As we come together to celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), let’s reflect on the current and future state of accessibility for people with disabilities.

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With the rapid rise of telepresence, many workplaces are adjusting to a new way of doing business and considering how to enhance virtual experiences that boost productivity. Traditional office environments and meeting structures have transformed, with work activities and conferences shifted from in-person to virtual. As we come together to celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), let’s reflect on the current and future state of accessibility for people with disabilities.

The recent surge in digital communications, social media, and online platforms means that it’s more important than ever for everyone, especially people with disabilities, to maintain reliable access to accessible technology. There’s no better time to call attention to digital accessibility. Along with our partners, PEAT is working to lay the foundation for a future where all emerging technology is born accessible so that everyone can succeed in their careers.

Emerging Technologies in the Workplace

Over the last several years, we’ve seen a significant increase in the use and infusion of emerging technologies in the workplace. Employers are integrating platforms powered by artificial intelligence (AI) into their hiring processes to screen job applicants, streamline applications, and deliver on-the-job training; employees are now regularly tapping virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to develop projects, attend conferences, and hone new skills sets.

Human resource (HR) professionals anticipate that the utilization of emerging technology in the workplace will only continue to grow. Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends Report found that 81% of survey respondents anticipated an uptick in adoption of AI. AI holds tremendous potential for both employers and employees to make workplaces more inclusive, but it also carries major risks for people with disabilities in privacy, ethics, and workplace biases. (Learn more about how AI is changing modern workplaces.)

VR, AR, and mixed reality technologies, which are collectively known as  XR also feature in key predictions about the future of work. For people with disabilities, XR offers the potential to bolster employment opportunities, boost career advancement, and cultivate equitable workplace environments. Imagine a world in which XR can enable these possibilities:

  • A worker with a speech-related disability can enhance their articulation and engagement in virtual meetings through improved voice translation (speech-to-text).
  • A new employee on the autism spectrum can hone employability skills (aka soft skills) and prepare for greater collaboration in team meetings to increase work performance.
  • A person with a physical disability can launch a new career at a company that has traditionally required in-person office work.

What’s more, we could all benefit tremendously from the proliferation of XR conferences allowing us to attend even when we’re unable to travel. (Learn more about XR and accessibility.)

With priorities rapidly shifting to ensure the success of remote workforces, broad adoption of AI and XR may come sooner than expected. It may also spur a new set of challenges for all employees to access these technologies. Widespread use of AI and XR isn’t yet the norm, but that’s likely to change. As mentioned, we’re currently experiencing a marked increase in remote-based work, which is leading employers to seek approaches to maintain full engagement, productivity, and performance for their employees. We’re in new territory, setting the stage for experimentation into how we can virtually interact in the workplace and in the world around us.

The Virtual Workplace is Falling Short

We’re all in danger of experiencing virtual conferencing fatigue and dips in productivity as we adjust to new work approaches. For people with disabilities, additional hurdles stand in the way of their success—having to navigate existing technologies without key accessibility features. In 2020, WebAIM analyzed one million home pages to identify accessibility issues and found that 98.1% of home pages have at least one deficit in accordance with the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. We can and must do better for the 1 billion people with disabilities across the globe, including 1 in 4 Americans.

Integration of XR could compound this problem in the future if this technology isn’t designed to be used effectively by all. Universal Design principles should come into play. Inaccessible technologies create barriers to productivity and produce legal issues. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act require digital workspaces and associated technologies to be accessible for people with disabilities. Thus, employers are now searching for better ways to enhance the accessibility of digital platforms.

People with Disabilities Should Lead the Way

Tapping the expertise and lived experience of employees with disabilities can help facilitate accessibility and stress testing for new technologies, including platforms currently used for remote work and emerging technologies. People with disabilities are often well-qualified to help identify accessibility issues, disability-related design concerns, and inadvertent biases in systems. Thus, including people with disabilities on product design and testing teams can often prove essential for activities to produce inclusive, innovative technologies for use by all workers. Video captioning, for example, was originally developed with people with disabilities in mind, but is now widely used by everyone.

Some companies and organizations have stepped up to create the building blocks for a future where all emerging technologies are accessible. For instance, XR Access is leading the way toward the design, development, and production of accessible XR technologies. The organization is creating a blueprint for future leaders to develop related accessible emerging technologies. Teach Access is also helping to ensure that future products and services are regularly born accessible. The organization equips students with an understanding of the access needs of people with disabilities and the skills to foster accessible design and development.

Breaking Unemployment Barriers

Equitable access to technology can become the new normal. The virtual workplace should be a place where everyone can fully access all software applications from their desktop and mobile devices to complete their work activities. All workers, including people with disabilities, should also have the ability to access their files, navigate websites, and join and participate in meetings and collaboration spaces—whether in-person or virtual. In short, it should become normal for everyone to have the tools they need to succeed in the workplace. This critical moment in time gives us the unique opportunity to shape the future of work.

Learn More

Learn more about how you can help drive accessible technology and engage in activities to support inclusive design: