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A neon sign saying 'fight for your right'

 

Firstly, tell us about yourself and how you've shaped nearly 10 years of your career around digital accessibility.

I've always had a keen interest in technology. I can still remember the day I came home and my parents had bought our first computer. I remember the excitement of using it for the first time and the many ups and downs with computing in the '90s; mainly the frustration of some of the games not fully working!

I think this, and other early experiences, set me on a course to work in technology and shaped the direction I took through education. I selected IT and technology type qualifications and ultimately completed a computing degree.

"I think I've always had a strong sense of fairness and for supporting other people. My experiences of having a parent with a disability and significant mental health issues have definitely shaped me. I think at one point someone told my parents it was 'character building' and I guess, in some ways, that's true. I think it's made me more empathetic and determined to create a fairer world for everyone."

After finishing my degree, I didn't really have a clear career path. I joined Barclays on a graduate development programme and in all honesty, I fell into accessibility from there.

Mainly through being involved in the disability staff network. I happened to need an alternative placement to do after one fell through and the head of the newly formed accessibility team offered me a placement. The rest is history.

What qualifications do you have that have influenced your work, if any?

I think my background in computing has helped, but more from the perspective of the natural curiosity it helped me to exploit than the technical knowledge it developed.

A much bigger influence on my work is the experience of working closely with disabled people and living with someone with a mental health issue. That helped me to become more empathic and to want to have a career focused on doing something meaningful.

You've been involved in a seriously impressive range of charity and volunteer work. This includes being a founding ambassador for PurpleSpace, a network championing building disability confidence for employees, their employers and all allies of the two.

Let's hear about what you've done and why?

People are going to think that I'm joking but in all seriousness, this was a bit of an accident.

When I joined Barclays, the group of graduates I joined with were talking about doing some charity fundraising and I happened to mention that I wanted to do something for Mind, the mental health charity, because of my experience with my dad.

One of the other graduates mentioned the disability network and I offered to take the minutes of their meetings to provide some consistency. Not being one to do anything in half measures, within a year or two I'd gone from this to essentially running the network and started a campaign called 'This is me'.

This is me is a hugely successful (if I do say so myself) campaign which started life as a mental health storytelling campaign in order to try and break down the stigma of mental health issues in the workplace. The format has been taken and used by hundreds of companies globally, reaching over a million people.

I decided to step away from the disability network a few years later as it was taking over my life and my day job was suffering. It was then that I was approached by Kate Nash OBE who had just started to think about how to bring disability network leaders from across the world together to develop and become the catalyst for change. Not long after, PurpleSpace launched and is doing amazing work.

As a Founding Ambassador, I work with Kate and her team as a critical friend ensuring that they stay true to their higher purpose and keep focused on the ultimate goal of supporting their members to bring their authentic selves to work and to help unleash the economic contribution of disabled people. I've also been supporting their move to a becoming a more 'digital first' organisation and the implications this has on accessibility of their service. It's a role I've really enjoyed but haven't had as much time recently to do.

You've been the Head of Accessibility and Inclusion at the UK Home Office for 6 months now, how has the lockdown highlighted the importance of accessibility?

My first 6 months have been super busy as we've got the next deadline for the Public Sector Bodies (Website and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018 coming in September. We've had a big focus on helping our leadership teams and staff across the organisation understand and prepare for the deadline. All whilst we've completely shifted to being a remote team within an organisation of newly remote teams.I think what lockdown has done for many organisations is show just what's possible and that remote working can work for the vast majority of people. There's always been push back in some organisations when disabled people as to work from home as part of an adjustment but now we've proved it's possible.

For me, I think lockdown has shown that we've still got lots of work to do to ensure that everyone has equal access to services and employment opportunities. I think we all need to be conscious as we come out of lockdown about how we continue to support everyone in the future.

You were at Barclays for many years, what experience did you get at this major brand?

It taught me really valuable lessons about scale and about the commercial aspects of accessibility. Barclays had huge digital scale; millions of people every day interacting with online and mobile banking, trading platforms and highly complex financial systems.

Being able to scale accessibility across these widely different use cases in a consistent way is a challenge. The team would agree with me when I say there's still a long way to go but the progress we made in the time I was there was incredible. In terms of the commercial aspects of accessibility, it's an often-overlooked part of the case for accessible products and services and one which actually has more impact with a lot of stakeholders.

I also got some great experience working with stakeholders at varying levels of the organisation and got the space and time to develop my profile in the industry which has really helped in my current role.

What trends have you noticed in web accessibility over the years?

This is a hard question. I think the most noticeable trend is large technology organisations really starting to shout about the work they're doing. Whether that's having their CEOs talk about it and engaging with the agenda, employing more disabled staff or making specific accessories for their products targeted at the disability market.

"It's certainly not the norm yet though and I think that should be a concern for us all. There are still too many organisations not taking accessibility into account in everything they do but the difference now is that they're being called out for it which feels very different."

I've noticed a worrying trend in 'quick fix' solutions in the industry. Essentially, plugins and services which claim to make websites more accessible without any effort. It's concerning because it undermines decades of work around accessibility and puts organisations who buy into them out of a desire to do better in a really difficult legal position.

Finally, and on a much more positive note, I've noticed more 'non-accessibility' professionals taking a stronger interest in accessibility. We'll never get to a better, more accessible world if the only people doing anything are the accessibility professionals - we need everyone in technology to be onboard playing their part.

Finally, are there any stories you like to tell that hit the point home about the importance of accessibility?

There are so many. Most of them from sitting with disabled people and listening to them talk about the impact of inaccessibility. I will give you a slightly different example though. A few years ago I sat down to write a presentation about vulnerability and how we might try to design better products and services for people who are vulnerable.

Vulnerable has many definitions, but it ranges from things like having low numeracy or literacy skills through dealing with grief and even things like having your first child. In short, it's often very situational.

I came across a video by Eric Meyer, a bit of a legend in the world of web design. In his talk, 'Designing for Crisis', Eric talks about how he and his wife had to deal with a poorly designed hospital website in a moment of crisis.

What this brought home to me was that accessibility isn't about compliance with standards or just making things work for disabled people. It's about designing and building products and services that work for real people in real situations, including when they're in crisis or temporarily impaired.

Thank you to David for taking the time to talk to us about his experiences, professional and personal. We all have so much to learn about making accessibility for all the norm.