By Init4Health Policy/Comm Prof. Interest in /entrepreneurship & in , . Image from Pixabay here.

Technology is rapidly changing our lives; everything from how we learn, work, shop, interact, communicate, travel, socialise, exercise and everything in between and more, is being disrupted in new and exciting ways thanks to the internet and the explosion of new technologies. This growth in innovation and connectedness is helping entrepreneurs develop new business models blending traditional capitalism with systems change approaches for social good to address some of the more pressing social challenges of our time.  Seeing opportunity, partnerships are being built, new technologies and digital tools deployed to trial approaches in areas of need.

One of the areas where technological disruption has been particularly welcome is in the disability arena.  Closefunding/Business4All, Thecodpast and Axschat are but 3 initiatives of note positively shaking things up. Individually and collectively the disability advocates and accessibility champions behind these initiatives are bringing their technological knowhow, social media talent, disability expertise and experience to empower, inform and promote greater inclusion, equality and accessibility for people with disability.

Take Jaisiel Madrid Sánchez for instance.  This Spanish Telecommunications Engineer and expert in machine learning and data processing has combined his digital expertise and international research experience in accessibility and disability gained, in a number of European universities and social enterprises, to create @Closefunding.  This social enterprise, located in the southeast of Spain (Mar Menor area) works together with local communities to enhance understanding and adoption of business model literacy by encouraging and empowering local communities to identify business opportunities and local talent pools to create new inclusive partnerships  to boost employment and economic activity.   Developing communities’ business skills and understanding of inclusive business models has been key to the initiative’s success.

This has been achieved via the Business4All toolkit developed by Jaisiel and the team and supported by a variety of workshops and seminars to build understanding.  Business4All itself contains more than 300 referenced business models, strategies and templates employed by successful entrepreneurs.  Designed in a user friendly, accessible manner, this toolkit enables groups/individuals to identify needs/market gaps, co-create business ideas, develop business plans and identify potential partners locally to develop their business idea. The offering was initially a cloud based one but has recently been launched as a physical toolkit product. Work is in progress to have an English version of the physical boxed Business4All offering (the cloud based version is already available in English as it detects the language of the device accessing it). A braille version is also in train.  The toolkit in its cloud and boxed formats has received great reviews and has been showcased at conferences and workshops throughout Spain.  Business4ALL is also being used by the ONCE Foundation (the largest disability support organisation in Spain) and AMAC (the Accessibility Solutions and Research Centre at Georgia Tech (USA) among others, to stimulate intrapreneurship and business innovation.

Securing employment can be a real challenge for people with disabilities; globally they face high unemployment rates and, when employed, are often relegated to low-level, low paid work.  While progress has been made with disability awareness training, incentives for employers, supported employment and quota schemes etc. – challenges remain particularly with regard to workplace accessibility and persistent misperceptions of ability.  Marrying innovative approaches with accessible technology the Closefunding social enterprise with its Business4All toolkit is attempting to change perceptions and to create inclusive environments where people with disability can explore business opportunity and potential partnerships while developing entrepreneurial skills and business acumen.

Someone who knows only too well how challenging the workplace can be for someone with a disability is Sean Douglas, founder of @TheCodpast.  A talented podcaster, broadcaster, video producer and editor, this former BBC cameraman who is dyslexic has also harnessed technology to empower, educate and enable.  With his dyslexia going undiagnosed until his late 20s, Sean struggled in school and his grades suffered as result.  A fortuitous encounter with youngsters involved in Youth Cable Television (a charity run by the Guinness family) helped put Sean on his current career path enabling him to secure a college place in media studies and to find fulfilling roles first, with the Chinese Channel (part of TVB-Europe) and later, as a cameraman with the BBC in Leeds.

While working at the BBC, Sean set up his own small video production company on the side.   Seeing an opportunity to showcase his talent further, he successfully secured a role with a major banking firm that had its own TV production studio.  He excelled in a fast paced video production position, producing corporate videos but, it was only when the company closed its production studio that dyslexia once again created challenges for him.  Moving out of unemployment he joined an independent production company but, found to his horror, that much of his time was being taken up with complicated paperwork with little time for creativity and video production where his skills, passion and talent lay.  Despite coming into work early on a daily basis to try and deal with the paperwork he knew that the role was just not for him, as the reading and writing challenges posed by dyslexia were making the administrative side of the role cumbersome and stressful for him. Hired to work in video production and editing he had found himself instead struggling in a role that had little video production work related to it.  With the whole experience taking a toll on his confidence he bit the bullet and resigned. There didn’t appear to be any other option.  His employers were aware of his dyslexia but failed to really appreciate how the disability was affecting his ability to deal with the growing piles of paperwork.  They couldn’t understand why he needed to come in to the office so early and no alternative solutions were proposed.   Unemployed through no fault of his own, Sean sought help from local NGOs working with dyslexia but found that the support was more tailored to a younger audience and to parents of children with dyslexia.  There was very little assistance of relevance to him as he sought employment support and advice.

Hearing about a dyslexic group that met regularly in London he figured the only course of action left to him was to go along and see if group members had found themselves in similar situations.  The meetup was an eye opener and life changing.  Here he found 80+ professionals from all walks of life – lawyers, artists and everyone in between all sharing their personal stories and struggles.  These stories resonated with him and he thought how things might have been different for him in school and in employment had he known that there were others just like himself, facing the same struggles and sharing strategies for coping and overcoming adversity.  It was following this first meeting that the seeds for TheCodpast were sewn.  Building back up his “on the side” video production business “Extraordinaire Digital Media”, Sean set about creating “The Codpast, Right Brained Stories From Interesting Individuals” a series of podcasts featuring people with dyslexia.  As dyslexics can jumble their letters making spelling a challenge – Thecodpast is a play on the word “Podcast”.

