Podcast: Making the Virtual Workplace Accessible

Future of Work Podcast, Episode 26

Josh Christianson, Co-Director of PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology, discusses how employers can make the virtual workplace accessible. 

This podcast is developed in partnership with Workology.com as part of PEAT's Future of Work series, which works to start conversations around how emerging workplace technology trends are impacting people with disabilities.​

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Transcript

Intro: [00:00:00.3] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here's Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:25.95] With so many offices transitioning to remote work and all that technology that helps power that, it's easy to get overwhelmed or to be unsure where to start when it comes to the virtual, accessible workplace. I wanted to get you up to speed, which is why I'm talking to my next guest while also pointing out to you a handful, a ton, of great resources to help educate you and your leadership team on how to make your remote workplace more accessible. This episode of the Workology podcast is part of our Future of Work series powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. In honor of the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this July, we're investigating what the next 30 years will look like for people with disabilities at work and the potential of emerging technologies to make workplaces more inclusive and accessible. Today, I'm joined by Josh Christianson. He's the Co-Director of the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology or PEAT. Josh, welcome to the Workology podcast.

Josh Christianson: [00:01:32.94] Well thank you so much.

Josh Christianson: [00:01:34.98] It's a pleasure to be here after seeing the output of us collaborating with different folks and following this podcast since its inception.  It's a pleasure to be on it.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:47.2] Well, it's high time that you're on this podcast. Like three years in the making.

Josh Christianson: [00:01:53.35] I know. I know. It’s exciting.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:54.76] Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved in accessibility.

Josh Christianson: [00:02:00.73] Sure. So I have a pretty strong background in diversity and inclusion. Although most of that took place in kind of the education realm. And then in about 2012, I made a career switch and was doing consulting. So I worked at Deloitte Consulting, mostly with federal agencies in the human capital realm. So talking about diversity, inclusion and other kind of workforce development issues with federal leaders, and really transitioned from that two to three years later to a new firm. And that's when I first started working on this PEAT project. And that's when I first became aware of accessibility. And so did not have a particularly strong background in technology. And while I did have a good understanding of diversity, inclusion, that was pretty limited to more traditional realms of race, gender, socio economic issues.

Josh Christianson: [00:03:05.65] And it has been a real interesting learning curve, both on the inclusion side as it relates to people with disabilities and the technology side. And so I guess for about the past five or six years, I've been involved in this and have really enjoyed applying what I already knew to some new areas and enjoyed being on something that is really on the cutting edge of both technology and work in this country.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:34.03] Awesome. Awesome. Well, let's dive into the topic, which we're talking today about the virtual workplace. And a lot has changed. And that's an understatement really, for everyone in the last six weeks with the majority of Americans now working remote. Those that are working, are working remote. Why is the topic of virtual accessibility such an important one right now?

Josh Christianson: [00:03:57.7] Well, you know, before kind of the new normal, we always pushed companies and organizations to look at virtual work because it's been proven to be something that makes it much easier to include people with disabilities, you know, for a variety of reasons.

Josh Christianson: [00:04:14.05] I'm sure people can imagine, you know, it is easier for some folks that have a wide range of disabilities to work from home and to also utilize their own devices that may have accessibility features built in. And so, you know, we've pushed that for a long time. As everyone knows in this field, that's kind of grown over time, but still has some people that are slow to change their culture around remote work. And so that hasn't happened fully. And now we're in a situation where almost, you know, most folks, lots of folks are working remotely. And so thinking about the inclusion and thinking about the digital accessibility of what that means to work remotely, while we've always been discussing that as a benefit to people with disabilities, and still is, that does, you know, that depends on if the infrastructure's in place, the culture is in place, if the tools and resources that are being used virtually, which may be different from what was happening before, that those are accessible. And so now more than ever, it's really important. And I see it as a great opportunity to demonstrate the power of remote work as it relates to people with disabilities, which is, as I started saying, is a big benefit in the first place to the community.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:05:36.06] Can you give us, maybe, some examples of what virtual accessibility in terms of like workplace meetings looks like now, or what it should look like?

