As companies roll out return-to-office plans, accessibility advocates say it's important to remember the needs of employees with disabilities.
Why it matters
The COVID-19 pandemic brought accommodations that people in the disability community have requested for years, like remote work and captioned video calls. Now, experts say it's important to maintain a focus on accessibility to ensure all employees are supported.
Before the pandemic, Tori Allen would take client calls over the phone. But as someone who's hard of hearing, it was difficult to understand what people were saying. After the pandemic hit, those meetings became video calls over Zoom, making it easier for her to know what was going on.
"I rely on lip reading, and even just expressions, to fully understand what someone's saying," said Allen, a director of integrated marketing.
The sudden shift to virtual and remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic had significant implications for everyone, including -- and perhaps especially -- those with disabilities. For years, many in the disability community have asked for accommodations like working from home and greater digital accessibility. After all, a whopping 98% of US websites aren't fully accessible, according to a report by web accessibility company AccessiBe.
But it was only after many offices and schools shut down and went virtual that these requests came to fruition. As more people relied on video conferencing, tech companies began rolling out features like free closed captioning and automatic transcripts.
"Captions in video calls benefited not only deaf individuals but individuals who had to deal with noisy environments at home," said accessibility advocate Meenakshi Das. "Flexible work schedules didn't only help people with disabilities but also parents who had to take care of kids being at home."
But as the world slowly goes back to "normal," advocates say it's important not to lose any of the progress made over the last few years. While some offices transition from remote to in-person work, it's crucial to remember that for some people with disabilities, working from home is still ideal. Ultimately, it's about communicating with employees about how to best meet their needs.
Accommodations like working from home didn't happen because of the needs of people with disabilities, but they ultimately ended up benefiting some, like attorney Kelley Simoneaux. She's been using a wheelchair since she was 16, when a car wreck caused her to sustain a spinal cord injury. Since then, she's had to deal with barriers practically everywhere she goes, including on commutes. But that's one problem that was removed when she started working from home.
"I didn't have to worry anymore if the elevator was working on the metro, because I wasn't having to make my commute anymore," Simoneaux said. "You eliminate those potential problems that can exist by trying to get from point A to point B."
As companies roll out return-to-office and remote policies, it's important to understand individual needs vary, says Wally Tablit, director of state policy at RespectAbility, a nonprofit that promotes inclusion of people with disabilities.
"You can't just say, 'Everybody comes in. We're keeping in mind what people with disabilities want, [and] they want to be together.' And then a couple of people will be going, 'Um, I'm over here saying it's kind of a struggle for me. It'll take me two and a half hours to get into the office. I'd be much more productive on a Zoom meeting or meeting virtually,'" Tablit said.
It's not just about making sure virtual spaces are accessible. In-person spaces need to include accommodations, too. If an employee who's hard of hearing comes into the office, for instance, a company needs to make sure there's captioning in meetings.
While some progress has been made in recent years, there's still plenty of room for growth when it comes to both digital and physical accessibility. Simoneaux says because people have mostly been home for two years, not everyone has been thinking about the continued inaccessibility of physical spaces.
"In the digital space, we see a lot of movement, whereas in our physical spaces, we're starting to shift to people being out again," Simoneaux said. "I think we've seen this stall. … Let's all get back into the community, but let's do so in a way that we're continuing to have our eyes on the physical elements to make sure everyone can get around."
Advocates hope the empathy and mindfulness around accessibility continues as society transitions to a post-pandemic world.
"Think about all the people with disabilities that have to adapt to situations all of our lives on a daily basis in a world that's not accessible to all," said Jeff Wissel, chief accessibility officer at Disability:IN, a nonprofit resource for disability inclusion in business. "What I'm really hopeful [about] is that through the things we've learned, that post-COVID there'll be wider recognition that individuals with disabilities have been doing this for a long time."