Using our tech to break down communication and learning barriers for people with disabilities

Andy Wales, Chief Digital Impact and Sustainability Officer, BT Group

Over the past 18 months, disability rights groups have voiced concerns that the needs of people with disabilities have been forgotten about during the country’s response to the pandemic. While the effects of the drastic social and economic curbs on day-to-day life have been challenging enough for the rest of the population, the restrictions have had a devastating impact on people who have neurodiverse conditions, disabilities, impairments, or other long-term health conditions.

Mandatory face coverings made it impossible for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to communicate through lipreading and reading facial expressions, severely limiting their ability to carry out essential tasks like weekly food shopping. Children with special educational needs and disabilities have found it more difficult to access learning materials from home. And the cancellation of routine medical appointments, and the closure of day centres and other forms of social care support, have made many feel anxious, increasingly isolated, and disconnected from society. Of course, that doesn’t even begin to capture the many challenges that people with disabilities have faced during the pandemic. Tragically, the evidence shows that people with disabilities have disproportionately suffered and died from Covid-19.

At BT, we don’t pretend to have all the answers around how we as a society can break down barriers to help people with disabilities enjoy a fully inclusive life. But what we can do – and what we are really passionate about – is effecting positive change by championing the powerful role of tech in helping people with disabilities feel better connected to the things that matter to them.

Working with Guide Dogs to bring assistive technology to visually impaired kids and young people

That’s why we’re really excited about the critical role we’re playing in Guide Dogs’ Tech for All programme, which launches today. This ambitious new project aims to use assistive technology to enhance the lives of 3 to 18 year olds in the UK who have a registered visual disability.

The sobering reality is that every single hour, another person in the UK goes blind. Research from Guide Dogs has found that 40 per cent of visually impaired kids and young people have little or no confidence. Yet children have also reported that tools like iPads and smart phones boost their happiness by fostering a greater sense of normality, confidence, and independence.

So, over the next year, we’ll be supplying the charity with up to 12,000 Apple devices, plus associated accessories, services, and learning activities to help each child and young person to get the most out of their device - helping them to live and learn more independently. The project also includes the provision of free mobile data through our EE mobile network and access to BT Wi-Fi vouchers, to help young people from disadvantaged families stay connected online. It’s a charity relationship that we’re so proud to be part of and which strikes right at the core of BT’s Connect for Good purpose.

Celebrating 30 years of helping the deaf community through our Relay UK service

We know that communication can often be a vital lifeline – and we know that over the past year and a half, people who are deaf and hard of hearing will have felt the barriers to communication and social contact more keenly than ever. BT continues to play its part in helping to overcome these obstacles. This month marks the 30-year anniversary of the UK's national relay service – known today as ‘Relay UK’ – which enables people who are deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired to communicate over the phone. The service has evolved over the years to keep pace with technology developments such as the explosion of computers, smartphones, and tablets, culminating in the launch of BT’s Next Generation Text service in 2014.

We’ve led the development of Relay UK on behalf of stakeholders such as the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), UK Council on Deafness, National Deaf Children’s Society and Hearing Link, as well as for customers of all other UK phone providers.

Today, BT’s technology enables a user to easily make a call based on their own accessibility needs, providing vital independence. After downloading the Relay UK app and selecting how they want to use it for their calls – either by typing and reading; speaking and reading; or typing and hearing - the user can connect using their smartphone or computer, anytime and anywhere across the UK.

Over the course of the pandemic, our Relay assistants have handled unprecedented levels of demand, answering 2,500 calls on the busiest days.

Our mission to provide wide-ranging support and accessible tech for people with disabilities

These are just a couple of examples in which BT’s products and services help to support people with a range of disabilities. BT’s Here for you dedicated web page provides people with advice around a range of accessible products and services, including guidance on choosing a phone or a mobile with assistive product features. We also recommend services from BT that can help people with a disability - including blocking unwanted phone calls, controlling outgoing calls and helpful accessories for people with hearing loss.

Our 484 Street Hub units in towns and cities across the UK include a range of accessible features, including access to the relay app, braille embossed information on all key features, and hearing induction loops. The integrated tablet interface placed at 121cm and angled at 15 degrees provides easy access, including for wheelchair users, while TalkBack functionality facilitates full access to the tablet for all users.

Together with the RNID, the UK’s leading charity for people with hearing loss, our EE mobile business offers a range of mobile phones and tariffs aimed at their customers. This includes data-focused pay-as-you-go plans, and handsets with accessibility features that are hearing aid compatible.

And just last week, we were proud to host the final day of the FA Disability Cup on BT Sport, with the Amputee and Blind football finals being billed as the UK’s most accessible live football broadcast ever!

As a company, we have a long tradition of integrating accessible features into the design of our products and services. For example, we were the first FTSE 100 to provide sign language on our websites, together with a service which links a customer to an interpreter via a webcam, which then connects to a customer service agent. And we work constructively with disability experts and charities on the Customer Inclusion Panel to get their advice on how we make our products and services more accessible.

We know there is always more we can do. With new technologies being developed all the time to make tech more user-friendly for people with disabilities, we are constantly scouting for new innovations which can help them to build more fulfilling lives.