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Web Posted on: August 24, 1998



Dr. Geoff Busby MBE

Now in its 21st year, the BCS Disability Group aims to provide assistance and advice to disabled people who may be empowered through computer technology. The group is also concerned with changing attitudes, dispelling myths and raising awareness, in a society which denies a sizeable proportion of its population full citizenship. The group believes that in a world where cerebral skills are becoming of foremost importance, the latent abilities of those disabled by physical barriers must be released. Through IT we would hope to create the tools by which these barriers are removed, and equality of opportunity and citizenship is afforded. This will create a society benefiting from the skills of disabled people, and consequently the perceived value of disabled people will be increased, in their own eyes as well as in society's.
The main activities of the DG are encompassed within various projects, all of which have been created to meet the aims and objectives of the group. Currently there are five such projects:

1 IT Can Help

Providing basic technical support and computer expertise to disabled people in their own home.

2 Production of Quarterly Journal, Ability

This journal is the group's main vehicle for the dissemination of information on current products, issues and developments pertaining to empowerment. It also strives to invoke discussion on the same.

3 Exhibitions, Meetings and Conferences

The group organises meetings at which guest speakers share their expertise to our membership and invited guests. For the last nine years we have also held annual conferences, which are theme orientated and aim to formulate an overall view/policy to professional peers and society in general. We would aspire to be pro-active in innovation, through which physical, sensory and mental impairments can be made transparent.

4 Electronic Bulletin Board

We are currently working with Microsoft to produce a web site, which will address issues and have objectives similar to that of the journal.

5 Membership drive and Record Keeping

Only a small percentage of the 6.8 million disabled people in the UK are aware of the ability if technology to increase their quality of life. The activities discussed above are focused on highlighting and facilitating this aspect, and our membership drive is part of this. You can declare your interest by dropping your name and address into the box on the Computability Centre stand. An introductory package will be sent to you. Aren't you lucky!

Perhaps I ought to say a few words about the British Computer Society in order to give you some idea of the strength and depth of expertise available to the disability group. The Society was formed in 1954 and is, to my knowledge, the youngest professional body in Great Britain. In common with any similar body such as the BMA or IEEE its purpose is to create standards and codes of practice which insure the level of ethical behaviour that one would expect in a professional arena.

It currently has over 35,000 members and here I use the word "members" in the loosest sense as a member will fall into a category according to qualifications and standing in the industry. So for example a member may be a Student, Associate, Member, Fellow or an Honorary Fellow. A "Member" would be required to have passed both parts of the British Computer Society's internal examination or alternatively have an accredited degree. A Fellow Member would have achieved the above and also gained recognition within the IT profession. Most people do not achieve or choose to reach this level.

Moving away from individuals to look at the structure of the BCS, it comprises of Geographical Branches and Special Interest Groups.

In the early days of the Disability Group the membership was small and our main activities were centred around showing a presence at various BCS functions in order to increase the awareness among the general membership of disability, concentrating mainly on how technology can increase vocational opportunities for people with disabilities by breaking down physical barriers.

It is my belief that it is part of the BCS's remit to insure the highest standards within our industry and therefore it is a natural extension of this ethos to insure that the disabled population of Britain are afforded the highest standards in the policies which make technology assessable to them. Unfortunately my travels indicate that this is not the case and that we are some way behind the USA, Scandinavia and parts of Europe. It will be interesting to watch the effect of the Disability Discrimination Act although I do not hold out any high hopes.

What in my opinion are the areas of great potential you may ask. These have to be technologies such as; virtual reality, multimedia, human computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, communication both cable and satellite plus robotics. My mind bounds when I think of having virtual experiences when my disability bars me from the real ones, having information at my fingertips through multimedia using various forms of human computer interface to access this information. Artificial intelligence has the power to predict my needs, a simple example can be found in almost every word processing package, given the capability of word prediction spell and syntactic checking. It also has the power to assist people with low cognitive abilities. Modern communication makes employment and higher education opportunities more possible, although I have to admit to being slightly disappointed last December when I was able to present a paper to the first conference on disability in South Africa via satellite and cable communication, frankly I would have much rather have been there. One of my ambitions is to combine many of these technologies in order to deliver my presentations automatically while I am being fed whiskey by a robot.

More seriously I believe it is the duty of BCS Disability Group to explore all modern technology in order to encourage designers and producers of such technology to, as I like to say, "design for all". It is all too obvious to me that technology accessible to disabled people will be that much easier to access by anybody and therefore become that much more marketable.

In Europe alone there are 33 million people with disability's. Creating a disposable income reaching into billions of ECU's. The British Computer Society has taken the social model of disability, as opposed to the medical one in creating the ethos behind it's Disability Group. The concept of disability being created by social structures, compounding various impairments needs to be understood by politicians and the professionals who create such societies. Only then will people with impairments be liberated, affording their skills to create enhanced qualities of life for all.

The IT industry has gone through a revolution during the past two decades, witnessing the PC becoming increasingly powerful, probably the main tool of our industry and almost a household requirement. This new scene which is accompanied by an Industry, no longer overwhelmingly rich, being highly competitive, forcing profit margins to a minimum. Within this revolution there has been a dramatic increase in initiatives of Charities aimed at utilising technology to over come physical and sensory impairments. Therefore the challenges faced by Industry are mirrored by those facing the Disability Group. In itself this has to go down as a mark of our initial success. Within this scenario the meeting set out to forge a strategy which would regain the Group, its' uniqueness and in turn its' influence on the IT industry and the very culture of our society. As a subjective reflection by the Chairman and author of this document, the aims and objectives of the Group need to be holistic, reaching Government, Industry, Private / Public / Voluntary sectors and people at a grass roots level. In the long term society should become inclusive of people with impairments and this must be our goal, at which time we will no longer need to exist.

The above demonstrates clearly how a Special Interest Group within a Professional Body cannot only assist people with impairments to have an increased quality of life but also facilitate an awareness and heightened levels of interest within a National Culture producing a level playing field. Within this playing field, which in itself does not impose disability, people with impairments have equal opportunities and assist to close the skills gap which is prevalent among most developed and developing countries.

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