To learn more about the company’s commitment to providing accessible products and services for the workplace, PEAT recently spoke with Paul Albano, a senior product manager at Canon U.S.A's Business Imaging Solutions Group.

Headquartered in Melville, New York, Canon U.S.A., Inc. is a leading provider of consumer, business-to-business, and industrial digital imaging solutions. In addition to cameras and visual equipment, Canon produces a wide range of office solutions including copiers, scanners, printers, and software. To learn more about the company’s commitment to providing accessible products and services for the workplace, PEAT recently spoke with Paul Albano, a senior product manager at Canon U.S.A's Business Imaging Solutions Group.

PEAT: Tell us about your role at Canon. Where does accessibility fit into your organization?

ALBANO: I'm a senior product manager in our Business Imaging Solutions Group, which encompasses office technologies such as printers, scanners, fax machines, copiers, and more. Although Canon is known worldwide as a "camera company," interestingly, more than 50 percent of our net sales come from our office technology offerings. In collaboration with our product development resources headquartered in Japan, we work hard to ensure that all of Canon's office equipment is accessible to users with disabilities. My role in marketing is to help get the word out about the accessibility solutions we offer. Part of this includes making sure we're participating in key industry events and gathering customer feedback regarding the functionality of our products. And then we provide this market feedback to our development teams so that they can build products with accessibility in mind.

As a whole, accessibility falls within Canon U.S.A.'s Solutions Marketing Division. It's a division that helps address customer requirements for compliance solutions—including accessibility issues, as well as security, and solutions for environmental sustainability.

Of course, Canon as an organization is committed to recruiting and hiring skilled individuals with disabilities, and our HR Recruiting Team and Office of Diversity and Inclusion drive the initiatives for this. Currently we have specific hiring efforts going on in the field at our U.S.-based manufacturing facilities and at our customer call center in Virginia, which has been successfully employing people with disabilities for many years.

PEAT: Why is accessibility important to Canon and how does it fit into the company's philosophy?

ALBANO: The thinking behind our commitment to accessibility is part of the larger corporate philosophy espoused by Canon called "Kyosei," which is a Japanese word that means "living and working together for the common good." We aspire to a society in which all people, regardless of culture, custom, gender, ethnicity and, yes, ability, harmoniously live and work together. So the ability to which people can use our products effectively and live more productive lives falls right in line with Kyosei.

To the extent that our office imaging products serve as a core communications hub within an office environment, we know that the more accessible we can make these products, the better employees can perform their work independently and effectively.

PEAT: How long has Canon focused on this issue?

ALBANO: Canon's history with accessibility and assistive technology goes way back to our early beginnings. Canon’s founder was originally a doctor and, shortly after the company was founded, we developed Japan’s first indirect X-ray camera used to provide preventive chest screening for tuberculosis. Later, in 1974, Canon set up its Audiovisual Prosthetics Division with the aim of promoting the "Optacon," a U.S.-made electronic reader for people who were blind. We also developed a product called the Canon Communicator for people who have difficulties speaking and writing. Our first accessible copiers—with accessibility features actually built into the machines—came to market in the 1990s. And in 2004-2005, we started to expand our efforts by incorporating voice guidance and voice operations.

PEAT: Tell us more about voice guidance and your other accessibility solutions. Are they standard features on your machines?

ALBANO: Our Voice Guidance and Voice Operation Kits are available as optional accessories on certain products. These kits help users with low-vision access certain device features using a touch screen by allowing them to operate device functions using tactile input via the hard keys, audible confirmation of commands, and voice input. We also offer an accessible handle that allows operators to open and close device document feeders from a seated position. Our Braille Label Kits provide users with visual impairments with improved access to the device control panel, document feeder, and paper drawers. And our Remote Operators Software Kit is a remote access utility that mirrors the device control panel's functionality on a personal computer to allow both seated users and remote users to operate the device. Most of these solutions were originally offered as add-ons, but there's been such a demand for them that many are now being embedded into all devices as standard features.

PEAT: So you're moving toward universal design?

ALBANO: Definitely. And that's because some of our accessibility solutions help all users, not just those with disabilities. Take, for example, the Remote Operators Software Kit. That was designed to help individuals with limited mobility to operate copiers and printers from their own PC. But there's been wide demand for that feature since it can also be used in training sessions and in help desk scenarios. Anyone can benefit. Speaking more generally, we're enhancing the usability of our products for all people by simplifying user interfaces, creating larger buttons that are easier to see, and redesigning paper cassettes to make them easier to install. We also try to apply these design principles to non-office products, including camera equipment.

PEAT: In your view, what are the advantages of Canon's accessibility mindset?

ALBANO: Well, building accessible products is certainly the right thing to do for our customers, and that's just a part of our corporate DNA. But it also makes good business sense. It's helped us win business when there is an emphasis on Section 508 compliance, for example. And while we may not always be the least expensive vendor, the fact that we can offer significant value and advantages when it comes to accessibility is a real differentiator.

PEAT: What is Canon's approach to product development and accessibility testing?

ALBANO: Canon reinvests 8 to 10 percent of its net sales into R&D every year. And much of that goes into researching how our customers use our technology. We strive to create user-centric products and map out exactly how people will interact with our technology by creating user "personas." This also involves the use of focus groups to help us clearly understand how our design ideas will impact customers in a real world setting. And that's where we try to apply principles of universal design—for example, how easily can someone learn to use the system for the first time, how efficiently can users operate the equipment after the initial learning period, how well can a person remember to use the system after a long period of time, how well can a user recover from errors, and the level of overall satisfaction gained by using the product.

Here in the U.S., we also engage people with disabilities in ad hoc usability testing, working with organizations such as the American Foundation for the Blind, to conduct hands-on evaluations of our office technology. This valuable user feedback helps guide our product development teams.

I should also note that Canon strongly considers employee feedback in its product development efforts. Canon has established a formal process whereby employees can submit their own ideas for new Canon products, and corresponding business plans that will bring them to life. These ideas have occasionally led to actual new products.

PEAT: Do you publicize your accessibility efforts?

ALBANO: We do, both internally and externally. We obviously need to ensure that Canon’s sales representatives and marketing and sales partners in the field know about our accessibility features so that they can inform our customers. We conduct an extensive amount of sales training and webinars on accessibility.

With customers, we're incorporating our accessibility message into every event and interaction we have. It's permeating everything, and that's because disability issues are becoming a bigger topic for most employers and business organizations. We have four generations of people in the workforce right now, and people are working later in their lives. That means lots of maturing workers with acquired disabilities will also find our accessibility features useful.

We have also created materials to increase awareness of the recent updates to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, which relates to employers who do business with the Federal government. These materials highlight the fact that Canon offers solutions that can support federal contractors who are building or improving their workplace infrastructure so that it’s accessible to job applicants and employees with disabilities.

PEAT: What challenges do you face in your accessibility pursuits?

ALBANO: I think the greatest challenge facing all manufacturers is that every user—regardless of their ability—is unique. Customized solutions are great; however, it simply isn't practical to build custom or exclusive tools. So our approach is to come up with all-inclusive products that meet the needs of everyone. That's not easy, of course, but we're doing our best to get there through research and innovation.

PEAT: What's one piece of advice you would give to other technology providers related to accessibility?

ALBANO: My advice to technology providers is that focusing on this area requires commitment and investment. Designing accessible products is neither simple nor inexpensive. However, the benefits of providing accessible products extend well beyond the business opportunity they represent. For a company like Canon, which has a deeply engrained philosophy to enrich the lives of our customers, building accessible products delivers benefits on multiple levels.