AXSChat Podcast

AXSChat Podcast with Jim Smith, Head of Accessibility and Digital Inclusion for UK&I at Atos.

July 08, 2022 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Jim Smith
AXSChat Podcast
AXSChat Podcast with Jim Smith, Head of Accessibility and Digital Inclusion for UK&I at Atos.
Show Notes Transcript

 Jim is currently the Head of Accessibility and Digital Inclusion for UK&I at Atos. In this role he manages a team that provides both accessibility services to clients and also to the internal Atos staff. He has worked in the accessibility field for almost eight years, having previously been part of the Quality and Learning and Development programs at Atos and Siemens for nine years. Prior to joining Siemens he worked in academia.

Jim has always had an interest in the way people consume and process information and he sees equality of access and opportunity not only as a basic right, but something that a society needs in order to flourish. 

This is a draft transcript produced live at the event and corrected for spelling and basic errors. It is not a commercial transcript. AXSCHAT Jim Smith

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I am delighted that we are able to be joined by one of my team and long-term member of the Axschat community, Jim Smith or Dr Smith. So, Jim, it's great to have you with us. Obviously, I know you really well, but our audience may not. You participated in Axschat, and your Twitter handle is Scotia Tech for the people that do Twitter but have not made the connection this is Jim. So, Jim you have been working in the accessibility field with me for over half the last decade. But what was it that first got you interested, and you know, tell us a bit about your journey into the topic?

JIM:

Well, I think it's eight years we have been working together now, Neil believe it or not. But I got interested a long time ago, to be honest with you. I think the first time I became aware about accessibility was back actually in 1984, when I had a job with the local Parks and Recreation Department as a gardener and a gardener's assistant really. And half the squad were actually members of the deaf community. And it was a real eye opener to me because I you know, had not been really aware of how vibrant a community the deaf community actually was, and it really, that is when I started thinking of moving away from terms of thinking in terms of charity and if you like pity because I had been very quickly correct if I had expressed any of that for those guys and it was interesting for me as well because I had to learn to communicate with them because they spoke through sign language, which was new to me. So, I was thrown into that environment where I had to be learn now, I didn't learn particularly well, I learned a lot about gardening and things like that but that really woke me to say, there's lots of different communities there so I had an awareness from then and if I jump forward then to the mid '90s, I was working in University College Cork at the time. My background was I was a geologist, and I got the job of trying to set up the Departmental website and at the time I realised very quickly, I didn't actually know a lot about this. So, I had to go to the Computer Science Department there and I could be got in touch with a guy called Peter Flynn, who worked in the Worldwide Web. He was big into web standards and things and the only way he was going to help me was if I built a standards compliance website. And standards lead into accessibility, I think because if you follow web standards properly you generally produce something that is relatively accessible. And from that, that led me into, it was A List Apart by Geoffory Zeldman was a guy who ran it, I think in 1988, sort of thing, which is where I started getting interested in how to build accessible website. Now, I was building them with notepad and things like that from the ground up. I found it quite an eye opener because I don't have quite a flare when it comes to programming so my stuff would have been very, very basic. So, I was amazed I could build these standard compliance websites. That was around about the time when CSS3, was being pushed out and you could actually see by doing this you could create accessible websites. Now, I was interested in doing this because to me, accessibility is all part about inclusion and that. And I realised, you know that I came from a relatively privileged background, educationally in that I worked, I was I came through an educational system that suited me and it was also free at points. So, I mean, I basically went through my entire education without actually having to pay for stuff. And I realised that that gave me opportunities and opened up opportunities. And I am sure we are all familiar with stories about safer thinking, my father for instance, who never had the opportunities I had. So, for me I got interested in the tech side of opening up opportunity. And accessibility is really important to that. So, you open up to the widest number of people with the widest experience and allow people to you know participate and contribute into society and that is you know, so I always had that sort of a bubbling interest. And then roundabout, I think it was about 2005, I left the academic world and geology and joined Siemen's as a technical trainer, and I became interested in the way people consume information and how they learn and how to do that effectively. And again, my interest in accessibility and inclusion tied into the way I would be trying to train people and then I think about eight years ago Antonio suggested that I gave this guy called Neil Milliken a call because my career was had got to a stage where I could see things were beginning to wind down and change. And I thought maybe it's time for another change. And I thought yeah, might as well give this guy a call and see what he is like and talk to him sort of thing, so I gave you a call and that was about eight years ago. Delighted to join the team and then, after I joined, that is really when my knowledge began to accelerate, when I started looking at this full time. I think I got thrown into initially supporting the internal staff in the BBC. And that was a great place to learn as well at the time because the BBC had a lot of initiatives and interest as well. So, it wasn't quite driven, completely driven financially. It was about, where I could learn sort of like best practice, share ideas and things like that. And then really, from that I learned a lot about how to run accessibility in that sort of corporate environment. How to manage an account and then I started managing more and more accounts and then finally, I sort of look after the accessibility and digital inclusion for the UK and Ireland at ATOS. I also am involved in work in Ireland. I live in the Republic of Ireland rather than the UK. So, I'm interested in a few organisations there. So, I worked with the Cot Death Association to try to brush up a little bit on my sign language. It's still not good. I still need to work on it. But it was really interesting to see all the communities and learn there. So, that is really about my history of how I got to be here today.

