wanted: great problem solvers
interview with neil milliken

Head of accessibility and inclusion at Atos

 


Thank you for join us for this interview series, we’ve been talking to experts in aging, mobility, technology, policy to uncover the business and social opportunities that inclusive and accessible products, services and experiences deliver.

Q: How do you define inclusion and accessibility? We’ve heard you say, that access is extreme personalization.

A lot of people see accessibility in black and white, and think that it has to do with complying with regulations or standards. But those are only the first steps. The web content accessibility guidelines, for example, were designed quite some time ago; they meet the needs of a subset of people and they’re a good thing, but they’re not fully inclusive, and none of the authors or contributors of those guidelines would ever say that they are. Accessibility is about making stuff work for you. It’s being able to use systems and content in a way that meets your needs, and those needs vary from one person to another. Therefore, inclusion becomes the process of enabling as many people as possible to have that access, and to participate in activities on the Web, through computers, in person, etc. It’s about allowing people the right to participate.

It’s their choice.

As much as possible. You’re not precluding people from participating by forcing them to work or do things in a certain way. There are always going to be technology constraints. We often hear about universal design, but the truth is it’s not always possible to design the one thing that works for everyone because there’s a very wide range of different needs.

Nevertheless, when making or delivering things we need to meet that wide range of needs as best as possible, think about our audience and about the people that maybe we hadn’t considered could be a part of it in the beginning. Once you’ve released the product out into the world, it will be used by people you didn’t expect. Or the people that you did expect to use it, do it in ways that you didn’t foresee.


Q; How did you end up in this field? What was your journey?

I started off as a historian. I got an Arts degree at Oxford, which was not without it’s difficulties, but one of the things that was sort of helpful for me was the fact that a lot of it’s oral. So you don’t get assigned that much written work, you have discussions with your tutors one on one. That masked the fact that I have dyslexia.

I worked in the field of music and video for ten years (early Internet companies and things like that), and I was really interested in all that. But around the time of the first dot-com boom and bust cycle I found myself looking for a job: I ended up working for a small technology company in Cambridge that specialized in assistive technology for dyslexia, and that was it. I’d fallen into my niche.

Dyslexia runs in the family, and I was in denial for a number of years. I realized that I really didn’t get tested because all of the stuff associated with it was way too familiar. Doing this work that’s been cathartic, and it’s been a journey ever since.

I stayed there about eight years, and then moved on to my current role which is more about accessibility than assistive technology; although we still do a lot of that for our clients, and for our own people also. The company I work for has a staff of 100,000 employees, of which a good number have accessibility needs and need assistive technology.

What I’m really interested in is solving big problems. Some of the key issues that we face now around exclusion are macro-issues, things that can only be addressed by taking a of global view of things. Therefore I’m engaging with those matters on a global basis, trying to build partnerships and coalitions and interact with people and businesses to help them see the benefits of inclusion.

The needs for accessibility or personalization are only going to grow. We’ve got an aging population, the workforce is only going to get older, and we’re going to have far less young people to look after the older sector. It will be a combination of older people that need care and older people in the workforce, and which are more likely to acquire disability. I think 86% of all disability were acquired during someone’s lifetime, and most likely that’s going to happen as you age.

This is something that’s been developed over decades and it’s going to affect society in general. It’s a big challenge and a big problem, but also an opportunity for us to do something right.


Q: I was in the U.K. last summer and I was just shocked at how much more accessible and inclusive experiences are. There’s all these playgrounds that are inclusive for all kinds of kids. The bathrooms are accessible. Do you see any differences between parts of the world?

The organization I work for is in 75 different countries and the attitudes towards disability, and the way that societies blend and deliver the services varies dramatically, even in the global North (the rich societies).

The way that Germany addresses disability, for example, is markedly different to the way the UK does. The Germans have a much more medicalized approach, while the UK follows the social model, which sees the environment and society as the issue: they’re what’s disabling people. The impairment or difficulties a person may have are usually not insurmountable. Therefore, with help from society and the right kind of adjustments, people can participate fully. I tend to agree, it’s about removing barriers rather than curing illnesses or solving problems.

