When the Democratic presidential primary debate came to Florida in 2019, Virgina Jacko did a quick check for accessibility on the candidates’ websites; not a single one had baseline accessibility features for people with low vision.
As the CEO of Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, an organization that supports individuals with blindness and low vision to live more independent lives, and a person with blindness herself, Jacko sent them an email. Highlighting the millions of seniors with some degree of vision loss in Florida, Jacko informed the candidates that they had no way of improving readability on their sites. “I said to them, ‘You don’t even have a widget on your website, which is just a toggle that would enable people to change the contrast for the text color and the font size,” Jacko recalled.
This is just one example of an all too common problem: Digital accessibility is often overlooked. While most physical spaces are required by law to be accessible and include features like ramps or elevators, the same attention isn’t given to the digital world.
Despite the longstanding need for digital accessibility, the recent rise to prominence of hybrid and remote workplaces sparked by the pandemic has made this even more critical. In this guide, we’ll examine the ins and outs of digital accessibility and share actionable steps HR teams and organizations can take to become accessible for all.
Hybrid Work Is Multifaceted
In many ways, hybrid and remote work have improved the work experiences for those living with disabilities. “As just one example, many people no longer had to navigate the commute, which can pose challenges if you are a person with a disability,” said Alexander Hauerslev Jensen, former Chief Commercial Officer at Be My Eyes, an app that connects blind and low-vision people with sighted volunteers.
The prevalence of remote work has expanded the potential of and opportunities for work environments, enabling more flexibility in how and when work is completed. “However, [remote work] presents some challenges, and companies must adopt practices and policies to ensure that everybody can digest information and communications, and use tools and resources to have experiences in equitable ways,” said Lori Golden, Abilities Strategy Leader at Big Four accounting firm EY.
Barriers — like a lack of accessibility integrations in an organization’s everyday tech stack, or no keyboard navigation for keyboard-only users on a website — can be easily avoided or remedied, but create significant hurdles for individuals otherwise.
Accessibility is often viewed as a compliance concern. But much like how gender equality shouldn’t be pigeonholed as a women’s issue, accessibility cannot just be seen as accommodations for those with disabilities. Rather, we must shift the mindset from having to provide accommodations, to ensuring better design in order to create meaningful workplace experiences for everyone.
Inclusive Cultures Don’t Exist Without Digital Accessibility
Digital accessibility, as defined by technology encyclopedia TechTarget, is the “design of technology products and environments to help people with various disabilities not be impeded or otherwise unable to partake in use of the service, product, or function.”
And according to its website, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an organization aimed at advancing the usability of and expanding access to the web for all, believes “the web is fundamentally designed to work for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, location, or ability. When the web meets this goal, it is accessible to people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive ability.” To advance these goals, W3C created the international standard for digital accessibility on the web: the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Despite the resources available, companies routinely miss basic digitally inclusive practices. Common digital accessibility failures on websites include a lack of alt text for images, poor contrast text, and failing to put titles or headers on webpages. In virtual collaborative settings, like meetings or presentations, failure to include captioning or transcripts is another shortfall.
Accessibility is all about good design, both physical and digital. Door levers in place of doorknobs are useful to those with their hands full, as well as to someone who lacks fine motor skills. Simple formatting with clear headers and intuitive navigation enables screen reading technology, just as it makes for a better user experience for everyone.
“If it’s created in an inclusive way with regard to the range of people who may consume it, then it will be accessible,” said Golden. “It begins with an inclusive mindset, which leads you to create experiences, tools, information, and content in accessible ways. Accessibility is the end product.”
4 Things You Need to Consider
1. Lots of people are living with a disability.
Of the 61 million adults in the United States who live with a disability, 19.1% of those individuals were employed in 2021, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While far below the employment rate for people without disabilities (63.7%), the sheer number of people working with disabilities is significant (and, it’s worth noting, that figure is up from 17.9% in the previous year, 2020). This means that many of our colleagues, coworkers, and leaders are currently living with disabilities — and even more will experience one in the future.
Disability is not always a condition that a person acquires permanently or is born with. “We forget that disability can be temporary or situational,” said Golden. Whether temporary, situational, or permanent, disability is a condition that increases in prevalence with age, and two out of every five adults over the age of 65 live with a disability.
2. Disabilities can be invisible.
Disabilities are not always obvious. Invisible disabilities are those that can be more difficult to detect, like depression, traumatic brain injuries, autism spectrum disorder, chronic pain, serious illness, bipolar disorder, or attention deficit disorder. “You really cannot assume whether or not someone is experiencing a disability,” said Golden.
