It’s World Braille Day today, celebrating the birth of Louis Braille, who invented the reading and writing system used by millions of partially sighted and blind people across the world.
We write a lot about innovation and diversity, and Louis Braille’s story is hugely inspiring. An accident when he was a child led to him being blinded in both eyes. Having worked hard to adapt, he excelled in his education and received a scholarship from France’s Royal Institute of Blind Youth. Here he discovered the military cryptography of Charles Barbier of the French Army, which then became the inspiration for the development of the braille system.
A lot has changed since his birth in 1809, and technology has grown to better meet the needs of every person. Examples of this include Apple’s incorporation of a Speak Screen element into its iPads, and Voice Over on iPhone, which describes what’s on screen to enable photo taking. There are even made-for-iPhone hearing aids.
Organisations such as Sendero have also developed accessible GPS and talking map software, which have an up to date clear instruction of how to get to a destination and give blind people the ability to know independently when to get off a bus.
This is an area in which Neil Barnfather has excelled, having founded TalkNav, which sought to empower the visually impaired through accessible and adaptive technologies. Blind at birth, Neil was celebrated at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards 2013, having started 19 businesses, running companies in areas from aviation to vending, from circuit boards to consumer services. In 2014 he was awarded an MBE in recognition of his services to visually impaired people and the telecoms industry.
Of the benefits of employing people with a disability, he says: “You’re not distracted by visual things. As a businessperson who is blind, you tend to take a much more holistic approach constantly. Disabled people are natural entrepreneurs because they are forever thinking outside the box and forever thinking of ways to get around things.”
A great example of adaptation and innovation is the success of Christine Ha, a blind contestant who made it to the final of the US version of MasterChef in 2012.
Despite the many positive things that people with different abilities can bring, the RNIB reports that only one in four registered blind and partially sighted people of working age are in employment.
With a broader view, our own research shows that there has been a big change in the way that diversity is approached by organisations. Over the last decade, it has gone from being an issue only our public sector clients were concerned about, to a topic that more of our private sector clients are looking to explore.
But there’s still a long way to go.
When we asked a global sample of HR professionals what they would be focusing on during the coming two years, diversity featured at the bottom of the list: below the likes of leadership development, employee wellbeing, engagement, employer branding and recruitment and talent attraction. Only 12% admitted diversity was a major challenge that they were actively trying to address.
Too often diversity is positioned as a one-way process designed to advantage the employee, but with less focus on the benefits it brings to the employer.
Our research also shows that the definition of diversity is changing and that managing diversity is actually an indirect way of addressing those HR issues higher up the priority list. Organisations that are realising this are the ones with not only an interesting mix of people, but – as Barnfather describes – an agile workforce with a point of difference.