Building an Inclusive and Accessible Remote Work Environment

Rachel Chaikof, Project Manager, Chemonics International
Zhiyan Arif, Global Technology Support Manager, Chemonics International 

Beyond the fact that many employers worldwide are required to provide reasonable accommodations, creating accessible and inclusive remote work environments can drive productivity and innovation as well as increase morale. In fact, working remotely has been considered a reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. And while ensuring inclusiveness, accessibility, and morale support is always important, given the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers likely have more staff members than ever working at multiple locations. To be effective and inclusive, companies and organizations must develop a remote/flexible work arrangement policy and maintain a robust infrastructure for remote workers with different abilities and unique needs to connect with each other. While the costs of not implementing such policies and resources are high, the expenses to do so are low: according to Job Accommodation Network, 58 percent of accommodations, such as inclusive communications platforms, cost nothing while the rest of accommodations typically cost only $500. When deciding on a communication and collaboration suite to connect remote workers, employers should prioritize platforms that are inclusive and accessible for all employees.

Here are some ways employers can build an inclusive and accessible remote work environment:

1. Ensure that teleconferences and training sessions are accessible to everyone. Using inclusive platforms and technologies helps employees who are deaf and hard of hearing engage actively in the virtual experience. The Center for Disease Control (CDC), in its guidance on making meetings accessible, recommends meeting announcements, presentations and materials, and technology be accessible for persons with disabilities. The CDC encourages closed-captioning or subtitles when using audio components. People who are deaf and hard of hearing and who communicate through listening and spoken language prefer subtitles. Subtitles also benefit those individuals with learning disabilities or challenges with receptive language as a result of Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder or autism and other learning disabilities in which reading words is easier to digest than hearing spoken language. For employees who do not speak English as a first language and might struggle to connect and collaborate via listening, subtitles enable them to receive accurate information. Microsoft Teams and Skype both offer free subtitles that can be turned on with a click of a button. Both tools use artificial intelligence technology to transcribe conversations on a call. Skype offers subtitles in 11 different languages and Teams provides subtitles in English, with plans to add additional languages in the future. Google HangoutsGoogle Meet, and Webex also offer live caption in English. When using Zoom or other applications that do not offer closed captions, use WebCaptioner, which can caption anything that is being heard on the computer. Both Android and Apple devices provide Live Caption for audio and video calls and recordings.

For people who are deaf and hard of hearing who communicate in sign language, Microsoft Teams provides an option for an interpreter to be on a capreter must be invited to the call and their display must be pinned on the right-hand side (viewer’s perspective) to ensure accessibility. If a teleconference has a phone number, one can use a video relay service phone to call in and get a sign language interpreter. Webex also allows adding a sign language interpreter through a third party. Consider also using Sorenson Wavello, an app that provides interpreting services during video conferences.

For a person who is blind, partially sighted or has low vision, Microsoft Teams works with built-in screen readers in PC and Mac computers that can read text out loud. Android phones also have a built-in screen reader called TalkBack, and Apple devices have a VoiceOver feature that reads the contents of the device’s screen out loud, allowing the user to browse apps, open links, and type texts  with ease. Google Hangout also offers a Chrome extension with screen readers, magnifiers, full page zoom and high-contrast color. 

2. Be mindful that not every place where employees work has internet access. Nearly 19 million or 6 percent of Americans lack access to the internet. Moreover, only 51 percent or 3.9 billion people in the world have internet access. Because many homes, especially those in many developing countries, still lack a stable high-speed internet connection, a backup plan is needed. Give the option for colleagues to connect via landline phone when their internet signal is not strong. For example, Skype offers low-cost options to call a landline or mobile phone overseas. Moreover, provide Internet USB keys to staff members who do not have internet access in their homes. They are typically sold at cellphone stores. 

3. Provide the option to attend live events remotely. Include a link to attend online and a call-in number. Long before the pandemic required employees to work remotely, Chemonics’ Diversity and Inclusion team host inclusive, accessible virtual events that include panels, webinars, training sessions and workshops, and film screenings for employees working remotely.  For example, a few weeks ago, the team hosted an event featuring the newly released disability rights film Crip Camp streamed remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Attendees included U.S.-based employees as well as employees who work in Ukraine and Colombia. 

4. Create online forums for team members to discuss ideas and concerns and work collaboratively during all hours and in different time zones. Ensure the platforms allow text to speech with a function to enlarge fonts and change colors for employees that are blind, partially sighted, or have low vision. Examples of accessible online platforms include Microsoft Teams, Skype group chats, Yammer, and Google Hangouts.

5. Allow colleagues to choose their hours to accommodate time zone differences when working with offices in other countries and colleagues who are traveling. Also, accommodate those with disability or caregiver needs by encouraging them to fulfill wellbeing needs for loved ones (e.g., breastfeeding and conducting physical therapy exercises). Remote work can also present a unique set of challenges for caregivers, which can include parents who have children under 18 and people who have elderly parents, a person with a disability, or a sick family member who needs care. According to a Pew Research Survey conducted in 2013, 47 percent of Americans in their 40s and 50s are supporting children under 18 years old and parents over 65 years old. During the pandemic, offer dependent care paid time off to caregivers to take a couple of hours off a few times a week to assist children with schooling or attending to elderly parents. 

6. Lastly, invest in training for remote work tools. Develop content and hold office hours to train employees on collaboration tools such as Teams, Teams Live Stream, Adobe Connect and Google Hangouts, Meets, and Webex to make remote work smoother and more efficient. Google offers free resources on how to work remotely during COVID-19. Ensure the training include accommodations so that everyone can learn their best, such as live caption, translation, sign interpreter, and screen reader.

Providing reasonable accommodations, and creating accessible inclusive remote work environments should be a priority for employers. Following these best practices can help employers in developing and maintaining a remote/flexible work arrangement policy. Creating environments where all employees can feel welcome and included goes a long way in boosting the morale of staff, and creating a positive work culture for all to enjoy.