or they physically can’t click on the discount link or whatever it might be because you’ve done it in an inaccessible way.

Now hopefully we’re also going to talk about how accessibility is actually for a much broader audience than just people with disabilities who need to have things coded or sufficient color contrast, having things in a certain way which will help them overcome their impairment or will work properly with their assistive technology.

But it’s much, much broader than that and it will actually make your comms, your messaging, your content better for Google, better SEO, better platform compatibility. It’s able to be ported over to a range of different uses that you might want to put your efforts in marketing too. And it also makes it easier for people to see, comprehend, access, who have got no impairments at all, and we can talk about that.

Scott (Host):

Congratulations by the way on the 25th year in, well, for AbilityNet, for your role in that as well. I’m curious to know a little bit more. As you were talking now, I didn’t know much about the offline aspects of what you do at AbilityNet. So could you give me an estimated percentage split of the amount of companies that you help with offline challenges or solutions versus online?

Robin Christopherson:

That’s mostly with individuals, not companies, but it could be employees within companies. It’s basically helping disabled people get the right tech, the right software solutions, the right tweaks to their devices to help them perform at their best, whether it’s in education, in the workplace, or just being able to order those groceries online. That was literally a lifesaver during COVID for people who needed to get groceries to the door and who were vulnerable and isolating and that sort of thing.

So I would probably say half and half. So half of what we do is aimed at the disabled individual. Half is aimed at corporates and public sector to make sure that their digital offerings are inclusive. And being a charity, any surplus as we call it, we don’t call it profits, gets plowed right into those free services to disabled individuals.

So we’ve also got an advising information line. You can email inquiries@abilitynet.org.uk. There’s a free phone number as well. So there’s loads of ways in which we deliver our charitable mission and we don’t get any funding from government or anything like that. So the services that we have, the consultancy services around making digital more inclusive is a brilliant model to pay for the free stuff that we do.

Scott (Host):

I’m already sensing from the way that you’re speaking about this, that your role is encompassing of everything that you’ve just described there. So it sounds like you are very keen and interested in support on the technology side and equipment side, but equally interested, experienced in the accessibility when it comes to websites and apps, and as we’re going to be talking about the business case for those things as well.

Robin Christopherson:

Absolutely. So I started as an assessor back in the mid ’90s, going out to people in the home, in their colleges or wherever they might be, and looking at the technology that might help them overcome their particular challenges. And then in 2003, which was the first year that it became clear that there was a legal requirement for digital accessibility, I started the accessibility consultancy team, which now is 30 odd strong and delivering a lot of services.

A recent development in that area is that we now work with companies to be much more proactive to embed accessibility in everything they do because up until now we’d been delivering audits and doing diverse user testing and stuff like that to make sure their products are compliant, but also real life usable for disabled people.

But it was only ever on an ad hoc basis, “Well, we’ve got this new project, we know that it needs to be made accessible, so we’ll bring in AbilityNet to assure that element of it.” But really organizations need to think about accessibility right from the start of any project, and that certainly goes for marketing as well.

Accessibility isn’t something that you want to get sign-off on, on a particular marketing campaign or a website article or whatever it might be. You really want to think about building that in from the start and have an awareness of what the kind of key elements there are so that you’re not having to look at retrofitting, or making choices early on in the content that you’re using that means that, “Oh, well, okay, we didn’t think about captions or we didn’t think about the color contrast in the video. Ah, let’s put it out anyway because it’s the 11th hour.”

And marketing in particular is very high turnover, agile, so it’s not like it’s something that you’re working on for two years to overhaul a website. So shifting left in the process and thinking about accessibility or inclusive design as I like to call it, all the way through, means that you don’t get any horrible surprises and that the content that you produce on a day-to-day basis is going to be pretty good.

Now you can have checks and balances in place after that as well, and you can get third party organizations like AbilityNet involved, but it’s really important to embed accessibility maturity into what you do, in your capabilities, in your processes, in your tooling, etc., training.

And that’s what we’ve been doing increasingly in recent months and years with helping organizations look at every corner of what they do and to find the gaps in, “Oh, well, when we procure things, we don’t actually ask them if they’re going to be accessible.” And that’s just buying in accessibility.

