One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic experience has been the increase in remote-work opportunities for people with disabilities.
U.S. News & World Report recently reported on the new opportunities that have been created because of a surge in remote work. The piece offers a perspective from David Dively, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Disability, who said that "the community of those with disabilities hasn't missed the irony of often being denied individual accommodations in the past, and now, during the pandemic, watching entire corporations switch to remote work."
Cecile Alper-Leroux, vice president of human capital innovation at UKG, an HR technology company in Weston, Fla., said: "Remote work has already been boosting disability inclusion and accessibility efforts in the workplace, and the sudden shift to remote work appears to have forced many managers and business leaders to step back and rethink long-standing rules and assumptions about the workplace."
While that's largely good news, barriers still exist.
Understanding and Minimizing Barriers
The ability to work from home is a big boon for many employees with disabilities. They may still face barriers, though, during the talent acquisition process and beyond. Those barriers can lead to costly lawsuits—and reputational damage.
People with disabilities filed over 3,500 lawsuits in the U.S. last year, including claims that companies did not make their job application portals accessible to people with disabilities or provide candidates with disabilities equivalent access to application materials.
Here, technology can be an important aid. Employers should make sure their employment portal follows web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG). This is true not only for recruitment, but also anything employees need to access from remote environments.
"As CEO of an HR tech company, I've seen how effective HR tech can be when it comes to making accommodations for those with disabilities," said Phil Strazzulla, founder and CEO of Select Software Reviews. But, he advised, "When creating a website with accessibility in mind, you have to code not for the person but for the tools they'll use to interact with your website." For instance, he said, some applicants may be using screen readers; for them, it's important to "make sure you identify your site's language in the header." In addition, he advised: "Use descriptive tags and alternative names on all images and headers so it's understandable."
To test how well your portal will meet WCAG, Strazzulla recommends running your website through an accessibility tester like WebAccessibility.com.
The Role of Technology
"Training and resources around accommodation for employees with disabilities are abundant, and technology has been the mission-critical enabler," Alper-Leroux said. She added that 41 percent of companies surveyed by UKG have a dedicated resource in IT to assist employees with disabilities. "For people who directly report their disabilities, companies have established training programs and employee resource groups for responding and providing insights on potential accommodations," she said.
Neil Morelli, Ph.D., is the chief industrial-organizational psychologist at Codility, a San Francisco-based prehire assessment platform for software engineering talent. Talent acquisition technology, he said, "should use the capabilities that already offer disabled candidates reasonable accommodations." This might include screen readers, easy navigation options and communication tools for requesting accommodations—this is already available, he said, and complies with WCAG accessibility standards.
Accommodating those with disabilities isn't just about having technology in place. Employers must understand how various types of disabilities might hinder applicants and ensure their technology addresses those needs.
Considering a Wide Range of Needs
Minesh Patel is CEO of The Patel Firm in Corpus Christi, Texas, and a personal injury attorney. "Accessibility goes far beyond the standard inclusions we consider, like visual impairment," he said. "We need to design application processes to include all differently-abled folk, including those with temporary disabilities and gradual changes in abilities. We also need to consider people who struggle with access, like those who may not have high-speed internet access or [who have] web access only through a mobile device."
Keeping it simple can help minimize challenges.
"To create an accessible space, keep your portal's design as clean as possible, with minimal distraction," Patel said. "Clutter can cause many difficulties and make the process more confusing than it needs to be." He recommended creating page elements that are large and spread apart—"tightly clustered features can be challenging for anyone with dexterity issues," he pointed out. In addition, he said, "create a portal that's fully accessible by smartphone so that every candidate interested in the role can apply, regardless of the technology they have available to them."
Employers must also take training and development needs for hiring managers—and HR—into account.
"As crucial work technologies evolve rapidly to help organizations survive and re-emerge, such as AI, virtual reality, natural language processing, augmented reality, biometrics, robotics, blockchain, and the internet of things, managers need ongoing, up-to-date training to focus on digital accessibility while people are returning to physical offices," Alper-Leroux said. "And above all, technology is really just an enabler for managers to ensure the accommodation of people with disabilities; more importantly, organizations need to devote time and resources to prioritize accessibility inclusion alongside the diversity and inclusion initiatives."
In doing this, it's important to seek input and feedback from impacted employees.
Seeking Applicant and Employee Feedback
Many employers are already taking steps to get input from employees with disabilities about the types of accommodations they might need—and how technology may play a role in providing those accommodations.
"On the technology side, over half of employers have developed a feedback mechanism and accessibility champions program to ensure these employees are included in the procurement process for new digital work tools," Alper-Leroux said, referring to data from a UKG survey report.
"Ask your employees and listen to their answers," Strazzulla said. It pays to be proactive when soliciting this input. "Those that may be having difficulties are potentially too embarrassed to say anything," he said. "Make sure you project an open-door policy to your employees so they know that, if they're having problems, your first priority is to work with them to solve those problems. There are enough technological solutions out there that no problem is unsolvable."
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.