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Introducing Direct Access

As part of our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion project at OAS, we’ve appointed Direct Access as our expert consultants on accessibility. Direct Access will be helping us to make sure every aspect of the learner journey is more accessible, from our website to our workshops.

We caught up with Chief Operations Officer, Steve Dering, and Director, Lee Searle, to talk about how they’ll be supporting the project, why the UK is already leading the way on the global accessibility stage, and why accessibility is so important in closing the skills gap.

Tell us a bit more about Direct Access

Steve: Direct Access started in 2004. We’re a disability consultancy, and we look at accessibility both in terms of retrofitting established premises and at the design and build stages of new buildings and spaces. We work with all sorts of organisations, from galleries and heritage sites, to schools, colleges and universities, as well as shops and housing and accommodation. What we’ve found over the years is that organisations needed a little bit of handholding to implement the recommendations we make, and so now we offer that support as well as our accessibility assessments and audits.

The UK’s accessibility laws aren’t as black and white as many other countries – here it’s all about making reasonable adjustments, and that means that the accessibility standards in the UK are generally higher. Other countries are now looking to the UK to see what they can learn and what’s best practice, and so over the past 5½ years we’ve expanded and now work with small and large organisations internationally. As we speak, [our CEO] Steven is in the Middle East, helping to make EXPO 2020 Dubai more inclusive and accessible!

Lee: Yes, in America certainly, the push towards being more accessible was often fear of a lawsuit! Happily, now more and more companies can see that accessibility is also an opportunity. It’s a good thing to be all inclusive, for your branding, employee retention, your bottom line. And of course, it means you can recruit the best employees and gain the best customers because you’re accessing the whole of the market, instead of missing out on the groups you’ve excluded. There are so many benefits!

Why is this something that’s important to you?

Steve: 86% of the team at Direct Access have some sort of disability, so we all have both a personal and professional interest in inclusive environments. If you look at employment figures, only 50% of the disabled population are working, compared to around 85% of the total working age population. That’s a real disparity. We all know that there aren’t enough staff available at the moment – you just have to read the press to understand the issues that causes!

Lee: I’m the member of the team that accounts for that other 14%! My background is in egress – while Steve and the team are making sure that people can get in, enjoy, and interact with buildings, I focus on making sure that everyone can get out safely if there’s an evacuation incident, and that we can move people around safely in that scenario if they need assistance. It’s personal for all of us.

What are Direct Access doing to help OAS?

Steve: We always begin with an access audit – a walk-through the facilities to identify how access can be improved. That can mean all sorts of different things, and totally depends on what we find on the visit. A good example at one end of the spectrum is we frequently find that the red alarm cord in accessible toilets has been tied up by the cleaner when they’re mopping the floor and then left like that, so it’s just a simple fix to put a process in place to stop that from happening. At the other end, it might be about creating step free access to a classroom or relocating classes to somewhere that’s more accessible. We’re here to balance and understand the implications of the status quo, and make recommendations for reasonable changes.

But we’re also taking it a bit further with OAS and exploring the ‘softer’ side of accessibility too. We’ll look at the OAS culture, explore how training is delivered, what information is available online, and how you communicate and respond to enquiries for example.

Lee: That’s actually one of the biggest bits of accessibility. Anyone with a disability will do extensive research before they come and see you. One of our colleagues is paralysed from the neck down, and he makes thorough plans to ensure he can get to where he needs to go safely, with fall back plans in case anything doesn’t go quite as expected. If you’ve done loads of work putting stuff in place to be really accessible, but then don’t publicise that on your website, or if your website isn’t accessible to disabled people, then they simply won’t come.

Why is this partnership important?

Steve: If we can support OAS to be more inclusive and accessible to disabled people, who can then get the skills and opportunities that an apprenticeship or training programme offers, that doesn’t just help that person, it helps the whole of society. And if you have a class where one person has a disability, the rest of the class will benefit too – they’ll learn about that disability and its barriers, and how adjustments help to overcome those barriers. They’ll remember and put that experience into practice later on, maybe even years down the line, so that initial experience will keep on benefitting a much wider community.

Lee: Also, even with the best of intentions and a limitless budget, if people aren’t told what to do to improve accessibility, they’ll inevitably do the wrong things. And that’s where we come in. It’s a common misconception that accessibility is really expensive, with retrofitting and new gadgets and gizmos, but actually most of what we do is down to training and changing the management process.

What will it mean for the OAS community?

Lee: That the OAS offering is accessible to everyone, regardless of whatever may have previously held them back. The gold standard, and what we want to happen at the end of this process, is that the only barrier to someone coming to OAS is that this isn’t the right job or learning pathway for them. The doors won’t be closed to anyone who wants to come and learn and be at OAS.

For employers, this will mean they have complete market access to the best and most talented people, regardless of what disability or ability they have. And there are wider benefits for the broader community too. OAS will be upskilling people who may not have been able to do this previously, and while obviously the learner’s life with be exponentially improved, the whole OAS community will be learning how to make life ‘normal’ and easy for disabled people, and how things don’t need to be barriers.

Once you understand a little more about a particular disability or condition, you can be more confident in adjusting how you do things to make that person’s life a little easier, or how to talk or the words you use to avoid upsetting someone. For example, Steve lip reads, so video calling is obviously much better than a telephone meeting for us – but I also now know that the live captions are much better on Teams than Zoom, so that’s become our preferred programme.

Steve: That’s so true – I’m learning from people all the time. Earlier this year, we employed a really gifted young man. He’s a graduate with first class degree, but because he is autistic, employers weren’t offering him a job. We could see that he would be great for us, and we’re already benefitting from all his knowledge about new technology. As I’ve worked with him, I’ve learned more about how he thinks, how he likes to work and how to help him to be at his best, and with some small adjustments we’re all benefitting from him joining our team.