Team Management

Assistive Technologies: Tips to Create an Inclusive Workplace

Paulette Stout  
Two people sit on couch with laptops

Creating a culture of inclusion at your company for disabled employees requires more than a mindset shift. It takes formal steps to ensure they have the tools, resources, and technology needed to effectively complete work. What limited accommodations businesses have implemented to date for disabled employees are typically focused on physical spaces. However, our digital world—and remote work—require organizations to think about inclusive measures in a much broader sense.

To get you started, here is a list of considerations and tools that can help you create a workplace that’s welcoming to all.

Employer obligations under the ADA

Workers have rights under the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) governing reasonable accommodations throughout the employee lifecycle, from interviewing and onboarding to employee support after hire. Note that most states have their own ADA guidelines, so be sure to understand obligations for jurisdictions where your organization operates. 

What are reasonable accommodations?

There are standards that define reasonable accommodations for places of business. It’s essential for every organization to understand what they are to remain compliant. At minimum they include:

  • Acquiring or modifying equipment or devices,
  • Job restructuring,
  • Part-time or modified work schedules,
  • Reassignment to a vacant position,
  • Adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials or policies,
  • Providing readers and interpreters, and
  • Making the workplace readily accessible to and usable.

When it comes to making a workplace accessible, this of course extends to electronic and information technology systems including websites and digital applications used in the course of work. 

Types of digital accessibility

In the course of conducting business, your employees may interface with a variety of digital form factors. When scoping your accessibility program, be sure to consider each and include them as you formulate go-forward plans to ensure all your team members and customers can have the same rich experience.

App accessibility

An app is a stand-alone program or software application for desktop or mobile devices. It’s a broad term encompassing everything from gaming, reading, shopping, and banking, to social networking and specialized commercial software across all industries. Each application serves as the digital access point to goods, services, and essential functionality for transacting business. 

Because apps are unique in their purpose, function, and design, they need to be tested for accessibility before deployment. This includes compatibility with assistive technologies, adherence to commonly accepted accessibility standards, and continuous monitoring over time to ensure acceptable standards are maintained when app versions and features are updated. 

Website accessibility

Websites are a universal gateway to transact business, so ensure your website is accessible to all. There are many key areas to consider, which include, but are not limited to:

  • Alt-text for images and non-text content,
  • Keyboard control, so all elements can be reached, controlled or activated via a keyboard—and not just a mouse,
  • Colors that have sufficient contrast,
  • Labels, form fields, buttons, and links that are clear and accessible to all,
  • Content that is structured in a way that makes sense when interpreted using assistive technologies. 

Since websites are resources that constantly change, it’s essential that accessibility is included in ongoing testing protocols to ensure sites remain compliant with accessibility standards over time. 

Mobile accessibility

Websites accessed via mobile devices present their own set of unique challenges. Some sites have specific mobile versions, others were built to be responsive, adjusting to accommodate a variety of screen resolution sizes. Regardless, the screen size, touchscreen, and operating systems must all be compatible with mobile assistive technologies, such as screen readers and magnifiers.


A kiosk is a stand alone structure that enables people to perform self-service activities, usually using a touch screen. Point-of-purchase machines are increasingly used by businesses to manage operations, ranging from bank ATMs and restaurant order screens, to self-service ticket kiosks or industrial touch-screens used in manufacturing. Regardless of utility, each kiosk must be accessible so employees can complete work tasks and customers can enjoy equal access.

Key areas to test for accessibility include instructions, screen reader integration, privacy concerns, alternate inputs to plug in assistive devices, and sounds. They must also have a clear way of communicating errors, so people can understand why their transactions haven’t completed. Because kiosks are structures, their height and placement within the physical world should factor accessibility as well.

Digital documents

Portable Document Format (or PDF) is a versatile document format, but it too needs to be accessible. Because PDFs are not inherently accessible, headings, paragraphs, lists, tables, and figures need to be tagged to guide assistive technologies. Similarly, other types of digital documents can be enhanced to make them more accessible. From adding titles, author, subject and language, to alt-text for images and other non-text elements, to using heading tags to guide screen reading, there are meaningful ways to make digital documents accessible.

Common accessibility tools and technologies 

With such a broad cross section of devices and scenarios needing accessibility modifications, it’s no wonder that a thriving industry of affordable tools has emerged to meet the growing demand. A recent study projected that the assistive technology market is expected to reach nearly $29 Billion by 2028, demonstrating the growing need for these life-altering technologies.

Text to speech: Text-to-speech functionality often comes free in software, such as in Microsoft Word or Google’s voice typing. It can also be purchased as an add-on device or application. However accessed, this software can read digital text aloud and also convert spoken voice commands into written text.

Assistive keyboards and keypads: These keyboards are designed to accommodate a variety of feedback types (tactile, auditory, and visual) and can accommodate more or less key pressure depending on muscle weakness, tremors or mobility limitations. They can also be more ergonomic, have alternate mounting or position options, and accommodate a wider range of movements, including use of an alternate body part to operate the device.