Let’s discard the idea of disability as a problem, and let’s look at removing barriers. Apart from the UK, Nordic countries, Scandinavia in particular, also have a social model approach. And interestingly, there’s also a lot of enthusiasm in places like Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. They’ve got higher levels of disability for all kinds of cultural reasons and they want to bring changes in their societies quickly, so they’re trying to look for the best practices. There’s quite a lot of interest in removing barriers there. They’re still going to require a cultural shift, but the people that are leading it and the government don’t necessarily want to take a medicalized approach.

In Germany they give a prescription for assisted technology, and there are things such as quotas. We don’t have quota system in the UK, instead we have a legislation that says “you will not discriminate, you need to be proactive and try to include people”, which is a different model. It’s good, but there are issues with it: when people don’t live up to the spirit of the law we don’t take them to task.

In the United States, on the other hand, you do make people accountable to the law; even to the other extreme of the spectrum, with the amount of litigation that goes on. To the point that it has created a backlash: a lot of the recent legislation from the Trump administration came to be because they felt that it was putting an onerous burden on small businesses. I tend to disagree, and the disability community disagrees, but it’s true that there were legal firms making a good living out of this and that created a problem.

It’s about striking a balance somewhere in between. I like the idea of promoting an ecosystem that’s enabling, but there needs to be some kind of balance between penalties and rewards.


Q: For the last few months we’ve been working with the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. The philosophy of the Shakers was all about community, everybody had a job regardless of their abilities.

That leads on nicely because it’s important to engage people with disabilities, but also people with differences. Sometimes we classify neurodiversity and neurological differences as disability for expediency purposes, and because it protects people. But a lot of the time it’s just difference. I’m dyslexic and I have problems doing certain things, but I’m also very good at tasks that other people find difficult. We’re different, not less.

Different and disabled people make great problem solvers, because they have to address doing things differently in life: they have to find hacks, work-arounds and think outside the box, just to be able to do what other people take for granted. We’re often early adopters of technology and new ways, because those enable opportunities that were closed before.

For example, I’ve been using speech recognition technology since 2001, and it’s really been ubiquitous for the last couple of years. I used speech recognition to help me complete my master’s degree: I dictated all of my coursework, all of my exams. Without access to that technology I would still have been capable of completing that course, but the likelihood is I probably wouldn’t, because it would have been much harder for me; and doing a Master’s when you’re working full time is hard enough.

Assistive technology leveled the playing field by helping me to cope with all the other stuff that was going on. I still use it today and it makes me more effective, it enables me to access a higher vocab rhythm than if I’m typing, because I don’t need to be concentrating on the keyboard.

Another good example would be Pixelate Lab, in Germany. They act as a community drop-in center for people with learning difficulties, but that same people also help test new technology and teach older people how to use it. It’s fantastic, because having a learning disability, they find issues with the products, and they help companies develop new ones that are better for everyone. And it’s not necessarily about technical accessibility, but it’s still all about inclusion.

That approach to inclusion makes for better products. Some of my favorite products are the ones by OXO Good Grips, because they’re designed to be used easily. They were created because the original designer’s wife had arthritis and it was difficult for her to grip stuff, and now it’s one of the best selling ranges of kitchen products out there.


Q: Who else is helping move inclusion forward?

There have been different developments in the technology sector. Over the last few years we’ve seen a real change in the way that Microsoft addresses this they’re now investing heavily in inclusion, and you can see it in the innovations that they’re coming up with: they’re using AI and automation tools to make the world more accessible. They’ve made AI freely available to everyone, it’s a fantastic tool. They’re embedding assistive technologies into their appliances, their operating system and the office software that they’re shipping out everywhere.

Apple, of course, has been doing important work on accessibility for a long time. Both of these companies started from a compliance point of view, but realized quite early on that taking an inclusive mindset helps create better products.

My own organization does good work. In the UK there’s a national apprenticeship scheme, so we’re busy working on accessibility apprenticeships. And we’ve had a lot of young people come through our doors and doing great work in accessibility, while most of the specialists in this area tend to be older.


Q: Do you th ink that’s because as we age we become more aware of these issues?

Yes, partly. Disability is something that doesn’t affect many young people directly; but it happens to their families, and it may well happen to them later in life.

