BCS group champions an untapped pool of IT talent

John Kavanagh looks at the work of the BCS Disability Group

John Kavanagh looks at the work of the BCS Disability Group

A UK market of more than 6.5 million people and a huge yet largely untapped pool of potential IT staff might be expected to be hot targets for IT suppliers and employers. Yet disabled people have for a long time been largely ignored.

However, recent developments are gradually changing things.

Technology has advanced out of all recognition since the BCS Disability Group was formed in 1975 - giving the group more chance of achieving its original aim.

"Our aim is to demonstrate that IT is a tool for equality and challenges the perceptions that surround disability," says the group's founder chairman Geoff Busby, who is confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, yet has had a long career in IT and has managed many projects and organisations for disabled people.

"In the vast majority of cases it is not expensive these days to adapt technology," says Busby.

Working alongside AbilityNet, a charity that advises on IT for disabled people, of which the BCS is a trustee, the group has found that most of the facilities needed already exist, often at low cos. These include special keyboards, software to increase the size of text on a screen, devices for speaking displayed text, ways to tweak software, for example to cater for one-handed operation.

Disability is an issue for everyone, says John Aeberhard, an officer of the Disability Group. "The statistics show it is a virtual certainty that we will all either become disabled or have a family member who will be affected, so there is a self-interest in taking part in the group," he says.

"IT is generally a young person's industry, a person in a hurry who doesn't give much thought to disabled people. So the industry has been slow to appreciate the market opportunities - and there are potentially big numbers here."

Busby says this, plus the perennial IT skills problem, means the recent development of the Disability Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to discriminate against people because of a disability, should be seen by suppliers and employers as an opportunity, not a threat.

"People with IT skills are in short supply and will be attracted to companies where they feel valued and secure," Busby says. "Understanding the Act will help generate feelings of security."

The Disability Group has three main activities. It runs meetings and conferences to spread the word about how IT can help disabled people - and also employers and suppliers. The group is seeking to expand its membership to increase its influence.

The group has a magazine, Ability, funded by the industry. Ford has recently added £25,000 more funding, enabling the magazine to progress from quarterly publication to six times a year and expand its circulation.

The other main project is IT-Can-Help, again funded by industry but dependent on volunteers who help disabled people with IT in their homes or at day centres.

"We're taking the dis out of disability, to focus on people's abilities," Busby says.

Information about the BCS Disability Group is available at www.bcs.org.uk or from geoff.busby@marconi.com

The AbilityNet site is at www.abilitynet.co.uk

A 68-page BCS guide to the Disability Discrimination Act is available at £15 to members and £20 to others, call 01793-417424

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