Creating an accessible workplace: inclusive software for people with and without disabilities
Creating an accessible workplace: inclusive software for people with and without disabilities
Optimized technical workflows that efficiently accommodate blind, visually impaired and sighted people – the inclusive software by Dräger & Lienert GbR makes it reality. In this REHACARE.com interview, Hansjörg Lienert explains how a small company in Marburg has managed to succeed in international markets and reveals why entrepreneurs sometimes have to take risks to thrive.
The Dräger & Lienert team led by Hansjörg Lienert (front right), which has made a name for itself beyond Marburg and Germany with its inclusive software solutions.
Mr. Lienert, who typically seeks out your products: employees or employers?
Hansjörg Lienert: Let's take the REHACARE trade fair by way of example: In this setting, we are approached by disability representatives on behalf of the employees, yet we also get inquiries from disability employment officers who represent the employer side. We definitely see increased interest from employers.
Having said that, there is still room for improvement when it comes to new job creation. Disability representatives typically know what’s feasible, as do rehabilitation officers from employment agencies or integrated disability management representatives. Yet employers still have a lot of catching up to do in this area. Our experience has shown that everyone is skeptical at first when we called upon for support. That’s when we illustrate how a blind person performs their work duties. This usually flips the switch, at which point everyone tends to be on the same page.
There is often the stigma of employers not wanting to hire people with disabilities. I actually don’t think that’s the case and can also attest to this as an employer. Of course, you are always worried that you might bring somebody into your team that ends up being a hindrance. However, once people realize that you are hiring someone who knows technology and is highly capable despite his/her disability, the battle is already won and there is no longer a need to worry.
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.
Speaking of product usability: Do employees have to receive training prior to use or are things intuitive?
Lienert: Our concept aims for as little instruction as possible. We used to provide a lot of training in the past but there has been a declining demand for it over the years. We maintain that extensive costs of auxiliary aids don’t further disability employment and that it is not expedient if users require a lot of training. Having said that, users still need the right amount of training to be able to properly operate the systems, which means you have to strike the right balance. We never provided more than one day of training for our EasyTask solution and at most a day or two to instruct contact management. Needless to say, we try to make self-explanatory software but we all know that software can be complex.
How much does it generally cost companies to create accessible workplaces that enable blind or visually impaired employees to reasonably perform their jobs and stay competitive in their career?
Lienert: We have a great system here in Germany where the costs are typically absorbed by the respective authorities (called "Kostenträger"). Germany has the so-called equalization levy. German employers must employ a quota of 5 percent of people with disabilities. Employers must either fulfil this obligation or pay the government an equalization levy. All funds are lumped together and the local Federal Integration Offices (soon to be referred to as Inclusion Offices) use these pooled funds to pay for these technical accommodations. For example, if an employee was in an accident that renders him or her in a wheelchair and the office building where he or she works doesn’t have an elevator, the Federal Integration Office pays to have one installed. The reasoning behind this is that this accommodation doesn’t just benefit this particular person but all others who might be in the same position in the future. In some instances, the offices only pay for a percentage, though it usually accounts for 80 or 90 percent of the total cost and companies have to chip in for a portion of the cost. Having said that, in a majority of cases the Integration Offices absorb all costs. Meanwhile, the German Employment Agency is responsible when a new job is created and handles the related costs. The German Statutory Accident Insurance or worker’s compensation is likewise an excellent institution that provides support. No one wants to be in an accident, but if it happens and you get injured, the Statutory Accident Insurance is very generous and helpful. And then there is also the German Statutory Pension Insurance that offers assistance.
In other words, employers are rarely stuck with the costs, though there can be system implementations where the respective authorities maintain that the employer should partake as a primary beneficiary. In this setting, employers must pay up to 30 percent of the total cost.
You get specific requests from clients or technical consultants. What feedback do you get from employees and employers after the software implementation has been completed?
Lienert: We are there for the entire process and know when things go well or if there are problems because we stay in touch with our customers. Ideally, we have a perfect system implementation. And we have these types of solutions for our customers.
That being said, there are continuous software changes and updates, which may result in questions from our customers or their IT departments, prompting us to spring back into action. Yet we generally have many excellent references.
We won’t rest and keep going until the workplace has the perfect setup. However, that’s only possible because we get paid accordingly to be able to offer this service. After all, these systems are not cheap. But we rather do it right the first time versus trying to cut corners and then having to later reassess and correct the configuration. Ultimately, the cost-benefit analysis has shown us that it is more cost-effective in the medium-term for the respective authorities if we offer a more expensive solution.