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Tarryn Tomlinson announces the AVA AI Access Assistant during a panel on disability at Africa's Travel Indaba 2024. Pic by Arthur Goldstuck.

People 'n' Issues

Tech comes to the
accessibility table

Last week’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day highlighted efforts – and lack thereof – at addressing disability in travel and entertainment, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Netflix last week updated a playlist of movies showing how disability is represented in movies, to coincide with Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) on Thursday (16 May). However, it was no mere marketing ploy, but a challenge to the worlds of technology, entertainment, and travel to become more inclusive in how they deal with disability.

On the same day, iSchool Africa announced it was rolling out a Coding for Inclusion Programme at MCK Special School for the Deaf, in Soweto. The iStore-backed organisation said GAAD brought attention to the need for digital access and inclusion for more than one billion people globally living with disabilities.

By coincidence, accessibility was the topic of one of the most compelling panel discussions at Africa’s Travel Indaba 2024 in Durban last week. In a session entitled “Exploring accessible tourism and the role of AI in advancing inclusion”, a challenge was posed to the travel industry to ensure that all individuals, regardless of their abilities, can enjoy its offerings.

The panellists, who included a woman in a wheelchair, a blind person and a deaf person, highlighted how much was being done in technology for disabled access, yet how little was being done in travel.

Tarryn Tomlinson, a universal access assessor, pointed out from her wheelchair that more than 16% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability, making up a significant market that remains largely untapped by the travel industry.

“Persons with disabilities and their families have a combined spending power of US$2.81-trillion, yet only 10% of companies actively market their services to this demographic,” she said.

Tomlinson stressed that there was a vast difference between accessibility and universal access.

“Universal access is not just for persons with disabilities; it includes parents with young children, senior citizens, and anyone with temporary mobility issues.”

The result, she said, was that universal design benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities.

“For example, an automated door is convenient for people carrying luggage, those with mobility aids, and parents with strollers.”

Tomlinson introduced AVA (from Universal access Assistant), a new AI tool designed to help hospitality businesses assess and improve their accessibility. AVA guides users through an accessibility audit using a smartphone, providing recommendations for improvements and tracking progress over time.

“With AVA, businesses can gather data, receive an accurate universal access score, and plan for necessary upgrades.”

Tomlinson also highlighted the broader implications of accessibility in the travel industry: “By 2050, the number of people over the age of 65 will more than double, and many of these individuals will have some form of disability. We need to start designing our infrastructure now to accommodate this growing demographic.”

“One of the biggest challenges is that architects are not trained to design for inclusion, and property owners trust them to know how to do it. We need to bridge this gap through education and better training.”

Chris Phillips, a consultant and former Tourism Grading Council assessor, recounted experiences where many establishments failed to meet the needs of disabled guests, revealing a gap that needed addressing.

“We have a big job to do in making all travel facilities universally accessible,” he said. “Accessible accommodations are not just a moral imperative but also a business opportunity.”

He underlined the success of establishments that have embraced accessibility, showing increased bookings and customer loyalty.

Jabaar Mohamed, who describes himself as “a proudly Deaf South African”, pointed to the success of the Radisson group in employing deaf staff, “demonstrating that with proper training and support, inclusive hiring practices are highly effective, showing the potential of inclusive employment in the hospitality sector”.

“The Radisson group was the first hotel group in the world to commit to employing deaf staff, with 30% of their employees being deaf,” he said. “This initiative not only provided employment opportunities but also enhanced the customer experience for deaf guests.”

Blind author, speaker and traveller Lois Strachan, a well-known advocate for accessibility, stressed the broader societal shift needed to fully embrace inclusivity.

“Disability is not something that happens to other people; it is a part of our society. We need to accept and incorporate inclusive tools and perspectives into our daily lives.”

She said she had been using AI and other technologies for many years to navigate the world.

“I use AI to help me gain insights into what is happening in an image, find information, and navigate the world. These technologies are invaluable in helping me engage with information that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to access. The tools are there, but we need to shift our perspective. Disability is a part of society, and we need to incorporate inclusive tools into our daily lives.”

During a virtual GAAD media briefing this week, Netflix director of product accessibility Heather Dowdy emphasised the importance of engaging with the disability community to understand their needs better.

“We collaborate with disability organisations, host focus groups, and continuously improve our guidelines for audio descriptions and subtitles,” she said. The effort was not just a matter of compliance, but a commitment to embracing diversity and enhancing the overall customer experience.

As a child of Deaf adults, said Dowdy, she had first-hand experience navigating the world between the Deaf and hearing communities. “Growing up in my home, we had gadgets all around us that helped my parents connect with the world. It wasn’t until I was older that I realised the broader impact of accessibility features.”

Dowdy highlighted Netflix’s mission to deliver inclusive entertainment experiences through accessible products and features such as audio descriptions, subtitles, and screen readers to ensure that everyone, including those with disabilities, can enjoy the content.

She told Business Times: “Given that there are long standing gaps in the disability community when it comes to bigger issues like employment and transportation, there’s always an opportunity to use emerging technologies more broadly. But also to take a look at the needs of those who really have been underserved for decades and then understand how to apply the benefits of that for all of us.”

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