Virtual Workplace Accessibility Guide

Workplace accessibility has become a completely new difficulty as the talent market has expanded to incorporate a larger, more dispersed, and remote workforce. In the context of remote work, what does accessibility mean? For high-performing teams, remote work is more than just a benefit. It is essential to ensuring employment is accessible.


The New Remote Workforce

A report from FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics found that there has been a major upward trend in the amount of people working remotely in the U.S. In the span of one year, from 2016 to 2017, remote work grew 7.9%. Over the last five years, it grew 44% and over the previous 10 years it grew 91%.

One in four  Americans has a disability (CDC), also this 2017 Center for Talent Innovation report found that 30% of white-collar employees have a disability. The numbers are similar across gender, race, and generation.

There are clear business incentives for transitioning to remote teams—less office space overhead, employing people in lower cost of living areas—but remote work impacts more than just the bottom line. Remote work makes work more accessible for one of the most underserved groups of people in America, and by doing so, gives employers access to a potential talent pool of more than 10 million people.


The ADA and Accessible Technology

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a broad, anti-discrimination law that protects people with disabilities. This law guarantees equal opportunity for those with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.

If an employer offers a remote work option to its workforce, it must also allow employees with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate. Additionally, the ADA’s reasonable accommodation obligation, which includes modifying workplace policies, might require that employers modify a remote work program for someone with a disability who needs to work at home.

The key to maintaining ADA-compliant remote workspaces is to provide accessible technology and communications for teleworking. Accessible technology is technology that can be used successfully by people with a wide range of functional abilities. This may include providing captioned video conferencing for people who are deaf or hard of hearing or ensuring that any remote communication technology is screen reader-friendly. With digital devices, platforms, and documents becoming the primary methods used by remote workers, digital accessibility becomes a high priority. 

“Competing for a larger share of available talent is a pretty big opportunity for advantage, and people with disabilities have historically been profoundly underrepresented in the workplace,” says Joe Gerstandt, Inclusion Specialist. 

“As we navigate far-reaching change to the organization and distribution of work, there is an opportunity to recalibrate what we do in the name of inclusion and talent, and in doing so put more talent in play,” adds Gerstandt.

Digital accessibility is different from physical accessibility, but the fundamentals remain the same: Regardless of the medium, accessibility should remove barriers. This means that employers should make every effort to ensure that commonly-used work-from-home tools are accessible to promote ADA-compliant remote workspaces.


Making Virtual Meetings & Presentations More Accessible 

In remote work settings, virtual meetings and presentations are common. Remote coworkers have impromptu or planned meetings to check in on projects and assignments, just as they would in a face-to-face meeting. Presentations, whether for small groups or company-wide, are still held virtually to share information and knowledge.

Ensuring that your meeting platforms support full accessibility for people with disabilities is the same as the process for choosing any other technology: Incorporate accessibility into the procurement process and then evaluate what technology providers promise and how they deliver. Features that make virtual meetings accessible are closed captioning, sign language interpreters for company-wide video conferencing, and transcription.

The same evaluation applies to virtual presentations. Presentations should allow all remote participants, including those with disabilities, can effectively understand and engage with the presented content.

It’s also important to provide staff training sessions to all employees on digital accessibility basics. These basics should include primers on how to plan and host an accessible remote meeting with specific guidance on the accessibility features of your selected platform.

“Equitable access to technology can become the new normal. The virtual workplace should be a place where everyone can fully access all software applications from their desktop and mobile devices to complete their work activities,” says Josh Christianson, Co-Director with PEAT. 

“All workers, including people with disabilities, should also have the ability to access their files, navigate websites, and join and participate in meetings and collaboration spaces—whether in-person or virtual.” adds Christianson.

Content and document sharing tools are crucial for a remote workforce, but companies must consider how this type of collaboration can be accessible. Captions ensure that internally-shared videos are accessible to all employees. Written documentation should have WCAG compliant color contrast and alt text should be provided for all images, particularly graphs and charts. Google provides useful and accessible content-sharing tools, such as Docs, Slides, and Sheets.

Learn how to create accessible emails, PDFs, documents, images, presentations, social media, multimedia, and content management systems by following these basic tips on digital accessibility from PEAT. 


The Importance of Accessibility and Messaging Platforms 

For remote employees, staying connected isn’t as easy as it is in physical offices where you can have conversations face-to-face. Messaging platforms and collaboration tools have become prevalent in most workplaces, but they are critical for effective and efficient communication in remote work environments. The platforms allow remote employees to quickly communicate questions and progress updates to managers and team members.

Many work collaboration tools are accessible, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts. These platforms are screen reader-friendly and provide live captioning functionality, magnification and color filters, and keyboard accessibility. 

“Utilizing collaboration platforms such as those mentioned above, has become a core element of organizational communication strategies. It’s no longer acceptable to expect individuals and leaders to use face to face interactions as their primary channel for communicating,” shares Lisa Sterling former Chief People Officer and Co-Founder of Women’s Virtual Network. 

“These platforms expand our ability to engage in thoughtful brainstorming sessions, collaborate on projects and yes, gain answers to questions and provide updates. When leveraged effectively, individuals, regardless of their disability status, are provided a far better experience when working remotely and one that is equitable to all,” says Sterling. 

Communication, Education, and Accommodation Strategy For Your Employees and Team 

Accessibility is a team effort, so all employees need to understand the basics of disability inclusion and digital accessibility. Refer to PEAT’s staff training resources, which include detailed guidance on training employees in specific roles, including managers and leaders, human resources, and all employees. 

Your CIO or procurement officers will need training on handling office equipment requests for remote employees with disabilities, including communicating with vendors about accessibility policies and building accessibility into procurement processes. It’s also important to have a formal BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”) policy. BYOD policies can be very helpful to employees with disabilities who are already satisfied and familiar with the accessible devices they already own. They prevent the need for the employee to learn how to operate new workplace technology—and, in some cases, retrofit it with accessibility features. However, not all employees own their own accessible devices, and certain assistive technologies only work on desktop computers. As a result, many employers and employees will still need to work together to ensure the accessibility of remote work technology to ensure that all staff can do their jobs effectively.


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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Learn more about Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource, and the host of the Workology Podcast. More of her blogs can be found here.


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