How to Expand Remote Work Accessibility for People with Disabilities

Paulette Stout

For years, workers—including those who are disabled—have asked their employers for the opportunity to work from home. For those with disabilities, this accommodation can mean the difference between being gainfully employed or not working at all. But businesses tied to in-person work cultures largely refused these requests. To quantify that, Bloomberg Law found 70% of employees surveyed over the past two years were denied remote work requests that were related to disability accommodation. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic proved workers can be both productive and successful from home, exposing the folly of calling remote work an untenable hardship. Many companies and workers have thrived while working remotely, making disabled workers one of the prime populations to tap for open remote roles.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over one billion people worldwide (or approximately 15% of the global population) currently experience a disability, with numbers rising as the population ages. Yet, 80% of working age Americans with disabilities are not employed, at times because of inaccessible workplaces and the lack of accommodation despite ADA mandates to do so. 

Research shows that companies “that focus on disability inclusion were more successful… enjoying 28% higher revenue and 30% higher profit margins than those without this focus.” Disabled workers have also been shown to have higher retention rates, a boon for companies looking to lower attrition. Having a workforce that better reflects companies’ consumer bases can also diversify decision making and open business opportunities not before considered without this valuable insight. 

Take a holistic approach to accessibility

Businesses need to shift away from thinking about accessibility as a narrow fix for a limited population and expand that into a comprehensive way of doing business that’s inclusive for all. If not, they will forever be dividing employees into subpopulations with competing interests, instead of fostering a culture of true inclusion. Viewed through a broad lens, companies can survey the landscape from a universal design standpoint and identify potential barriers to their employees’ success. Reframing the approach is essential because accessibility is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Workers have varying needs. Businesses would do well to meet employees where they are, address those needs and take those learning to scale—and educate—as needed.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides a wealth of resources to help organizations build an inclusive workplace. Its Workplace Accommodation Toolkit offers guidance for a variety of stakeholders including:

  • Recruiters and hiring managers
  • Supervisors and managers
  • Internal reasonable accommodation subject matter experts (SME)/consultants
  • Information technology team members 
  • Employees with disabilities and their allies

How to make your workplace digital communication more accessible

Taken together, required modifications may feel overwhelming. But think of the frustration your workers feel when they can’t view a presentation shared on a video call. Or fully understand an email because the links aren’t compatible with their screen reader. Or are unable to request time off in your cloud portal because the interface is inaccessible. Companies owe it to their workers (morally and legally) to provide an accessible work environment so that disabled workers can do their jobs. This is a key requirement under the ADA. Moreover, data show businesses that do this tend to thrive. Accessibility includes removing barriers that many disabled remote as well as in-office-workers face, including:

  • Making documents more accessible: Word processing documents must be designed so that people with and without disabilities can easily access and edit them. In particular, people who are blind, people with low vision, and people with dyslexia may use screen readers or Braille devices to navigate documents.
  • Making virtual presentations accessible: Using accessible features, like real-time transcription, sending accessible materials in advance, and forwarding recorded materials afterwards can help disabled employees fully participate. 
  • Writing accessible emails: Text-only emails sent from a personal email client are simpler from an accessibility perspective than image-heavy marketing emails with heavy coding and responsive elements inaccessible to screen readers. Understanding your accessibility features in advance is key.
  • Using accessible links in digital content: Abandon hyperlinking “click here” in favor of linking phrases that communicate what the link is and where it goes to make digital linking accessible. 
  • Making video content accessible: Understand the principles of accessible video, such as avoiding flickering, and using captions, text descriptions, transcripts and accessible audio features.
  • Creating accessible websites, intranets and applications: Deploy alt-text and proper color contrast, code to account for keyboard controls and ensure all downloadable content is accessible. 
  • Creating accessible data visualizations for the web: keep it simple, but don’t rely on color alone to tell the story. Explore accessible charting software and make smart use of alt-text to tell the visual story.

Beyond these, workers may have needs unique to their disability, so respectful conversation is always best to ensure workers are supported in the best way possible. It’s your responsibility as an employer to understand what reasonable accommodation means and the steps you should take to comply. 

