This primer covers why accessible workplace technology matters, and how to get started.
What is Accessibility?
To understand what we mean by accessibility, it’s helpful to try experiencing inaccessibility for a moment. Turn off your computer monitor and start typing. Use your phone from under a table where you can’t see it. Unplug your mouse and try to navigate your company website. Set the zoom level in your Internet browser to 500%, limiting the amount of content you can see at any one time. Unplug your speakers and watch a webinar without sound. Get the picture?
Accessibility means that everyone can use the exact same technology as anyone else—regardless of whether they can manipulate a mouse, how much vision they have, how many colors they can see, how much they can hear, or how they process information.
Access by Design
Now you might be wondering how accessibility helps people with disabilities use technology, like surfing the internet. How does it help with operating mobile phones or tablets? The answer is that accessible technology is designed with these capabilities in mind. Accessible technology adds layers into computer operating systems, mobile phones, and more to allow people with disabilities to access the same information as everyone else.
Take a look for yourself at this video of Christine Ha, a chef who is blind and the winner of the third season of MasterChef, using technology at work.
And what about someone who has limited use of his hands? This video shows how Christopher Hills, a professional video editor and accessibility advocate, does his job thanks to the accessibility features built into his computer editing equipment.
Accessible Technology vs. Assistive Technology
“Accessible technology” is technology that can be used successfully by people with a wide range of functional abilities. When technology is accessible, each user is able to interact with it in ways that work best for him or her. For example, when using a desktop computer, there are multiple ways to input information—via a mouse, the keyboard, or through a speech recognition system to name a few. If the operating system on the computer is accessible, it will work with any of them.
Accessible technology is either directly accessible, meaning it is usable without any additional devices, or it is accessible through and compatible with “assistive” technology (AT). For example, a smartphone with a built-in screen reader is directly accessible; an online job application is AT-compatible when someone with a visual impairment can navigate through it effectively using a screen reader program such as JAWS. Watch this PEAT video to explore this topic more.
In short, accessibility is all about the user interface; it gives job applicants and employees a built-in, cost-effective, and equitable way to control and use technology. Accessibility often falls into the same category as usability because both seek to improve the user experience and effectiveness of the technology. Usability covers the user experience broadly, while accessibility addresses the specific needs of users with functional differences or limitations.
However, in terms of actual product features, the two terms often overlap. For example, a feature like volume control benefits everyone, as does the ability to zoom the display on a small mobile device. This overlap is often referred to as universal design, which means the design of products so they can be used by the widest range of people possible. Watch this PEAT video to learn more about how universal design can make all employees more productive.
The Perils of Inaccessible Technology
Imagine that the only thing standing between you and your dream applicant is an online job application that prevents the candidate from clicking the “next” button. It’s unfortunately a common scenario faced by many job seekers with disabilities, and inaccessible technology used during the hiring process is the root cause.
Although she was ultimately the top candidate for a job, Sassy Outwater-Wright nearly couldn’t submit an application due to accessibility problems with the online form.
Jenny Lay-Flurrie is now Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft, but accessibility problems with workplace tech nearly pushed her to refuse a promotion and quit a job earlier in her career.
And that matters, because if your technology is limiting your pool of applicants or your employee retention rate, you could be missing out on top talent. According to a 2015 survey of people with disabilities conducted by PEAT, 46 percent of respondents rated their last experience applying for a job online as “difficult to impossible.” As Chancey Fleet explains in the interview below, bias in recruiting technology can unintentionally block qualified candidates from roles.
Furthermore, while it makes good business sense to invest in accessible technology, it’s also the law in many cases. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice has ruled in recent years that accessible workplace technology is a civil right.
The good news is, implementing accessible technology is probably easier than you think. To get started, check out the following resources: