Enabling Remote: Accessibility Issues in the Office-Optional Workplace

Alongside managing any transition to remote or office optional working, many organisations large and small are committed to being more inclusive as employers, and endeavouring to offer more equal prospects to traditionally-disadvantaged members of society.  

When a commitment to diversity is coupled with a robust remote working approach, new possibilities open up to the employer seeking to find the best person for the job, whoever and wherever they are. One vital area where remote working can immediately improve diversity in organisations is in opening up new opportunities for disabled people.  However, there are many different aspects to think about, in order to maximise the potential for all parties.

Disabled people are the minority group with the highest levels of unemployment, and there are, as our recent podcast guest Nic Steenhout (web accessibility consultant) points out, many reasons for this, including social factors starting from unequal access to education in early years, to simple physical barriers involved in getting to a traditional workplace. If healthy and able-bodied people often find a lengthy commute to be a stressful endurance test, it’s hard to imagine how much more difficult it must be if your mobility is impaired, or if you suffer with mental health problems or challenges being in crowded spaces.

Even the flexibility to work non-traditional hours and travel outside of busy periods can help to make work itself more accessible - remote work doesn’t mean never going into the office, perhaps someone could work from home during the rush hour then travel in occasionally, or even regularly when it’s quieter?  Working from home is the most obvious option for ensuring that a workplace is perfectly adapted for the needs of any user, not least because many workplaces are still physically inaccessible - which doesn’t only apply to traditional offices, as Nic points out when we spoke to him about this issue: “In Montreal a year ago, I identified 19 co-working spaces. Of which, only 2 had wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Only one of those two had a no-step entry! So there was only 1 place I could have gone to use. Out of nineteen!”

Accessible technology

Enabling and adapting tech for disabled people to work effectively may be more expensive than a typical set-up, but providing these adaptations is a legal necessity wherever the workplace, and might make you question how flexible you are in your tech set-up generally. If you’re not flexible, or consider that you cannot be, why not? Is there a genuine security/compliance reason, a cost basis, or just ‘we’ve always done it like this’?  This has parallels with the reaction to introducing remote work in some organisations: ‘We know it won’t work because we’re perfectly happy with the way we already do it’. Exploring unexamined assumptions can enable transformative change, and this can have benefits for everyone, not just those who need the flexibility for accessibility reasons - for example, those who simply prefer to use their own familiar devices and tools, particularly when working while travelling.

The following useful critique of remote collaboration tools were provided to us directly by Nic: “The most accessible video conferencing platform is Zoom. Webex kind of is. Others are hit or miss. The whole series of Google office tools are supposed to be, but... Atlassian's JIRA is not as good as it could be. Slack is getting better, but I still have blind colleagues who ask for important info to be emailed rather than shared on Slack, for reasons of access.” [Slack’s support note for screen readers is here if you’re curious. It looks far from straightforward…]  

So when considering your remote work ecosystem, examining the elements through the lens of accessibility needs can be enlightening - and can also pose challenges. Particularly when you’re creating a set-up based on existing team members, it’s difficult to consider the needs of potential future hires, when you don’t even know what they are, or who your decisions might potentially exclude/disadvantage. It’s clear that the makers of different tools could learn from the feedback of disabled users, to bake-in the accessibility features that some may rely on, but which could make life easier for every user - from voice activation to clear information taxonomies. It’s similar to the way making buildings or public transport accessible for wheelchair users, often makes it easier and more comfortable for other people to use, from parents to older people.

On reading this, anyone struggling with the creation of the perfect combination of online tools as part of the transition to remote working might start to sigh at the need to anticipate these unknown unknowns, and yet more constraints on how they work effectively together.

Benefits of diverse abilities

Getting accessibility right has many benefits. For one thing, there might well be people in your team who could already benefit from a new approach to accessibility within your organisation.  As Jane Hatton from from specialist employment agency Evenbreak (and recent podcast guest) points out, “you are almost certainly already employing disabled people. You just might not know. Most impairments (around 80%) are not visible, so many people just don’t mention them. Consider dyslexia, diabetes, asthma, chronic pain, autism, mental health conditions and so on.”

True inclusiveness is about so much more than accessible software or bathrooms, it’s about supporting team members through the whole of their journey with you, from hiring through managing the long-term effects of their situation. The arguments for employing disabled colleagues are powerful and positive, going far beyond any diversity box-ticking agenda. Disabled people make for loyal and committed colleagues, so this investment is worthwhile in retention terms, as Nic reminds us, “when we find a job that's a good fit, we tend to stay.” And if remote work gives you access to hiring the best person for the job wherever they are, then what if that best person just happens to be a disabled person?

A lifetime of forever solving problems in a world not built for their needs means that disabled people are not only the experts in their own support requirements, they are very often highly resourceful, adaptable, and creative people, as well as reliable - attributes highly sought-after in most professional roles. A lifetime of seeing the world differently brings valuable new perspective to many business challenges as well. And as Jane has blogged about employees with autistic spectrum disorder, “While autism affects all individuals to varying degrees, it’s extremely common for these individuals to possess exceptional and unique skills that enable them to thrive in many everyday roles, from computer programmers and statisticians to journalists and writers.” However, typical recruitment and selection procedures which do not take account of the needs of neurodiverse candidates can mean such talented people to get eliminated early in the process. (Jane’s article also contains excellent advice for adapting expectations and procedures for interviewing and onboarding autistic colleagues.)

Towards inclusion with remote

The benefits of understanding flexible and inclusive leadership combined with a remote-first outlook can only be good for all of the team, whether disabled or not. “Familiar surroundings adapted to their access needs, the ability to manage work hours around health condition and other commitments, and autonomy in managing own workload…” all lead to: “Productive, happy, loyal, committed staff”, Jane reminds us. And that’s good for colleagues of all abilities.

So while it’s clear that remote work is not a magic wand for disability employment issues, as more and more organisations embrace the potential of transitioning to an office-optional setup, it opens up new potential for greater inclusivity. Enabling a frequently-excluded cohort of highly skilled and motivated workers to access new opportunities has a strong business case for the workforce as a whole, and organisations with the foresight to embrace the challenges will reap the rewards these colleagues can bring - which include improvements in profitability, competitive advantage, inclusive work culture, and ability awareness, according to a recent Pubmed literature review.

In addition, it’s a salient reminder to ensure you design your remote ecosystem with the needs of all present and future team members in mind - considering hidden disabilities, long-term health needs and accessible tools, among other factors. It’s more of a challenge than looking at simply what suits everyone who currently needs to use it. By focussing on the outcomes you want from the different elements of the infrastructure you use to work together, you’ll be future-proofing your investment in recruiting and retaining the best talent for your organisation.

Enabling Remote_ Accessibility Issues in the Office-Optional Workplace.png