Former IBM Chief Accessibility Officer envisions digital inclusion transformation for Taiwan's manufacturing industry

Jerry Chen, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

Frances West, a pioneering advocate for digital inclusion in the corporate world, is looking to bring this innovative concept to Taiwan.

As IBM's first Chief Accessibility Officer, West's tenure was distinguished by her efforts to embed human-first design principles into technological innovation. In 2013, West testified before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in support of the US ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and has also advocated at the United Nations for the role of technology in advancing the human rights of those with disabilities.

In 2016, West established FrancesWestCo, a global advisory firm focused on making inclusion a core business strategy. With the publication of her book "Authentic Inclusion Drives Disruptive Innovation," she aims to introduce these concepts to Taiwan's tech industries. Speaking to DIGITIMES Asia, West shares her thoughts on how she envisions Taiwan's manufacturing firms as potential pioneers in digital inclusion.

DT: Could you explain what is the concept of digital inclusion?

So the whole concept of digital inclusion is, is a very simple concept. It's about information technology. Due to how technology underpins everything, from how we live, work, socialize and learn. Any government, society, or business has to keep in mind their potential to create a technology barrier. Because if we do, you're leaving a portion of the population behind.

Accessibility is a way of articulating the standards of human experience. In other words, the digital experience is very vague but when you have accessibility in mind the standards and practices can be better defined, providing the best cases every company can follow.

For example, in Taiwan over 25% of the population is over 60. Accommodation from technology would inevitably be needed for some people.

More broadly speaking the first generation of the technology is just for processing. The speed is how much input and how much output, then it was about productivity. Now, it is all about personalization, or just technology, the form factors.

Everyone's phones are different because we set different parameters. We are entering an age where technology should augment human abilities. So we want to make sure that all the businesses, government policies, and everybody involved in technology, understand that we have an obligation and responsibility to deliver "the digital promise" to everybody in society.

DT: As IBM's first Chief of accessibility, what inspired the company in the first place to take on initiatives to be more inclusive in the workplace, and how have you seen it evolve over your time there?

IBM as a technology company has sustained for 120 years for a reason. At the very foundational level, the founder of IBM has a concept of respect for the individual's abilities. In other words, the idea of authentic inclusion was rooted in the history of IBM.

IBM for instance hired the first blind engineer back in 1914. So that's 76 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires companies to hire people with disabilities. TJ Watson, the IBM founder, felt that a competitive company would require a diverse mindset, points of view, and experience. The mindset of really respecting individuals and differences becomes the culture of the company.

When I took over the organization of human ability and accessibility at IBM, the Senior VP of research told me accessibility is about designing for everyone. This is of utmost importance to aging people or people with disabilities, meaning your designs have to be the simplest and the easiest to use. Simplicity is the most difficult thing to do because there is elegance in it.

DT: How do you think the concept of digital inclusion should be implemented structurally in a corporation?

I think the mindset in the organization has to be top-down. Because the setup of a for-profit enterprise is a top-down structure. This is the dilemma of digital inclusion, a lot of times they are implemented bottom-up by the employees. So we have to reverse the thinking, to build it in the design of your company infrastructure before we even build it.

If you can tell the people requiring special needs that we want you to come into the design process of the products and workplace from the start then you can benefit everyone. Getting feedback and mindsets from average people, whether it is your aging grandmother or cousin with hearing impairment or autism. I think the Gen Z'ers especially, will respond very favorably, and that becomes your differentiation.

DT: What is the legislative landscape for digital inclusion in the US and beyond? Do you think the laws could compel companies to implement more digital accessibility considerations in their products and workplaces?

In the US, President Biden has issued a White House executive order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce. So he's calling all the federal agencies to beef up their accessibility decisions. The Department of Justice has just come out with a new ruling. Mandating the GSA (General Service administer), which is the procurement part of the United States government, to meet accessibility requirements. In other words, it means if you're a supplier to the US federal government, whether it is for building missiles or buying paper clips, you need to declare the status of its accessibility.

The European Union also recently passed the European accessibility law, which will go into full force in 2025. In addition, Canada also came out with its accessibility law. So these are global legislation.

All this can be traced back to the establishment of the United Nation's CRPD(Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities). Meaning countries could take the UN's guidance and start establishing their legislation. 147 countries each start setting legislation like an incoming wave. It's just a matter of when so if you are a Taiwan supplier to any country around the world sooner or later it will affect you.

DT: How do you see digital inclusion being implemented differently in Taiwan?

I think you could have a kind of provocative idea here in Taiwan, like we just mentioned disability efforts so far have been bottom-up. However, because Taiwan is so uniquely qualified to implement these initiatives, there may be an opportunity for a top-down approach from the start.

Imagine if we take the manufacturing sector, which I don't think we have yet to have any kind of digital inclusion in place and convince them to take on these initiatives.

Get the leaderships of Acer, Foxconn, and TSMC together and tell them their customers, whether it's Apple or other Western-based clientele are all going to be either EU or American-mandated at some point, so you may as well start implementing them now.

DT: How could manufacturing companies develop products with digital inclusion in mind?

I've worked on projects where the physical product didn't include a speaker. That experience has taught me someone needing audio output such as if they are blind or have low vision, if it's not built into the manufacturing process, then it's simply not available to them. The only workaround would be to design a mobile app, which is less than ideal. This aligns with the concept of "shift left", which is the practice of moving testing, quality, and performance evaluation early in the development process, often before any code is written. The same principle applies to manufacturing: if you create a product without considering accessibility for all users, it will be costly to fix later. I think the leaders in design and manufacturing must ensure their products work for everyone. This includes details like the amount of force needed to press a button. In the US, we have regulations specifying the pressure required to push a button, and these considerations should be part of the manufacturing process. There's a significant opportunity to ensure every product we build is accessible to everyone from the start.

The Digital Inclusion and Innovation Summit taken place on April 25, 2024, was the first major summit in Taiwan and Asia to address this topic of digital inclusion. The summit is specifically aimed at helping tech industry executives understand the importance of digital inclusion and accessibility for business operations and opportunities.

Notable figures in the field such as Tela Lupushore, Chief Reframer at Reframe.Work Inc., Dr. Christopher Lee, Vice President and General Manager at the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP), and Thomas Logan, Founder and CEO of Equal Entry, joined West to speak on how the concept could be implemented industry-wide in Taiwan.

Credit: Francis West

Francis West's tenure was distinguished by efforts to embed human-first design principles into technological innovation