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How unified communications tools address accessibility

The increased use of cloud communications means the tools must be accessible for everyone. Organizations should vet how their UC providers support accessibility features.

The growth of remote and hybrid work over the last few years has put digital accessibility in the spotlight. The adoption of cloud-based unified communications tools can help organizations to better support employees with disabilities.

UC and collaboration features, like meeting transcriptions and translations, not only enhance employee productivity, but can also improve accessibility.

But organizations must carefully vet how their chosen UC tools support accessibility. While UC and collaboration vendors offer accessibility features, such as closed captions or integrations with assistive technology, like screen readers, not all vendors offer the same level of support.

Regulations support accessibility needs

Developing accessibility features in UC platforms begins much like other digital services with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

The World Wide Web Consortium created WCAG to address accessibility for web content on desktops, laptops, tablets and mobile devices. The guidelines provide recommendations for accessibility accommodations for disabilities, including blindness, low vision, deafness, hearing loss, limited movement, speech disability and photosensitivity.

"It provides the basics and really the fundamentals for how you are accessible to a lot of user groups," said Alex Mooc, head of accessibility at Zoom.

But WCAG compliance doesn't necessarily mean good UX for people with disabilities.

"Compliance means to me that your website, your app or your software is compatible with assistive technology," Gartner analyst Brent Stewart said. "It doesn't mean they're optimized designs or a memorable and effective user experience for a blind person."

New regulations are emerging to require a certain level of accessibility support in communications platforms. For example, the Federal Communications Commission voted in June to require video conferencing services, including Microsoft Teams, Webex by Cisco and Zoom, to meet accessibility requirements under the Communications Act, such as supporting speech to text, text to speech and visual language interpreting.

Legislation and regulations are critical to leading greater adoption of digital accessibility standards, Stewart said. Regulations establish fines for noncompliance and provide more organized and ethical processes for supporting accessibility, he said.

How UC providers approach accessibility

Mooc agreed that WCAG is just the starting point to supporting accessibility. Zoom regularly meets with disability user groups to gain feedback on new features, accessibility requirements the platform is missing and other ways Zoom can meet their needs, he said.

"We're looking at the features to understand and flag what is not included in WCAG … but will have a great benefit," he said. "If it's not accessible, fixing it is not a nice-to-have; it's a requirement."

The UX design team for Webex by Cisco takes a similar approach to Zoom in developing accessibility features that go beyond WCAG standards. The team seeks input from an internal employee resource group, as well as an external customer advisory board, to gain feedback on how new or prototype Webex features meet the accessibility needs of different disabilities, ranging from blindness to neurodiversity, said Travis Isaacs, chief design officer for Webex.

Throughout his career, Isaacs said he's often seen accessibility bolted on at the end of feature development.

"What happens is, while you meet the legal definition of accessible, you don't create something usable," he said. "We did not want to take that approach."

At Zoom, Mooc said he views accessibility and usability as closely related, as both strive to achieve the same goal. For example, offering a high-contrast capability for users with low vision or colorblindness can also be beneficial to someone using a phone outside, where the lighting is bright.

Supporting accessibility through UC platforms

Organizations should include a clause for WCAG compliance in their procurement agreements to ensure that UC tools meet the minimum accessibility standards. Any tool that doesn't meet basic standards could be a point of failure and pose legal and financial risks, Stewart said.

"It should be a nonnegotiable requirement for every single tool they procure," he said.

But ensuring a UC tool supports accessibility isn't enough. Organizations need to ensure that employees are implementing accessibility features when collaborating.

Accessibility can mean using a digital whiteboard instead of a physical whiteboard so everyone in the meeting can see the content. It can also mean turning on closed captions for people who are hard of hearing or speak English as a second language, Isaacs said.

Meeting hosts should set best practices to accommodate participants with disabilities and acknowledge some important features, Mooc said. For example, if using the sign language feature, the host must designate the sign language interpreter and set proper etiquette for the meeting. Therefore, the onus is not on the participants to know how to contribute in a meeting that's mixed between those who are hearing and hard of hearing, he said.

Unified communications accessibility boosts culture

The adoption of UC tools to support remote and hybrid work in the last few years has also enabled organizations to hire outside their usual talent pools that relied on being near an office.

Isaacs said his team at Cisco is global and distributed, and Webex supports working in different languages, work styles and situations.

"Embrace it, and lean in to your collaboration platform as that enabler of work but also an enabler of culture," he said.

Mooc echoed a similar sentiment. He said he often hears how the shift to remote work has helped people with disabilities engage with people they haven't been able to before.

"Communities that weren't able to physically connect because of disabilities, they're now able to connect without limit," he said.

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