Just because we cannot always easily observe their effects, invisible disabilities can create a range of accessibility barriers much like visible ones. For instance, a website with moving text boxes can make it difficult for individuals with dyslexia to easily consume the information.
3. There are many disabilities and demographics to consider in your digital accessibility strategy.
When designing for inclusive remote and hybrid workplaces from a disability standpoint, some disabilities more readily come to mind than others, like blindness or low vision, for example. Others may not be as apparent and require greater research and strategy, like the need to avoid certain visual effects to prevent triggering migraines or seizures.
The major classes of disability, according to Hauerslev Jensen, are vision, hearing, mobility, speech, and cognition. Cognition, also referred to as neurodiversity, is the broadest category and includes everything from attention deficit disorder to autism, Down Syndrome, dyslexia, and more. ”These are all kind of lumped together, which is a little controversial,” said Hauerslev Jensen, noting that from a product standpoint, the needs of people with a ‘cognitive’ disability vary widely.
Unless you’re an existing accessibility professional or expert, you’ll want to partner with accessibility services organizations or consulting firms like Level Access or UserWay to conduct audits, so you can identify barriers and build a roadmap for better disability inclusion.
4. Everyone benefits from good design.
Thankfully the argument for a more accessible workplace is no longer as one-dimensional as “It’s the right thing to do” or “It makes good business sense.” Today, we know that well-designed and accessible workplaces are good for everyone.
“I have a Doctorate in Law and wasn’t a successful student until I learned to use assistive technology to study, along with sheer force of will,” Tharp recalled. Now, she said, she depends on it to do her job.
Tharp believes a lot of people aren’t aware of how many individuals rely on technology for their day-to-day lives, personal and professional. “They’re aware technology is needed for vision problems, of course…But other people need this type of tech, too,” she said.
Accessibility in the workplaces enables employees to do their best work, bringing their diverse sets of experiences, viewpoints, and abilities together to problem-solve. What’s more, working together to make more accessible experiences can spur inventive solutions.
“The creative problem of how to make an experience work for people who are coming to that experience with different abilities or environmental constraints — that’s where we come up with more innovative ways to do things,” said Golden. “And innovation is the true lifeblood of continued growth.”
7 Ways HR Can Make Workplaces More Accessible
While accessibility should be everyone’s concern, HR often leads the charge when an organization doesn’t have a dedicated accessibility team. Here are some actionable ways to improve digital accessibility at your organization.
1. Get certified.
There are a number of accessibility certifications available that both train Human Resources teams and offer practical approaches to improving accessibility. They include:
- International Association of Accessibility (IAAP): IAAP certifications are an indicator of commitment to accessibility. This organization also offers professionals a competitive advantage through skills, training, and credibility.
- Accessible Website Certification from WebAIM: This website certification relies on the previously mentioned WCAG. Organizations can opt for a range of services from WebAIM to ensure their website poses no substantial barriers to accessibility, and receive certification upon doing so.
- Accessibility Certification from Interactive Accessibility: This certification also uses the WCAG guidelines to keep organizations compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508, the accessibility requirement mandate for federal websites.
- Google’s Introduction to Web Accessibility: For developers, Google’s Intro to Web Accessibility is not so much a formal certification, but a resource that condenses the most important accessibility principles.
2. Use Universal Design Principles for internal communications.
Coined by architect Ronald L. Mace, Universal Design (UD) is defined by the RL Mace Universal Design Institute as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for specialized design.” It aims to inform the creation and production of products, services, and communications so that they can be used by as many people as possible, and also be easily customizable and adapted to those who do need accommodations.
The seven design principles of UD guide designers, creators, writers, producers, and others to always select the most accessible option — for instance, selecting a door lever handle over a doorknob, as levers can be opened using elbows, forearms, or a cane, and also by individuals with things in their hands.
UD is used by designers, architects, engineers, and more, but its principles can be applied across an organization. HR should be familiar with the UD principles and refer to them when crafting internal communications to be more inclusive. For example, one of the principles is “Simple and Intuitive Use,” which would guide HR to use clear and easy-to-understand language and formatting in employee handbooks.
3. Have an accessibility statement and use more inclusive language to combat ableism.
According to the University of Wisconsin at Madison (UW-Madison), ablelism “refers to a pervasive system of discrimination and exclusion that oppresses disabled people who have mental, emotional, or physical disabilities.”
