Enabling digital accessibility will democratise technology in 2023 and beyond

Guest post by Kyran O’Mahoney, whois the Chief Technology Officer at the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI)

The internet has not always been widely available. In fact, it was not until the 1990s that the widespread use of the internet intruded into the lives of most advanced societies and economies. Since then, the proliferation of digital experiences has utterly transformed the way in which we interact with each other, consume content and do business. The evolution of technology has had numerous ramifications from the obvious to the entirely unexpected. 

Digital accessibility will democratise technology in 2023

The ‘modern’ internet has thus become a public space – one that can be used and shared by all. Its infrastructure provides a platform to create, to communicate and to cooperate. This democratised version of the internet has evolved over time – from the static, linear structure of Web 1.0 to the dynamic, social-media dominated Web 2.0, and the futuristic, interactive Web 3.0. Simultaneously, access to the internet has broadened significantly. While approximately 14 million people used the internet in 1993, Statisca estimates this figure is closer to 5.03 billion today.

In theory, the internet has become democratised, and as a result, products, services, and digital assets are now available globally, to all. However, in practice, we know that this is not the case. The true democratisation of the internet and technology remains an aspiration. Today, the perception of technology as the greatest enabler, comes with a caveat. Despite being widely and globally used, the internet and its technologies are paradoxically, far from democratised. For many, the internet and its assets are simply not accessible. This is no more true than for those living with disabilities – who collectively form the world’s largest single minority group, and are the custodians of the most significant and untapped consumer market.

Technology as an enabler, as an inhibitor

In the most recently recorded census, more than 600,000 people stated that they are living with a disability in Ireland, approximately 13.5 percent of the current population. Looking at statistics outside the Republic of Ireland, we see that an estimated 87 million people or 1 in 4 adults have a disability in the European Union (EU) and the figure is as high as 1.3 billion people or 16% of the population worldwide. Two of the most frequently cited challenges identified at EU level faced by people with disabilities include societal and economic exclusion. 

As a person living with a visual impairment, and as a Co-Founder at technology start up, IA Labs, I have been privy to the extraordinary opportunities presented by technology and its role as a tool for mitigating the risk of exclusion. Through technology, I have been facilitated in growing my business remotely, using digital public services, communicating with colleagues, and purchasing products online with ease. In many ways, I have experienced a democratised internet. 

Equally, I am often prevented from carrying out every single one of these activities. This is because the website, platform or mobile application that I have attempted to use is inaccessible and fails to comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 AA standard. Regretfully, the majority of websites hosted in Ireland cannot be used by a person living with a disability – seminal research from IA Labs found that 72% of leading Irish companies do not have accessible websites. In response, legislative mandates have been progressed.

Legislation is required, but investment will lead to implementation

Legislation has been proposed at EU and international level to ensure that websites, digital assets and experiences are accessible to everyone – placing the democratisation of technology on a firm legislative footing. The European Accessibility Act (EAA) requires the websites of public and private sector organisations to be fully digitally accessible by June 2025. All EU Member States must now comply with this mandate, which includes digital services/products which are sold in the EU (regardless of where they are based). So far, three Member States have transposed this into national law – Estonia, Italy and Denmark, with more expected to follow. 

To put this in perspective; companies across Europe have less than three years to ensure that their websites are digitally accessible and can be used by a person living with a disability. Far from a daunting prospect, at IA Labs, we maintain that this legislative mandate is an opportunity for businesses to unlock access to a domestic and global market of consumers, who have considerable spending power. Developing an accessible website is inexpensive and time efficient – but the challenge is procuring specialists with the technological expertise and lived experience to build it.

Ireland has a unique status as an international technology hub and as a location for continued investment in the sector. As Director and Co-Founder of IA Labs, I have chosen to locate the company here, given the wide availability of expert talent and specialist skill sets. As our first-round call for investment commences in January 2023, there is collective excitement about the prospect which lies ahead: the true democratisation of the internet through the development of fully accessible websites and mobile applications in Ireland, the EU and beyond; the creation of thousands of knowledge-based, skilled jobs, and the potential for IA Labs’ homegrown technology to be brought to scale. 

At IA Labs, we remain committed to driving forward the democratisation of technology – helping public and private sector organisations to tap into new markets, while crucially, ensuring that this growth is inclusive, all-encompassing and ensures equality of opportunity for every person, regardless of ability.

Kyran O’Mahoney is the Chief Technology Officer at the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) and Co-Founder of IA Labs. A product-focused senior IT leader with twenty years of experience, Kyran has held senior positions in some of Ireland’s leading companies such as: Allied Irish Banks, Ryanair, Dunnes Stores and the National Council for the Blind of Ireland. Across these roles, Kyran has led on the delivery of large complex technical projects for the Financial Services, Insurance, Media, HR, Aviation, Retail and Charity sectors in Ireland, the UK, and the United States.

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