The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically reshaped the concept of the “workplace.” Many people have rapidly shifted to working remotely, though essential jobs do remain in-person. This recent change brings both opportunities and challenges, and they are heightened for people with disabilities (PWD) who can only engage virtually if their technology is accessible.

On June 11, 2020, the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT) convened a remote meeting with stakeholders, titled “The Virtual Workplace,” to identify:

  1. The primary challenges and opportunities surrounding employment success for PWD;
  2. How these challenges or opportunities changed since the group last met in January 2019; and
  3. What PEAT, DOL, and this community can do to capitalize on these opportunities to ensure that PWD can use new and existing technologies.

Attendees included:

  • Representatives from the information technology (IT) industry, including developers and designers working on accessible emerging technologies
  • Academic and nonprofit leaders from research institutions and organizations that set standards for accessibility
  • State, local, and federal IT and policy leaders
  • Leadership from the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP)

Identified Priorities and Next Steps

COVID-19 has highlighted many accessibility challenges of work-from-home technologies. At the same time, it is bringing greater attention to the importance of usability for everyone. Many changes that PWD have long requested are now a reality, such as the ability to telework and the adoption of more inclusive meeting protocols. Developing and implementing workplace technology that supports diversity has never been more important, and we are at a unique moment in time to push the needle forward.

In response to ideas generated during the meeting, PEAT identified the following priority areas and tasks we will undertake to make the virtual workplace more accessible and inclusive for PWD.

Procurement of accessible technology remains a challenge, even for companies who identify it as a priority. This could be an impactful moment to unite the power of the private sector to push vendors for the accessibility features we need.

  • PEAT will support the efforts of Think Tank members to prioritize the purchase and development of technology tools and products that meet WCAG accessibility standards.
  • PEAT plans to update our Modal Procurement Language for Accessibility to consider emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI).

Employers and vendors must be better educated and more aware of telework accessibility needs. A particular priority is improving accessibility features in communication platforms and helping organizers understand how to plan and execute an accessible meeting.

  • PEAT will continue to raise accessibility awareness among employers and vendors. We will expand our Telework & Accessibility Guide and create new tipsheets, podcasts, and other resources. We will focus on telework tools for communication and collaboration, such as video conferencing and virtual chat platforms.
  • We will focus on emerging tech and the gaps between emerging tech and fully accessible work-from-home technologies.
  • PEAT will continue to support the Teach Access initiative, which works with colleges and universities to expand curricula to include accessible technology skills.
  • We are also exploring what support we can offer to standard-setting organizations working on issues such as Accessible Platform Architecture.

Emerging technologies such as AI and extended reality (XR) are changing and impacting the virtual workplace, and they present unique challenges for people with disabilities (PWD). We must proactively engage the startup community in this discussion now.

  • PEAT is partnering with the Start Access initiative (managed by the American Association of People with Disabilities and funded by the Verizon Foundation) to educate both startups and investors about the business imperative of accessibility by infusing the experiences and insight of PWD into the development space.
  • PEAT will continue to develop resources and collaborations to support AI fairness related to the recruitment, hiring, and promotion of PWD.
  • PEAT will continue to support and amplify the work of XR Access.
  • PEAT will expand the Accessibility Playbook for Emerging Technology Initiatives with new case studies and materials.

Even after developing years of business case data, many challenges remain in communicating the business case for inclusion.

  • PEAT will continue to refine and expand PEAT business case resources in light of “new economy” trends.
  • We will also explore conducting research that can bolster recent reports that demonstrate business case, similar to our research on online job applications, which led to TalentWorks.

We must develop pathways for PWD to join development and design teams, and to support leadership roles and business, marketing, and product management roles.

  • PEAT will explore how to support an effort to “train the trainers” and develop pathways for PWD to influence the tech industry with their lived experience and expertise.
  • We will also continue to support the development and dissemination of best practices for apprenticeship programs to be inclusive in their recruitment, hiring, and support services for PWD and to increase the participation of PWD within tech-related apprenticeships.

Mental health needs are common, and many people are experiencing significant challenges with added COVID-19 stresses. Mental health intersects strongly with other disabilities and is exacerbated when users encounter accessibility problems that make it difficult to telework and engage in their communities.

  • PEAT will explore ways that we can help support and amplify resources and initiatives related to mental health, such as the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Meeting Attendees

AJ Assaadi, United Spinal Association 

Jennison Asuncion, LinkedIn 

Matt Ater, Vispero 

Aaron Bangor, AT&T 

Sara Basson, Google 

Zachary Bastian, Verizon 

Steve Bauer, NIDILRR 

Judy Brewer, W3C/WAI 

Lydia X.Z. Brown, Center for
Democracy & Technology 

Henry Claypool, American Association of People with Disabilities 

Bill Curtis-Davidson, XR Access Community 

Ted Drake, Intuit 

Steve Ewell, CTA Foundation 

Carrie Farber, Walmart 

Lori Golden, EY 

Lucy Greco, UC Berkeley 

Mindy Greenberg, Google 

DeVan Hankerson, Georgetown University Law Center 

Justin Herman, Twilio 

Anne Hirsh, Job Accommodation Network 

Sara Jordan, Future of Privacy Forum  

Andrew Kirkpatrick, Adobe 

Dina Klimkina, Council of State Governments 

Jeff Kline, State of Texas 

Megan Lawrence, Microsoft 

Anil Lewis, National Federation of the Blind 

Chris Loiselle, Oracle 

Ian Mackay, Ian’s Ride 

Brook McCall, United Spinal Association 

Sassy Outwater-Wright, Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired 

Mark Penicook, Capital One 

Jim Poisant, WITSA 

Gautam Rao, EY 

Sharron Rush, Knowbility 

Paul Schroeder, Aira 

Bobby Silverstein, Powers Law 

Kate Sonka, Teach Access 

John Sullivan, General Services Administration 

Maria Town, American Association of People with Disabilities 

Jutta Treviranus, Inclusive Design Research Centre 

Shari Trewin, IBM 

Gregg Vanderheiden, Trace Center 

Joel Ward, Booz Allen Hamilton 

Jay Wyant, State of Minnesota 

Elle Waters, Adobe 

Frances West, Frances West Co 

Mohammed Yousuf, Department of Transportation 

U.S. Department of Labor   

Nathan Cunningham 

Nadia Mossburg 

Mike Reardon 

Scott Michael Robertson 

Jennifer Sheehy 

Wheelhouse Group  

Devin Boyle 

Josh Christianson 

Danielle Germain 

Lauren Rabb 

Joiwind Ronen 

Corinne Weible