Another category of keyboards are Braille keyboards for the visually impaired. Dot matrix Braille keyboards help those with visual impairment use touch screen devices, while embossed and tactile Braille keyboards use embossed dots or ridges, respectively, to enable people to enter data into the computer.

Closed captioning and transcription: Conferencing programs like Microsoft Teams and Zoom offer real-time transcription and closed captioning to make meeting content more accessible. They can also integrate with third-party closed captioning services.

Alternative communication devices: Text telephone machines (TTY) have largely been replaced by telecommunication relay services using almost any device with a keypad and a cell phone. Text messaging is an equalizing technology, as are alerting devices that use sound, light, vibrations or a combination to alert users that an event is occurring (such as a phone call). Personal amplifiers increase sound levels and reduce background noise for listeners. Some have directional microphones and connect with a headset or earbuds to make phone conversations audible.

Hands-free mouse: Head tracking and eye control cystems measure head or eye positions and translate those into mouse movements and button clicks. This enables those with mobility challenges to navigate computers completely hands free. Other options include a jouse, a joystick operated by the mouth, or a joystick mouse that can be operated by hand, chin, or foot movements.

Sip and Puff devices: These assistive technologies enable people unable to use a manual device to control computers via air pressure. Sip and Puff (SNP) devices work when users “take a sip” or “blow a puff” of air into a straw-like wand to create air pressure. This sends signals to the device to initiate commands, as would a mouse or keyboard.

Screen readers and magnifiers: Screen readers are assistive technology that reads screen text aloud, controlled using a keyboard instead of a mouse. For screen readers to work as intended, content must be accessible, meaning metadata has been applied such as title tags, alt-text, and intuitive hyperlinks that enable those using screen readers to effectively navigate the content. For instance, if your web pages are loaded with “click here” links, it’s time to go back and fix them to natural language links. Alternate link wording like, “click here to download video” or “contact support here,” enables screen-reading users to more easily navigate your digital pages.

Guidelines to get started: WCAG

Making an intentional commitment to accessibility is the right thing to do—both ethically and legally. But it can still feel overwhelming at the start. Following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, better known as  WCAG 2.0 guidelines, is a good protocol to reference when trying to keep your accessibility planning focused on the right outcomes. This global set of standards is meant to ensure your digital touchpoints are:

  • Perceivable: users should be able to perceive all information in whatever way works for them,
  • Operable: users should be able to navigate and interact with the information,
  • Understandable: content should be able to be understood whether text, images, video or tools, including menus and navigation sidebars,
  • Robust: users should have the same experience as those not using assistive technologies.

Despite these clear standards, a 2020 study found 97.8% of pages from the top 1,300 websites had accessibility failures. If you haven’t checked yours recently, it’s time. Companies can and must do better for the 1.3 billion people worldwide living with disabilities.

Benefits of adopting an accessibility mindset

Being a company that values the needs of all your employees and customers will only benefit you as an organization. You not only become a company honoring the spirit of the law, you can reap the benefits of a wider pool of customers and employees. Serving their needs expands both your customer and talent pools. In a volatile employment market, data from the U.S. Department of Labor reveals that companies with a talent strategy that includes disabled workers achieve a 90 percent increase in retention, a 45 percent increase in workplace safety, and 72 percent increase inr worker productivity. 

Gusto employment attorney, Kevin Fritz, has accomplished a ground-breaking career with the use of his brain, voice, and the mobility of a few fingers. His personal experience attests to the study findings about disabled worker productivity. As Kevin says, “I use dictation software to write briefs, and in fact, can do it faster than most people with ten fingers because I’m just talking.”

A short recap

As companies review accessibility protocols and legal requirements under the ADA, it’s essential to expand planning to include digital content. Websites, desktop and mobile applications, as well as kiosks and digital documents all must be factored when addressing your organization’s accessibility. A multitude of accessibility devices exist to help disabled people navigate digital spaces. These range from free text-to-speech and dictation software included in popular software, to devices like specialized keyboards, magnifiers, and hands-free mouse tools like jouses and joysticks. Getting started with accessibility can feel overwhelming, but there are lots of resources and guidelines, such as WCAG 2.0,  to get you started so that your company can be an employer and business of choice. Making accessibility a priority isn’t just about complying with laws;  it’s the right decision for your employees and your customers. Disabled people make up a significant share of the market and talent base. Accessibility is good for people and good for the bottom line.

Paulette Stout
Paulette Stout Author of her debut novel, Love, Only Better, Paulette Stout is the gold-star wordsmith and owner of her content marketing agency, Media Goddess Inc., where she crafts content for her list of global clients. Prior to MGI, Paulette led content and design teams at several tech companies, and one educational publisher where her elimination of the Oxford comma caused a near riot. You can usually find Paulette rearranging words into pleasing patterns while wearing grammar t-shirts. Connect with Paulette on Facebook and Instagram at @paulettestoutauthor and on Twitter at @StoutContent.
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