To disclose or not to disclose: The disabled candidate’s conundrum - Part 2

For almost twenty years it’s been a legal requirement not to discriminate against disabled people, but only now do we have a viable solution to the disabled candidate's conundrum – to disclose or not to disclose? In this second blog of a two-part post, we’re looking at the solution to this intractable dilemma faced by disabled job-seekers everywhere.

The disclosure catch-22

Last time we looked at some startling research undertaken by an organisation trying to help disabled people into work. They applied for twenty jobs with CVs and covering letters that clearly demonstrated the applicants' ability to perform the role, and they ticked the box - common to many application forms - that asks if you have a disability. The result was that they didn’t get a single response from any of the different organisations they applied to. Oh and by the way, when they didn’t tick the box while applying for those same jobs, they got a response in every case!

photo of a job application form

For the full horror of the scenario to fully sink in I’d recommend reading last week’s article.

If, however, a disabled candidate chooses not to tick the box, then they usually find themselves unable to fully participate in the application, assessment or interview process as (often quite simple) changes haven’t been put in place – changes so vital to help them perform at their best. It’s a classic catch-22.

The recruiters' story

Recruiters aren’t necessarily discriminating in this way because they want to consciously avoid disabled candidates.  Imagine that you are a busy recruiter with dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of applications for a given post. You have lots to choose from. When you see one that has the box ticked the immediate response is to panic. The fear of not being able to adequately accommodate the needs of that individual means that, consciously or otherwise, they look for some rationale to put them to one side. There are, after all, all these other candidates to choose from - and getting it wrong might lead to all kinds of consequences.

That, of course, is not fair and disabled people deserve better. Quite apart from it being illegal to do this in those cases where the candidate is more qualified than those not being discarded, disabled employees are very valuable members of a workforce.

A diverse workforce is a stronger workforce

Research by The Health and Safety Executive has demonstrated that, when compared to non-disabled colleagues, disabled employees:

  • Are as productive when they have the right reasonable adjustments in place
  • Take less sick-leave
  • Stay longer in their jobs (more loyal)

I was once told of another striking example of the power of a diverse workforce. NASA, at the time of the space shuttle missions, tried to ensure that wherever possible one of the seven crew members had dyslexia. This was because the special connections forged in the brains of people with dyslexia make them excellent lateral-thinkers and thus invaluable to have around in a tight spot.

Knowing what disabled workers bring, who wouldn’t want to employ as diverse a workforce as possible?

4 young co workers looking convivial, including one in a wheelchair

A new British Standard encouraging recruiters to ‘Do the right thing’

A new code of practice: Valuing people through diversity and inclusion was launched on 4 May. The code of practice requires that recruiters make all parts of the process, such as filling in forms or completing online assessments, accessible to disabled candidates.

Check out our recent post for more information on what this new standard covers, as well as what it means for employers.

So the law is clear and the moral and business case is compelling, but the question of just how to do it right is, and always has been, a challenge. Enter ClearTalents, cape a-flapping, to save the day!

ClearTalents

The challenge of asking all the right questions up-front and in a way that encouraged disclosure resulted, after several years of expert development, in ClearTalents. Put simply, ClearTalents is an online application that enables candidates to quickly create a profile that results in a tailored report for recruiters to know what actions they need to take. Turning an intractable challenge into a simple solution has won ClearTalents several awards.

Quick and simple, powerful and compliant

You might think that a process that explores all aspects of a candidate’s needs (not just disability and impairment but also any specific requirements they might have relating to race, religion, age, sex and sexual orientation and pregnancy etc) would be a lengthy one. In reality creating a profile take minutes for someone to complete as they are first asked high-level questions and only drill down into great detail in areas that apply to them. Whether they need a prayer room to be available during an on-site assessment, a wheelchair accessible venue, or information by text or email instead of by phone, the report tells the recruiter everything they need to know to put reasonable, timely adjustments in place.

One subtle but significant feature of ClearTalents is that recruiters ‘unlock’ each stage of the report as the candidate progresses through the application process. An audit trail in the system confirms what was viewed by who and when and in this way the recruiter isn’t able to look ahead to see what disabilities or other needs might show up later on.

