The sudden rapid transition to remote work has brought about many benefits for employers. Among these benefits are happier employees, greater cost savings, and access to a more diverse talent pool. However, remote work also comes with its own set of challenges, one of which is digital accessibility.
In the United States, one in four adults lives with a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that businesses make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, and these laws extend to remote workspaces.
The following accessibility best practices for remote workplaces, while not exhaustive, will help you create a work environment where everyone can benefit equally from digital products, services, and content.
Choose accessible remote work products
Audit the tools you currently use for remote work and become familiar with their accessibility features. The following remote work tools are a good place to start:
- Audio and video conferencing (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.)
- Document management (SharePoint, OneDrive, etc.)
- Email (Google Workspace, etc.)
- Project management and collaboration (Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, etc.)
- Office suites (Microsoft Office, etc.)
When evaluating a new remote work product, confirm that the tool supports commonly used assistive devices, including screen readers and refreshable braille displays. Also, look for built-in accessibility features; for instance:
- Keyboard accessibility
- Display preferences, such as resizable text and color filters
- Speech-to-text capabilities, such as real-time captioning and live or automatic transcription
Many top vendors, like Zoom and Google Workspace, provide documentation about native accessibility features, as well as how to integrate their products with third-party accessibility tools.
If you need a feature that isn’t built into the software you currently use, check to see if there’s a compatible third-party app. For example, Krisp is an AI-powered app that removes background noise during virtual meetings.
Host accessible virtual meetings
Virtual meetings, while convenient, come with their share of technical challenges. A bit of preparation can go a long way in ensuring that your meetings adhere to accessibility best practices.
Before the meeting, determine what your staff needs to participate equally. For example, will you need an ASL interpreter? Some conferencing tools, such as Zoom, can be configured so that interpreters are always visible.
Also, provide instructions to staff on how to adjust conferencing settings, including video, sound, chat, and display options. Let employees know who to contact if they have any technical difficulties during the meeting.
Limit meeting attendance to key stakeholders and give staff the option to call in instead of using their computer. The moderator should ensure that only one person speaks at a time, that all other mics are muted, and that everyone identifies themselves before they begin speaking.
If you’re sharing your screen, describe the content on the screen for people who are blind or visually impaired.
Instruct staff on how to access closed captions, live transcripts, and/or subtitles during the meeting. If your conferencing solution doesn’t provide for real-time captioning or live transcription, consider using a third-party app like Web Captioner, which offers free real-time captioning in over 40 languages.
Always record live events and have them professionally transcribed afterward so you can share the recording and transcript with your team.
Create accessible content
Use the following tips for accessibility best practices.
Use heading styles in Microsoft Word to create subheads (instead of bolding text and increasing the font size, for example). This helps screen reader and braille display users understand the hierarchy of the document and navigate it more efficiently.
Microsoft provides an Accessibility Checker tool for making sure your Office content, including Word documents, spreadsheets, and email, is accessible to people with disabilities.
Video and audio
When creating audio and video content, use professional recording equipment and record in a quiet location. If you must have background music, keep it at a low volume for the benefit of people who are hard of hearing.
Transcribe, caption, and/or describe audio and video content. Poorly done captions are just as frustrating as no captions at all: For audio with multiple speakers or any background noise, it’s best to hire a professional typing company instead of using an auto-transcription tool.
Images, graphics, and presentations
Alternative text should be provided for descriptions of images, which can be read using screen readers.
Use good color contrast for the benefit of visually impaired and colorblind users. Make use of whitespace and proximity to help users understand the relationship between elements of the content. Ensure that the text in charts and graphs is large and clear enough to read.
Avoid the use of flashing, strobing, or flickering content, which can trigger seizures in people with PSE.
The major social media platforms are continually evolving to make sure their platforms align with digital accessibility best practices. For example, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn all have an option for adding alternative text to your images.
Additionally, many social media sites now let you caption video content by uploading captions as a sidecar file (that is, separate from the video itself).
Website and email
Use a responsive design for your website and emails and test them to make sure they function as intended on mobile devices and screen readers. Choose clean, easy-to-read fonts of adequate size and line spacing, and use good color contrast throughout for the benefit of people who are colorblind or have other visual impairments. Provide plaintext versions of emails for people who use screen readers.
On your website, make use of HTML markup like headers, which can be read by screen readers, instead of simply styling the content–for instance, by bolding text or increasing the font size. Whenever possible, use HTML to create charts and lists instead of posting them as images. If you use images to complement the text, provide alternative text using the HTML alt attribute. Choose semantic HTML elements that describe the content (e.g., <table>) instead of non-semantic elements (e.g., <div>).
For more information on how to make web content accessible, review the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, which is the universal standard in web accessibility.
Accessibility best practices will evolve along with your business and workforce. You can streamline the process by creating a simple system for your employees to put in requests or give feedback on your current tools and procedures, as well as by providing digital accessibility training to staff. As more software developers and vendors adopt accessible technologies, businesses will encounter fewer challenges when creating an accessible remote workplace.