Accessibility Comes from the Top Down

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Accessibility in the workplace comes down to two things: education and awareness. This remains true even as many of us are settling into our remote work environments.

A commitment to accessibility doesn’t require a total overhaul of workflow and procedure, but it does call for a degree of mindfulness we all lack from time to time.

November Champion, digital accessibility leader at a financial services company, says people are often not cognizant of the different ways their coworkers might consume content.

“A lot of companies are using Microsoft applications like Outlook, Word and Excel, and those are all fine until you start color coding things. That’s not going to work for someone with vision loss,” November explains. “People share screen shots and images assuming everyone can see them. It doesn’t take any less time to take a screen shot than it does to copy and paste the text. It’s just something people don’t think about.”

According to November, who is also is also the founder of A11ySTL, a local meet-up group of digital accessibility professionals, software engineers and developers don’t prioritize accessibility largely because it isn’t a major point of emphasis during their education.

“Someone with a four-year degree in Computer Science maybe gets an hour’s worth of material on web accessibility. That one hour will focus mostly on alt text for images without consideration for any other steps,” November laments. “It’s not too difficult for developers to structure software in a way that can be consumed appropriately by everyone. It’s just that literally no one’s asked them to.”

With so many people forced to shelter in place and work from home, companies are leaning heavily on video-conferencing platforms like Zoom. When it comes to overall accessibility, Zoom has emerged as the best choice for video conferencing, leaving similar applications like Cisco Webex, Skype and Microsoft Teams far behind in terms of disability-friendly design.

An accessible user interface generally improves the experience for everybody, and convenient screen-sharing, editable whiteboards, a live chat window and in-depth technical support offer universal appeal.

Zoom is easily navigable by screen readers, making it the preferred option among visually impaired users. For hearing-impaired users who read lips, Zoom’s video quality is more than adequate to follow along with a speaker’s words. It can present a challenge for those who communicate via American Sign Language (ASL), however.

“Zoom is very much designed to put the video in view of the person making noise. This is a really nice feature when you don’t know everyone’s name; their faces pop up so you don’t have to try and respond to people by recognizing their voices,” November explains. “But that’s also why it’s harder to keep an ASL interpreter in view. The interpreter’s not making any noise.”

Certain steps can help mitigate this issue, however. In an effort to prevent sensory overload, it’s generally recommended that larger Zoom meetings limit the number of active videos to four. Deaf participants can also keep their ASL interpreter continuously visible by pinning their video.

Screen pinning disables active speaker view and maintains focus on the interpreter throughout the meeting. This can be accomplished by selecting ‘Manage Participants’ on the Zoom Room Controller, scrolling to the interpreter’s name and choosing ‘Pin’ or ‘Spotlight Video.’

The other applications you’ll continue using for business productivity at home – things like PowerPoint, Excel and any number of email clients – can be made accessible with just a measure of sensitivity and attention to detail.

Copy and paste text into a document or email rather than attaching a screenshot or scanned image. Make sure your slides and charts incorporate the optimal ratio of color contrast, and don’t rely solely on color. Different shapes, patterns and fonts can also convey information.

If you must use color-coded spreadsheets, add an extra column indicating the color and its significance. Even if none of your team members are disabled, it’s worth remembering that 10% of men experience color blindness, and age-related vision loss is quite common across the entire population.

According to November, it’s not enough for a handful of forward-thinking employees to spearhead this effort. Accessibility must become an organizational philosophy, from the top down.

“I think the most important thing is that there needs to be some degree of executive-level support for this work,” November says. “In some places, accessibility becomes a very grassroots type of movement. There may be individual developers and teams who are passionate about inclusive design, but if no one is championing the cause at an executive level and actively adopting it as part of the corporate culture, then accessibility becomes very difficult to accomplish.”

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