So there’s lots of areas where you can shine a light on something and say, “Okay, we need to do that slightly better.” And we’ve got formalized processes that can help organizations do that.

Scott (Host):

I think, did you say you were undertaking website usability testing from maybe the mid to late ’90s? Was that right?

Robin Christopherson:

So we did a certain amount of looking at organization’s websites and that sort of thing, but you might be aware, the Disability Discrimination Act came into effect in 1995, and that was a massive milestone for people with disabilities because you could quite happily discriminate against them in the workplace, in education, in services before that and not really have any comeback.

Now that was brilliant, but because in that legislation it didn’t call out digital because digital was still quite nascent, it was quite young, particularly online, then there was this big hole. So it was only in 2003 when they published a code of practice as it was called, which specifically said, “This includes digital, it includes websites. You must make sure that your digital services are inclusive.”

That saw a massive increase in people needing services to help them with that process because anyone out there listening to this podcast who has looked at the accessibility guidelines for web, for example, they’re not a walk in the park, absolutely would agree with that. There’s quite a lot to it.

There are some brilliant projects that have distilled them down into a simpler checklist that you can use for the basics. And so if you’re not a web developer who needs to deep dive, there are some easy wins that people who are just content creators on a daily basis can make sure that they do to check for accessibility of their content.

So you don’t have to be a coder or anything like that to, for example, run the accessibility checker in Word. That is incredibly informative. And if there’s one takeaway guys that you can have from today’s show, it’s to have a look and have a play with the accessibility checker in Office because it’s absolutely brilliant.

I know a lot of SEO boards out there will be familiar with Lighthouse. Well, there is some accessibility features in Lighthouse as well. So go and have a play with those two. There is absolutely an overlap and a very big one between SEO and accessibility. So Google will give you lots of brownie points if you think about accessibility as well.

Scott (Host):

We’re definitely going to come back to this point as well in a moment. But before we do, this concept of inclusive design, I think is the phrase you used to describe it, ensuring you’re thinking about accessibility from the start of X, a project, an initiative of some sort. Because you have been in the field a long time, have you seen that awareness improve in any way?

Robin Christopherson:

Absolutely. And I’m going to quote Larry Goldberg here from Verizon. He, I think coined the phrase, born accessible, and you’ve probably heard of shift left. Well, if you can consider accessibility, in the case of a new digital project, for example, right from the wire frame and design mockup stage right through to coding templates, right through to populating page content, right through UAT before you go live doing some actual diverse user testing and double checking the code, that sort of thing, then you can have a brilliantly inclusive project.

If it’s creating marketing materials, then it’s what I was talking about before, checking headings, alternative text, making sure that links are clickable from the keyboard, that the particular CMS that you’re using doesn’t produce links that need to use a mouse, that sort of thing. So there’s a checklist that you can use.

And a lot of CMSs have built in accessibility functionality, some better than others. A lot of content starts off in Word, for example, as I mentioned before or in an Outlook email, then there’s brilliant accessibility features in there too with the accessibility checker that I talked about.

So there’s some simple things that you can do, but this idea of being aware of accessibility and the key dos and don’ts and bearing it in mind as part of your day job and not delegating it to any accessibility champions you might have within your team or within your organization, but to own it yourself, that is going to be massive. That’s going to make your content so much more inclusive.

And the reason why I like the idea of inclusive design as the phrase to think about rather than accessibility is because yes, it’s about accessibility and yes, it’s the accessibility guidelines that you would look at, there are ones for web, there’s ones for iOS apps, there’s ones for Android.

So yes, it’s the accessibility guidelines at the end of the day, and yes, they’re aimed at disabled people, but if you follow those guidelines, then you’re going to make products that are so much easier for every single user, and that is without exaggeration. And you might be thinking, well, how on earth are the accessibility guidelines going to help every single one of our consumers of the messaging that we’re putting out there?

Well, mobile is definitely the … It’s a mobile-first age that we’re living in. Google put out figures saying that 60 plus percent of websites that people visit are from mobile devices. So it’s a mobile-first world in that respect. And mobile in particular is like extreme computing.