Josh Christianson: [00:05:45.84] Sure. And you know, let me just kind of take a step back and talk about accessibility. I mean, people are probably more familiar with physical accessibility. And so, you know, doors that can open automatically or curb cuts or the amount of spacing that's necessary in an office place, escalators and elevators. But what we really focus on at PEAT, all of that is important, but we’re really focused on digital accessibility. And so what are the resources, what are the tools being used in a workplace and anything that's coming across or on a computer.

Josh Christianson: [00:06:24.06] How can we make sure that those are designed so they are accessible for all folks from a universal design perspective or at least as many as possible. And so, you know, that's really what we're talking about when I talk about accessibility and meetings and especially virtual, because this is happening on a digital platform. And so some quick examples would be, you know, common best practices that all organizations and companies should be using. Having closed caption when you have a meeting, making sure that any documents that are posted or shared like a PowerPoint deck, that those are designed and created in a way that are accessible from a digital perspective.

Josh Christianson: [00:07:09.36] Simple things that when a presenter is talking, and maybe they're going over what's in their presentation and they're showing slides, making sure that they describe things more fully so that someone with a visual impairment or someone that's blind would still be able to get a gist of what's happening, what other people are seeing on the screen. So, you know, there's many more, but that's just kind of a taste of what we're talking about when we're holding these meetings. How can we design them? How can we implement them and hold them in a space that’s live in a way that the most people possible can access the information they need through that meeting and to get their job done?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:50.31] You talked about closed captioning. Is closed captioning available on technology, video technology platforms like Zoom and Go to Meeting and others?

Josh Christianson: [00:08:01.66] So I would say, you know, closed caption in general has come so far in just the last few years with the power of machine learning and artificial intelligence. It has really just grown by leaps and bounds, such that there were many early functions well, you know, different platforms that had automatic closed captioning. And it would be so bad that it was really a disservice to use for people. And what we're seeing now is multiple platforms that have it encoded in there. It's really, it’s really good. And I think, you know, the majority of them with their automatic closed captioning do a good job, that would be able to include people who may need to follow that. That said, it is not, all platforms are not created equal and people need to research what platforms have automatic closed captioning, and then have to see the level of that. And it depends on the speaker and it depends on the content as to how well it captures things. But even if it's good, there are additional considerations to come into place. There's a tool called Cart, which is basically someone doing a live closed captioning, which is going to be way more accurate, provide more detailed information, both live during the meeting. But also for the transcript, so like notes. And so that is a big important tool to look at. And there are some platforms that can integrate seamlessly with a live caption or someone that's using Cart. And there are others that cannot. And so how you deal with that, depending upon the needs of your group, varies from platform to platform. And there are different solutions depending upon where you are. And so, yeah, I would, I would close it there.

Josh Christianson: [00:09:48.25] It really depends. But by and large, I think the AI closed captioning is up to snuff. But every time you're doing something like this, you need to check on the needs of your audience, your coworkers or clients to make sure that whatever you're using is suitable.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:07.24] One of the many reasons I enjoy working with you guys and this partnership together that we've had is that you have just opened my eyes up to so many different kinds of technology. And I'm, I'm excited to leverage a lot of these different tools. And I have over the last three years of working together. And one of the things that you guys mentioned to me when we were prepping for this call is that now there's even close captioning for Facebook Lives, too. So I'm excited to try those technologies out on the things that I'm really starting to leverage.

Josh Christianson: [00:10:41.87] You know, we were on, I was on an internal team call the other day and we were using Microsoft Teams because we're a 365 office. And what we noticed which was interesting, we were on the call and someone started talking about the background.

Josh Christianson: [00:10:58.25] How do you, someone had their background phased out, you know, and they showed where that setting was. So as they're showing me the setting, I looked down and saw that there was closed captioning, which I hadn't noticed in the settings, clicked it on and it was fantastic. It really did an excellent job. However, other people didn't have that option simply because they hadn't updated. And so I think a good thing to think about in all this conversation is you and I, Jessica, can both learn from other people. Oh, here's a new tool that you can use, like the caption on Facebook Live you might not have known of.

