The dramatic increase in teleworking is one of the biggest impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Up to half of Americans are currently doing their jobs from home – double the rate from a few years ago. Safety aside, this pattern will likely continue after the crisis ends for a variety of reasons: fewer commuting hassles and reduced overhead for office rent or travel, to name a few. This transition, however, also poses challenges for persons with disabilities, a group representing one in four U.S. adults who may have a vision, hearing, mobility, cognitive, or other disability.
According to one recent survey, when asked how employees with disabilities are able to work remotely with digital platforms, 63 percent of respondents said they have had some or great difficulty. Organizations must make teleworking as convenient and accessible as possible for persons with disabilities, especially those who may be doing it indefinitely. Fortunately, there are simple techniques you can adopt to address this unexpected state of emergency, which is quickly becoming the new normal:
Pay close attention to how you’re running your virtual meetings. Virtual meetings have been a salvation during these times. The good news is that most video conferencing platforms are pretty accessible, with built-in accessibility features like shortcuts for keyboard-only navigation.
When presenting a document, remember that video presentations and screen shares can’t be read by user-side screen reader software. This means any information that a presenter doesn’t explicitly describe is lost on someone using a screen reader (until they can get a file with text and image descriptions). For this reason, many persons with disabilities appreciate receiving reference documents or slides before, as well as after, the meeting occurs. Organizations may also consider adding relay services for meetings, such as real-time captioning and transcription, or even a sign language staffer for critical conferences.
Also pay attention to how human interaction can impact accessibility. The chat feature may be a great way to connect in real-time during a conference, but too much chat can be challenging for those with attention deficit disorders, as well as distracting for persons with visual impairments using screen readers (remember, they will have to listen to the chat being read via the screen reader at the same time as the presenter). The next time you use chat, consider how necessary your comment is and what the “distraction cost” is for those who may be using assistive technology or who may need to limit distractions during a meeting.
Be aware of cognitive fatigue. It’s well known that heavy technology use can contribute to exhaustion, depression and short-term memory dysfunction. People with cognitive disabilities, particularly those who have experienced brain injury or have other attention disorders, are often more vulnerable to cognitive fatigue from the excessive use of tools like video conferencing. The extra energy required from being “on stage” can take a bigger toll on their energy levels, while those prone to anxiety may also experience the distressful feeling of “watching television while the television is watching you.”
There are easy things organizations can do to alleviate these situations. Besides limiting video calls to only those that are necessary, turning on the camera should be optional and there should be an understanding that cameras do not always need to be on for every meeting. Another way to combat cognitive fatigue is to reduce overall screen time, which is notorious for impairing cognitive functioning. Taking short, consistent breaks is a good way to combat the toll technology takes on all of our brains.
Some people who are prone to cognitive fatigue find it much easier to read and digest information in a paper-based format. In fact, for all people, most studies point to better reading comprehension from printed materials as opposed to screens. For these reasons, organizations may consider equipping persons with disabilities with equipment such as in-home office printers – making it easy and convenient for them to print, read and digest lengthy emails and other documents.
Co-workers should also remember that excessive use of technologies like email and collaboration platforms can be particularly detrimental to those vulnerable to cognitive fatigue. In some instances, an old-fashioned phone call may be the best route for contacting employees, and this can provide the added benefit of avoiding the distraction and performance anxiety often associated with open-ended conversations on collaboration platforms.
Make sure basic documents are accessible. There are several best practices for office documents that can be followed. This includes remediating basic Word documents for accessibility (5), which is a relatively non-technical process that can make a big impact. Organizations should also put office protocols in place such as doing all processing or content reviews in Microsoft Office (which has built-in accessibility checkers) before converting to other document types such as PDFs. This approach leads to PDFs that are much more accessible to persons with disabilities.
Now is a great time to get your content creators educated on the basics of accessibility, including accompanying all graphic images with descriptive language (alt text) so those using screen readers can understand the content of the image, even if they can’t actually see it. For example, if you have a graphic showing an increase in product sales year over year, the accompanying alt text shouldn’t just say, “graphic showing year-over-year product sales growth” but rather, “graphic showing 12 percent increase in product from January 2019 to January 2020.”
Conclusion: The current pandemic has been hard on everyone, though especially on people with disabilities. Many have found themselves suddenly cut off from the in-home support and therapies they rely on regularly, as well as in novel situations such as working full-time from home. Fortunately, many modern technologies that facilitate working from home have accessibility features–a positive by-product of the increased attention being paid to digital accessibility in recent years. We must, however, remain vigilant in our behaviors and use of these technologies to avoid creating unnecessary, man-made accessibility obstacles.
Preety Kumar is the CEO of Deque Systems and founded Deque in 1999 with the vision of unifying Web access, both from the user and the technology perspective. Under Preety’s leadership, Deque has grown to be a market leader in the field of information accessibility, serving corporate and government clients with the highest standards in information technology such as Veteran Affairs, Department of Education, Humana, Intuit, HSBC, Target, and others. She can be reached at: @accessibility20