So everyone listening to this podcast has probably used their phone one-handed today, if not multiple times, and that could be for a number of reasons. It could be because you’ve only got one hand, or it could be for something much more mundane like you’ve got a cup of coffee in the other one, or you just happen to pick up your phone and use your thumb and not think about holding your phone in the other hand, etc.

So there’s loads of times when you have those requirements of being not as dextrous as someone who’s doing it carefully with both hands or they’re using a desktop operating system with a mouse, that sort of thing. And so whether you’re juggling your phone one-handed out of choice or whether you’ve only got one hand or whether you happen to have a broken wrist for a while, you have exactly the same requirements that somebody with Parkinson’s or a tremor has 24/7.

And the guidelines that accessibility outlines for that group, things like separating tappable areas with white space so you don’t hit the wrong one, having minimal tappable area size of 44 by 44 PX, if you’re interested, so that they’re not too small to aim at, those requirements will help every single user who’s using a mobile device in a casual way. And obviously it’ll help people who need those requirements because of an impairment or disability be able to access your content at all.

And those same ideas of situational impairment go for vision, whether it’s a small sheet of glass on a sunny day, you need the same color contrast and decent default font choices. Hello iOS 7, where Jony Ive decided to make all the fonts really, really slender. As someone with a vision impairment 24/7 or if you’re in a noisy cafe or whether you’re a student who’s sneaky, watching a video under the desk in the lecture theater and they have the YouTube captions turned on.

Google said that 65% of people watching YouTube videos have captions turned on, and that’s not that they all have a hearing impairment, it’s that they are watching it in a noisy environment, or maybe it’s all of those screens in bars or stations or restaurants where they have the sound turned off and just the subtitles on.

I could go on and on. If you’re trying to order an Uber after a good night out, then you are cognitive impaired and you need to have extreme UX, just like somebody with a cognitive impairment 24/7 needs to be able to successfully order an Uber at all.

So if you apply those same messages, those same concepts to the marketing comms that you’re putting out, make sure you follow the accessibility guidelines and everybody will have a better time in accessing your content. And some people will be able to access it, full stop, when otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to, but everyone will have a better time.

There was some brilliant research, I’ll just finish off.

Scott (Host):

Yeah, that’s fine.

Robin Christopherson:

The RNIB, the Royal National Institute for the Blind, they did some research and they got a group of visually impaired people to look at a number of different websites and surprise, surprise, the ones that were compliant, that were accessible were much easier to use, but that wasn’t the big finding.

They also had a control group of able-bodied testers, which all good research studies should have so that you can compare and contrast. And the able-bodied group actually found the accessible websites much easier to use as well. On average, they performed the tasks that they were given 35% more quickly. And who wouldn’t bite someone’s hand off for a 35% usability bonus in what you’re doing?

So there are very real benefits for doing things in an inclusive way, and that’s why I like to think of doing things according to the accessibility guidelines as making them inclusive. So digital inclusion is what I’m talking about here because accessibility absolutely is at the heart of it, but there’s too much baggage associated with it. People think it’s only for disabled people, whereas actually if it’s a numbers game, it’s for everybody and you will get disabled people, the 15% of your audience that absolutely need it, but everybody will benefit from it.

Scott (Host):

Digital inclusion, and I’m thinking back to … Did you say the Disability Discrimination Act was finalized in 2003? Is that when it came in?

Robin Christopherson:

It came in 1995. But they didn’t mention digital. 2003 was when they had an appendix to it, which said, “Oh, by the way, guys, digital’s covered as well.” Because there was a lot of organizations that were prevaricating before then, “I don’t think it’s covered.”

Scott (Host):

So in the last … It’s been 20 years now, and what I’m thinking here is there are a lot of messages that you shared there about the benefits of digital inclusion beyond just the accessibility needs of a subset of users, it’s really the benefits to everyone that you talked about there. But do you think this concept of digital inclusion has improved over the last 20 years? And if it has improved, have there ever been any milestones in the last 20 years that you can point to and say, “Ah, that made a big difference”?

Robin Christopherson:

Absolutely it’s improved. It’s been incremental with the rise of digital generally, and in 20 years that has come on in leaps and bounds. I mean, just imagine a computer in front of you or your phone and you have no internet connection. It’s just, what would you do with it? A bit of word processing, that sort of thing. It just isn’t a useful device.

