Dedication to access on a global scale – an interview with James Thurston, G3ict

Welcome to 2016! There's nothing like a new year to start thinking about the changing needs of accessibility on a global basis. To kick things off, it's my great pleasure to introduce James Thurston, Vice President for Global Strategy and Development in the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies (G3ict). James very kindly took some time out of his busy schedule to explain his remarkable work in supporting the access needs of people with disabilities around the world and the goals of G3ict. 

SH: To start, could you share with us a little bit about your current role and the work of G3ict more broadly?

JT: Absolutely. I am always happy to talk about the important mission and worldwide work of G3ict. G3ict, or the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs, was created 10 years ago when the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was coming into force. We were set up with the support of the UN as an international non-profit to help governments implement the technology aspects of the CRPD. The CRPD's strong focus on technology was historic for a human rights treaty. I joined G3ict about a year ago to help it build on its successes and grow its global impact. But when I joined G3ict I was no stranger to it. In fact, I was a big supporter and fan. I had been partnering with G3ict since its creation from my previous position at Microsoft and was always impressed by the huge achievements of the relatively small G3ict team.

SH: Your work focuses particularly on the important relationship between ICT and its relevance to disability and human rights. What sparked your initial interest to dedicate your working life to this area?

JT: I sort of stumbled into this area of work about 15 years ago and then could not leave it. I think that kind of hold on people may not be unusual in this field. At the time, I was working for an association of leading technology companies managing several global regulatory, trade, and technical standards issues. My manager came to me one day and asked me to start working on a new issue area for the industry – accessibility. Initially, I was resistant. I wasn't sure I had time to take on a new issue. But it did not take long for accessible ICTs to become the policy and standards issue about which I was most passionate. That led to me being recruited to Microsoft to help launch their global accessibility policy program and then here to G3ict. Looking back, it is easy for me to see how my passion for accessibility fits into the arc of my career. From the outset, it was obvious to me that this work on accessibility could have an enormous impact on the digital inclusion and human rights of persons with disabilities.

SH: Your earlier career was based at Microsoft. What was it like transitioning from your important work at a large corporation to the G3ict?

JT: It wasn't as big a transition as you might think. Obviously there is a difference in the size and resources of the two organizations. But they are very similar in many ways.  Both G3ict and Microsoft have a strong commitment to inclusion and an understanding of the power of technology to impact lives. Both have incredibly talented and accomplished teams. Both organizations are results-driven and focus on measuring those results.  

SH: With significant improvements around the provision of accessibility tools in popular mainstream products such as computers and smartphones, we often take for granted that someone with a disability will have access to the technology they need but in many parts of the world this is not the case. Are there particular accessibility issues that you've observed through your work that deserve a greater focus than is currently received?  

JT: We do see significant improvements. It is exciting to see companies competing for business based on the accessibility of their products and pushing for more innovation with each new release. As the industry has become more committed to accessibility in their products and services, I think an exciting area of opportunity and one that could benefit from increased focus is how those increasingly accessible technologies and products are actually being deployed, i.e. how they are being used to promote digital inclusion and human rights all around the world. For example, how can we be better at getting these accessible products integrated into education systems around the world? We know that persons with disabilities have significantly lower educational attainment and employment rates than the population as a whole in every country. How can we do a better job of enabling the use of accessible technology across the financial services sector? We know that persons with disabilities are among the most unbanked groups of people in most countries. How can we ensure that the focus on emerging "Smart Cities" by many governments and technology companies around the world includes a focus on accessible technology? Smart Cities must be Accessible Cities. These are just a few of the areas where G3ict is working with governments, civil society, and industry to push for even greater progress by deploying and using accessible technology.

SH: In recent years we've seen large companies such as Microsoft, Google and Apple work hard to include accessibility support in their products, but there remains some debate about whether companies should be left to innovate or whether there should be a greater focus on legal requirements. With the Section 508 refresh in the US progressing, do you have any thoughts around how to get the balance right tin this area?

JT: You mention Section 508. I like that as an example of using policy to incentivize industry to compete and innovate on accessibility. Section 508 created a market for accessible technology that did not exist before. When one of your biggest customers, like the US government, says they will only buy accessible technology, you pay attention and respond. We are really pleased to see other governments considering and implementing procurement policies like Section 508. The European Union has revised its public procurement rules to require accessibility as a consideration and created EN 301 549, an accessibility standard developed to support the public procurement of ICT products and services. Not long ago, G3ict announced a global charter calling on governments worldwide to adopt these kinds of public procurement policies and standards. We encourage your readers to sign onto this charter.

SH: The recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas highlighted the growing trend of the Internet of Things (IoT). Do you think that connected devices, driven by an accessible device such as a smartphone, have the potential to significantly improve access in the daily lives of people with disabilities?

JT: Yes, absolutely. Potential IoT applications are nearly limitless and they have the ability to really improve the quality of life of persons with disabilities. G3ict recently partnered with AT&T to release a paper that explores the impact of the Internet of Things on persons with disabilities and our annual m-Enabling conference (June 13-14) will include a focus on IoT.

SH: Your presentation at the NDIS conference here in Australia last year highlighted your extraordinary ability to keep across major disability-related developments throughout the world. As a result though you must really value those few rare moments of spare time. Do you have any interests or hobbies that you pursue during those quieter moments?

JT: G3ict is a small organization with an important global mission. We do keep very busy with our partners around the world. In my quieter moments, I enjoy being at home in Washington, DC. It’s an amazing city and even though I have lived here for many years, I still love to explore its diverse neighbourhoods. I also enjoy photography and knitting. I learned to knit as an exchange student in high school. I lived in a small village in the Arctic Circle region of Norway. I think that experience really ignited in me a lifelong passion for exploring the world and other cultures. 

SH: In recent times we've seen the web evolve across many different platforms to now include desktop, mobile and wearable. With innovations like Glass, the Oculus Rift, HoloLens and the broader blurring of connectivity and reality, do you think there's still a place for web standards and guidelines to support people with disabilities or is it time to consider other mechanisms to try and keep up?

JT: Standards are fundamental to innovation and interoperability in the technology industry, so I absolutely do believe there is an ongoing role for technology standards, especially when it comes to accessibility. With technical standards, including web standards, I think it is critically important that the development process consider accessibility and the full range of human abilities and user needs. A challenge that we face with standards is ensuring even greater participation by disabled persons' organizations in the actual development process. This is another area where industry, government, and civil society must collaborate. 

SH: James, thanks again so much for your time.

That pretty much wraps up the first column for the year. Thanks again to James for taking the time to be involved with the interview. I'm sure you'll agree that his insights were both interesting and significant as we look to the future of access. Next month we'll return to our regular column discussing all things accessibility.