Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Big Blue pushes accessibility, with help from others

Back in the late 1970s, when I was Director of the Arkansas Department of Energy, the state disabilities commission ran an awareness event in which corporate and governmental leaders were given a disability for the day and were expected to try to carry out their work and personal functions.  You might be given heavily fogged glasses to be partially sighted; or you might be confined to a wheelchair; or (in my case) you were given earmuffs that severely limited your ability to hear.  At the end of the day, we all met to discuss what we had learned.  My observation was that the disabilities tended to isolate people from "normal" social and business intercourse with other people.  The result was that talented, skilled, and intelligent people were foreclosed from full participation.  I remember saying, "What a waste to society" in terms of capabilities that were being lost.

The world has changed somewhat.  In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990.  Later in that decade, the United States required federal agencies to purchase electronic and information technology that was accessible to people with disabilities.  Other countries have similar laws requiring public accommodation for people with disabilities and similar requirements for integration of accessibility standards into computers and the like.  All of that is a good thing.

 But I think an equally important thing is happening now, in that technological changes are making it possible for disabled people to have more and better accessibility at work, home, and play.  I learned this week that IBM has demonstrated a particular commitment to this field.  While there is a clear business reason for many of their activities, their initial interest was philanthropic and several programs remain so.

I was intrigued by many of the company's activities, but one aspect in particular resonated with a message you have often read on this blog and on those of other patient advocates in the health care system.  We have been asserting that health care providers, researchers, and related service providers should be patient-driven.  We aim to encourage and establish true partnerships between those who provide health care services and those who use those services.  To date, the health care system has been slow to adopt this philosophy.

Look in contrast, at a portion of the IBM accessibility workplan:

To help IBM gain a deeper understanding and foster an accessible environment, IBM forms external relationships with leading experts on accessibility. These relationships help IBM understand specific issues and collaborate with key constituents to continually drive accessibility into mainstream IT.

Imagine if your hospital were to have a parallel portion of its workplan:

To help our hospital gain a deeper understanding and foster a patient-driven environment, we form external relationships with leading patient advocates and experts. These relationships help us understand specific issues and collaborate with key constituents to continually drive a partnership with our patients into our mainstream care delivery system.

MedStar, Contra Costa, and a few others are taking this seriously.  Many others are just going through the motions or not even trying. This is a topic deserving attention by hospital boards of trustees, who should hold management accountable for adopting a philosophy and building the infrastructure to make such collaboration the norm.

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