So with the ubiquity of the internet and now with everything going online, it’s just like a portal to the world, and that’s why it’s such an enabler. If you can’t use a standard keyboard, use an ergonomic one or use voice recognition. If you can’t use a mouse, then use the keystroke alternatives or again, voice command it. If you can’t see the screen, use speech output or a braille display, I could go on and on.

The redundancy, which is the technical term for choice that’s built into computers is astronomical. It’s breathtaking. And now you can control computers by thoughts, the Neuralink project of Elon Musk, etc., and others. So there’s such a variety of ways of interfacing, which is incredibly empowering, but what you’re interfacing has just mushroomed beyond people’s wildest imagination, I would’ve thought 20 years ago.

So digital is absolutely important. I can’t stress that enough and I’m sure your listeners will agree. It’s all about the internet and digital. And who could imagine a world without it? So the need for things to be done in an inclusive way has grown with digital. And the 15% of the population that would literally be locked out from the digital world otherwise has become proportionately louder and better appreciated.

But it’s really the advent of the smartphone, which is in the sort of last 10 years massively that, like I said before, has led to this age of extreme computing and that means that people are consuming digital everywhere. And then obviously we could talk about wearables and stuff like that, but it’s only going to proliferate.

So the more you’re taking devices with you, the more extreme your requirements are and the more of a need there is to do things in a really inclusive way. So getting the message out to people with whatever campaign you’re working on at the moment, you need to be much more aware of the number of platforms and the variety of platforms that people will be accessing them on.

And then the next age of computing, I would argue, is the age of ambient computing, where in the last five years or so, with the rise of smart speakers and virtual assistants, you can just talk to the air and you’ll get a response, information, the service that you want, whatever it might be, the function to perform, turning your heating on or off, whatever it might be. Often don’t even know where the device was that reacted to that or in many cases, which one of them will respond.

But this idea of just talking to the air and things happen, we’re so far away from the idea of having one device, having to read a manual and a steep learning curve. You just talk to the air now. And we could talk about the idea of AI making that simpler still, and things like ChatGPT, which towards the end of last year I think is going to be a milestone.

So I think that with the proliferation of platforms, if you have content that is going to be inclusive, for example, able to be spoken well, for someone like myself who can’t see at all, if you bring up a webpage and you click on that immersive reader mode, most browsers have them these days, you strip out all the gubbins and stuff, then that is basically how the content will be scraped by a smart speaker to give the response when somebody asks about information on your company, for example.

And if you hit the play button on that in your browser and you start listening and horror of horrors, you can’t see it on the screen, but it suddenly starts reading out a load of JavaScript, then I’ll get that, and I do on a daily basis because there’s a lot of hidden horrors on webpages for speech output software, and the smart speaker person will get that as well in their response from their Echo or whatever it might be.

So you really do need to think about how this content’s going to be repurposed and accessible. It just keeps on coming back to accessibility as being at the heart of what will improve your content for the broadest possible audience regardless of impairment or device or environment.

Scott (Host):

There’s so much that I want to break down there, but I want to go back a little bit to AbilityNet and the types of companies that contact you because you mentioned there that you think digital inclusion over the last 20 years, the awareness of that has gradually improved.

And just paraphrasing a little bit, it sounds like there are a greater number of companies now that appreciate that digital inclusion is from the start, not something that you try and tack on at the end for some kind of box-ticking exercise. What are the triggers that cause companies to contact AbilityNet now? Are there any commonalities in that?

Robin Christopherson:

I think that compliance is still a big factor, and certainly in the last few years when the public sector regulations have come in. Your listeners may or may not be aware of the legislative landscape. We talked about the DDA. They’ve probably heard of the Equality Act, which came in, in 2010, and that was massive because with the DDA, there was no requirement for proactivity.

So if a disabled person went for a job interview and the employer said, “Oh, well, we haven’t got any wheelchair users or blind users or deaf employees, and we haven’t actually got the systems in place or the ramps in place, or whatever it might be.” So they might not say it to their faces, but we’re not going to have you, and there was no recourse there.

So the Equality Act helped there, which said that even if you haven’t got those employees today, or you’re not aware of those customers today, you absolutely need to make reasonable adjustments to make sure that your premises, your services, your practices are inclusive so that you can’t turn people away with a reason that oh, it’s going to be too much of a wrench to accommodate you because you’re our first one, for example. So that was absolutely a landmark shift in legislation.