Let’s use a practical example to illustrate how this might work in practice. For someone like myself, my blindness would not necessarily show up in my report until I had been shortlisted and called in for interview. This is because I don’t need any adjustments until that point. I am able to fill out online forms and have a nice chat with HR on the phone. But, when coming in for an interview I’d need to ensure that the building had a conventional entrance as well as a revolving door, for example, as my guide dog Archie is so big he’d almost certainly be chopped in half. Moreover, springing a disability on an employer at the last moment like that will often put them on the back foot, which doesn’t make for a relaxed and successful interview.

If a candidate’s needs do show up at an earlier stage, the fact that the recruiter has unlocked the report and accessed its tailored reasonable adjustment info means that they are then unable to dismiss that candidate without basing their decision solely upon merit, experience and qualifications. They have, after all, just been given the reasonable adjustments that candidate needs so what excuses do they have? Accountability encourages compliance and the recruiter just gets on with following the report’s advice and the candidate gets the adjustments they need.

Not just disability – inclusive recruitment is so much more

As ClearTalents is not just about disability, we both encourage all job-seekers to create a profile and recommend that all employers consider including it as standard. There are eight other areas (or ‘protected characteristics’) that are covered by the Equality Act – we’ve mentioned a few above – and candidates can easily be inadvertently discriminated against in these areas too.

Thus we find that, in reality, the majority of candidates have something they are able to disclose in these areas that, with the right adjustments in place, will help them perform at their best. For this reason, many organisations are indeed including ClearTalents as a step in their standard application process. 

Goodbye dreaded tickbox

Unlike the dreaded tickbox approach, recruiters using ClearTalents now don’t need to be made aware whether a candidate has needs, large or small, before it is time for them to know. When they do find out, the combination of audit trail and tailored adjustments at their fingertips means that they have no option but to consider that candidate on his or her merits.

red cross

Goodbye tickbox. Goodbye discrimination. Welcome to a world of compliance, opportunity and diversity.

If you’d like to find out more about how ClearTalents can help your organisation become a true leader in inclusive recruitment please do drop me a line.

Candidates - want to help make your talents clear to recruiters?

A message to everyone out there who is seeking work is to consider creating a free profile on ClearTalents. You might use your computer in a certain way, find steps or lifting difficult, or perhaps you have allergies or anxieties. You might need to make special travel arrangements, have print of a certain size, or require something specific in place for face to face meetings. Whatever makes you you, ClearTalents can provide the recruiter with the reasonable adjustment advice they need to help.

So if you’re someone whose looking for work and want to know a bit more about how ClearTalents can help, then check out this handy summary for candidates as it will help answer a lot of your questions.

It’s free. To get cracking today go to www.cleartalents.com, create your profile and then start sharing it with companies you apply to. You may never need to tick that box again – instead just give them the link to your secure and confidential profile which contains the reasonable adjustments you need to perform at your best.

Resources:
ClearTalents in Recruitment
ClearTalents At Work
 

Seven free events to mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2017 - including a full day of live streaming on accessibility from the BBC

Global Accessibility Awarness Day (GAAD) on 18 May offers a chance to dip into some fantastic virtual (and real life) accessibilty events from lots of different organisations, including a full day of live streaming from the BBC and top speakers from Microsoft at the Atos London event. Many of these are free.

Here's our pick of seven events that we think stand out - check the official #GAAD2017 website for a complete guide to GAAD events.

#GAAD2017 live streaming from the BBC on digital access and inclusion 

  • Our accessibilty team picked out the BBC's main GAAD event as a favourite.
  • It runs all day on 18 May, streaming from London and Salford in the UK.

ATOS Global Accessibility Awareness day 2017

  • Adi Latif, usability and accessibility consultant at AbilityNet, picked out this event as an option for those who want to go to an event in person, rather than be involved online. 
  • Adi says: "The main London GAAD event looks good as it will have Microsoft talking about how they are imbedding accessibility into their platform. It also looks good as it will be discussing mental health. So many people are affected by it but its very rarely covered."

Digital inclusion

Future of Accessible Work

  • Join W4A (Web For All) Conference Chair Vivienne Conway to hear the highlights and top trends emerging from the global conference Web For All 2017: The Future of Accessible Work. 4pm. 
  • More info about the PEAT W4A Webinar.

