Accessibility and Employment: What People with Disabilities Need to Know

Clearly, technology has tremendous power and promise. It has fundamentally transformed the way we live and work, optimizing and accelerating our productivity. These days, it's essential to applying for a job, getting a job, and doing a job. And as long as it's accessible, it can be a great equalizer in ensuring that people with disabilities can obtain, retain and advance in employment. To optimize their potential, individuals with disabilities (and other technology users who can benefit from accessible and/or assistive technologies) should have a basic understanding of what accessible workplace technology is—and use this knowledge to assess and meet their own needs.

Accessible Technology vs. Assistive Technology

To start, you may be asking yourself what we mean by the term "accessible technology" and how it differs from "assistive technology." There are some differences between the two terms that are helpful to know.

Assistive technology (AT) refers to equipment or devices that are specifically used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capacities of individuals with disabilities. Examples include alternative input devices that enable control of computers through means other than a standard keyboard or mouse and screen readers that allow people who are blind to hear what is happening on their computer by converting the screen display to digitized speech.

Accessible technology, on the other hand, is technology that can be used successfully by people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. Each user is able to interact with the technology in ways that work best for him or her. Accessible technology is either directly accessible, whereby it is usable without additional AT or devices, or indirectly accessible, meaning it is compatible with AT. For example, a mobile smartphone with a built-in screen reader is directly accessible, while a website that can be navigated effectively by people with visual impairments using a screen reader is AT-compatible and thus indirectly accessible.

PEAT supports and encourages product compatibility with AT, and urges people with disabilities to fully benefit from this kind of interoperability between their AT devices and the products they need to support them. In practice, many people find that the best immediate workplace solutions may involve a combination of mainstream ICT and AT. Using whatever works best right now can help reinforce the primary goal of moving toward directly accessible mainstream products and services.

Getting What You Need

Being proactive is the key to getting the technology you need—whether directly or indirectly accessible— to maximize your productivity on the job. Here are seven short action steps you can use to get started:

  1. Look at the Technology You're Using Now. Technology used inside and outside of the workplace is often similar. So when exploring your workplace technology needs, begin by taking a look at the technology you use in your daily life—for example, your mobile device, the e-mail software you use, and your social network apps. By taking a good look at everything you already use successfully, you'll be well-prepared to pinpoint tools you can leverage to maximize your productivity at work.

  2. Know Your Rights. Under federal law, qualified job applicants and employees with disabilities are generally entitled to "reasonable accommodations," which definitely includes accessible and/or assistive technologies. A "reasonable accommodation" is considered any modification or adjustment to a job or work environment that enables a qualified person with a disability to apply for or perform a job. The term also encompasses alterations to ensure a qualified individual with a disability has rights and privileges in employment equal to those of employees without disabilities. Not all employees with disabilities, particularly those with temporary disabilities or functional limitations, are entitled to or even need accommodations, but determining your accommodation needs is a good place to start. For more information, see the Job Accommodation Network's (JAN) guidance for individuals, which includes specifics on how to request an accommodation and a Searchable Online Accommodation Resource that allows individuals to explore various accommodation options based on their unique situation and circumstances.

  3. Recognize Your Role. Of course, taking steps to increase the accessibility of workplace technology is about more than legal mandates and requirements for employers—it's also about technology users advocating for themselves. It's critical that technology users with disabilities recognize that they have an important role to play in this respect. You should educate yourself on what technology tools you need to be successful at work and be proactive in obtaining them. You should also commit to ongoing training on the technology solutions you use frequently to ensure you are tapping the full potential of their accessibility features.
     
  4. Assess Your Needs. Whether you plan to ask for an accommodation or take advantage of a "bring your own device" policy, part of the dialogue with your employer is articulating what you'll need to use at work. Most workplaces rely on several different types of software and systems, so the more you know, the better prepared you'll be. Read Taking Stock of Your Workplace Technology to help you take inventory of technology you may need to do your job.

  5. Build a Technology Support Network. Keep in mind that a lot of what you'll need isn't just technology—it's a support team. On the outside, keep in touch with peers or vendors who are technology experts, and professionals or advocacy groups you've encountered who know a lot about accessibility tools. Be sure to also develop good relationships with the system administrators and tech gurus in your workplace.

  6. Address the Challenges of Compatibility and Interoperability. One of the key issues you may have to deal with at work is compatibility. For instance, you may be familiar with AT you use at home or that you used in school, but that AT may not automatically be compatible with the software you're expected to use at work. This may take some time and effort to figure out—you may have to contact both the mainstream software company that makes the technology, as well as the AT provider, to solve any compatibility issues. Again, your employer may have tech support that can help with this, but it's a good idea to be proactive.

  7. Consult Helpful Resources. There are numerous resources available to help you assess and meet your technology needs on the job. If you're trying to find solutions for a specific technology product, the best place to begin is the support sections of the manufacturer's website. If you can't find a section specifically dedicated to accessibility, search more broadly online or contact the company directly to ask for the information you need. Doing so will help remind technology companies that accessibility is their responsibility, and that we expect them to do that part of their job. After all, they know their products best, and they want the most people possible to use them. In this way, you can be an advocate for accessible technology, on both the individual and societal level.

    Additional resources that might be helpful include the following:

    • My Web, My Way—Contains excellent how-to guides to help users get the most from the accessibility features and assistive technologies available for computer operating systems and web browsers. You can also learn about accessibility customization features directly from software and operating systems providers, including Microsoft, Apple, and Google.
    • GARI: Find Accessible Devices and Apps—Provides a database to connect users to mobile devices with the accessibility features and apps they need.
  8. Become Part of the Long-Term Solution. Finally, position yourself as an advocate and accessible technology team member at your workplace. Your employer has a process for procuring and implementing new technologies in your workplace and there may be opportunities for you to provide expert guidance. See Becoming an Accessible Technology Advocate for strategies to help educate your employer about the benefits of investing in an accessible workplace, one where all employees can perform at their highest level.

Join the Conversation

Do you have resources to recommend or tips on securing accessible technology solutions to help you perform on the job? If so, PEAT wants to hear from you! Please contact us to share your ideas and successes.

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