By Fredericka Argent and Hannah Edmonds-Camara

In our increasingly hyper-connected, technology-reliant society, it is important to ensure that the information technology (“IT”) that we use is accessible for all individuals. “Accessible IT” refers to technology that individuals with disabilities can navigate, perceive, understand and interact with and that enables them to consume and create content independently. It is incumbent on businesses, in particular, to provide their employees and customers with accessible IT so that nobody is left behind. This is not simply a matter of good business ethics; it is also reflected in the legal and compliance landscape. For example, in the U.S., regulators have recently taken strides to increase the accessibility of IT for persons with disabilities and to harmonize IT accessibility standards with those in other countries through the adoption of new rules pertaining to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 508”). Section 508 requires all IT developed, procured, or used by federal agencies to be accessible to federal employees and to the public, except where unduly burdensome.

Compliance with the new Section 508 standards was required as of January 18, 2018. In order to mark the coming into effect of the new version of Section 508, this blog is running a short series highlighting the importance of accessibility, especially in the workplace. We will look at the business imperative for providing accessible IT to employees and customers, the legal and compliance landscape, the role of standards in the U.S., EU and Australia, and offer some practical guidelines for meeting accessibility goals.

Part 1: Workplace accessibility: The business imperative

Many multinationals have testified to the positive impact of increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. According to the International Labour Organization (“ILO”), advantages include access to a wider pool of talent, increased innovation, enhanced employee engagement and retention and improved reputation. Organizations with a diverse range of employees are also better placed to understand the diverse needs of their customers.

The ILO estimates that there are more than 1 billion people in the world today — or 15% of the global population — with a disability, either permanent or temporary, including those affecting visual, mobility, hearing, cognitive, speech and neural functions. However, despite the clear benefits of a diverse workforce and the significant number of individuals around the globe who live with a disability, individuals with disabilities often face significant barriers to employment. In the U.S., for example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2016 that only 17.9% of individuals with disabilities are employed, in contrast to 65.3% of non-disabled people. In the UK, only 47% of persons with disabilities are in employment, versus 80% of the non-disabled population.

According to the World Health Organization (“WHO”), “a person’s environment has a huge impact on the experience and extent of disability. Inaccessible environments create disability by creating barriers to participation and inclusion.” Creating accessibility-friendly working environments in which persons with disabilities can thrive is important for employers seeking to be inclusive. This includes not just adaptations in physical workspaces, but also to technology deployment. As technology literacy becomes increasingly vital to social inclusion, the lack of accessible IT can be a significant hurdle to successful employment for persons with disabilities. Individuals with impaired motor skills may find it difficult to use traditional keyboards, for example; the visually impaired will struggle unless they have assistive technologies that do not rely solely on sight; and sufferers of photosensitive disabilities need to be able to use technology in the workplace that does not trigger a seizure. Employers should note also that frequently disabilities are “hidden”; employees with chronic illnesses, impaired cognitive or mobility conditions (even when this is temporary — such as a broken arm) may not be easily identifiable for an employer, especially as distance-working becomes more popular.

Given these challenges, employers that provide accessible IT will be far better equipped to both recruit and retain employees with disabilities. The Business Disability Forum found in a study of 145 employers that around half of employees with disabilities cited workplace adjustments as a key factor in whether they remained at a company. Accessible IT can span technologies from screen readers (technology that reads the text displayed on the screen to assist individuals with visual impairments) to enabling all aspects of the computer to function without the use of the mouse (i.e., by providing all functionality via the keyboard), which can aid those who have reduced fine motor control.