Accessibility and Gaming

  • Blind gamers unite on Twitch to show you a way of gaming you've never seen before. Live Stream
  • Head to BlindNewWorld on Twitch May 18th at 12PM ET Featuring BlindGamerDK and BlindGamerMisadventures.

Accessibility for older adults

Higher education 

  • Free webinar discussing 10 Challenges and Solutions for web accessibility implementation in higher education. Topics include: Accessible Textbooks, Administrative Buy-in, Captioning Requirements and Funding Options, Disability Service Providers, Procurement of Accessible Goods and Services, and more.
  • May 18 11:00am - 12:00pm (EDT). To participate, request the login link, please email wag@amac.gatech.edu

Check the official #GAAD2017 website for a complete guide to GAAD events.

 

Can you go mouse-less on Global Accessibility Awareness Day?

Person using computer keyboard

What would happen if your mouse or pointing device was taken away from you? Would you know what to do?

As part of GAAD on Thursday 18th May we challenge you to spend a portion of your day (even just 10 minutes) trying to use your computer with just your keyboard.

Yes, you can control your computer as a keyboard only user! Lots of people do. You can even take advantage of keyboard shortcuts if you are a laptop user. We were quite surprised to see lots of examples of websites devoted to laptops advocating keyboard shortcuts.

Some people claim that the "average" user makes upwards of 5000 clicks a day, which highlights why going mouse-less might be even more challenging.

Who uses keyboard shortcuts?

For a start if you have a tremor, you might find it easier to use a keyboard with some of the settings changed. Or you might find using the mouse difficult because you have poor muscle control. Or if you have a really reduced level of movement you might find that taking your hands away from the keyboard to use the pointing device is just too difficult for you.

Five scenarios that you might find difficult if you can't use a mouse

  1. If you are a keyboard user you might find it difficult to see where the focus is on a web page.
  2. How do you cope with pesky flash videos that tell you to "click here" in the middle of the video?
  3. Some websites require you to "drag and drop". It's easy with a mouse but if you are using a keyboard it is a lot more problematic.
  4. Moving money from one bank account to another might be problematic if you are a keyboard only user.
  5. Trying to use a maps tool on a website.

A reason why you might have to be a keyboard only user is that you don't have any sight whatsoever. Not having any sight means that using the mouse becomes impossible, so you've got to do everything using a keyboard to be able to access your screen reader software.

Some website designers might say "I don't expect too many people who are blind will want to come and visit my website".

That's a really unhelpful attitude - good website design benefits everyone! Being able to navigate around websites using your keyboard is so important because it means that people who can't really use pointing devices are still included.

Of course, all you web people out there have tested your websites using keyboard only, haven't you? If you haven't, you are making it harder for keyboard only users to come to your web site and buy your products or get information!

Why don't you have a go at navigating websites using just your keyboard and share the challenge with your friends and colleagues on GAAD? Just do it for 30 minutes and see how you do.  

We'd love to know how you get on!

Homepages for The Daily Mail, Amazon, Huffington Post, Match.com and Twitter less accessible than six years ago

A report by the US charity WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind) has found that many of the web's top 100 homepages are becoming increasingly inaccessible. 

Examining the homepages of the Daily Mail, Amazon, Huffington Post, Match.com, Twitter and others found a growing number of accessibility errors.

The Daily Mail rose from 22 in 2011 to 59 errors in 2017, Myspace 6 to 76, Huffington Post 9 to 123, Match.com 26 to 43 and Twitter 5 to 71.

screenshot of some of lowest accessibility scoring companies

Top of the most accessible list was the likes of thepiratebay.org which went from 2 to 0 and Walmart which fell from 29 to 0. Facebook scored well overall but rose from 8 to 14, and Apple rose from 0 to 1 error. Other high scores were Flickr – which fell from 25 to 1, the BBC whose errors dropped from 21 to 2 and Microsoft, which went from 11 errors six years ago to 2 in March 2017 when the report was run.

This Thursday is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, a time for web managers, app developers and those in the tech space to look at how easy or hard it is for disabled people to use their product or service.