Josh Christianson: [00:11:32.18] But even if the rate and development of accessible technology and its inclusion on platforms prominently is happening at a really strong speed. And so even if you think you know, every time you update, there may be new and better accessibility features. So it's really something to stay on top of and make sure you're utilizing, you know, what the different platforms have to offer.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:11:58.37] You talked about Teams a little bit earlier and there's other technologies for internal communication and making our remote workplaces just better, including Slack and then Workplace by Facebook. Can you maybe talk about some other ways that we can leverage these technologies and make our remote workplaces more accessible?

Josh Christianson: [00:12:21.08] Sure. I mean, first and foremost, you know, if I were to start on the procurement side, there is a way to look at whatever technology your company is using or or maybe buying or looking to purchase, or a partner that you're going to externally collaborate with. We have a guide on PEAT called Buy IT! that can really help you walk through the procurement process to make sure you're asking the right questions, make sure you're verifying what a vendor means to ensure that you're getting the accessibility features you need, deserve, and quite frankly, are mandated by the ADA. And so I would always start there and making sure that you're thinking of accessibility when you put out an RFP or making purchasing decisions. Now, for most folks, that platform may already have already been chosen and you are constrained by what your company is using. And that's fine, because whether, you know, we're talking Teams or Google G Suite, Adobe Connect, Zoom, Webx, there's so many. They all have, I would say, accessibility features and they vary. And, you know, we're not going to advocate one over the other, but there are pluses and minuses uses for each.

Josh Christianson: [00:13:37.31] And you really just got to kind of dig into what those accessibility features are. Evaluate them, become aware of what they are and how they may be used by your team. So they're there, and it's really just a matter of getting to know them. Most of the accessibility features are becoming highlighted. And so definitely if you're on a Microsoft tool, you know, you're going to click down. You can see accessibility. That's going to be right up there with Spellchecker. If you're on other Adobe or Google, you're going to be able to, you know, click the gear icon in your settings and you're going to see accessibility displayed prominently. And you can then kind of go through the options there and check what you would like to utilize, what's available. And so the first step is really for people just to go through whatever tool they're using and find the accessibility features. And while those used to be deep, dark and hidden, they are increasingly prominent these days. And that shouldn't be too tough for anyone to find.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:38.06] You mentioned the Buy IT! resource and we'll link to that resource in the resources section of the Workology podcast, along with a number of other helpful articles, podcasts and various things. And that'll all be in the resources section.

Josh Christianson: [00:14:56.03] Great.

Break: [00:14:56.93] Let's take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you are listening to the Workology podcast powered by Workology. Today, we're talking with Josh Christianson about making the workplace more accessible, the virtual workplace, that is. This podcast is sponsored by Workology and is part of our Future of Work series in partnership with PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology or PEAT.

Break: [00:15:21.98] The Workology podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at Peatworks.org. That's Peatworks.org.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:51.22] One of the things I was thinking about, Josh, as you were talking is how we handle maybe, not accommodation, but things like providing a sign language interpreter. Is it something that we should provide before an employee asks? Or do we wait for them to ask to have something like a sign language interpreter present at our meetings?

Josh Christianson: [00:16:16.5] Right. Well, as I mentioned before, step one is really become aware of the accessibility tools you have available and then seeing how you're going to work with them and utilize those. And then what you want to do really when you're sending out invitations, setting up a meeting, you would want to do a couple of things. One, you want to note the accessibility features that you're planning to use. So if you're going to use the, you know, machine-generated closed caption, that's great. You let them know because then someone will be able to say if they need it. So you let you let them know what you're going to use. Here are the accessibility or accommodations that we're providing, such as captions. Then for the second level, you would want to say, hey, when we're inviting people or you could put it into, you know, just a quick link or a blurb in your calendar invite: if you have any additional accessibility needs, please contact whoever the person is. So someone may, per your example, read American Sign Language and they may need that for the meeting to be successful and for their participation. And so while you know what your accessibility features are, you always want to have a contact and a place where anyone who has an accommodation request or accessibility need can reach that person before the meeting and have it set up.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:38.26] Talk to me about Word and PowerPoint. I wasn't even aware when we first started working together about maybe some of the different features, accessibility features and the why behind this. Talk us through maybe why this is important and what we need to know.