We’re trying to show people that working in this field they’ll get to play with the latest toys, and when they play they’ll learn about leading edge technology: AI, mixed reality, all of this speech recognition systems that can enable this advanced haptics. They’re all really cool. So, why not? Have a career in accessibility; and given the megatrends, you’re not going to be out of work any time soon. There’s a real fear of unemployment in the UK because of automation and AI, so the prospect of having a relatively stable career must be attractive.

Within that we’re trying to make our systems more accessible, we’re teaching people through business and delivering services.

Other areas are doing well also: banks in general, certainly in Europe, really understand that they need to be accessible. And that’s not altruism. It’s because they realized that the people that hold the wealth tend to be older. If they want to engage with high net worth individuals, they need to make sure they’re accessible. That was the starting point; now there’s an enthusiasm for doing it and it’s good for the reputation of organizations. Barclays, for example, got a halo effect from engaging in that; Deutsche Bank has been doing a good job on workplace adjustments. The HSBC also does a lot of accessibility work, and they’re a big global powerhouse in other parts of Europe. Other banks are doing the same in North America.

It varies from organization to organization, but I think the banking industry has really grasped the importance of the work.

The media industry is also learning about accessibility. I started my current job working with the BBC, and they’re fantastic around it. They’re mandated to do it, being a public sector broadcaster, but they take it seriously and they do a good job.

The Netflix ruling has changed the game on captions. Huge amounts of materials out there are captioned, and we’re seeing with user generated content is that organizations like Google, Facebook and Twitter are looking to find ways to make it accessible. That’s a real challenge because there’s so much of it, and it can’t all be done by humans.

Could we do more? Yes. But there are only so many finite resources and I think spending time and investing in AI and automation is the way to do it. Just throwing people at a problem is not going to solve it.


Q; Let’s say there’s an organization just becoming aware of this. Do you have any advice on how to start this process, and how to see some results? Usually companies claim they don’t have enough resources.

Taking a maturity model approach is a good way to start. This process can be daunting, sometimes it feels like the ocean is going to boil because accessibility crosses so many areas and touch points. But if you take a step back and start asking a series of questions about your organization, you can see where your gaps are. You can concentrate on the things that are important to your organization and your customer base.

Given that the cost of retrofitting is really expensive,it’s better to start with the new stuff, not with current front products. Start by planning it into the next project. Obviously, if there’s a big issue and the company’s taking some heat on it, address it.

But if you’re thinking about building up inclusion into your business, start with the new projects. It takes only about 2 to 3% of the total cost of an IT type project, while if you retrofit it or deliver an inaccessible product, then you’ll basically have to redo the project, and it can cost you an awful lot. We know of projects that have cost 110% of the entire original budget just to do the remediation.

Therefore, what’s more expensive? Planning for it or getting caught by not doing so? It’s a case of a stitch in time: looking at what you can do, taking baby steps, and breaking it down to doing what will fit. Companies that don’t write their own code and are buying in need to start including accessibility questions in their procurement; start buying content management systems that enable people to produce accessible code, or at least code that reminds people that they need to make the content accessible. Quite often an accessible web site is delivered, and within three months the marketing department has rendered it completely inapproachable, because they haven’t been involved in the process.

It’s not a one person job. Everybody can do something, play their part in making an organization more inclusive.

Maybe organizations need to be made aware of the fact that this is good for business, and they need to know their audience. Most of the time they idealize their target, they think people have perfect lives with no issues and no stress.

I would say those kind of companies have been spending too much time on Instagram, which is the most idealized, ultra-curated life style social network. Twitter is a bit more authentic, but we still self-censor
we still portray a somewhat better, more cheery picture than real life. So yes, there is a much bigger market out there than some people want to see.

If you were to ask a global marketer if he wants a product that excludes China, he probably wouldn’t; he’d like to sell his product to a market the size of China. Well, that’s the global size of the disability market: over a billion people. That’s quite a bit of money, maybe even a trillion dollars. There are good financial reasons for doing this stuff, it’s not a money pit that you’re just throwing resources into for no return.

The reality is if you invest in this, you will get a return. It’s like with usability and there’s a big crossover there if you make your product easier for people to be successful with it, from completing a form to buying a product, that’s going to either make, or save you money.