It's thought that companies are missing out on a large chunk of the £200bn plus valued purple pound – the money available to spend by disabled people and their families – because of their inaccessible services. 

Adi Latif, accessibility and usability consultant at AbilityNet works with companies to improve the accessibility of their apps and websites. Commenting on the report he said: “More time and resources are being spent on accessibility but due to the landscape changing constantly more issues come up."

To disclose or not to disclose: the disabled candidate’s conundrum - Part 1

Robin Christopherson is Head Of Digital InclusionIn the first part of this two-parter we look at the catch-22 faced by people with disabilities seeking work - and a new solution to this intractable dilemma. For almost twenty years it’s been a legal requirement not to discriminate against disabled people, but only now do we have a viable solution to the disabled candidate's dilemma – to disclose or not to disclose.

In recruitment it’s the law not to discriminate - but it isn't working

Every disabled candidate faces the same dilemma each time they apply for a job - do I tick the box that says I have a disability? The law states that employers need to make reasonable adjustments if that box is ticked. It’s there to help disabled candidates get fair treatment and be assessed on their merits and not their disability – but in reality that tickbox is often used to discriminate. It's actually having the opposite effect to what was intended.

Tickboxes just don't work

Several years ago there was a little experiment carried out to see what effect ticking this box has. Those running the experiment applied for twenty vacancies across a number of organisations, submitting a CV and covering letter in each case, and didn’t tick the box. When they applied they of course made sure that the qualifications and experience of the candidates met the requirements for each position.

They then applied for the same twenty vacancies with the same information for each application (changing only the name and a few other insignificant details so that these couldn’t be readily recognised as the same applications) and in each case they ticked the box. So, twenty pairs of applications that are identical in qualifications and experience, with the only difference being that the box saying ‘I have a disability’ was not ticked in the first of each pair.

What should happen at this point is that the recruiters, on seeing the tickbox flagging that an applicant has a disability, should get in touch with the individual to discuss what reasonable adjustments they might need to help them perform at their best throughout the application process.

Disabled applicants are simply NOT given a fair chance

However, what actually happened was that for the first twenty applications they got a reply saying “Thanks very much for your application” while for the second twenty they didn’t get a single reply. I’ll let that sink in for a moment…

I’ll let that sink in a bit more…

Has it fully sunk in?

Are you still trying to get your head around the discrimination, the inequity, the unfairness and the sheer irony?

I heard about this study four years ago and it still hits me anew each time I think about it.

Ticks turn to crosses

A tick in a box, designed to help you, turns into a big fat cross against you. This, unfortunately, is not unusual in how disabled candidates are discriminated against when it comes to being considered for employment – completely, utterly and totally regardless of their talents, abilities, qualifications or experience.

So why tick the box at all I hear you ask?

Not ticking the box is even worse as the adjustments you need to perform on a level playing field won’t be put in place. It’s the law to make those adjustments, but if you don’t tick the box it just means that your disability takes the recruiter by surprise and there’s no time to make those simple changes you need - they panic and the fear of doing something wrong means that they’ll find a way of sorting you into the ‘unsuccessful’ pile.

Give me a break

People with disabilities deserve more. When I left Cambridge I experienced similar difficulties - I had no luck whatsoever applying for jobs for which I was adequately qualified.

In the end I resorted to applying for vacancies that I was very much over-qualified for. The response I got (when I got one at all) was: “Why are you applying for this job. We don’t think you be suitable as you’re completely overqualified.” It was a horrible catch-22.

For a while I was one of the (often highly qualified) 73% of people of working age in the UK with a vision impairment currently unable to get work - people who have as many talents and abilities as everyone else and, with the right adjustments in place, can demonstrate these to the full. The same is equally true for people with other disabilities or impairments. Levels of unemployment across all areas of impairment are sky-high.

Faced with a frustratingly lack-lustre response from employers, disabled people often take further qualifications to improve their chances – it’s the lack of opportunities to gain experience combined with the sheer difficulty in getting an initial break that is holding them back.

Every single article I’ve written on this site testifies to the awesome power that simple changes to settings, combined with the right application of tech, can have to level the playing field and allow people to shine. Both the law and the tech are pushing the opportunities for disabled people forward, but employers are often pushing back.

