Digital Accessibility in the Workplace
Companies have made accommodations for people with disabilities for a long time, but what does accessibility look like in today's digital workplace? Can modern technology be used to finally bridge the gap for those with physical or cognitive and neurodivergent disabilities?
The Forrester Predictions 2022 report calls accessibility a top priority for organizations — and one a growing number of companies say they will commit to in 2022. According to the report, 26 percent of companies did so for the first time last year, as greater focus is placed on the importance of diversity, equality and inclusion.
What Is Accessible Technology?
According to a WorldBank report on Disability Inclusion, one billion people — 15 percent of the world’s population — have some type of disability, and between 110 million and 190 million people have significant disabilities. Thankfully, accessible technology is able to assist many of these people in their daily activities, both at work and at home.
Accessible technology has long been defined as technology that can be accessed by all users, based on the idea that the "user base" is very diverse and that everyone has unique characteristics and contexts. For instance, some people may not have access to a desktop computer, monitor, keyboard or mouse, while others use different browsers, software or mobile devices. But it has since grown to have a much broader meaning.
The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) recently published a report entitled the Workplace Technology Study in which they polled 323 individuals who are blind, have low vision or are deaf-blind. The report revealed that participants frequently faced accessibility challenges during the hiring and onboarding processes: approximately 33 percent of those who were required to take an automated test or screening reported accessibility challenges, 59 percent said they faced accessibility challenges when completing onboarding forms on paper, and 48 percent had accessibility challenges with electronic onboarding forms.
Most concerning, perhaps, is that 21 percent said they considered not requesting a needed accommodation because they were worried about how that would be perceived.
Ryan Graham, chief technology officer at assistive software company Texthelp, said the past year has been a big win when it comes to digital accessibility. “We saw more companies prioritize creating accessible brands for their customers and implementing accessible technology for their employees,” said Graham, who expects to see this trend continue.
"It is very clear that today’s consumer expects brands to care for their employees and customers, and digital accessibility is becoming a larger part of that."
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How Technology Can Facilitate Accessibility
Artificial intelligence plays a large role in accessible technology. From voice-enabled assistants and speech recognition to image analysis, AI and machine learning are being used to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of accessible technology.
A 2021 Microsoft blog on accessibility describes the prototype of a product called PeopleLens, an AI-enhanced headset designed to provide blind children with details such as the names of the people who are physically near them to help them experience social agency and have opportunities to develop their social interaction skills.
The concept behind PeopleLens is to “enable people to define how they live their lives rather than dictating what they can accomplish," the blog post read. Many other developments have been driven by a similar purpose, and Josh Basile, a lawyer and community relations manager for accessiBe who is also quadriplegic, said accessibility technology has made a major difference in his life.
“Since becoming paralyzed below my shoulders as a teenager in 2004, accessible technology has opened countless doors to new independence and opportunities for me," he said. "Accessible technology has given me the power to control my everyday environment and communicate with the world around me."
Accessible technology has also provided Basile with the ability to get an education and become an attorney and disability rights advocate. “My entire home is filled with smart home technology allowing me to control with my voice the lights, thermostat, fans, TV, music, elevator, doors and garage," Basile said. "Advancement in accessible technologies throughout the years gave me superpowers as a student helping me to graduate magna cum laude from law school without ever flipping a page with my fingers."
Today, as a full-time trial attorney and disability rights advocate, he relies on a mouth-controlled mouse, voice dictation software, onscreen keyboard and screen reader software to tackle his work and advocacy. One of the accessibility tools he uses is the QuadStick, a mouth-operated game controller that can also emulate a mouse and keyboard.
Rethinking Accessibility in the Digital Workplace
For people with cognitive impairments, there are tools to help determine which computer tools would be the most effective for particular cognitive disabilities. One of the most comprehensive is the Matching Person and Technology Assessment (MPT), which proposes the right technologies based on the person's goals.
Martin McKay, CEO and founder of Texthelp, said companies are rethinking digital accessibility in a post-pandemic world. “Due to the COVID-19 shutdown, many companies moved their operations online. Now more than ever, these companies are embracing having a full digital presence, but with that comes new responsibilities, including digital accessibility,” he said.
Companies looking to improve their accessibility can take a look at the W3C’s Accessibility Fundamentals, which include principles, guidelines, courses and videos to help make the web accessible and useable by everyone.
"Before the pandemic, many businesses didn’t think twice about having an accessible digital presence, but in 2022, this will change. Having a website that is not accessible for all users will no longer suffice," McKay said. "Companies will begin to invest their efforts to ensure that all users, regardless of their disability, will be able to access information online. Companies that do not make this effort will be left behind."
When Basile realized how many websites were not accessible to people with disabilities, he decided to bring awareness to the problem and how businesses are missing out on a population with a lot of spending power. “Recognizing the problem of inaccessibility on websites empowered me to do something about it and pushed me to research scalable solutions utilizing AI technology and best practices," he said.
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Digital Accessibility for an Inclusive Workplace
There's been an increased emphasis on workplace accessibility in recent years, providing tools and technologies that level the playing field for everyone.
"We’ve seen diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) becoming an increasingly important part of all public companies’ reporting requirements. Companies will focus on actively recruiting and supporting employees of all abilities,” said McKay.
Workplace accessibility not only affects employees’ ability to perform job functions, it also impacts productivity, job satisfaction, and customer and employee retention.
“If companies truly want to attract and retain both talent and customers, they need to make the digital workplace accessible. Providing the right technology tools that people can use at home and in the office will be more important than ever before,” he said.
As more companies embrace diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, they are finding more ways to enhance and increase digital accessibility in the workplace. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are improving accessibility software, and new devices are becoming available that enable people with physical and/or cognitive disabilities to more easily perform workplace tasks and live better lives.
Going forward, there will be no excuse for lack of accessibility in the workplace.