NEIL:

Yeah, and I need to mention you are also a member of our expert communities and scientific communities, contributing to the thought leaders within the organisation as well. So happy that it's eight years, it's passed pretty quickly. And of course, very much glad that you did make that call. Debra, you have got a question?

DEBRA:

Well, I am just always impressed with the ATOS team only because you have someone like Jim who is so technical and really, really wants to make sure that everybody is included digitally, and I know you're into the e learning stuff Jim. But I am just really, always impressed because it feels like your team Neil is doing things differently. For example, I wouldn't expect to see an Antonio Santos on accessibility team. I would not expect to see some of the others. Jim, I'm fascinated with because he has such a strong technical background. And you have been very involved in the standards creation and the continuation of the standards as well, Jim or should I say Dr Jim Smith since Neil just did, congratulations. But Jim, whenever as you have watched and participated as all of this accessibility has unfolded, does it give you hope that we are finally, that the technologists are finally really hearing us and understanding that we need to design so that human beings can you know really be included? That the human centric design. Because I see a lot of arguments but I'm just curious what are you seeing Jim because you are one of the brightest people I see in this field. You impress me. And I love your accent but that is just something else.

JIM:

First of all, the reason I don't use the doctor is my PhD is in palaeontology, sort of thing so, I drop it for this. So, it's not really relevant. I think I am probably not the most technical person I know but I work with technical people, and I leverage their expertise in there and I will talk about the expert community and the scientific community in a minute but what is more important and what actually gives me hope when I look at ATOS. I am going to talk for instance last week to some of the developers and some of the calls there, that they are beginning to get interested in accessibility without me or Neil sort of badgering them or poking them with a stick to make them do it or things like that. They pick it up themselves and they seem to be enjoying disseminating that within their own communities and I think part of that as well is that ATOS is a champions network we have just kicked off and the champions network to me is it the eyes and ears across the organisation that we have that allows everyone to get involved. Because we are a small enough team that we can't look after an organisation as small as ATOS, without the organisation buying in from it. Now, part the importance of buying in is from the top down because you need that in organisation. But much more important is from the bottom up and what gives me real hope is I see that developers are showing an interest in and they're the joining the champions network. They're asking questions. They are inviting me to sit in on some of the calls that they are having and they really, the best thing about the call in the last time is I actually didn't have to say anything. Leave on top of this sort of thing and I thanked them for the invite and that was about it, and they understood, and I will be honest with you they understood the technical stuff a lot more than I did because they are at the cutting edge. And what gives me hope is when I see the developers interested and not being made to be genuinely interested and not forced to do it, sort of thing. So, I am hopeful when I see that.

DEBRA:

And Jim, I think it's so interesting that you do not consider yourself technical because I know that everything you do is technical. So, that is so interesting because I understand what you're saying but you, you know, I would have to disagree with you. I think you're a really strong technologist there but you're right I guess if you're thinking about someone who programmes AI or something like that. But it's interesting the thing I have always been impressed with you is how you can speak all the different languages. I believe it's gotten a little better as far as layman speaking to technologist. I know I used to spend a lot of time on those translations. But to really, I still see that there are translations that need to happen, whenever we are explaining you know, how do we make sure that we design so that we are following all the legal rules and we are following ATOS processes but we're really meaningfully including everybody. And I just think I know that is what you deal with all the time, and I know you're so good at it that it seems easy but actually it is a real skill that I unfortunately don't see others in our field having. And I think it's very important because you can translate it from, no matter where it's coming from in the gigantic organisation. And so, maybe I'm not saying it well you I do think you're a very good translator.

