Making The Remote Workplace More Accessible For People With Disabilities
You wake up. Get your morning rituals done. Head out to work. You work from home or reach office navigating your way through the crowd on a metro or a traffic-packed road. Nevertheless, you get through all of it because you easily can. Then, you attend meetings, complete tasks, and end your day just as effortlessly as you got to the office.
"Huh, what was so special about this?" you might wonder. Maybe not for you, but for 15% of the global population that is disabled, the process of going through life and work may not be as easy.
Despite technological and social advancement, we have still collectively failed to make things easily accessible, especially in the workplace. Be it a developed country or a developing one, the stats don't get any better. As per the report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.9% of disabled people were employed in the country in 2020. The numbers aren't more promising in India where only 34 lakhs of the total 1.34 crore disabled population is employed.
The traditional office setup presents a range of challenges for the disabled population ranging from inaccessible transport and infrastructure to lack of resources within the workspace. For many, the pandemic catalyzed better accessibility as remote work enabled people to work from the comfort of their homes with an additional layer of technology.
But, not all the online team meeting apps or software support the features disabled people require to participate fully in meetings. From not being able to understand due to a lack of screen reader features to being unable to communicate during meetings, there are many gaps that exist.
Along with technological solutions, here are some ways we can be more inclusive of our colleagues with disabilities:
Apps to help disabled people build a better relationship with work
Video Conferencing Applications
- Live captions
- Screen readers
- Keyboard shortcuts
Microsoft Teams, other than these features, also supports translation in chats, zooming in the content on the screen, use of dark or high contrast mode, voice message and voicemail: speech to text. While Google Meet and Zoom also offer the above, they additionally have automatic captions for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
Apart from these top apps, there are also some undiscovered apps from the Zoom marketplace that could be a great help:
Otter.ai is your note-taking assistant (compatible with Zoom Pro) and provides live transcription.
Webex is a video conferencing, cloud calling and screen sharing app. It stands out from other apps for having a media viewer window where a person can type in the conversation that's going on in the meeting—making it accessible for deaf and hard of hearing people. Don't understand English? Live translation is available in over 100+ languages. That said, we felt the true USP of this app is its bold design which is extremely useful for low-vision users to identify and leverage the different features available for them.
Messaging, Audio and Video Meeting Applications
“Initially I found it difficult to use but since early 2020 I have been using it extensively. I can read threads and participate in them. It can be daunting when you are in a large group; it lets you be a part of many channels”.
- Raghavendra S Peri (a visually impaired individual), CPWA certified accessibility consultant and Product Manager (Accessibility) at Deque Software, India.
Slack is a popular collaboration app used to chat, make audio and video calls with your co-workers. It has large bold buttons to assist visually impaired or low vision users with reading, as Raghavendra mentioned that he can now read threads in groups. The iOS and the Android version of the application are compatible with screen reading as well as magnification tools. The button and controls are labelled for users to understand their functionality.
These features are beneficial to help employees with disabilities navigate the workspace with ease. However, nothing can truly compete with a little empathy and support from other co-workers to make them feel more comfortable.
So more than rules and technicalities, let's aim at building a culture where people's need are met proactively and have their grievances addressed so they look forward to each working day.
Here are some suggestions:
Don't patronize people simply because they have a disability, when someone is onboarded to your team, create an environment where they feel comfortable enough to talk about their needs openly. Accessibility and accommodations should be a part of the information shared to employees and policies must be updated in a timely manner.
There are times when we get confused as to who all are present on a call and who is speaking. Sometimes it's the technical error to blame and sometimes it's the lack of coordination while speaking. To prevent any confusion that, introduce every single person present in the meeting to give an idea about the count. And whenever anyone takes the lead to speak, call out their name for visually impaired people to get familiar with their voice.
Keep the camera on
If not everyone, at least the speaker should be requested to keep their camera on. Deaf co-workers are usually habituated to lip reading, observing the gestures and understanding the expressions of the person speaking. Now that they don’t have the speaker in front of them, watching these things through the screen will still help them.
Keep the interpreters in loop
Some of the employees with disabilities like deafness or blindness may have an interpreter attending with them or the company might be providing one. Either way, share the meeting link with the interpreter so they don't miss out on the meeting even if they're not physically present with the disabled employee.
Help them become familiar with apps
Mark this task as a non-negotiable on your to-do list. Conduct a walkthrough for your disabled co-workers to make them understand all the features you would need them to use. How do they operate? What do they exactly help with? List down all the information and clear their doubts proactively before the meeting.
Make presentations accessible
If you're planning to use an audio or a video file in your presentation, add subtitles or captions while preparing them for your deaf co-workers to read. Files must also be shared in formats that are screen-reader friendly and accessible to people with different disabilities.
Maintain a pace that every single attendee of your meeting can match up with. Take small breaks so the people taking notes and the interpreters have enough time to catch up. This will also allow everyone in the room to be on the same page. Don’t be afraid to check in with your team if meetings go on for long hours to see if everyone is still mentally present and engaged.
Hear them out
Exercise this wonderful practice of taking feedback from your disabled co-workers about their overall experience. What didn't work for them? What was the best part about it for them? What could be improved? Through surveys or a conversation, feedback can be captured and executed thus making the accessibility process more robust.
Making small but significant changes towards making your workspace more inclusive and accessible can help ensure that you’re creating a conducive work environment for talented individuals who may bring in much-needed skills and perspective to your organization.
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