Quiz: what do developers such as Paul Chiou, Anton Mirhorodchenko, and Becky Tyler have in common? Their work boost DEI!
At present, over 650m people in the Asia Pacific region live with physical disabilities, and more than one billion worldwide, including Ed Summers, Head of Accessibility, GitHub, is “proud to be one of them.”
However, whether they are accessing transportation, participating in civic activities, receiving a quality education, finding employment, or even enjoying entertainment and healthcare services, people with physical disabilities need to overcome barriers in order to “live the lives we want to live,” Summers told DigiconAsia.net, while explaining how his role in a firm (one that is constantly looking for ways to make itself more inclusive and accessible to its 100m+ users) helps him to help developers incorporate workforce inclusion in their work.
DigiconAsia: How is technology being used to bridge tech workforce inclusion gaps for the disabled?
Ed Summers (ES): The World Bank has labeled this state of affairs as the “Disability Divide” and identified technology as a “disruptive force in enabling the inclusion of people with disabilities.”
However, if we are going to make a dent in accessibility, then we have to find a way for more people with disabilities to be involved as creators of these technologies. We know people with disabilities have a role to play in the future of software development, and they should be helped to achieve this.
In my workplace, for example, we thrive on the happiness of developers with disabilities. Our success is measured by their contributions. Our job is to remove barriers from their path and celebrate their accomplishments. We are delighted with our progress so far, but we are just getting warmed up.
DigiconAsia: What are the challenges faced by people with physical disabilities working in the technology industry?
ES: Physical barriers, such as inaccessible buildings or the lack of mobility aids, can restrict their access to workplaces and hinder mobility within office spaces. But accessibility challenges in the digital realm also remain a significant hurdle, with many websites, applications, and software lacking proper accessibility features.
These can include insufficient alternative text for images; videos without captions; or complex interfaces that are difficult to navigate for individuals with cognitive or learning disabilities. In fact, a recent study found that, on average, the top one million home pages on the internet have around 50 accessibility barriers.
Increasing awareness, promoting diversity and inclusion, and creating an inclusive work culture are crucial steps to addressing these challenges and ensuring equal access and opportunities for individuals with disabilities — not just in the technology industry, but every industry.
DigiconAsia: How can parents of children with physical and other disabilities map a path for their inclusion in technology careers?
ES: Access to assistive technology and role models can make a huge difference to children with disabilities, empowering them to pursue a career in technology.
Take the incredible story of Becky Tyler as an example. Becky found her way to coding via gaming, but she games completely with her eyes, just like everything else she does on a computer, from painting to live streaming to writing code. Her desire to play Minecraft led her down the path of open source software and collaboration, and now she is studying computer science at the University of Dundee.
Becky started gaming with Special Effect, a charity dedicated to helping people with disabilities enjoy video games, but their assistive technology offered her just enough functionality to leave her wanting more. For years, she made do with what she had, but her requests for something better never stopped, so Special Effect eventually turned to developer Kirsty McNaught to find a better solution. Her team combined two projects, one which has eye-gaze tracking functionality, and another an source interface specifically designed to help people with disabilities play Minecraft using their eyes.
Becky not only became a beta tester for the project. With encouragement from Kirsty, her interest in coding started to bloom. She realized that by coding, she could actually fix many accessibility issues herself that Kirsty did not even realize or predict.
Becky’s story is no different from any developer’s origin story except for one fact: the standard methods for using and interacting with a computer were inaccessible to her. Becky’s story shows us the incredible potential of assistive technology in empowering youth with disabilities and the importance of involving people like Becky as creators.
DigiconAsia: What are some of the innovations that empower the disabled to be a part of the tech workforce, including software development?
ES: An important innovation that I use on a daily basis is a screen reader. The software is compatible with the Windows operating system and enables visually impaired people to use computers by reading the text on the screen through a built-in speech synthesizer. Also, I use the open source NVDA screen reader, a free tool for the Microsoft Windows operating system that supports over 55 languages.
For people with physical disabilities or chronic conditions that limit their use of a keyboard, or for those with learning or cognitive disabilities that prefer speech over written text, voice-powered innovations, such as speech recognition technology or voice-controlled smart-home devices, are another key solution.
Crucially, one of the most effective ways to improve the overall accessibility of technology — and build more bridges across the Disability Divide — is to include people with disabilities in the development process. In my firm these include:
- a new primary navigation experience designed with accessibility in mind from the outset.
- a new code search experience that is lightning-fast and an absolute dream to use with a screen reader, and more.
- The GitHub Copilot — an AI pair programmer that boosts developers’ productivity and breaks down barriers to software development. The GitHub Copilot team recently shipped accessibility improvements for keyboard-only and screen reader users.
- GitHub Copilot Voice, an experiment currently in technical preview, empowers developers to code completely hands-free using only their voice.
That is a huge win for developers that have difficulty typing with their hands.
DigiconAsia thanks Ed for sharing his views and factoids about DEI with readers.