Assistive technology helps people with disabilities perform better at their jobs.
- The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide "reasonable accommodations," so long as that accommodation doesn't pose an "undue hardship" to the employer.
- Accessibility technology can vary wildly and requires you do your homework before making a purchase or negotiating a contract with a vendor.
- An inclusive, accessible workplace means happier, more productive and more engaged workers, so accessibility features ultimately benefit everyone.
Approximately 18.6 million people with disabilities between the ages of 16 and 64 are currently in the American workforce. Assistive technologies (AT) can vastly improve such a person's productivity in the office. But many small businesses don't know exactly what AT means.
By law, if you employ at least 15 people, your company must make "reasonable accommodations," so long as the expense or challenges in implementing that accommodation don't lead to "undue hardship" for the business. Both of those terms are filled with legal gray areas. It's the employee's responsibility to identify their disability and request their employer's help, and employers aren't required to offer the exact remedy requested. The employer can request medical documentation of the issue at hand.
An accessible workplace now means much more than wheelchair ramps and Braille signage. Many of today's ATs can seriously improve disabled employees' day-to-day experience at work and open your organization's doors to all qualified individuals, regardless of ability.
AT devices are technologies that are used to increase, maintain or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities, so they play a substantial role in diverse and inclusive workplaces. These technologies can aid in essential job functions such as communication and productivity, and help employees with disabilities work more independently. What's more, a fully accessible workplace benefits all workers by increasing productivity across the board, expanding your talent pool and customer base.
There is a common misconception in the working world that hiring people with disabilities can be complex or cost a company extra money, but a 2018 study by Accenture found that businesses that actively seek to employ people with disabilities outperform businesses that do not. Their revenues were higher, their net income was nearly double, and employee retention was at nearly 90%.
"Businesses are often too quick to dismiss an employee that is disabled due to [the misperception of] them not being able to fulfill the duties of their role," said Bridget Schlotzhauer, marketing specialist at eSight, and Gary Foster, manager of eSight's coaching team. "However, it is actually much more cost-effective to accommodate their needs and keep an experienced employee in the workforce rather than taking the time and money to hire and train someone new."
Implementing assistive or adaptive technologies in your workplace does not have to be complex or expensive. Here is what you need to know about AT and how to make your workplace more inclusive.
Types of assistive technologies
Because there are many forms of disability – including those affecting mobility, sight, hearing, cognitive function or the immune system – there are also many types of assistive technologies. Most are created with a general purpose in mind and can be customized to suit the individual's needs.
These are some common technologies:
- Screen readers, which read onscreen text out loud
- Voice recognition, which converts spoken words into digital text
- Switch devices, which take the place of mice or keyboards and allow the user to control other technology more simply
- Reading assistants, which can customize fonts or spacing, hide sections of text, or adjust navigation to ease comprehension
- Closed captioning or subtitles, which help deaf or hard-of-hearing employees watch videos
- Motion or eye tracking, which allows the user to control a mouse pointer with their eyes or other part of their body
Embracing built-in accessibility features
The best way to make sure all of your employees' individual needs are met, according to Schlotzhauer and Foster, is to be transparent about all the available options and work with the employee from there to ensure they have what they need to be successful.
Many assistive technologies are built into products most of your employees likely already use. Large tech companies such as Apple, Google, Dell and Microsoft offer customizable, built-in accessibility options like voiceover, display accommodations, speech recognition, automatic subtitles, screen magnification, and keyboard adjustments with their products and services.
Microsoft Office, for example, has the Accessibility Checker, which ensures all documents can be easily read by people with disabilities by checking for missing descriptive hyperlinks, extra whitespace, improper page breaks and other discrepancies that can interrupt comprehension.
These accessibility features can make a big difference in productivity for many of your employees, disabled or not, so make sure that all of your employees are aware of the accessibility features in whatever equipment they already use. Offer trainings on how to use the features for anyone who wishes to learn.
You can also offer one-on-one meetings to your employees with disabilities to see if any other accommodations would help them at work.
"Trust your employees," said Sharon Rosenblatt, director of communications at Accessibility Partners. "They know what works for their needs."