Combining Sean’s strong media background and communication skills, @thecodpast / thecodpast.org is an excellent, free, online multimedia resource; a fresh, one stop shop for students and adults with Dyslexia, created by a team who are all dyslexic. With high quality videos, articles and podcasts, Sean and the team have created a fantastic resource with up to the minute news, assistive technology reviews, interviews with inspiring individuals living with dyslexia, audio blogs, book reviews, advice and support on a range of topics of concern to people with dyslexia re employment and college life.  It is clear from the video blogs that Sean is as much at ease in front of the camera as he is behind it.  His communications and media background have really stood him in good stead.  TheCodpast is currently a project under the auspices of Sean’s independent video production company “Extraordinaire Digital Media” but the hope is for it soon to be a standalone social enterprise once resources allow.

Keen to grow awareness of dyslexia and the creativity of people who have this disability, Sean and the team are regular participants in national and international conferences discussing their work and TheCodpast project.  Sean also works closely with a number of universities and schools to advocate on behalf of dyslexics and to help develop technology skills and accessible tech awareness among students and staff.  His presence on social media and his vast knowledge of all things tech is helping him to bring this venture and disability awareness to new audiences.

It’s clear that technology can change lives and with the right supports, attitude and training, it can open up new pathways to academic and career success.  For people with disabilities, technology, the internet, digital and social media can really help to maximize independence, productivity and participation; affording opportunities for personal, social, academic and professional growth.

Debra Ruh, a US based Global Disability Inclusion Strategist, Disability Advocate, Author and Entrepreneur (she is founder of 3 firms: Ruh Global Communications, TecAccess and Strategic Performance Solutions) understands the transformative power of technology perhaps better than most.  A parent to 2 grown children, her eldest, Sara was born with Down Syndrome in 1987.   When diagnosed, Debra and her husband were told that Sara might not walk or talk, cautioned that her future would be uncertain, her abilities limited.  She defied expectations, learning to walk and talk and met her development goals.  Today she is a bright, happy and outgoing young woman despite Down Syndrome.  And yet, in spite of her many achievements, her educators too had limited expectations as to what she might achieve as an adult and how she might earn a living in later life.  It was mooted that her outgoing, engaging manner would ideally equip her to assist busy shoppers pack their groceries or that her organisational skills would be well suited to collecting shopping trolleys from the shopping centre forecourt.

It was this limited perception of what a person with Down Syndrome could achieve that spurred Debra to abandon her role in banking and finance in 2001 to set up TecAccess; a for profit business working with large corporates to evaluate their websites and technology offerings for accessibility and usability. Debra wanted to prove to herself and to others that people with disabilities had so much more to offer and that their unique talents and insights could be harnessed to assist corporates to grow market share and develop more useful products and services to the benefit of all.  Over 80% of TecAccess employees were people with a disability.  Under Debra’s stewardship, TecAccess quickly gained a reputation and, in time, became a multi-million dollar enterprise and a leading provider of accessible Information & Communication Technologies (ICT) for the world’s largest and fastest growing minority group – People with Disabilities, Baby Boomers and Veterans with Disabilities. The company merged with SSB BART Group (SSB) in April 2011 and Debra assumed the role of Chief Marketing Officer for SSB until December 2012.  In 2013 she established Ruh Global Communications focusing on strategic communications and digital marketing. The firm aims to help corporations strategically include People with Disabilities and to assist Governments in implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Having a daughter with Down Syndrome and growing a multi-million dollar business employing a talented group of disabled employees has provided Debra with unique insights into the challenges and benefits of employing persons with disabilities.  As a disability advocate, employer and parent to a child with an intellectual disability, Debra is uniquely placed to advise and support disability employers and disabled employees alike.  It is for this reason that Debra is so highly regarded and sought after as an international advisor in the ICT and disability field.  Her latest book “Tapping Into Hidden Human Capital” captures the lessons learned and best practices Debra has seen in her global work as a successful employer of persons with disability and is perhaps best described as a concise roadmap for companies seeking to successfully on-board persons with disability to include them in their workforce.

Debra’s status as a disability advocate and global force for accessibility and inclusion brought her to the attention of ATOS digital inclusion, IT and assistive technology experts Antonio Santos and Neil Milliken.  Connecting via twitter they agreed to harness their collective expertise, talent and commitment to equality, inclusion and accessibility to develop Axschat http://www.axschat.com – an online weekly twitter chat (Tuesdays 8pm London time) aimed at spreading awareness of the work being undertaken globally by innovative, creative and committed professionals to enable greater access and inclusion for people with disability.  Since coming together in November 2014 Axschat has interviewed over 100 guests and has become the number 1 twitter chat in Europe and the second largest twitter chat in the WORLD.    Who would ever have thought that 140 characters could be so powerful!!

There is no doubt that technology has changed how we work, rest and play.  It has opened up a whole new world of possibility for everyone but especially for people with disabilities.  Committed and talented professionals like Jaisiel, Sean, Debra, Neil and Antonio are vital change makers and positive disrupters in the technology, accessibility and disability space.  They, like others are  harnessing technology and social media to make the world a more inclusive place.  As we age, we will all face disability and mobility challenges.  We need advocates to ensure that technologies are inclusive and harnessed for good so that no-one is left behind. Technology should be our partner, giving us a voice, a space and place to play our part.


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