Digitalization in the employment sector: a break or breakthrough?

As an owner of a small business, creating and sending invoices is usually a task filled with joyful thoughts. My job is done, it’s time for the client to pay. That all goes as a breeze, until one morning, when logging in to my cloudbased bookkeeping software, I’m met by a happy popup. “We’ve totally renewed the user interface to bring you the best possible experience!,” it announces. Fear growing inside, I attempt to dismiss the popup. Unsuccessfully. Once, twice, three times. Until I suddenly am offered a demo video. Which to me, is just 4 minutes of boring corporate music. After asking a sighted colleague to click the dismiss button, I find that the fancy new interface is now completely inaccessible with a screen reader. I try a couple of different browsers, load up a virtual machine to test a different operating system, every-thing fails. A software update has broken my workflow again. Third time this month. Now effectively leaving me without my income.

I am sure that this experience doesn’t come as unfamiliar to people working in professional environments. Digitalization has brought us huge benefits in terms of making everyday work life more effective, but at the same time, leaving people with disabilities in the hands of developers, to whom accessibility is still a thing they might have heard of, but with which they are not familiar. And that has brought new challenges to virtually all professions. Want to be a blind chef? Good luck finding kitchen appliances without touch controls. Are you a physio-therapist? Client management software tends not to be very accessible. Have you set up your own business? Increasing demands on marketing and it’s visual attractiveness, without accessible designing tools, demand you outsource those tasks, costing you money on things other can save on. The list goes on. And thus, it is incredibly important to raise more awareness among developers and manufacturers about accessibility. Will a web based software comply with WCAG and other relevant accessibility guidelines? Can a machine be operated without being able to see it? Those are just a few questions a product owner should ask, before releasing an update.

However, not all digitalization has brought issues. As bad as the Covid19 pandemic has been to the whole world, we can’t ignore the fact that meetings via videoconferencing software have increased the potential for more accessible meetings. No more worrying if the meeting area is physically accessible or wondering who the rest of the participants are. When a meeting is held through something like Zoom, it can be attended from wherever, it’s participants browsed with a screen reader. It is even possible to access live captions and a chat room within some meetings, even broadening the accessibility of the meeting further.

Another example. Several governments are considering digitalisation in the public sector, making digital signatures equal with written signatures. As a citizen of Estonia, where digital signing has been in place way more than a decade, ability to verify the contents of a document, sign it, and verify my signature in an accessible way has been a ground-breaking advantage.

Thus, as a conclusion, we should not see digitalization as some-thing bad. Inaccessible professional products still exclude a lot of people from their career, which is a sign for us, national and EU organisations, to raise more awareness, help to provide more information on the need and details of accessibility. Because once something is accessible for everybody, digitalization indeed benefits all.

Jakob Rosin

Estonian Blind Union