When I finally applied for a job with AbilityNet (twenty years ago now) I was lucky enough to be considered on my merits and the rest is history. If only every organisation had the same approach.

Breaking the catch-22

So, what is the answer? How can candidates with disabilities get the chances that everyone else has? If they tick the box they get discriminated against and, if they don’t, the moment it comes to light that they have a disability they mysteriously fail to be asked through to the next stage of the application process.

The answer is simple. You just need to ask every candidate all the necessary questions (not only pertaining to disability but also age, gender, sexual orientation, race and religion etc, that are all covered under the Equality Act 2010) so that you can then map them to straightforward reasonable adjustments regardless of any needs they may have. This means that you’ll have a fully legal and inclusive recruitment process.

Fairer recruitment is simple when you know how

If that sounds far from simple, it’s because it is far from simple. That last paragraph was actually written with a certain amount of irony of my own. If it was simple, employers everywhere would already be doing it right.

It is complicated but nevertheless needs to be done right. But don’t worry. What we’ll discuss in the second part of this post will put your mind at rest. OK – I’ll give you a spoiler: the hard work has already been done for recruiters everywhere. The process of asking all the right questions and getting all the right, timely and reasonable answers is nicely wrapped up into one online package and tied with a beautiful bow.

In Part two I'll take a look at an award-winning solution that AbilityNet has helped to develop called ClearTalents and show how it breaks that horrible catch-22 once and for all.

Resources:

New BSI standard on diversity and inclusion highlights need for digital accessibility in recruitment

The new BSI standard on diversity and inclusion that was officially launched last Thursday (May 4) highlights the need to make sure that technology isn’t a barrier for recruiting and employing a diverse range of people.

BS 76005:2017 Valuing people through diversity and inclusion – Code of practice gives employers a framework for valuing people through diversity and inclusion and guidance to ensure an inclusive recruitment process.

Image of 2 men in the workplaceIt recommends employers follow clear guidelines on diversity in the candidate search and shortlisting process, which require making sure the recruitment agencies they work with have a clear and demonstrable commitment to diversity and inclusion.

"[employers must ensure] private recruitment agencies have a clear commitment to diversity and inclusion and are able to demonstrate this in measurable and transparent ways via audit results that show the broadest pool of candidates being attracted and put forward".

The vast majority of the recruitment process is now done online or digitally, which means technology in recruitment needs to be accessible and inclusive for everyone.

To meet the new BS 76005:2017 standard employers and recruitment agencies must have accessible platforms for attraction and assessment, which should also form part of the reasonable adjustments they make to comply with the Equality Act 2010.

Robin Christopherson MBE, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet, said:

 “The new BSI standard requires employers and recruitment agencies to show a real commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout the recruitment process.

“This includes making sure all parts of the process, such as filling on forms or completing assessments, are accessible to disabled people.

“AbilityNet can help employers through our digital accessibility services – our experts can make sure your websites, apps and other digital services are usable, accessible and comply with the law.

“We can also help employers to consider the reasonable adjustments you can make for disabled people through Clear Talents On Demand.

“It helps employees get the help they need to perform at their best, and employers get a more productive workforce, lower sickness rates and reduced risk of legal action.”

If you want to find out how AbilityNet can help your organisation improve your digital accessibility please email robin.christopherson@abilitynet.org.uk or call him on 0800 269 545 for more information.

Two easy ways to make sure you're not blocking visitors to your website

By Joe Chidzik, senior accessibility consultant, AbilityNet

Is your website accessible and user-friendly? You probably don't know, as is the case with many, many other website editors or business owners. But, it's likely you're cutting off millions of potential users with the way you've created your site. And, you're quite possibly breaking the law.  

deaf woman using tablet

Accessible design is the law

The Equality Act (2010) states that organisations must make a reasonable effort to ensure that their application/website is accessible.

The lack of clarity about what constitutes 'reasonable' is deliberate, and provides some flexibility in interpretation. My interpretation is that what's reasonable depends on resources. A large multinational would be expected to have a proportionally larger amount of resource to devote to ensuring accessibility than a sole trader.

