In #TheNewNormal what’s the best future you can imagine?

Pandemics always end. Sooner or later, COVID-19 is going to be over for us all. Business will return to something like normal. There are real challenges here. But there are also opportunities. And the time we have now should be spent wisely.

The impacts of a crisis like this are complex and diverse. We’re in all this together, but not equally – existing inequalities are deeper in a time of crisis. Such as for people with disabilities, who are relying on online services and online retail, but who can’t access services and information which isn’t made accessible to them.

But I’ve also been struck by some of the potential positives coming out of what we’re going through.

Appreciation for key workers in digital technologies and services

One of the good things that has come out of this crisis is our appreciation for “key workers”.  I’m massively grateful to all on the front-line.

But I think there are groups of people who we have missed, who are also involved in delivering food to our tables. I want to pay tribute to all of the heroes in the digital space keeping everything running online. To the people who managed to make Ocado’s website more resilient. And the people on the Tesco call-centre who helped my parents through signing-up and making their first online order.

Digital is now a “must have” for all

In a few short weeks digital technologies have gone from a “nice-to-have” for most, to a “must-have” for all. They’re now something we depend on for our shopping, meetings, care, communication; even the education of our children.

Remote working may have been something that people with mobility disabilities asked for in the past; now the ability for all staff to work remotely allows businesses to survive. Zoom may have been created for better business meetings; now it’s a lifeline to maintain connections for all and across all generations.

People have argued for years whether the Internet should be considered a necessary utility like shelter, heat, electricity, water and food. That case has just been categorically proven. Self-isolating isn’t fun. But doing it without the Internet would be much harder.

COVID-19 has also changed what we think is “essential” on the Internet. The EU juggled with defining “essential public services to EU citizens” years ago in its proposal for a directive on “Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites”. But my contention in an article from that time, suggesting that private-sector sites like banks, utility providers, retailers, the media and entertainment suppliers might be more essential, I think has been proven now. What’s more important for you at the moment – that you can get a new passport, or feed your family safely?

It’s worth remembering that the Internet that we all rely so heavily on today, would not have been possible without those who creativity planted the seeds for the digital world that we now understand to be essential. I want to recognise the people who dreamed-up and created these online tools, so that we can be “okay” in this crisis.

So what are you planting now?

With VE day at the end of this week, one of my friends remarked that the NHS was born out of WW2 – the widespread availability of glasses, hearing aids and prosthetic limbs came from the same crisis. She challenged me to think of what we can build out of our current crisis:

Good things don’t just happen. They are the results of thinking, dreaming and collective planning. Only by imagining a good future do we stand a chance of making it a reality.  So my question to those of you out there is: What is the best possible future you can imagine emerging from the tragedy of this pandemic?

I see what is happening right now, as almost a second digital revolution, with countless opportunities to create something new.

#TheNewNormal can be better than the old, not just a return to established behaviours. What we plant now in our digital products and services could not only help our businesses, but everyone around us, as long as we make sure that the very things we’re turning to, to make our lives ok in lockdown and beyond, aren’t locking some people out.

In the rush to “pivot to digital” are we missing something?

The question really is: are we making these new “must-haves” really available to all? Is the move to dependence on them, even in the short-term, taking everyone with us?

Many companies are rushing to transform to using digital technologies simply to be able to keep trading. Others are increasing and accelerating their existing digital transformation strategies, as they have been proven to be a good bet.

However, what about their users? Most of the new customers for online shopping are likely to be older, and not so tech-savvy. And it’s now essential that digital tools to get your job done are accessible to all staff, including those with disabilities – it’s hard to turn to the person sitting next to you to help put your holiday requests into an inaccessible system if you’re on your own working from home.

What we can plant now to help us in the future is Inclusive Design.

We’ve all benefitted from those who worked to make sure the Internet is available for everyone. But we also need to make sure the sites, apps and services we put onto the Internet are accessible to everyone – that that value is baked-in from the start.

When the value is, as with the automatic captions you can turn on for MS Teams meetings (or people using remote CART services or otter.ai with Zoom), then that foresight means we are really in this together.

But when it isn’t, people can get excluded from #thenewnormal, like this example from our Product Manager, Pete Bricknell:

My Mum is 85 and doesn’t need a smart phone. Sadly, more and more digital apps expect you to have both a smart phone, and a recent PC/Tablet, and then remember complicated password combinations. She’s now feeling locked out of her bank. She cannot use the web version anymore, and is considering breaking lockdown, just so she can get to the bank and pay some bills. But since she has breathing problems, it becomes a significant decision to go out or cope with all the fall-out of not paying bills. So my plea to digital developers – please don’t assume your customers have the same skills, capability of remembering codes, and the latest gadgets as mid-twenties, metropolitan, males.

#LeaveNoOneBehind when you’re building

The new trade routes are the internet, digital remote tools and contactless. And they need to be open for all. It’s unfortunate that it took COVID-19 for many people to understand this, but change the narrative to look forwards and many opportunities open up which can flatten or increase inequality.

COVID-19 has shown us that working from home works for businesses and the enivronment. The global acceptance that it’s normal to work remotely can open up employment opportunities for people with disabilities that they were excluded from before.

But we also need to make sure everyone has access to the must-have’s. For example, if mobile-money is now a public health tool, with contactless payments and use of mobile banking becoming the norm, it needs to work for all.

How we can help

Like the rest of the accessibility community, at Hassell Inclusion we’ve been working to help organisations get good at this for years, so no-one needlessly has to be excluded.

We’ve put a lot of our experience and expertise into the new ISO 30071-1 Standards to help organisations bake-in accessibility to the way they work, and made those Standards available in accessible, readable books, so people can understand and adopt them.

I think the effort we, and the rest of the ISO committee, put into this are the seeds to enable people to get this right, for such a time as this. We’re working to try and make sure #TheNewNormal can #LeaveNoOneBehind.

According to researchers who looked at how companies learned to survive and thrive through the Great Recession of 2007-2009, you can’t save your way out of a recession, you have to invest your way out:

“Now is a time to invest, truly and authentically, in our people, in our corporate responsibility, and in our communities. The argument – and opportunity – for companies to do this has never been more compelling.” (Starbucks CEO, Howard Shultz in 2008)

So, if we can help you invest in your capabilities to ensure that what you’re building includes everyone, please reach out to us, or come to one of our free Digital Accessibility Experts Live webinars in March. We’d love to help you.

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