Then just before Brexit, the EU’s really good legislation that took it one step further was brought into the UK, but unfortunately it only covered public sector. Then the other one that is in the EU for other sectors didn’t make it before Brexit, the guillotine of Brexit. So unfortunately we only have the public sector one.

Now how does that differ? Well, the Equality Act brilliant as it was, wasn’t enforced, so it had no teeth. So it required people with a disability taking an organization to court, like Domino’s was in the US when it had an inaccessible app. And that’s really challenging for a disabled person or even a group of disabled people that are helped by an organization like the RNIB, for example. And often they weren’t successful because the company had better lawyers basically.

So when the public sector regulations came along, the government for the first time ever would monitor websites in the public sector and would find them. So that made them really sit up and listen. So four or five years ago when that came into effect, we saw a massive shift in public sector organizations, so that’s local authorities, FE and HE colleges, government, central government and stuff suddenly pulling their finger out and really doing a good job because otherwise they might be fined.

And people could find out because you can put in a freedom of information request and find out which local authorities or universities have been fined for not being inclusive. So that was brilliant but unfortunately, Brexit put paid to the other one.

But imagine if there was no traffic wardens or speed cameras, if that area of the law wasn’t enforced, it would be chaos. But there’s never been an army of traffic wardens for the internet, but we’re seeing a bit of a change now. Considering how important this is, absolutely vital to be a leading digital-first country, it’s about time.

Scott (Host):

What do you think is the most impactful way in which you’ve communicated some of these key messages about digital inclusion to companies? So you’re on the podcast now, you’re using this as a marketing medium. Are there any marketing mediums or messages that have been particularly effective in communicating what you feel is important about digital inclusion?

Robin Christopherson:

I think just like with marketing in general, go where the people are and pretty much use all the channels. So social media, we’re very active there. We have a newsletter. We put up loads of articles on our website. But we also sit on government committees and things, on party parliamentary groups, and we would be involved in government consultation processes and stuff like that.

But when we’re out there trying to get the message across, we would absolutely cover both the carrots and the sticks. So we were talking about the sticks a moment ago, and thankfully they’re getting bigger and more knobbly to hit people with, but the carrots we would argue are even more important and compelling to the business case. There’s been some brilliant surveys and research done on things like the Click-Away Pound. And so it’s really, really important to cover that as well, because there’s significant ROI here.

Scott (Host):

I’ve not heard of that report. Did you say the Click-Away Pound?

Robin Christopherson:

Yeah. So I think it was the Shaw Trust who did a report a couple of years ago where they estimated the purple pound, so that’s the disposable income of disabled people and their families. So this is where people have money to spend. So this is over and above, once they’ve earned their crust and they’ve paid their bills. They’ve got money to spend, they might spend it on your services or they might spend it elsewhere. And that’s estimated at 274 billion pounds in the UK per annum of disabled people and their families. So that’s a lot of money to spend. That’s a big sector. It’s 15% of the population, as I’ve said.

And the Click-Away Pound basically surveyed that sector, and there were some really interesting findings, not surprising to us, but hopefully eye-opening for other people. 76% of them said that if they met inaccessibility in an online transaction they were trying to do, or a website, they’d go elsewhere. So if there is another choice, they’ll go there and you’ll lose their custom.

There’s lots of other useful findings in there, but it’s basically saying you will lose this very significant customer base or consumer base if you don’t think about inclusive design. A lot around brand damage, word of mouth recommendation and that sort of thing. All of those things go out of the window if you have ruined the trust with your consumers by excluding them or making it incredibly frustrating for them to use that site.

I mean Amazon, absolutely brilliant, but imagine guys, if the images weren’t loading on a webpage, how much would you trust the description of the manufacturer or the comments in the reviews before you hit buy now on that product if you couldn’t actually see it? Well, that’s what it’s like for me because none of those images have alternative text descriptions to them. So they’re not there for me.

Well, in fact, they are, but they’re this horrendous string, which is probably an auto-generated file name of the image, which by the way, guys, if you don’t label your images, people are probably going to hear in a number of situations.

