Paralympic gold medallist urges businesses to use tech to support disabled people

Sophie Christiansen CBE is a para-equestrian dressage rider who spoke at AbilityNet's TechShare pro conference in November.

As someone who was born with quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy, technology helped me access education. Simply having a typewriter and then a computer, enabled me to do my school work independently. To write would’ve been far harder. Tech allowed me to show the part of my body that did work properly – my brain. Because of that I knew that I could go on to get a job and live independently like everyone else.

Sophie Christiansoon was a guest speaker AbilityNet's TechShare pro

I know my value in the workplace in my role as tech analyst at Goldman Sachs. When you have a disability you really focus on your abilities. You think differently – outside the box. It’s this mentality that makes disabled people good employees and also inspires able-bodied co-workers to do the same - to make their product and business accessible for everyone.

Voice recognition issues

One thing that would make my life even easier is if voice recognition worked better for me. My voice is obviously different to other people’s and I find voice recognition a bit hit and miss. For example, Siri on iPhones doesn’t understand me, but Google does. Amazon Alexa gets me when she is online and processes on Amazon’s server, but to switch it on using the specific ‘wake up words’ doesn’t work because at that point she’s offline and her local processing skills are less clever. I did a little experiment with her to show you what I mean.

There’s lots more that can be done to keep improving things. I spend a lot of time on trains, and feel companies could do more to make it easier for disabled people. At the moment, to catch a train, I have to phone to book assistance 24 hours in advance (because disabled people can never be spontaneous, right?). But phone at peak times and this normally involves being put on hold for 15 minutes.

Reasonable adjustments in the transport sector

I’d say about for about one in 10 journeys, the member of staff forgets that I have booked on, so in the absence of a ramp, I have to rely on kind members of the public to lift my wheelchair down so I don’t end up in Portsmouth.

As a reasonable adjustment there could be an app which I could use to quickly book assistance half an hour or more before my train, get reassurance that the staff know about me, and send data back to the train operator on their performance. I can guarantee that if this was in place more disabled people and their families would have the confidence to travel by train.

The world of tech is still in its infancy, so why not think about accessibility in the embryo stage of an idea? You don’t have to just do this out of the goodness of your hearts – there are 13.3 million disabled people in the UK alone with a household spending power of £249bn. That’s a lot of business that you are missing out on by not being accessible. A little extra thought goes a long way for everyone.

Visit Sophie's website for more information

Follow Sophie on Twitter @SChristiansen87

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