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People go digital for school, work, shopping, entertainment and healthcare. Employers need to ensure communication and information is accessible to everyone online -- including those with disabilities.
Before the pandemic, only 6% of people worked from home, and three quarters of Americans never worked from home. Now according to a Gallup poll, 56% of U.S. workers work remotely either full or part time. Employees have the resources to do their jobs from home by accessing company communication portals, online resources and other programs.
Failures of digital content accessibility are becoming more problematic and prominent. According to the CDC, one in four U.S. adults has a disability. About 5.9% of people with a disability have a serious difficulty hearing, and 4.6% of those with a disability have serious vision difficulty.
Employers can improve accessibility for all employees and promote an inclusive culture.
What is digital accessibility?
Digital accessibility helps make online tools accessible to everyone, even those with impairments such as motor function, vision, hearing and cognition. Digital-accessible design also applies to those facing language barriers.
This includes using assistive technology features such as captioning, transcription, screen readers, wearable devices, subtitles and magnifiers.
Why is digital accessibility important?
There are two reasons to invest in digital accessibility services: compliance and inclusion.
Following the law
Numerous U.S. laws protect the rights of people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protections for people with disabilities in a physical environment. However, Title III of the ADA "prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of public accommodations." Businesses are generally open to the public and fall into this category. While ADA originally focused on physical barriers, there is more focus within ADA to make sure websites are also accessible to those with disabilities.
Other pertinent laws include Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) and the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The WAI focuses on accessibility guidelines and standards for web content, browsers and applications. This also applies to employers and their employees, especially when working remotely.
Remember that any failure to comply with these laws leaves a company subject to disability discrimination charges.
A culture of inclusion
Creating an inclusive culture is an active choice for a company. To be inclusive, the company must have policies and processes in place to make sure underrepresented groups -- such as those with disabilities, minorities and women -- can thrive.
Companies with an inclusive culture are two times more likely to meet or exceed financial targets, three times more likely to be high performing and eight times more likely to report favorable business outcomes than those that do not promote inclusivity, according to a Deloitte report. Employees appear to respond well to employers that respect all individuals and give everyone the tools they need to succeed.
Many tech companies -- such as Google, Microsoft, Zoom and Apple -- have accessible tool options on their programs for people with disabilities. Microsoft recently announced its five-year plan to help people with disabilities return to work.
What are the benefits of accessibility?
The ability to work from home can be a benefit for some employees -- and more people are looking for work-from-home opportunities when searching for jobs.
By creating a digital workspace accessible for all, companies give employees the opportunity to have equal voices and the tools to complete their work.
Companies also gain access to a larger pool of talent when they prioritize remote work and accessibility. Job openings are not restricted to a geographical location, and prospective employees can be engaged by the focus on accommodation.
The issues with remote working and accessibility
Digital accessibility standards should not be seen as a problem, but rather a way to meet the needs of employees. Remote work gives greater freedom and equality to certain workers with disabilities.
Some challenges with remote work include the limitations of the home environment, lack of awareness of diverse employee needs and insufficient assistive technology.
Addressing proper accommodations
Not all home offices are the same. Businesses should consult with employees and give them accommodations to fit their work needs.
Make sure they have everything at home that they had in the office. This includes interpreting programs, remote captioning and complete ergonomic assessments if requested. ADA states that any employee disclosing their disability to their employer can request reasonable accommodations.
Lack of awareness among employees
People tend to assume that the person on the other side of the computer is similar to them, because they lack the face-to-face connections in that digital setting. Assumptions can be a problem. Companies need to go beyond just equipment and software. They need to raise awareness levels and encourage staff to consider the needs of others. Companies also need to invest in training for all employees and provide regular feedback sessions.
Employees need to know how to communicate effectively with other employees. This includes drafting an email that is readable to all. For example, do not put text in an image, but rather use live text or HTML that a screen reader can find.
Accessibility is equally as important in interactions with customers. Here are some tips for creating an email.
Assistive technology can accommodate employees with disabilities, but companies should research the appropriate tools for their needs. Software options include features such as background noise reducers for the hard of hearing and keyboard accessibility for virtual whiteboards. When companies know the needs of their employees, they can commit to finding the right technology for assistance.
What employers can do to improve accessibility outside the office
Companies need to ensure that employees have the same accessibility at home as they do in the office. Here are some steps to improve digital accessibility, in accordance with ADA.
Ensure remote employees have what they need
Give employees a way to make requests, suggestions and complaints. This process should be centralized and promoted from the top of the organization, to show commitment. A feedback and request channel helps energize the change to remote work and can ensure employees are productive.
Evaluate tech platforms and processes
Be sure all employees can make full use of collaboration systems, email and other communication tools, virtual conferences, and all other systems for their jobs. Seek employee feedback on needs. Accessibility experts can help with formal testing and can evaluate tools and systems use.
Commit to website accessibility
Make a formal commitment to website accessibility. Be sure to communicate the decision to move forward with digital resources to meet everyone's needs and to redesign websites for better accessibility. Here are a few web content accessibility guidelines:
- Include content presented in different ways without losing context, information or structure.
- Permit all functionality from the keyboard instead of solely working with a cursor.
- Include alt text on images for the visually impaired.
- Include ways to help users determine where they are, navigate and find content.
- Avoid designs known to cause seizures, such as flashing lights and rolling images.
- Include closed-captioned videos for hearing impairments.
- Test colors for sufficient contrast.
Focus on inclusion in meetings
Consider people with hearing or visual impairments when sending materials for meetings and setting up the event. There are numerous captioning services available, including paid services and free self-editing options. Any presentations or images should have alternative text and descriptions.
Remote collaboration often depends upon video meetings, and engaging everyone can be challenging. Choose a platform that can create captions. If the meeting has more than 50 people, a moderator should summarize conversations and questions.
Most digital meeting platforms, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex, offer translation services and closed captioning. There is also an option to optimize voices in the meeting so it is easier to hear everyone, even speakers who are far from a microphone. Some platforms, such as Zoom, let meeting participants request a sign language interpreter alongside the presenter. A foreign language translation on Webex can also accommodate participants with language barriers.
Record meetings and share the recording so everyone can reflect on the information.