How do people with or without disabilities benefit from your products?
Lienert: This is where inclusion comes in. When a company or government agency calls us for help, they had previously either resorted to industry solutions or distinct industry applications. All administrative processes essentially boil down to software. Businesses want us to set up and connect their blind employee's workplace, yet the issue is that these industry solutions or special applications are often inoperable or only partially usable with these particular auxiliary aids.
Screen readers can be programmed to work with an application that’s not accessible per se. This is called scripting or screen reader adaptation. However, this process has a major structural drawback. The adaptations will break down if there is a software change, at which point our clients can no longer work, requiring scripting again. This takes a lot of time and money, yet the clients are back to the same problem they had before, but now their best efforts are thwarted on top of it. The company then says, "We have a blind employee who is unreliable because the technology is unreliable." That is to say, in this setting, the shortcomings of the technical system are attributed to a person. We have always thought that this is very unfair and simply wrong.
What’s more, our engineers – back then we only had male engineers – told us that scripting is a boring and repetitive process and doesn’t really solve the actual problem. Eventually, we decided to develop inclusive software. We discussed this with colleagues, friends and other companies. They all advised us against it, arguing that our company is "too small", predicting we would not be able to "pull this off". I believe tenacity is one of the most important aspects of entrepreneurship. You have to stop caring so much about how other people think and just do it. And we did just that.
We then started to develop software for the general market that is simultaneously optimized to cater to the blind and visually impaired and other target groups, yet also takes sighted people into account of course. What makes this so great is that accessible or inclusive software also benefits users without disabilities. For example, shortcut keys also empower those who are able to see to work faster than if they used a mouse. It often is as easy as tackling these mundane issues.
We also developed a telephone switchboard: Our DL ETB system – ETB stands for electronic telephone directory – is now being used in German government offices such as the Federal Chancellery, the Federal Court of Justice, the Federal Aviation Office, hospitals, universities, and commercial enterprises. That's a wonderful thing because sighted people get to experience a workplace that’s adapted for the blind and realize that they like how it works and want the same features. Suddenly you have three, four, five employees with sight that also work with the same system. That’s what we call inclusive systems. Essentially, accessible systems allow a blind person to use them, yet inclusive systems are optimized for target groups on top of that. Right now, we are the only company in the world that builds this type of software. But the secret is out, people know about us and we have been very successful for several years now.
You conduct on-site needs assessments. Do you talk to anyone who will use your application?
Lienert: We conduct a technical evaluation at the company site to identify the systems in use and to determine how we should configure and set up the connection. We also assess the premises and work area. For example, if an employee who uses text to speech output works in an open plan office environment, we suggest a change because this type of setting creates unnecessary high levels of stress.
We also make a team assessment and check whether the employee is in a great, successful position or whether there is a toxic work environment. Is there support from disability representatives? Sometimes you have representatives that don’t do their job though most of them are helpful. We assess what makes the employees, the boss and HR manager tick. These on-site visits lay the groundwork for our project. It makes all the difference when people realize there is a solution to their problem.
Usually, this process works well but we also had on-site visits where we hardly needed to do anything and employees only had to learn how to properly use the auxiliary aids as they had previously not received the necessary screen reader or magnification software training.