Technology and Disability: An Interview with Gavin Neate
Technology is enabling disabled people across the UK to access services, but there is still a lot of work to do in society according to Neatebox’s Gavin Neate.
There are 13.9 million disabled people currently living in the UK, a significant portion of the population and each with their own individual needs, challenges and obstacles in day-to-day life.
According to Scope, the most commonly reported impairments are; mobility (52%), stamina, breathing or fatigue (38%) and dexterity (27%). Each of these respective areas requires consideration, catered service and care. This, however, requires a great deal of training, education and infrastructure to accommodate across a broad range of sectors and society.
If Britain aspires to become one of the most inclusive nations for disability it must do more to ensure these individuals are not marginalised. Gavin Neate, CEO of Neatebox, believes that technology can help enable and empower millions of people. However, Neate is quick to add that technology is only one of several key components which need to be addressed.
For real change to occur, societal changes are needed; training, education and understanding are all key areas that require attention.
Technology to Enable
In a world of lightning-fast technological development, the way we travel, communicate and interact with the world around us is being revolutionised. Technology has made our world more accessible and vibrant, yet for people with disabilities, life can still be arduous and exclusionary.
Neatebox’s mission is to ensure that people with disabilities can access services and facilities with ease. The Edinburgh-based startup’s Welcome app is designed to provide users with an opportunity to seek out catered services in retail outlets, public buildings or transport hubs. It enables people with a broad range of disabilities to take on their mobility challenges and engage businesses with disabled people.
Edinburgh Airport and Princes Street’s iconic Jenners building have both adopted Welcome. Jenners’ motivation behind adopting the app arose from the fact that the store is difficult to traverse, even for able-bodied customers.
The process of shopping was an issue that Neate often picked up on during his time working with Guide Dogs UK. Observing clients, he said he often noticed minor, niggling issues in customer service – specifically the lack of accommodation and understanding of the customer’s needs. These issues, he said, are a microcosm of how disability is viewed throughout society as a whole; easily avoidable mistakes that can have damaging effects upon someone’s experience and confidence.
A Lack of Consistent Training is a Key Issue
Neate noted that the problems he observed were largely down to a lack of consistent training in the workplace and a lack of education within society on how to engage with people with disabilities.
“Partly, I was looking at infrastructure”, he said. “But I was becoming increasingly aware of how society interacted directly; so human-to-human contact.”
“I looked at that from a distance at the time and thought ‘this isn’t working‘. Whenever it was an example of poor practice I would go in and explain protocol to the person but I pretty much guarantee you when I went into that shop next time, if they were talking to someone who was different, I’d have to explain the exact same thing again.”
This lack of consistency, Neate suggested, was not the fault of employees. Instead, the responsibility must fall to employers or organisations to ensure that adequate training is regularly carried out.
Societal Habits Do Not Change Over Night
Are businesses letting down disabled people by failing to train their staff? Do they care? According to Neate they absolutely do, it’s society that is hindering progress.
“In our personal experience, the people at the top seem to get it. They get it because it’s perhaps been printed out on a mission statement or written down in their corporate responsibility,” Neate said.
He added: “What we’re actually finding is that society themselves are a bit slower. Much in the same way that society may have been slower to embrace recycling or other social issues. People don’t necessarily change their habits overnight.”
Industry, specifically the retail sector, is obliged to modernise and seek solutions to disability challenges due to the very nature of business. For a retailer, millions of pounds are potentially at stake if they cannot adopt technology or practices that enable a significant portion of the population.
Neate suggested that those who are adopting tech-based solutions such as Welcome or a myriad of other tools are reaping the benefits, and those who are slow to adopt – or do not at all – will ultimately be left behind.
Disability does not encompass one single impairment and covers a broad spectrum. For thousands of people in the UK, hidden disabilities create challenges in day-to-day life.
A great example of a hidden disability is autism. Companies across the UK are making great efforts to cater to some 700,000 autistic people in the UK. A most recent example includes Morrisons launching a weekly “Quiet Hour” in its stores for people who struggle with music and noise.
Gavin highlighted that traditionally, disability has been seen as only as a physical issue, pointing out that signage across the country often portrays a person in a wheelchair. For people across the country, hidden disabilities such as autism pose similar challenges to physical ones.
“Traditionally, disability has been seen as a visible disability”, he said. “We even use it as a label, a wheelchair.
“If you asked the majority of people to name a disability they’d probably say ‘someone in a wheelchair‘ or they might even say someone with a guide dog or a cane.”
Changing people’s perception of disability and developing a greater understanding will help surge accessibility in years to come. This is also an area in which technology can create better accessibility. Apps that enable an individual not confident in broadcasting the fact they have a disability are opening up new ways to engage and foster understanding.
Welcome, for example, allows a person with a disability to discreetly inform a retailer, customer service assistant or a property that they require certain types of assistance.
“The awareness is coming, but we still very much rely on the person saying ‘I have a hidden disability’.” and this is an issue that must be addressed.
Long Term Improvements
In the long-term, Neate believes that technology can enable millions of disabled people, both in the UK and worldwide to access services and engage with society. Social stigma’s and understanding of disability will take collaborative efforts between government, industry and education to develop understanding at a societal level.
However, change will be driven by users of technology, and not the developers.
“If we leave it to society”, he said, “or if we leave it to technologists, futurologists or people who are merely trying to sell services, then things won’t improve.”
Neate insisted that solutions will be driven by innovative companies with ethics at their core and by users who are becoming increasingly socially aware and demanding of equal treatment.