To have a successfully diverse and inclusive workforce, it is imperative that you, your management team and your employees all have knowledge of disability and the culture around it.
"We've heard stories about workplaces speaking loudly to blind employees or wondering about wheelchair access for deaf employees," said Rosenblatt, "so a basic understanding about disability in an empowering workplace in a great step."
A place to start is providing training for your employees on how they can contribute to a more inclusive work environment. You can initially provide the training for your existing employees and adopt it as part of your employee onboarding process.
The training should include best practices like pushing in chairs after meetings for easy navigation, reserving front seats for deaf or hard-of-hearing employees during presentations and any other specific accommodations your individual employees may need, as well as basic etiquette like not leaning on a wheelchair or petting a service dog while it is working.
"Accessibility is a team effort and a continual journey, not a destination," said Corinne Weible, co-director of Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT). "It requires putting organization-wide policies and procedures in place, aligned with an overall effort to build a culture of awareness and inclusion."
Weible said that having policies like making sure all documents and PDFs are accessible is great, but you have to make sure you are providing adequate support and training to help your employees know why it's important and how to effectively implement it.
Adequate training can also mitigate ignorance and misunderstandings of reasonable accommodations, which could otherwise lead to resentment among employees who may view an accommodation as special treatment.
Starting at the beginning
Taking existing technology and modifying or retrofitting it to be accessible can be costly, which is why it pays to outfit your business with accessible technology right at the beginning. This also has an effect on your overall company culture by enforcing the idea that accessibility is simply part of who the company is.
"Employers need to take a structured, systemwide approach towards building a workplace culture of inclusion and accessibility," said Weible. "Small businesses can help mitigate the need for accommodations by investing in universally designed technology [that is] interoperable with assistive technology from the start."
Weible also said to keep in mind that most accommodations are free, and not all employees with a disability will need an accommodation. The Job Accommodation Network found that the average cost of an accommodation is $300, and half of all accommodations cost nothing.
Legal rights, requirements and protections
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents discrimination based on a physical, sensory or cognitive disability and provides several legal protections for people with a disability both in and outside of work, including the right to an accessible workplace.
The ADA generally applies to businesses that fall under Title I, with 15 or more full-time employees, or Title III, a business that falls under "public accommodation" such as a bank or hotel, and requires those businesses to make "reasonable accommodations" for people with disabilities.
The wording of "reasonable accommodations" is intentionally vague, because every business and every person with a disability is different, so what works in one instance may not work in another. You must consider all the main aspects of your business and how they may affect people with disabilities that either patronize or work for your company.
For example, many businesses have wheelchair ramps for those with mobility issues, but do not have accessible websites. In the fall of 2018, the Department of Justice confirmed that the ADA covers digital accessibility, meaning websites and other digital entities must be accessible, though there are no specific regulations for digital accessibility. You can run various accessibility checkers on your website to make sure you aren't missing anything. [Read related article: How to Make Sure Your Website Is ADA Compliant]
Before you buy anything, you'll want to research the appropriate vendors. You can approach that process in a few different ways:
- Attend an AT event where you can meet with various vendors in person.
- Ask to see a company's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) conformance statements, relevant products and other websites to make sure they are legitimate.
- Ask if the company makes the products itself or is simply a reseller.
- Make a formal request for information (RFI) to compare vendors to one another.
- Build in acceptance testing as part of the procurement process to ensure what you get will ultimately fulfill your actual needs.
How accessibility benefits everyone
An inclusive, accessible workplace means happier and more engaged workers, which is why accessibility features ultimately benefit everyone in a company.
"Technology created for people with a wide range of abilities also tends to help everyone be more productive," said Weible.
Think about the time when you wanted to change the song but couldn't because your hands were wet, dirty, or occupied and you told Siri or Alexa to change the song. Or when you were pushing a baby stroller or a cart and used a curb cut to get it easily onto the sidewalk. Or when you were eating chips and watching Netflix and turned on the subtitles so you could still understand what was happening.
"Disability is part of being human, so it's crucial that companies provide workplaces that are inclusive and accessible at every level," Weible said. "If companies aren't providing the right inclusive environment, they're going to miss out on the benefits."