The power of braille

Derek Coughlan knows all about how technology provides us with both solutions to old problems, and new questions to answer. At work he’s an experienced systems matter expert, working on a payments application called ProPay. When we want to make changes to the system, it’s Derek and his colleagues’ knowledge we rely on to understand how complex the changes will be, and how much they will cost.

But Derek’s relationship with technology at work is deeper than most. Having been registered blind since birth, he uses an extra layer of technology to navigate software which was designed for the sighted. ‘I don't use paper at all, I do everything online. I can touch type, so for input I use a standard keyboard. For output I use an assistive technology application called JAWS (this link opens in a new window), which is a piece of software that allows you to read out what's on your screen in both speech and braille.

‘If you want to read an email or a Word document you can just read up and down with the cursor keys, and it puts it into speech. It’s not very good with images and pictures, but basically any internet page, or Outlook, Word or Excel, it will read in speech or braille what’s on the screen. The braille display actually puts one line of text at a time into braille, which is great for more detailed work. It’s really helpful for showing which text is bold, underlined or capitalised, and it shows you paragraphs and indents much quicker and easier than with the speech output. There’s also a little routing button above each cell on the terminal, which are really useful for moving the cursor to a given character, or you can use to double click and open a link.’

The side effects of progress

We’re used to talking about how technology and the digital age is changing the way we interact at work for the better, and offering ways to be more inclusive. But speaking to Derek it’s clear that there are a lot of questions organisations need to think about carefully when it comes to how some of these changes affect different groups. ‘Something like remote working is very good for some disabled people because it means flexibility. But if you work in a hot desking office you never know who’s going to be sat next to you, so the environment is more challenging if you do need to ask for help.

‘On the job training is becoming more of a challenge for companies as well. One thing that doesn’t work very well with the assistive technology is screen sharing. As we go to more remote working screen sharing becomes more widely used, which becomes an issue for people who use assistive technology. They’re difficult problems to solve, but the more disability smart companies are, the better they can cope with those sorts of challenges. In that respect I think RBS are really good. They use one of the best set of accessibility technology consultancy companies available, and the bank’s inclusion agenda is very progressive.’

Disability smarter

A key part of that inclusion agenda is Enable, our employee led network who promote disability awareness across the bank. Derek is an active member and runs a quarterly group for users of the JAWS assistive technology. ‘What Enable does well is focus across all types of disability. A lot of people get a lot from it. I’ve been disabled from birth so I’ve grown up understanding the issues that disabled people face. For people who’ve been recently diagnosed, networks like this are really important.’

Important, but not enough on their own. If companies are to make disability smart decisions, their decision makers need to understand the challenges for disabled people in the organisation.

That’s why we recently launched two new initiatives. Firstly, a residential course for disabled colleagues to help them maximise their career development, and increase their influence in the work place. Secondly, a reciprocal mentoring scheme where mentees with disabilities are paired with senior leaders. The arrangement acts as a two way street, where mentees receive career guidance while sharing their experiences to make their mentors more disability wise.

Derek, who was involved in the first iteration of both, is a fan. ‘I thought they were very worthwhile. Both were great, and I’d strongly recommend them to other disabled colleagues.’

The future

While Derek is very aware of some of the issues that still need to be addressed, the changes he’s seen since he first joined us over 20 years ago give grounds for much optimism. ‘There’s a lot more activity today, and a lot more understanding and communication which is brilliant, especially for people who aren’t confident asking for help or are recently diagnosed with a disability. The agenda’s really moving forward and out in the open now.’

All of us can play a part in that agenda, whether we’re disabled or not.

Want to get involved?

Find out more about our employee led networks, and the rest of our inclusion agenda