JIM:

Part of that that brings that in is because I came from the outside. I came from a background of palaeontology into IT, into accessibility and that is why the inclusion thing is so important because you're getting people with different viewpoints coming in, sort of thing. So, I mean and that is the real strength of inclusion not just in accessibility, in everything. So by making the community as inclusive as possible, you do improve that community, sort of th. and I know people have been saying this for a while but that is my lived experience that the more diverse that you have now. Something is managing a diverse team sometimes can be a bit of challenge because you know to allow everyone to have the voice. Everyone to contribute there. But I think that is part of it is because I am from the outside and I am joined in there that I wasn't buried in the technical face in there right at the beginning. So, I had to get people to explain it to me in a way I could understand rather than something super technical. And that is how you reach understanding, I think. And I think also and within ATOS, I know you mentioned the expert in the scientific community, Neil. That is important as well because we as a team contribute to the expert community to generate interest in accessibility and inclusion and then there is another organisation, the scientific community within ATOS, I don't know if this has been discussed before, where we have looked at a few projects there and we make sure that accessibility is always considered. We looked at a couple of years ago, a small study of how can we use, how can we make interfaces? How can we personalise them as much as possible and make it you know, so that as I, the idea being as someone approaches a user interface, that User Interface configures itself to the preference of the user, almost on the fly and things like that to do we have the technologies, what is the best way to do that? Do you use sort of edge computing techniques and IOT's to do it or do you use a more traditional cloud approach to where the stuff was stored and it was all about asking questions and getting people to think and getting them interested in technology because I think, when you start a conversation with people, most people are interested in accessibility when it's explained to them and they become quite, most people become quite passionate about it. But it's about grabbing their attention and making them think and that is where the likes of these communities are really important because you bring people who have maybe been in the margin of interest, rather than the margin of the organisation and keep their interest, bring them in and get them talking and then you learn from them because they are the people with the expertise sort of thing. And you I think well how I can apply this to accessibility. How can I take what these people know and work with them and try to build something and that is why those communities are really, really valuable?

NEIL:

Debra in the chat window have asked, what is the expert community and what is the scientific community and I know Antonio has a question. So I'll hand over as soon as I have explained. So, the scientific community within ATOS is essentially the think tank of the organisation. It does, the sort of produces thought leadership pieces. It does the imagining how we are going to imagining how we are going to be doing stuff via ten years out. And then the expert community is just that, bringing together all of the sort of different experts from around the organisation and recognising expertise has a value. So not everybody wants career progression as a manager and it's a way for people with deep technical expertise or what subject matter expertise to be recognised and to participate and be connected to the rest of organisation. So, over to you Antonio.

DEBRA:

Yeah, but that is supporting your employees, sorry Antonio.

ANTONIO:

Okay. No I just wanted to ask Jim, you know, if looking back to the days where he started working on accessibility and today, how do you feel that you need to explain yourself when you're trying to make the case for accessibility? How have we progressed it so far?

JIM:

I think one of the biggest changes we are seeing now is I talk a lot more about the benefits of the accessibility rather than the threats of legal action because really about eight years ago it was about compliance which might sound strange because a lot of my team work in compliance and it's something that has to be done but I think we are moving now to see the value of accessibility because I know I am pushing an open door here when I say that something that is accessible is better product and a better product is a better designed product so I think the big change in attitude we are seeing is that I am no longer having to threaten people. Now, that is always in the back pocket in case you need to encourage people. But more and more the conversations are about the positives that accessibility and accessible design are actually bringing and that has been, we have been talking about that for eight years since I joined the team. We have always known that. People are beginning to see that now and I think people are beginning to buy in that that is not just something I have to do. It's a good thing to do. And people are actually beginning to realise now, it's actually a profitable thing to do as well. It actually makes good business sense too. So, that is that progression that we are moving from something that you force people to do into something that people want to do and benefit from because if you force someone to do something you get the bear minimum, you always do sort of things like that. And that is where, you don't get people engaging. People now engage more. They think more and they see opportunities themselves. And I think that is the big attitude change. If you were talking about technological changes, I think the biggest change I have seen now is that I see so much more development of inbuilt tools about accessibility within built into operating systems into tools. Now you're always going to have the assisted technology. That is needed in addition okay. But there is this whole approach now. I mean eight years ago Neil if I suggested that they we could use the inbuilt tools in Microsoft as assistive technology for people, you would have laughed at me.