Remote work: leveling the playing field

Remote work enables workers to avoid transportation barriers and navigating inhospitable office environments in favor of home work spaces customized to the unique needs of each disabled worker. For instance, neurodivergent workers may thrive with fewer distractions, enabling them to better focus and be more productive. Those with physical disabilities, such as needing to recline or using multiple assistive devices, may have  a more suitable and healthy work environment at their residence. Absent the energy drain from commuting to and navigating through an office, workers with physical disabilities can compete on a more level playing field with their able-bodied peers.

Remote work enhances worker privacy

All workers should always be free to express their authentic selves. Yet in a remote work landscape, disabled workers may have more agency over whether and whom to tell about their disabilities. Wheelchairs and canes are plainly visible when working in an office. But remote work may give some disabled workers more self-determination, freeing them from the social pressure to disclose personal, medical information to colleagues and acquaintances. This has the added benefit of equalizing job opportunities for a population routinely discriminated against in hiring. A Rutgers University study showed that qualified disabled workers received 26% fewer responses from employers. Once hired, they earned 37% less than their peers, on average. Taken together, remote work provides new opportunities for workers with disabilities to compete for jobs and improve their chance of getting hired.

Careers well-suited to remote work

While not all careers are structured to accommodate remote workers, increasingly, many are. These can be far reaching, enabling disablied workers to fulfill their career visions. Opportunities range from highly educated professions like law, medicine, STEM fields and technology, to  customer service, marketing, content creation, and graphic design. 

Leveraging technology and policy to advance remote accessibility

Many of the software platforms you already own have advanced accessibility features built in already. For instance, Microsoft offers features such as:

  • Accessibility insights to check websites
  • Captioning for videos
  • Office365 accessibility checker to review documents, alt-text and images
  • Accessibility features in Teams like transcription, live captions, backgrounds that make lipreading easier
  • “Speak” feature in Word to read content aloud
  • Dictation features in Word, Notes, PowerPoint and more

Making employees aware of tools like these can greatly ease their work and make your company culture inclusive of the needs of all workers. Increasingly, IT departments include in-house experts focused on achieving accessibility, not only for employees, but for customers and the general public as well. These personnel can also help your company make the most of the accessibility features already available in your current tech stack.

Best practices for driving accessibility

Driving an inclusive culture for remote workers begins with thorough review to ensure your organization is following best practices for establishing accessibility, which include:

  • Communicating: Make sure workers have what they need by asking them directly.
  • Committing to web and application accessibility: Include accessibility as a key determinant before choosing new company technology and cloud platforms. Further as you make updates to your websites or replatform with new providers, or install plugins include accessibility considerations in your selection criteria. 
  • Ongoing evaluation: Accessibility isn’t a set and forget enterprise. It requires ongoing vigilance, so establishing a testing protocol is essential. External experts can be a help, but feedback from your own employees is crucial as well.  
  • Welcoming input: Empower workers to ask for what they need without judgment, prejudice, or fear or retribution or lost opportunities. This can be achieved via focus groups, surveys, and employee resources groups (ERGs).
  • Evaluating performance: Assess your successes and shortcomings, then commit to improving anywhere where your policies, practices, or technology is failing your disabeled workers and customers.

The takeaway

Remote work provides businesses with an opportunity to begin a new inclusive chapter for employees of all abilities. Disabled workers are an underutilized workforce who rightly deserve their seat at an employment table that’s still far too challenging to access. 

With built-in accessibility tools and awareness of how to make digital environments more welcoming, organizations can greatly improve their success in attracting and retaining remote workers with disabilities. Strategies include making emails more accessible, leveraging accessibility features like transcription and closed-captioning for video calls, and sending accessible presentations in advance so workers can follow along. Companies can also consider outreach to disabled workers to fill remote roles suitable to their skillsets. 

Taking an holistic view to accessibility takes a combination of training, policies, technology, and culture. With over 1 billion people with disabilities worldwide, making your remote work practices accessible for all will set both your company and your workers up for success. 

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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