How to ensure your website is accessible 

1. Do a Global Web Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) check

There are guidelines that can be followed (and in my view, adopting WCAG AA conformance is likely to be sufficient to be seen to be making a reasonable effort). The WCAG web accessibility guidelines provide a definite benefit in the structured way they layout the different areas of concern, and solutions or expected results, regarding many accessibility issues.

2. Carry out diverse user testing

On top of this, testing your website with a diverse group of users, not website consultants, or designers, will get the best results. So get them involved. You can do this yourself or you can look to outsource this – we undertake user testing at our London usability labs.
 

Does good accessibility mean bad design?

As an accessibility consultant I want sites to be fully accessible but it's counterproductive to issue an edict overruling over any and all design decisions in the interests of accessibility. This serves only to alienate people and further the (albeit mis-held) belief that good accessibility and good design are mutually exclusive.
 
At AbilityNet we find some middle ground where the accessibility requirements are met, but solutions are arrived at through discussion with the design, and other relevant teams to ensure their needs are balanced as well. This way, it can be demonstrated that accessibility can be inclusive with design and other disciplines.

AbilityNet wins top suppliers award from Barclays

We are delighted to announce that AbilityNet has won the Barclays Supplier Citizenship Initiative of the Year Award for our work in digital accessibility. Alladin Elteira, Raphael Clegg-Vinell and Sophie Shearer from the AbilityNet team collected the award from comedian Jo Caulfield at the annual Barclays Suppliers Awards at Canary Wharf on 4th May.

AbilityNet was a winner at the Barclays UK Supplier of the Year Awards 2017

The award recognises our work with Barclays to grow and improve the accessibility of their digital services for all customers through online banking user accessibility testing and feedback. By considering the needs of disabled people AbilityNet helps the digital teams in Barclays to make banking more inclusive and improve the usability of mobile banking services for every customer.

Over the past three years AbilityNet has worked with Barclays to embed user testing and reporting process into every project, so that every project now considers the needs of disabled people from the very start. Where once accessibility was seen as a bolt on it at the end of a build, it has now been embedded in the digital design process from the start of every project.

Barclays has made a great video that shows how our work brings benefits to their online banking customers.

How AbilityNet conducted the testing for Barclays Online Banking

In 2014 Barclays Mobile Banking was the first app to be awarded AbilityNet’s Accessibility Accreditation – recognition that it had achieved a globally recognised standard of accessibility. Building on that success, AbilityNet has continued to adapt its working methods, pro-actively embedded best practice and even opened a new office to help support the Barclays team. Our team has also worked on two other Barclays apps - Pingit and MyBarclayCard - which were awarded AbilityNet’s Accessibility Accreditation accredited in 2016.

AbilityNet Head of Marketing and Communications, Mark Walker, said:

"As well as a ringing endorsement for the hard work of our consultants we're also thrilled to be helping a global business such as Barclays to improve the lives of their customers and give them more independence to do everyday tasks such as online banking. This Award recognises that our approach produces better services for every one of their customers and gives Barclays an advantage in the marketplace. 

“On behalf of AbilityNet I want to say thank you to Barclays for the award, thank you to everyone who took part in our user testing and thank you to our brilliant staff for all your hard work.”

More information

Two more days to enter the Tech4Good Awards - deadline extended!

Over the last few days we’ve had some requests for more time to get your nominations in. We’ve decided to extend the deadline by 2 days. You now have until 5 pm on Wednesday 10 May to get your nominations in.

Anyone can nominate themselves or someone else for an award in eight categories:

  • AbilityNet Accessibility Award
  • BT Connected Society
  • BT Young Pioneer
  • Comic Relief Tech4Good for Africa Award
  • Community Impact Award
  • Digital Health Award
  • Digital Skills Award
  • Tech Volunteer of the Year

The Tech4Good Awards are organised by AbilityNet Head of Marketing and Communications, Mark Walker. He said:

“Now is the last chance for people to enter the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2017.

“These awards recognise people’s achievements and showcase them in the tech industry and in the wider world.

“This is a final chance for digital tech inventors and innovators to tell their story and show people how they have used digital technology to improve the lives of others.”