Josh Christianson: [00:17:57.18] Sure. Well, first thing I would say is I know this is slated to come out, you know, late April, I think. In early May, if folks were on Peatworks.org, they'd see on our events page, there's a webinar we're putting together with one of the top accessibility folks at Microsoft to discuss the accessible features and all the common documents that many workplaces use. So in early May, in collaboration with the International Association of Accessibility Professionals, IAAP and PEAT, we're going to have folks talking about all these things. And so anyone who wanted to go in-depth will get a much fuller response than I'm going to give here and should check that out. But what I would say for, you know, PowerPoint, Word, any Microsoft, and increasingly across other products as well, as I mentioned earlier, accessibility is just becoming more and more robust. It's not only important, you know, around ADA. Companies see it as a differentiator, as a competitive difference, and all of the best technology companies are hyper-focused on making accessibility and accessible features increasingly common. They're on your smartphone. They're in the Google suite. They're in Microsoft. And they're easier and easier to find. And so if we took PowerPoint as an example, that's a tool so many use. You know, for years people have been able to definitely go down and find spell check or language, and that's under the tools setting. If you click on tools on PowerPoint, there's going to be a button there that just says “check accessibility.” And this is a new feature and guide that will literally walk you through, it will scan your PowerPoint and show you areas where you may have gaps around your accessibility.

Josh Christianson: [00:19:53.28] One of the most common ones in PowerPoint in presentations is you just don't have an alt tag or what is a description of a picture. So if you have a picture on your slide or a logo for a screen reader to read it, or not even necessarily a screen reader, because now Microsoft can read it out to you as well, Google can read it out to you as well. You need to have a description behind it and it'll alert you to that. It'll show you the slide. It'll tell you the picture. It'll take you right there. And then all you have to do is click a button and put in a description of that picture. If you're missing headings or, you know, a variety of other things that may flag. It'll pull that up. It gives you a brief summary of what that is and how to fix it. And then, you know, for some folks that this may be new, they may require another level of research or, you know, in a search engine or go to Peatworks.org to get some insight. But, you know, they really have made it easy, as easy as a grammar check or a spell check. And you just go through and fix and make decisions around how you want to address the problems. And so that's across the board on a lot of these products these days. And it's just a matter of us getting in the practice of using the tools that are now built in.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:05.59] What are other things that HR leaders and managers can do to stay up to date on all this tech and accessibility options?

Josh Christianson: [00:21:13.09] Sure. So, I mean, I think specific to HR, I'd kind of mentioned that, you know, obviously recruiting, hiring, tracking of existing performance, any and every tool resource platform, even something as simple as an email. All of these things have an accessibility feature and component to them. So just being aware of all the tools you and your team uses, you need to evaluate them for accessibility and make sure that you're being as inclusive as possible so that you and your team can get the company the best talent possible. That's been our argument all along, is this makes business sense. Not from a branding and competitive marketing PR campaign, but also because you will be able to have talent and be able to utilize their skillset and capacity that other people don't, if you're on the cutting edge of this. And so, you know, I would strongly encourage people in the HR world to pay attention to their accessibility for their benefit. Also within our website, because we know oftentimes HR is given a mandate or driving certain things and has goals, but they don't necessarily have the collaboration and buy-in they need across the rest of the enterprise. And so we have a resource, a robust resource at Peatworks.org that's called our staff training resources, where you can look at, you know, specific roles within the organization. What do they need to know about accessibility and the staff training or information that goes in there? What are the policy guidelines that you need to know? I mentioned procurement and Buy IT! Legal team, what do they need to know? And so we kind of have tried to consolidate this information and bucket it in ways that a company would find easy so that they can look across their enterprise and see who and what would need accessibility information. And we've tailored some resources specific to those roles and areas. So you'll find good information for HR folks there. But we know sometimes HR folks have to bring people along with them.

