The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides the legal framework, but the opportunity that accessibility presents is too great to ignore.
Since the passage of ADA in 1990, businesses in the United States have learned how to ensure that workplaces are both welcoming and accessible, to create an environment that fosters productivity. Considering that more than 1 billion people around the world live with a disability, including roughly 25% of American adults, it isn't hard to understand why this is so critical.
In the workplace, many employers offer assistive technologies or accommodations so employees with disabilities can perform their jobs. Specific to digital access, this may include screen reader software, refreshable Braille displays, magnification hardware or software, speech-to-text applications, and a lot more.
As a consequence of COVID-19, more and more employees are teleworking, and this certainly is a benefit for many people with disabilities: Their homes are more likely to be arranged with accessibility front of mind than their onsite offices. Moreover, people can now avoid navigating public transportation during rush hour.
However, telework presents new issues that employers must address to ensure digital accessibility for their employees with disabilities.
Employees who haven't had to work remotely before may lack resources to do their job at home that they traditionally use at the office. For instance, offsite use of the company intranet or communication portals may not be fully accessible to employees with disabilities. As work shifts to greater reliance on online resources, failures in accessibility of digital content are more prominent and more problematic.
Most businesses were unprepared to transfer onsite employees to telecommuting. But now that many of them have created the infrastructure, systems and processes to transition their businesses from brick-and-mortar locations to completely virtual environments, many are seeing upticks in productivity and work-life balance, and significant potential cost savings – so much so that they are considering permanent telework options.
Tech giants like Twitter, Facebook and Google – and even leaders of more traditional industries, like Nationwide Insurance – have announced that all or many of their employees can work from home indefinitely. A survey of CFOs indicates that nearly three-quarters will allow at least 5% of their formerly onsite workforce to telework permanently.
New accommodations, familiar requests
Many employers have made the quick, effective and frankly impressive shift to employing a remote workforce, but there's another layer to this story that might not be as obvious. Many workers with disabilities have asked, sometimes repeatedly, for the opportunity to work remotely as a reasonable accommodation. In a lot of instances, those accommodations were denied.
According to Bloomberg Law, 70% of employees were denied telework as an accommodation for a disability over the last two years. In many cases, employers reject these cases because they fear it will be too hard for employees to coordinate or stay productive at home. However, we've clearly seen through COVID-19 that these reasons are not true overall. Millions of employees have served as evidence of remote work's productivity over the past few months. [Read related article: The Employer's Guide to the ADA]
Immediate steps employers can take to improve accessibility
Teleworking is an exciting trend. However, unless employers ensure the same accessibility for employees at home as they do at the office, the switch to remote work may ultimately fail.
The good news is that resources are readily available to those who don't know how to comply with digital accessibility standards, and experts can guide businesses to ensure ADA compliance. Here are a few immediate steps you can take as an employer.
1. Ensure remote employees have what they need.
Let everyone in your company know about your commitment to making sure they have the technology and resources they need at home. Also let people know how to make requests, suggestions or complaints. A statement from the top can often energize the movement toward real change.
2. Thoroughly evaluate tech platforms and your processes for using them.
Can all your employees make full use of email, communication tools, collaboration systems, virtual conferences and the other systems that let them do their jobs? Are they able to independently access their benefits and other important information? Accessibility experts can help with formal testing, but evaluation of their use can begin immediately; you may want to seek employee feedback first.
3. If you haven't yet, commit to website accessibility now.
If your business hasn't made a formal commitment to website accessibility yet, now is the time. Can your employees and potential customers with disabilities use your website independently? The fixes won't be immediate, but you can quickly communicate the decision to present accessible digital resources to everyone. There are also some enhancements your team can implement to make faster strides, such as adding alt text to images, testing colors for sufficient contrast, and giving unique page titles to every page.
4. Ask your employees what they need.
Finally, ask your employees what they need to do their jobs when working at home. Are their accommodation requests the same as they were at the workplace, or are there additional or different considerations for productivity and inclusion with remote work? Working to truly understand accommodation needs, what would go into implementing them successfully, and what's required under laws like the ADA can help companies not just say they value inclusion, but deliver on it.
It's also important to replace assumptions with real and actionable information. While it may be true, for example, that some employees with disabilities have physical and digital arrangements in their homes that suit their needs, don't assume that accommodations or assistive technologies for personal use can necessarily be used for work. Costs, licensing restrictions, privacy, security and a number of other factors can make this assumption faulty. It is best to ask people what they need and to follow up as needed to understand how specific accommodations might help them do their jobs.
How some companies will come out of this stronger
Nobody wanted the economy or business operations to be disrupted in such a devastating way, but companies can still seize the opportunity to create some good from this. You can take this chance, as unwelcome as it may have been, to reboot in a more inclusive and accessible way.
What's especially encouraging is that, in many ways, companies don't need to reinvent the wheel. Accessible solutions for digital operations are available. Plus, in any instances of a shortage of already-accessible products in a specific market, products can be made accessible through the right combination of testing and updates. The solutions to the challenges already exist; organizations just need to tap into them.
If you don't consider accessibility and disability rights in your plans as you resume operations, you could position your business in a way that alienates a large portion of your workforce – potentially reducing your ability to attract top and diverse talent, not to mention the legal consequences.
That's one of the risks, but the opportunity is extraordinary. By hitting the reset button and using this crisis as a chance to prioritize accessibility and welcome the talents of workers with disabilities, companies can open themselves up to the unique contributions and talents of millions more qualified workers.
As did the 1990 passage of the ADA, COVID-19 telework trends demand that the needs of staff members with disabilities be considered as more than an afterthought. Their productivity and ability to perform – as well as your business's – depends on it.