NEIL:

I might have told to where you to go.

JIM:

You would have been cross with me and if I had said it, you probably would have fired me. You know and I think that is what is important as well because I think particularly if I think in myself now, I'm 56. Sort of thing, I'm getting a bit worn at the seams, sort of thing like that. So, I would not be in a position, a place where I would meet something in the Equality Act, a definition of the disability there. But my hearing is not what it used to be, my coordination is not what it used to be, my eyesight is not what it used to be, so I benefit from the inbuilt tools and maybe I don't need Zoom text but sometimes I will use the Zoom features built into the technology quickly. Particularly if it's one of these spread sheets with the tiny fonts that everyone seems to love. So, I see there's assistive technology is a lot more ubiquitous that it was. It's available everywhere. And I think part of the story that we've been working on is pushing that, making people aware that hey you're two clicks on a keyboard away from having a zoom, a little window zooming up withing that if the text is a bit small and you've forgotten your glasses or even if I think of the advances in the captions. The artificial intelligence in captioning. Now, absolutely you can't beat a life captioner, you really can't, sort of thing. But I see the changes, even with my accent. I know Debra, you seem to like my accent.

DEBRA:

I love it.

JIM:

Captioning does not like my accent. I have seen a real improvement there now with PowerPoint for instance. I quite often turn on the options because I'm in a noisy environment. Sometimes I find it easier to read to follow those as well. So, that is that change I have seen a change, I've seen a change in attitude and I have seen assistive technology becoming much more widespread and the important thing is with it becoming widespread is it's becoming affordable as well because if you have the best assistive technology in the world but nobody can actually afford it you might as well not have it.

DEBRA:

It just discourages.

JIM:

I hope that answers your question Antonio sorry, I went on a rant there.

ANTONIO:

Thank you Jim. I was also curious because sometimes you network, you talk with people from other entities and organisations that belong to partners that we work or even groups that we are partnering in terms of our networking like the Business Disability Forum or Open Space or Valuable. Do you get the feeling that at the senior level people are now, senior leaders are now understanding more, they importance of accessibility?

JIM:

I think they are. But I think the thing we need to be very careful of is you grab people's attention, okay, you can quite quickly loose that attention again sort of thing and people might be under the impression this is done and dusted, we are finished with this. Why are you bringing this to me again? So, we do have that attention within ATOS to get it. But I think it's something you need to keep working at all the time. There are all other causes that are trying though grab attention as well because you are dealing with people that are probably the most time poor people you are going to come in across. I think great work has been done. Things I see, certainly in Ireland, I see a little bit more awareness at a government as well in there. But I think there has been an improvement. But it's always going to be an ongoing job to do this sort of thing because if you lose their attention, someone else will take their attention and then you have got to go back and get it again. So, I that is important. And also, it's important because people at the top of the organisations, governments and large companies change as well. So, hand on the baton there will be someone else to need to enthuse a little bit as well. So, I think yes, there has been real improvement and a real awareness. But it's an ongoing job to keep that going, I think.

DEBRA:

Jim, I have a really hard question for you. So, I hear all the time from really large global corporations that the accessibility vendors in the States, for example I am in States, that a lot of the accessibility vendors just do not understand the complexity of a large global corporation. And I know that some vendors think you know you're ATOS, you're a billion-dollar company, so you have got buckets of goals of gold laying around your offices. I wish you'd all send me some please. But it's something that I think is a major concern and I think that is one reason why I am fascinated with the ATOS team because you all have such different skills and you're in accessibility and inclusion. I love that part of it. But do you and you know, I don't want to make this self-serving for ATOS, but it really is a challenge. Do you think that vendors that want to come in and work for ATOS to make you all fully accessible, understand really all the technology, the business processes, all of the moving parts, the business units your global, yeah, I see Neil looking a little sick? But I know this is your all's life. So anybody, you know join in and help Jim answer the question. But that is a complaint I hear all the time.