So it’s very easy to erode trust with your consumers. And because it’s a digital-first world and there’s so much choice out there in many areas, they will go elsewhere. So that’s another reason to really think carefully about how you prioritize accessibility and digital inclusion.

So really, really important that you think about not just making your products inclusive because you would otherwise be locking people out, but thinking of that much bigger 35% usability bonus for everybody else as well. And that makes the numbers really start to pop, if that 274 billion wasn’t eye-opening enough.

Scott (Host):

As you’ve been talking, we’ve been referencing websites, maybe apps a little bit as well. But on the technology side, coming into this podcast, I was thinking about the question, in the last 20 years then, what milestones may there have been in this space of digital inclusion? And actually, a smartphone came to mind for me in the mid to late 2000s.

And then I was thinking, well, actually smart speakers and virtual assistants in that respect, which you referenced, would probably have been a huge development. And then you referenced it and you started to talk about how … I think you referenced it as ambient technology. What was the phrase?

Robin Christopherson:

Ambient computing.

Scott (Host):

Ambient computing, yeah. Has it been a huge development for you? Just speaking from your personal experience, has it changed the way in which you interface with businesses?

Robin Christopherson:

Absolutely, and how disabled individuals interface with the digital world. Entirely. I mean you mentioned those different kind of milestones, wearables as well, I would say, where you’ve got a lot more data that’s being collected about an individual, the quantified self, which can really help with health and making sure that people are able to monitor their own health because there’s only so many talking blood pressure monitors or talking exercise bikes out there.

But as long as you’ve got something on your wrist, which can tell you your heart rate, tell you whether you’ve got A-fib or an irregular heartbeat or whatever it might be, that’s incredibly empowering for people that otherwise wouldn’t be able to access those using a less accessible or inclusive device.

Oh, and by the way, I know that the Apple Watch doesn’t measure your blood pressure yet. But anyway, there are talking blood pressure meters out there. But to be able to take all of that data via Bluetooth and whack it into one central place like the Health app is incredibly empowering.

But also I think that the mainstreaming of what was before specialist and very expensive technologies. So before, if I as a blind person wanted to make my computer talk, I would have to spend hundreds of pounds, in fact, the same amount again as the price of the computer to get a really good screen reader on it.

Obviously, Narrator has always been built into Windows and VoiceOver on the Mac, but until quite recently they’ve been the screen reader that was just good enough to help you download the better one so that you could actually do something with your computer that was productive, etc. So nowadays, everything is almost there in the box.

And AbilityNet has got a brilliant website called mycomputermyway.com. And if you go there, you’ll find step-by-step guides on how you can customize your devices, Windows, macOS, iOS, iPadOS, Android, etc. and popular suites like Office where everything that’s there to be customized and tailored to help you is outlined in those terms.

And unlike a lot of guides online, which might say, “Okay, now click on this and now click on that,” that’s no good for someone like myself, for example. So it’ll also say, “Or press Alt plus F and then C,” or whatever it might be. So usually there are keystroke ways of doing it as well. So it’s a very inclusive resource.

And we would invite anyone to play with the accessibility settings on their devices because like I was saying before about accessibility not just being for disabled people, the accessibility settings on your devices are absolutely not just for disabled people, they’re for everybody.

And that’s why Apple have brought accessibility out up from under general to the main level in the Settings app in iOS, for example. And if you did a spider diagram of all of the settings in the Settings app, the accessibility section would be well over half of the whole of the Settings app. So that’s a whole bunch of functionality that you’re ignoring. Go for it. We’re all different shapes and sizes. Nobody should settle for the vanilla out of box experience on their devices. So there’s some really, really powerful stuff in there.

So I think that’s another major advance, which is the mainstreaming of accessibility features of really powerful accessibility solutions being built into devices and all of the different devices, wearables, etc., that again, are really inclusive, that have given people a lot more ways of interfacing with the digital world, but also integrating their information with it as well.

And for me as a blind person, to be able to unlock my Mac just from my wrist or authenticate something with a biometric rather than having to dig out a password a bit like everybody else, it’s a much easier way of doing it. But when you have a disability, those kind of fiddly processes can often be much more challenging as well. Biometrics and easy ways of being able to authenticate yourself have played a massive part in making the lives of disabled people easier as well.

