Recently, a friend told me that during their treatment for an illness, they had to use tools – not their voice – to communicate.
That experience was a lightbulb moment for them.
“I understood for the first time what it must be like,” they said. “It opened my eyes to what it means for someone who can’t say what they need.”
I hear a lot of these type of moments.
Like a friend who broke their wrist and began to comprehend the everyday challenges for people with limited mobility in their hands: brushing their teeth, pouring milk, using their smartphone.
Or the new parents out with a pram who suddenly realised how unfriendly the world is for wheelchair users.
As difficult as these moments can be, they do have a silver lining – they encourage more people to think about the importance of accessibility for those who live with disability.
But the reality is that while around 18 per cent of Australians identify as having disability, all of us are likely to experience some form of disability at some point in our lives, to varying degrees, some temporarily, others permanent.
It’s this reality that drives the work I do with my team, as the director, access and inclusion at Westpac.
This means we don’t view our work as simply benefiting a minority – or that 18 per cent of Australians with disability today.
Rather, we believe by improving accessibility, whether that be in systems or apps, services or products, places or communication, it ultimately benefits the majority of people – customers or employees – in one way or another.
It’s a view that’s gathering pace in many organisations globally, leading to accessibility being placed – as it should be – at the heart of all decisions and processes, not as a tick and flick or a bolt-on.
Put simply, when a project starts, the upfront considerations need to include how easily it will be accessed by people with all forms of abilities – not reverse-engineered at the end.
At Westpac, this kind of thinking has been instrumental to initiatives like ensuring our digital gateways are keyboard accessible and work with screen readers and speech recognition software, providing clearly structured headings and content and consistent layout and navigation, using appropriate colour contrasts and alternative text for graphics.
We’ve also created Easy English guides which match simplified information with informative pictures to allow people to understand their banking.
We’ve delivered EFTPOS Now terminals in partnership with Verifone, designed to support customers with low vision and blindness to enter their PIN securely and independently and we’re rolling out tactile Braille debit and credit cards to help those with vision impairments.
And we’ve created a more inclusive customer complaint process where customers can access information about how to raise a complaint via Auslan, the sign language of the Australian Deaf community.
It’s these kinds of initiatives that have helped Westpac to top this year’s Australian Network on Disability’s Access and Inclusion Index, recognising the progress the bank has made.
For me, it’s also a terrific reminder of how far things have come – not only at the bank, but across society more broadly.
When I first joined the bank in an IT role almost 15 years ago, it was the first full time job I’d taken on since I’d lost my vision, caused by lupus diagnosed when I was 14. At that time, the bank didn’t have screen-reading technology, which had to be put on my computer, and then half the systems didn't work with it!
Since then, the technical and physical accessibility improvements have come along light years.
But the most important improvement in my view has been the cultural changes.
Where once ideas for greater inclusivity were commonly dismissed as too challenging or niche, the response now is far more likely to be, “It's going to be a challenge, but we want to do it, so how do we fix it?”
I certainly feel there is a greater collective desire to do more to ensure as many people as possible can live independently.
Of course, we don’t always get it right.
And, as a community member, a consumer, an employee and someone who lives with disability, I know there is much more to do to continue to lift the bar of inclusivity.
To me, the best way to keep doing better is actually pretty simple – it’s to keep asking others: what do you need?
It’s a question I urge everyone to ask, because the positive changes that flow from it can benefit everyone, whether you have a disability today or you have one tomorrow.