When I think about our company purpose – to create a brilliant connected future for everyone – it’s the last two words in the sentence that cannot be overlooked.
“For everyone” really does mean for every single person. For the 1 in 6 Australians affected by hearing loss and 357,000 Australians who are blind or have low vision, technology has the ability to educate, engage and empower these individuals like never before.
Through the Tech4Good Challenge, we’ve had the pleasure of working with three exceptional non-profit organisations – Expression Australia, Royal Institute for Deaf & Blind Children and Vision Australia – who are all passionate about improving accessibility for this sector.
Here are some of their ideas about how technology can help close the gap and create a more inclusive society.
Growing up, Olivia Beasley’s home life was no different to anyone else’s. Even though she was born deaf, communicating with her parents was never a challenge as they too were deaf and used Auslan (Australian Sign Language) at home.
But, as soon as Olivia stepped outside the front door, she entered a world that can hear – and everyday situations like shopping, going to the library or attending a Girl Guides meeting brought unique challenges.
Like many deaf people, Olivia employs multiple strategies like writing things down and using interpreters to help her overcome communication barriers, but it is rare she meets a member of the general public who can hear that can communicate with her through sign language.
As Expression Australia’s Youth Engagement Officer, Olivia has seen many young people experience these same challenges through school, sports groups and other social environments.
“These experiences are so common, and it got us thinking, what can we do to help embed Auslan into everyday life to improve communication and social interactions between the deaf community and those with hearing?” says Olivia.
Through the Tech4Good Challenge, Olivia and her team have begun exploring opportunities to develop an app that will help remove the stigma and improve mainstream community attitudes towards deaf people.
The app – with a working title of ‘Auslan Anywhere’ – will provide key signs, sentences, poetry, stories and even songs in Auslan as well as best practice guidelines for how to address and communicate with people who are deaf or hard or hearing.
“The difference between this app and others that exist already is that users will be able to request Auslan translations for words they would like to know, and the deaf community will then respond by uploading videos to match these requests. All of the content would be crowdsourced directly from the Deaf community, building empowerment and giving them a sense of ownership of the app,” says Olivia.
Royal Institute for Deaf & Blind Children
“By the end of secondary school, more than three out of every 1,000 children will require assistance because of hearing loss,” says Sam Boswell, the Digital Media Producer for Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children (RIDBC).
“Whilst that number covers a broad spectrum of hearing abilities, we know that children in mainstream schools around Australia who are deaf and who use sign language to communicate are falling behind academically and are becoming socially isolated.”
Both Sam and Nik D’Souza, RIDBC’s Multimedia Designer, are big believers in the use of technology to help bridge the gap. Through the Tech4Good Challenge they are working to develop a virtual classroom prototype to connect students who sign with a teacher who signs. This live environment of small groups will allow participants to learn skills and connect with new peers and role models.
“By keeping the classes small, participants will be able to interact with each other and their teacher more easily. The classes will foster positive identity association and improve accessibility by removing geographic barriers,” says Sam.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg for us. We’re also looking at ways we can educate and upskill parents because 99% of the time they are hearing parents who know very little sign language, which creates barriers at home. The more we can do to support these kids, the more we can ensure they receive the same opportunities as their hearing peers and reach their full potential,” says Nik.
Vision Australia is a leading national provider of blindness and low vision services in Australia, supporting more than 27,500 people of all ages, life stages and circumstances across the country.
Education Service Designer Polly Goodwin says a key factor in achieving success is through online resources and connections, however, there’s still a long way to go before the online world becomes truly accessible to young people who are blind, low vision or print disabled.
“As a sighted person, think about how long it takes you to find the right information online. Now imagine how complex, time-consuming, frustrating and alienating that process can be for people who are blind, have low vision or are print disabled,” says Polly.
“Despite being extremely digitally literate, young Australians who are blind, low vision or print disabled find as much as 75% of online space inaccessible or unusable. Online menus, theatre bookings, course materials, social media platforms and recruitment websites can present significant challenges, and Google searches produce a wealth of information which can be hard to navigate and filter.”
Through the Tech4Good Challenge, Polly and her team have begun developing a digital tool called AccessAble that will provide a way for young people who are blind, low vision or print disabled to access the digital environment in an easier and more efficient way.
It will empower young people to identify and share resources that are accessible, useable and relevant to them, and provide advocacy resources that give them the skills to flag inaccessibility and be part of the solution. It will also educate organisations who have an online presence about the legal, ethical and commercial obligations to make their online space accessible.
“While the majority of web developers aim to provide an excellent user experience, many are unaware of the challenges people who are blind, low vision or print disabled face when trying to access their content. We want to provide a safe space for our young people to call out problematic digital spaces, enabling our accessibility experts to offer advice and support for developers and organisations to make the necessary changes,” says Polly.
“With so many social, health and education services available online, it’s important that we continue to find new ways and opportunities to improve accessibility and inclusion for young Australians who are blind, low vision or print disabled.”
Visit The Telstra Foundation’s Tech4Good hub to find out more about the Tech4Good Challenge and the 15 participating non-profits.