Scott (Host):

I know you’re not solely responsible for marketing at AbilityNet, but I am curious now having you said all of that, I was thinking about all of the devices around me and the fact that even now when we’re thinking about working with companies, we don’t necessarily think automatically of the website and how we’ll support them with their website development, sometimes it might be an app. And that could be a smartphone app or it could be a voice app of some sort.

Has the development in that technology and the new interfaces that are available changed, or is it changing the way that AbilityNet are thinking about marketing?

Robin Christopherson:

I would lie if I said yes in a big way, because we’re probably still focusing on channels that we were five years ago or even 10 years ago. There are new ones, a new hot app on a smartphone that you need to also target in your comms, etc. But as far as radically new ways of doing things, I don’t think so. I mean we, for example, aren’t targeting smart speakers as yet with marketing. But how would you do it? I mean, it’s not really an open enough platform yet.

We have been in discussions with Amazon to make sure that if people ask about AbilityNet, and you can guys at home, you can pause and you can just ask any loose question about who AbilityNet are and what they do, and you’ll get really good responses. So we have done that and you get calls to action in those responses as well.

And interestingly, Amazon, were perfectly happy to have really quite hardcore calls to action in those, even to the extent that, I mean, we haven’t done this yet, but they are happy for you to have a card sent to the A-L-E-X-A, I’m not going to say her name, app with links and other things that could include discount codes and stuff like that. So they’re up for it.

Scott (Host):


Robin Christopherson:

I don’t think it’s just because we’ve got a really good relationship with them. If anyone out there is working for a company that doesn’t have a strategy or something to say about the smart speaker platform, for example, then they should, because it’s here to stay, it’s got a lot of potential and people do use it for more than just the weather and listening to music and stuff like that. So you absolutely should be thinking along those lines.

And often when I’m doing presentations, I talk about future platforms like AR or MR, where potentially any sheet of glass that you pass by or that you’re enclosed in, in a driverless car or something where you’ve got someone’s eyeballs, even if it’s just for a few seconds, might well be seen as a canvas for advertising and messaging and stuff like that. And there are actually accessibility considerations that are unique to that kind of transparent canvas as well. So you’d want to be bearing those in mind too.

But I mean, I think that the platforms are only going to get more and more diverse. So as long as you’re always thinking in an inclusive way and thinking, well, what are the implications here for people with these particular impairments, or if it’s a really sunny day, or they’re accessing it on a bumpy bus and they’re not quite so dextrous as they would normally be?

The good news though is that all of those things are covered in the accessibility guidelines. So you don’t have to stress about them, you just need to follow the guidelines.

Scott (Host):

One of the reasons I asked that question is because I was thinking about how I interact with my A-L-E-X-A device. I need to spell it as well because there is one in front of me and I’ve not turned it on do not disturb mode. But I was thinking about it’s very useful having all of these devices and having that ambient technology to work with, the ambient computing to work with, but only on the condition, like you said, that digital inclusion is built in from the start.

And actually from what I’ve found, I’ve found apps on Amazon difficult to configure and experiment with. It might be easier now, when I tried a couple of years ago. But I was thinking that I’m reasonably technically savvy and it wasn’t particularly accessible. It wasn’t particularly easy. So actually for me, maybe there was some ground to make up there with any voice assistant and any voice app in making that process of creating voice apps and interfaces a little bit easier. That was what was going through my mind.

Robin Christopherson:

There are loads of different developer platforms or environments to create skills for the Echo. And the Echo is definitely the kind of go-to smart speaker platform for developers because it’s in most homes, it’s incredibly affordable. And like I say, the dev tools are quite mature now. So I would definitely look at that as being the first one that you would target.

The smarts within the smart speaker itself have come a long way and discoverability is a lot better. You can just ask her a bunch of stuff about, oh, what such and such have you got? What reminder skills have you got? What games can I play? Or even just, what can I do? What new things have you got? You can just be quite freeform about what you ask her. But I mean, I think it’s a really flourishing platform. And I was going to make some other point, but it’s gone. I’ll come back.

