By Martin White | Jan 11, 2018
As our reliance on technology increases within the digital workplace, are we at risk of disenfranchising part of our workforce? PHOTO: Brian Suda
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, one in five people have some form of physical or cognitive disability. And yet as of 2016, only 17.9 percent of people with disabilities were employed, compared with 65.3 percent of people without a disability.
Nevertheless chances are at least one person in your organization probably has some form of disability.
These disabilities are at times obvious, such as employees with limited mobility or who are registered as blind. Yet many of these disabilities, dyslexia being a good example, are spectrum conditions. Some employees may only struggle with particular words, or find some color combinations difficult to work with. After all, one in 10 men have some degree of color blindness, of which red/green is one of the most common.
Chances are high your organization does not know which employees have a disability. Especially with dyslexia, employees may be reluctant to disclose the extent of their condition in case it limits their career prospects.
Dyslexic employees face special challenges with search applications, but this is only the tip of the challenges our increasing reliance on IT applications create.
As we become increasingly dependent on these applications in our digital workplaces, are we potentially disenfranchising and preventing some employees from being productive members of the organization?
Web Accessibility Initiative
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international community where member organizations, a full-time staff and the public work together to develop web standards. Led by web inventor and director Tim Berners-Lee and CEO Jeffrey Jaffe, W3C’s mission is to lead the web to its full potential.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is one of the results of this work. The WAI released the most current guidance on web accessibility, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Version 2.0, in 2008. Since the WAI first started working on the guidelines in 2005, many important advances in assistive technology and terminal devices have taken place.
The next version, Version 2.1, is expected to be published in the next few months. Version 2.1 builds on 2.0, but is backwards compatible, meaning websites and intranets that are 2.1 compliant are automatically 2.0 compliant. Version 3.0, codenamed Silver, is due for release at the end of 2018. Silver will go beyond what would be acceptable for a dot release based on WCAG 2.0.
As well as the core WCAG recommendations, the WAI publishes a wide range of reports that make recommendations on many aspects of web accessibility. The web site is not the most usable (resources are rightly allocated to working groups) but anyone involved in web design and web content management should become very familiar with WAI resources and work programs.
Challenges and Benefits of Compliance
The WAI’s work is to develop recommendations around good practice, not to create standards. There is no specific legal requirement to conform. The primary reason for taking web accessibility seriously is legislation on equal opportunities, which all EU member countries have implemented. In total 23 countries have legislation on employee rights, which supports the ethos of equal opportunities even if there is not an exact equivalent.
Employees with disabilities are invariably well informed about the potential power of information technology to support them in their work. They will understandably be upset if their employer is not equally well informed, or if a new application is introduced that is either not compliant or only partially compliant. For example, voice applications with chatbots may seem like a good idea, but quickly causes problems if the employee has a stutter, is working in a second language or cannot clearly hear the response from the application.
In terms of technology development, I’m concerned the minimal requirements in the U.S. (only Federal operations are subject to Section 508) mean software developers may be unaware of current requirements elsewhere in the world. On a positive note Section 508 (E205.4) does apply to intranets.
In my experience it can be very difficult to find out who is responsible for highlighting the organisation’s commitment to web accessibility and for training developers and employees in good practice. In the UK public sector this commitment is usually very visible but less so in the corporate sector. Worth noting here, recent research has shown higher conformance to web accessibility guidelines has resulted in increased performance and more positive user ratings for all users.
Building the Accessible Digital Workplace
I track reports on digital workplace development. Accessibility is rarely on the agenda. The assumption appears to be that all employees are without disabilities.
There are exceptions. The Digital Workplace Group published a good blog post on intranet accessibility issues and a paper on the topic was presented at the AIIM 2017 Annual Meeting. Full marks to Microsoft which does tackle the issues with commitment and clarity and to the work IBM is carrying out in this area.
The IT industry needs to recognize and promote the importance of accessibility more widely. If one in 10 potential users require high standards of accessibility, surely it should be seen as a competitive advantage to make it available.
About the Author
Martin White is Managing Director of Intranet Focus, Ltd. and is based in Horsham, UK. An information scientist by profession, he has been involved in information retrieval and search for nearly four decades as a consultant, author and columnist.