Is there something that you’re working on that you intended to make accessible for a certain group of people, but then it brought benefits beyond that?

Speech recognition has been one. People are using it in all kinds of ways. People who don’t have disabilities are using AI tools. Hector from Microsoft who told me about a plumber that was using it to get the bar codes of various parts that were difficult to reach. People are applying assistive technologies in many useful ways.

Same with captions: they’re a really good appliance, because people are consuming content in all kinds of places now, and they don’t always have headphones on, or they can be in a noisy place. Captions help reinforce stuff.

Basic technologies can also be assistive. Calendaring stuff, for example, is important for someone with a poor working memory like mine. Context and location based reminders are fantastic, because I don’t need to be reminded to buy milk or cereal at 9 am, I want to be reminded of that when I get off the train, so I’ll pick it up from the supermarket on my walk home.

Accessibility is about context. It’s giving people information so they can do what they need to, in the appropriate way for every context. That context can be related to disability, but also to the fact that they’re driving, or that they’re carrying a box and cannot use their hands. It’s immaterial. There are also situationally disabled people, and accessibility enables them too.

 

Q: Is there anything that you’re working on or you’ve seen coming up that is really exciting, that will really have an impact in inclusion?

There’s not one thing in particular, but there’s the fact that everything’s coming together, coalescing. The potential of that coalescence holds out the prospect of being inclusive, but only as long as we plan for it, as long as we allow for that interoperability and that configuration to happen.

But there’s also the risk that we will exclude. Brad Smith from Microsoft was talking about the potential for AI, and he said it can be transformative for disabilities, but it also requires mindfulness of the bias when products and services are being created. Logarithms are developed by people, which makes all products that work with them biased.


About Neil:

Neil Milliken is Head of Accessibility & Inclusion at Atos where his role is to help make the world a better place by delivering better technology for their customers and staff, embedding inclusive practice into the Business As Usual Processes of organisations with thousands of employees and turnovers numbering in billions.

He created the Atos Centre of Competence encompassing Accessibility, Inclusive Design and Assistive Technology Services. This team services multiple accounts and delivers best practice, support and consultancy for the organisation.

Neil delivers strategy and services working with a wide range of clients internally and externally helping them to develop policies, processes and technology solutions to meet the needs of their staff and customers. These clients include: BBC, Department of Health, Ministry of Justice, Insolvency Service, and NHS.

He is the Atos representative on the Business Disability Forum Technology Task Force

Neil is also an invited expert and contributor to the W3C Cognitive Accessibility Taskforce & member of the Atos Scientific Community.

He is co-founder of AXSChat Europe’s largest twitter chat with a focus on Accessibility & Inclusion.

Previously he worked at Iansyst one of the largest providers of Integrated Assistive Technology Solutions in the UK.

About Neil:

Neil Milliken is Head of Accessibility & Inclusion at Atos where his role is to help make the world a better place by delivering better technology for their customers and staff, embedding inclusive practice into the Business As Usual Processes of organisations with thousands of employees and turnovers numbering in billions.

He created the Atos Centre of Competence encompassing Accessibility, Inclusive Design and Assistive Technology Services. This team services multiple accounts and delivers best practice, support and consultancy for the organisation.

Neil delivers strategy and services working with a wide range of clients internally and externally helping them to develop policies, processes and technology solutions to meet the needs of their staff and customers. These clients include: BBC, Department of Health, Ministry of Justice, Insolvency Service, and NHS.

He is the Atos representative on the Business Disability Forum Technology Task Force

Neil is also an invited expert and contributor to the W3C Cognitive Accessibility Taskforce & member of the Atos Scientific Community.

He is co-founder of AXSChat Europe’s largest twitter chat with a focus on Accessibility & Inclusion.

Previously he worked at Iansyst one of the largest providers of Integrated Assistive Technology Solutions in the UK.


Check out more IQ interviews:

All access with Quemel Arroyo

Calling all creative minds with Alejandra Luzardo

Get age smart with Ruth Finkelstein

Smart mobility with Ani Grigorian

Inclusive design with Joy Goodman-Deane