JIM:

Yeah, I think when I would certainly joined Siemen's I was surprised by the complexity and the conservativeness with a small C of large organisations. Will now I think it's also true with engineering organisations because Siemens was an engineering organisation, ATOS is an engineering organisation as well and they tend to be quite conservative as well. Now, they may be radical in the products they produce. But the internal processes, there's a lot of inertia, there's a lot of conservatism, the process does not seem to be broken, why are we fixing it sort of thing, even though it is sort of broken. So yes, I think people, I was surprised by the complexity that is there and I think it's just a factor of scale to be honest with you, Debra that the larger the organisation and it's got nothing to do with public and private sector either. I think it's to do with the size of, an organisation gets to a certain size and the complexities seem to grow within the organisation. Throw in the mix of a multinational organisation and the complexities, I mean they go off the roof there. So, I think, and it can be very frustrating for us to work here within an organisation with that as well, where there is a small change that you know could make a big difference and you're thinking you know this is ten minutes work for someone to do this. But the actual complexity of getting that work done. Organising who is paying for it. How it's going to be budgeted for. When it's going got be done. Making sure that doing the checks that you are not going to impact other things. People don't understand the complexity of a large organisation and a large organisation is never going to have the nimbleness of a start up anyway you know to do things. It does take time to get things in. It's also, we have a lot of say I think line of business applications that everyone uses. We need to be really careful we don't break those, okay and things have got a lot better with assistive technologies, but there was always that fear of what is going to break. Because it's not just the new technologies that there may be because they are tested well. But we are taking them off and into historic is probably an accurate prediction, historic application an old date application but something is maybe not up to date, and you know maybe wasn't tested. So, there is a lot of complexity in there and when we introduce something we have to make sure we don't break stuff there as well. So, I know Neil's team and other people working in the evergreen approach that we have to it. We can be part of it and part of our tool set. But a lot of our tool set doesn't work in that evergreen model at all. So, that is where that complexity comes into making sure you're not breaking stuff and then you've got the financial complexities and the responsibilities within an organisation of who approves something and things like that. So, I know we have been working to try to change the corporate culture across ATOS and not just accessibility, to try and streamline decision, the processes of decision making, but they're still quite complex. And I think you have to work in a large organisation to actually begin to grasp just how difficult something might seem like a tiny simple change but getting it done can be really, really difficult.

NEIL:

That is why eight years passes so quickly right? So, we are still on that first ten-minute task. But in all seriousness, it absolutely true. We live in a world of complexity. And whilst the accessibility consultancies are technically you know high quality, no doubt about that. There are some great experts out there. There are very few that have come in from a background of dealing with the complexity of multinationals of all of the things that Jim mentioned the different legislations, the stake holder groups and all of that kind of stuff that makes it very different to implementing when you're just doing a web app. So, and Jim mentioned legacy apps. Well, if you think about some of our customers. Government and public sector and banking sector, well, banking sector is still running on cobalt. So they are and they are not going to turn it off because they don't want it to break. So, a lot of this stuff is going to be you know difficult to maintain. So yes, of course we always advocate well, when you're being something build it accessible. But there is a lot of stuff that we are patching and we're finding works around on. Some of that have is quite fun because that is creative process too. You're problem solving and so on. So, I think that is an area where we can always add value and really sort of cut your teeth on trying to fix some of these problems. We are at the end of our half hour, that went quickly . What can I say, Jim, it's always a pleasure? Thank you to My Clear Text for keeping us captioned and accessible. I am looking forward to you joining us on Tuesday.

JIM:

Thank you very much for having me.

DEBRA:

Thank you Jim. I think you're so brilliant, so I bullied Neil into, I was like come on we haven't had Jim on and you're so subtle, how you explain what you do. But this is why you're so good. This is why you're so good. You make it look easy.

NEIL:

Subtle? We are talking meetings with menaces. Did you not, could you not feel the malice in Jim's voice. I know he is threatening, you know what kind of a meeting are we talking about here?

JIM:

I have never been accused of being subtle before.

NEIL:

There is always a first time.

DEBRA:

Thank you Jim.

JIM:

No, you're welcome. Thank you.