Enter now: www.tech4goodawards.com/enter-now/

 

Toyota creates robots to assist and support ageing populations

Not satisfied with racing competitors to be first at the starting line with self-driving cars, Japanese automaker Toyota is looking to a robotic future for its ageing population.

A caring crisis for the older generations

Much of the world is ageing. We’re living longer through better nutrition and medical care, but Japan has a considerably higher percentage of older people in its population than the global average. This is due to a very low birth rate that continues to decrease year on year. The over 65s accounted for 26.7% of the population in 2015, far exceeding the global average of about 8.5%.

With this demographic comes labour shortages, a looming pension crisis and the various challenges of caring for this ageing population and keeping them healthy and mobile.

At the same time, car sales in Japan have fallen 8.5% between 2013-2016, as older drivers stop buying cars and car ownership also becomes less of a priority among younger drivers.

This combination of reducing car sales and the increasing needs of older citizens to remain mobile has lead Toyota, the world's second largest automaker, to explore the possibility that designing and manufacturing robots to both care for the elderly and help keep this age group mobile may be as important as producing cars in the coming decades.

Toyota recently announced its first foray into commercialising rehabilitation robots, launching a rental service for its 'Walk Training Assist’ system, which helps patients to learn how to walk again after suffering strokes and other conditions.

"If there's a way that we can enable more elderly people to stay mobile after they can no longer drive, we have to look beyond just cars and evolve into a maker of robots," Toshiyuki Isobe, chief officer of Toyota's Frontier Research Center, told the news service Reuters.

Toyota's system follows the release by another major Japanese carmaker Honda of its own "robotic legs” in 2015 which were based on technology developed for its ASIMO dancing robot.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, global sales of assistance robots for the elderly and disabled communities will total about 37,500 units in 2016-2019 and this is expected to increase substantially within the next 20 years.

Rent a car – own a robot

In many countries around the world car ownership has been in decline. If you consider the implications of self-driving cars, which have the potential to turn private transport into a convenient commodity available at a moment’s notice and vastly more affordable than the purchase and up-keep of a car that, on average, sits unused for 96% of the time taking up space and depreciating at an alarming rate, then Toyota’s strategy to branch out into a growth area of consumer robotics seems to be a sensible one.

No matter how you do the calculations, in future we'll only need a fraction of the numbers of cars when cars can drive around the clock - only briefly stopping from time to time to top up their batteries. Thus it may be that the autonomous cars of the future will not be privately owned, but simply hailed as the need arises.

In contrast, the robots of tomorrow may be seen as an invaluable part of every home - helping everyone with daily tasks around the house, or assisting those with dexterity or mobility difficulties to move around, do the chores and stay active.

Robots are a man’s best friend

Disabled people have long had help on-hand to enable them to be more independent. Speaking as a guide dog owner, I know how extremely useful some extra help can be when getting around. Dogs are also used to help people with hearing, dexterity, mobility and anxiety challenges – as well as invaluable early-warning systems for those with epilepsy.

cartoon of small robotic dog

However, even man’s faithful friend has his limitations. Technology is increasingly augmenting the abilities of people with impairments due to age or disability. For example, I use my smartphone on a daily basis to know where I am and what’s around me – as well as for a thousand other things that vastly increase my life and work choices.

Thus, while I’m quite confident that robots won’t be replacing what a well-trained canine can do any time soon, they will undoubtedly be working alongside them (and their human counterparts) to ease and extend the everyday lives of millions of people in Japan and around the world.

From cars to carers

Toyota hopes to make a wide range of robots with practical applications. Isobe said that mass producing robots would be a natural step for the company whose mission is to "make practical products which serve a purpose.”

“The biggest challenges have been in determining the needs of the robot market, which is relatively new, and to ensure that our products are safe," Isobe add. “If there's a need for mass produced robots, we should do it with gusto."

Toyota’s vision for the robots of tomorrow is one of smart and sophisticated enablers, continuously helping you and your family members from minute-to-minute rather than just from A to B.

One day, in the not too distant future, the sight of robots helping people both at home and on the streets of our towns and cities, may be as common as the sight of cars is today.

Futher future-gazing

Are you an older person who needs help to make tech work better for you? Know an older person who needs IT help at home? Try our volunteer ITCanHelp service.