Ableism can include microaggressions, outright bias, and systemic oppression. As UW-Madison points out on its website, “when thinking about ableism, it’s important to avoid viewing individuals with disabilities from a deficit-based perspective. People with disabilities are not deficient in comparison to non-disabled people. In most cases, any perceived deficiency is a result of being in an environment that is created with only the needs of able-bodied people in mind.”
Language is an important tool for combating ableism, and when speaking about disabilities, it’s generally advised to use people-first language. For example, you’d say “a person with blindness” rather than “a blind person.” Instead of using “disabled people,” use “people with disabilities.” The inclusive language guide by Disability Services at George Mason University is a helpful resource for choosing inclusive language that prevents and eliminates ableism.
It’s also essential to have an accessibility statement on your website and in internal communications. It can be as simple as:
“[X organization] is committed to making our website experience as accessible as possible. Should you encounter any difficulties or want to provide feedback, please reach out to [Name] at [phone number] or [email address].”
The statement of purpose communicates intent, while the ease of access to a contact person demonstrates you’re willing to take action to ensure webpages, services, and content are accessible.
4. Ensure assistive devices are available to employees, and consider accessibility in the procurement process.
Some employees will require assistive devices, like screen readers, speech input software, text readers, or alternative input devices like eye tracking devices, to ensure digital accessibility. As a Human Resources professional, make sure employees know you are there to ensure access to assistive devices and will work with them to provide the tools and technology they need.
Additionally, work to embed inclusivity in the procurement process and evaluate accessibility features when making software or hardware purchasing decisions. The best accessible technology is that which is designed around these needs, rather than where these features are tacked on as an afterthought.
5. Make accessibility surveys part of employee engagement feedback.
Create a feedback loop about tech needs, accessibility hurdles in software, disability inclusion, and any other accommodations employees need with accessibility questions on employee engagement surveys.
Let staff members know that self-identifying as an employee with a disability is optional, but that it supports more granular feedback and data, which can be helpful for creating better digital accessibility across the organization. Allay any employee concerns about sharing this information, which can be personal or sensitive, and be sure to keep this information protected and only available to those who truly need to access it, like HR team members. For more information on employment rights as an individual with a disability, or an employer’s responsibilities when it comes to employee disabilities, read what the ADA mandates.
6. Train employees to understand accessibility.
Run training sessions with employees to teach accessibility best practices, like announcing yourself before speaking on a call and verbally describing images or visuals used on presentations.
Employees who directly contribute to the design or creation of products or services, such as engineers, product designers, UX designers, or research and development team members, should take courses or training centered on accessibility.
7. Ensure an accessible job application process.
Digital accessibility hurdles start long before an individual has secured a job. The almost entirely online application and hiring processes can create significant barriers for the talent pool of people with disabilities.
If you want to build a more inclusive organization, start by making your application process accessible. This may mean hiring an external accessibility firm to audit your business’s processes, or partnering directly with organizations that work to advance employment for specific demographics of people with disabilities, like Understood, an organization aimed at supporting neurodiverse individuals, for instance.
Digital Accessibility Best Practices
Individual accommodations are necessary and important for employees’ unique needs, but all workplace initiatives should be created with universal design principles so that all employees benefit. As you plan for a more inclusive digital workplace, here are some best practices to start with:
- Provide automatic captioning and transcripts for audio and visual content.
- Take notes and distribute them to all team members after a meeting.
- Use clear, concise, plain language instead of idioms or acronyms, or include a legend for acronyms.
- Ensure a linear and logical layout with clear titles, subheadings, and CTAs for all communications, like emails or webpages.
- Ask employees for feedback but clearly explain why you are collecting information about employees with disabilities, and give them agency to self-identify. For example, you could say something like, “We’re using this information to ensure we prioritize specific needs of employees, in addition to our universal accessibility measures.”
- Make sure text size and color contrast of font can be adjusted on webpages and company resources.
- Provide meaningful and accurate alt text for images and GIFs.
Despite all the benefits of working remotely for people with disabilities, accessibility barriers still remain. HR teams must work across their organizations to make sure that the tools and processes needed for better digital accessibility are in place, but more importantly, to shift the thinking on the matter. Accessibility isn’t just a box to check, but a way of building more inclusive workplaces that will serve the needs of all employees over the course of their lifetimes.
With the certifications, best practices, and resources provided here, organizations can begin to become accessible for everyone. As you ideate and implement new disability inclusivity initiatives, be sure to ask your teams for feedback to learn what’s working and what additional resources are needed for greater accessibility.
Learn more about making your workplace more accessible in Lattice’s article “Workplace Accessibility Beyond the Basics,” and find out best practices for feedback in our eBook Getting Feedback Culture Right at Your Company.