Q&A  | 

Jesús Hernández on the relevance of innovation in accessibility

"Teams of tech developers should have people with disabilities among their ranks”


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Jesús Hernández is Director of Universal Accessibility and Innovation at Fundación ONCE. As such, he works to promote universal accessibility as well as accessibility products and services. Hernández and his team carry out diagnostics on urban accessibility, and promote awareness and training actions, as well as the development of projects in order to bridge the digital gap.

What do we understand by universal accessibility and how is Spain doing in this regard?

Accessibility is what makes public and private spaces, products and services ready to be used by people with disabilities, the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

Spain is a reference country in terms of accessibility, although that does not mean that all spaces, products and services are accessible. There is still a long way to go.

How can technology promote and enable universal accessibility?

Technology is a great ally, as it enhances accessibility. For instance, thanks to technology people with disabilities can know how long it takes for a bus to arrive. This is made possible by way of accessible smart phones and properly designed applications.

However, technology also becomes a great barrier if its design does not take the needs of all people into account.

Can you tell us about a specific case of technology that has greatly improved accessibility?

Sure, traffic lights, for example. For the last few years there are more and more accessible traffic lights in a growing number of cities and towns. These emit sound signals so that blind people know when they can cross. Work is also being done to make the crossings more accessible to people with multiple disabilities, such as deafblind people.

Biases in artificial intelligence and other types of technology are one of the main concerns in terms of digitalization nowadays. How critical do you consider the participation of people with disabilities to be in the development of technology?

Involving diversity and disability in technology design is crucial. The best would be to integrate people with disabilities among the developers, in the design and validation of the solutions. Otherwise we risk running into unwanted situations like people with disabilities being discriminated in artificial intelligence-based processes.

For example, when faced with artificial intelligence selected images, it could happen that people with disabilities were left out simply because their image does not correspond to the stereotypes established for the selection.

In your opinion, how can such participation be encouraged?

Promoting the hiring of people with disabilities by organizations or involving such profiles in user tests.

What opportunities does accessible tech and tech for accessibility open up in economic terms?

Many opportunities. Worldwide, 15% of the population has some type of disability, so accessible technologies expand their potential use to this group as well as to their families.

In addition, accessible technologies are easier to use for all people, including the elderly, people with learning or cognitive problems, etc. who are therefore also potential customers.

I believe that no business, regardless of whether or not it is technology-based, should left accessibility as a feature aside, for, otherwise, it will not be able to reach its entire target audience. People with disabilities also do the shopping, enjoy tourism, go to the movies, etc.

Is the technology for accessibility sector relevant in Spain?

Yes, it is very relevant, since society makes continuous use of technology and, therefore, it must be accessible.

According to the current Spanish legislation, governmental websites and mobile applications as well websites of different private sectors must be accessible.

The trend is for accessibility requirements to be applied in a growing number of products and services, as it is an increasing demand by the European Commission and by organizations representing disability.

Finally, what kind of technological accessibility tool would you most like to see emerge in the coming years?

I would like current technological trends, such as robotics or artificial intelligence, to be at the service of society, without distinguishing or discriminating against those with disabilities.

Robots, for example, can help people with disabilities be fully functional in complex environments, such as hospitals, shopping centers, etc.