Letter from the editor: Tech’s mobility omission

A pedestrian walks past two Bird dockless scooters, one laying on its side, in the middle of a sidewalk in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, California, July 10, 2018. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Mobility is a term the tech community has co-opted to mean everything from transit-as-a-service to autonomous vehicles to what Ford CEO Jim Hackett called “a ‘catch-all’ phrase encompassing all non-traditional businesses.”

At its core, mobility is about offering greater accessibility and convenience to more people. But too often that isn’t the case.

After we published our story about Lime and Bird’s e-scooter expansion plans in Canada, a reader pointed me to a Twitter thread highlighting concerns over what abandoned dockless scooters mean for wheelchair users.

“You are literally sticking up walls all over the city that wheelchair users can’t get past. And what’s worse is they aren’t even predictable walls,” wrote Twitter user @mssinenomine.

These omissions arise when not all users are included—or even considered, and when businesses treat accessibility as an afterthought or as a costly regulatory obligation. With almost a quarter of Canadians living with disabilities, the tech ecosystem—in both product development and hiring, has overlooked the massive market opportunity that comes from universal design.

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Brooke Ellison is a professor at Stony Brook University and the first quadriplegic person to graduate from Harvard University. She told me that too often, companies come to her after they’ve built their product, by which time it’s too late.

“If it’s useable for someone with a disability,” she said, “then it’s useable for most, and usually in a way that is more intuitive, more streamlined and easier overall.”

Ellison pointed me to Microsoft Enable, a dedicated research arm within Microsoft that’s doing things the right way. The Enable team installed eye-gaze technology in her home, pairing a camera that doubles as a mouse to her eyes.

It’s great for Ellison and, as she points out, it’s also great for Microsoft, who can see endless potential for the hands-free device.

“The technology is not only very useable for me, but for others who may not have use of their hands at that time, like a surgeon or a pilot,” she said.

Some of these product oversights come from not hiring people with disabilities.

Maayan Ziv, founder and CEO of AccessNow, a for-profit social enterprise that maps accessibility, argues a company that wants to build inclusive products must ask itself, “How many people with disabilities do you actually employ to make sure this is happening from a lived experience perspective?”

Ellison agrees. “People with disabilities are worthy, are extremely capable in many aspects of their lives and among the most creative when it comes to getting through the day. If that can be captured in as many opportunities as possible, then everybody benefits.”

A recent column in The New York Times cited an Accenture study that showed companies that championed people with disabilities actually outperformed others on measures of profitability and shareholder returns.

With an aging population, what is good for people is also good for the bottom line. According to research conducted by industry analyst Rich Donovan, people with disabilities make up an emerging market the size of China. Their friends and family add another 2.3 billion potential consumers. Together, they control over US$8 trillion in annual disposable income.

Recognizing this unique opportunity, Australia implemented the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in 2013, which covers any additional costs an employer may incur in hiring a person with disability. According to Tony Abrahams, who co-founded Ai-Media, a technology company that makes content accessible to everyone, the NDIS legislation was supported unanimously in the Australian parliament and has nearly 80 percent public support.

Public Works Minister Carla Qualtrough—who, herself lives with a visual impairment, has personally championed Bill C-81: The Accessible Canada Act, which is making its way through Parliament. That legislation will become the first-ever federal disability legislation removing barriers to accessibility, but unlike Australia, it won’t cover the costs for employers to hire persons with disabilities.

But government can only go so far. Eventually, the private sector has to step in. As Microsoft has demonstrated, the technology sector, with its focus on innovation and problem solving, is well-positioned to seize the moment.

Which begs the question: why are there no accessibility-focused venture-capital funds?

Not a single expert I spoke to this week could name one.

The Canadian government committed roughly $22 million to accessibility investing over five years in the 2017 budget. So far, just $3 million has been allocated. The commitments to accessibility investment are a mere 1.6 percent of the $1.4 billion the federal government committed to financing women entrepreneurs.

For Ziv, this has been frustrating to watch.

“Often a lot of the conversation when we speak about diversity [is that] we speak about people who are not white and people who are women, and we completely forget that disability is part of that diversity,” said Ziv.

In two weeks, Canada’s innovation minister will join world leaders in Davos, Switzerland for this year’s World Economic Forum. The forum promises to highlight disability inclusion.

Wouldn’t it be great for Canada’s innovation ecosystem to lead the way forward?

Disclosure: My spouse serves on the board of Tony Abrahams’ organization.