Scott (Host):

No worries. Well, in closing for this episode, you had mentioned at the beginning, you seem so excited, I could hear the energy as you were talking about your experimentation with, I think you said technology, well, I’m assuming software and hardware, and I just wanted to know if there’s anything that you’re experimenting with at the moment that you would just highly recommend or that you’re excited about that you think, oh wow, this really represents what the kind of … It’s just an excellent device or something that represents where digital inclusion is going from a technology standpoint.

Robin Christopherson:

I mean, I think mainstream, the fact that mainstream devices are so inclusive these days, I’m particularly thinking of Apple. Disabled people really aren’t treated as second class citizens when it comes to Apple devices. You know that the new hotness that comes out, whether it’s a VR headset this year or an AR headset, which is looking like it’s been pushed back a couple of years, you know that regardless of your impairment, even if it’s someone like myself who’s blind, there will be something in that new platform for us.

So LiDAR, for example, is making a huge difference for people who need to have pinpoint ranging accuracy. Now obviously in the pandemic, there was social distancing and stuff like that. But as a blind person to have LiDAR in your phone or in the long-awaited Apple Glasses, as and when they come out, there is already software built into the camera app on your phone, which will not only tell you how close you are to other people, where they are. If you’ve got the AirPods, then you’ve got the spatial audio and it can give you information there as to exactly where those people are.

But you can also find doors. Door detection is really, really good these days. And so it’ll then not only guide me to the door, it will also tell me where the handle is that I can actually put my hand out and actually find that knob, and that’s a LiDAR thing, plus a camera thing where it’s looking at any text in the view finder and doing optical character recognition on it. And it will tell you if it’s a pull or a push or it’ll tell you the opening times and stuff like that.

So I think we are absolutely surrounded by really, really cutting edge tech. And the thing that I’m most excited about is what is the next new gadget that will put that on my face instead of just in my pocket or on my wrist. Or I mentioned ChatGPT earlier, and for a lot of people, that level of AI is just going to explode in its uses both for good and nefarious purposes.

But if we thought that our smart speakers were half decent today, then as soon as there are some APIs that can be leveraged around the level of smarts that we’ve got in something like the OpenAI projects that are out there in beta at the moment, which are frankly breathtaking, we won’t believe what ambient computing and our virtual assistants are going to be able to do for us tomorrow.

And I know everyone’s thinking, well, Siri’s been around for 10 years and it’s absolutely hopeless and that is absolutely true, but it’s still very, very useful in many ways too. But I think we’ll look back at this time and we’ll think blimey, we thought things were smart today, but it’s really, really turned a corner. So I think AI and the devices that can help us leverage AI in the day-to-day things that we do, that’s the thing that I’m really most excited about.

Scott (Host):

Amazing. Before I let you go, Robin, well, firstly I just wanted to say, because I don’t think I covered this at the beginning, but Robin Christopherson MBE no less, so congratulations for that. But if people want to learn more about you and AbilityNet, where can they find you?

Robin Christopherson:

Brilliant. So AbilityNet, all one word, and that’s abilitynet.org.uk. Check us out. We’ve got loads of brilliant resources there. We’ve got loads of free webinars. You don’t have to have accessibility in your job title or JD, anything to do with technology in the broadest sense, any content creator, you marketers out there, we’re absolutely talking to you as well.

We’ve got a brilliant set of sessions that were recorded at our November, our annual TechShare Pro conference, and several of those are around SEO and marketing. So go and have a listen to those. We had a brilliant discussion with two guys from Google about the overlap between SEO and accessibility. Basically accessibility’s pushing in the same direction and ignore it at your peril if you care about SEO.

So loads of resources on our website. And there is a free phone number on there as well. I can’t remember it at the moment because it changed recently, but it should be front and center if you want to give it to your disabled family members, friends, colleagues, etc. who might want to have a chat with an actual person about how tech might be able to help them get the most out of their devices and their work and education, etc.

Scott (Host):

Well, links to everything, and including the telephone number, I’ll make sure there’s a telephone number in the show notes. So all of that will be in the show notes. For now, Robin, I know I could talk to you about so much. I’ve written down notes today about other things I’d like to talk about. So at some point in the future I would love to have you back on. But for now, this has been the Internet Marketing Podcast. Take care.

Robin Christopherson:

Thanks, Scott.

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