Josh Christianson: [00:23:30.64] So we hope that, too, will be useful to them as well.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:33.19] As with all of our podcasts that we have been doing this year in partnership with you guys at PEAT, we have been asking the same question to each of our guests, thinking about the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 30th anniversary that's coming up later this summer. So I wanted to also ask you, as we look towards the next 30 years of work, what emerging workplace trends or technologies do you think will have the biggest impact on people with disabilities?

Josh Christianson: [00:24:02.05] You know, our project, as you know, is kind of focused on emerging technologies. So I should have something at the ready. But the beauty, and also the challenge of technology, is how fastly it shifts. And so while I can give you some ideas on the recent horizon, what I've seen just in the last five years is these things come up so fast and change so quickly, depending upon the technology and kind of utilization, how it works for people, that it's hard, it's hard to say exactly what it would be. But there are a few things that I would highlight that we've been targeting at PEAT. And one of those is around autonomous vehicles. And that may seem odd because, you know, that is a self-driving car. That is an area that's really moving forward and will impact employment because all of the interface, whether it's on your phone or if you get into an autonomous  vehicle, anything that has a digital component is going to need to be accessible. And so while that's kind of an indirect route, I think us working with autonomous vehicles and how companies are and will surely be using these more, is an area of focus. But more directly and I think especially to the HR audience is looking at, you know, what's called extended reality or XR and so virtual reality, augmented reality, all of these are increasingly being used by, you know, companies and their accessibility is being designed as we go. Using best tips for a lot of startups and people in this XR world is tricky, but we're working on it.

Josh Christianson: [00:25:42.46] But that is definitely an area that will impact the workplace, that has really good promise for people with disabilities, but only if the technology developers take into account accessibility and inclusion as they're designing them. Another one, you know, I would point to, is artificial intelligence. And that is, you know, kind of a double edged sword around whether that's being used in a way that is inclusive or exclusive, but then also that's really just a power engine behind all these other technologies, similar to how I mentioned closed captioning, right? Artificial intelligence is what powers that tool. And so what I think is just, you know, machine learning and data science and data analytics is going to continue to push huge levels of artificial intelligence that will then drive other tools. And so we're really focused on how companies use artificial intelligence and various tools and to the extent they can do that, to make sure it is as inclusive as possible. So those would be, and, just to be clear, that goes a lot to companies when you're thinking about recruiting, when you're thinking about marketing. Obviously, when you're doing interviews and hiring. But even when you're analyzing current work performance, when you're looking at your workforce and retention or promotions. Many companies are using tools that are driven by artificial intelligence and that has both promise and pitfalls specifically for the disability community. And that's something that I would encourage all people to keep their eye on.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:18.03] I love asking this question because every single answer is different for everyone.

Josh Christianson: [00:27:23.82] Sure. Yeah. And if you ask me, you know, next week it might be different, too.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:28.2] Well, Josh, thank you for joining us here on the Workology podcast today. Where can people go to connect with you and learn more about PEAT?

Josh Christianson: [00:27:36.09] Sure. So the Web site is Peatworks.org. And that is really where you can find and follow all of our resources, events, blogs, cross-promotional events and anyone can reach out to the information there and me or my team is going to get it. But you know, you can also write to me directly, JChristianson@peatworks.org, and we'd be happy to connect with folks.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:08.48] I really appreciate Josh's insights on this special podcast episode. His time here is going to help us all so much. I'm linking to the resources that Josh mentions in this podcast, including the Buy IT! Guide, upcoming webinars and other helpful articles and guides that the PEAT team has put so much work into. I believe the remote workplace is here to stay, and whether it's today or six months from now, we're here to get you connected to accessible resources for your remote workforce. The Future of Work series is in partnership with PEAT and is one of my favorites. Thank you to PEAT as well as our podcast sponsor Workology.

Closing: [00:28:46.99] Are you tired of putting your professional development on the backburner? It's time for you to invest in yourself with UpskillHR by Workology. We're a membership community focused on personal development for HR. Gain access to our elite community, training, coaching and events. Learn more at UpskillHR.com.
 

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