The Coronavirus outbreak has already thrown us many a curveball. One of the most significant is the fact that a lot of people who usually work out of an office are suddenly required to work from home. For a lot of us in the tech field, this is not a problem – we do it from time to time anyway, and most of the systems we use are equally accessible from work or from home.
But this is not the case in all industries. Many positions are tied to a physical locale. I’m thinking, for example, of LCI’s manufacturing operations. There is no way to take the plastic molding machines home and operate them from there, for example. Interaction with that machine necessarily has to happen at the LCI facility where it is housed. But other operations are in theory portable – but until there was a reason to do so, many companies never went the extra mile of planning or even considering how their employees would work from home. In the case of companies that employ people with visual impairments, that includes the question of whether the systems their employees use are fully accessible even in their portable reiterations.
Take, for example, the case of a Call Center. In theory, phone calls can be made from anywhere. But making them from locations other than the office requires additional consideration. In the office, Call Center employees use a physical phone with tactile buttons and (ideally) markings, and accessibility is not an issue. If that same employee has to make or take phone calls from home, however, he or she will need to use a soft phone – an online-based virtual phone. As opposed to the physical phone, *this* phone may well be inaccessible to people with visual impairments – it might require a mouse for input, for example. It might not allow speech input or it might be incompatible with a screen reader. Thus, even if a company has a theoretical provision that allows its employees to work from home, that accommodation may never have been put to the test in terms of its accessibility until a work-from-home economy is actually force on as, as it is now.
Similarly, consider logging on to a company’s network. From the office, this is hardly ever a problem – most employee’s computers are permanently logged into the network, and no action is required on the part of the employee. But this is not the case if this same employee decides to work from home. Before being able to access the company’s network, the off-site employee is now required to log in – and that is a process that, depending on the computer system a company uses, might well be inaccessible. LCI is one of the largest employer of people who are blind or visually impaired in the country – and until recently, even our remote login was inaccessible. For a company with blind and visually impaired employees who sometimes work from home, this is inacceptable, and in our case, it was remedied. But many companies who don’t already have blind and visually impaired companies, and who don’t routinely allow people to work, may not have thought about these issues. Until now.
In a sense, this is one of the few positives that come out of this outbreak: It forces us to think about the barriers that might stand between us and our employees, and their ability to work from home. These barriers (not just to working from home, but to working at all) are precisely what we at LCI have been thinking about all along, and what our consulting services are aimed at helping you eliminate. But until this crisis, it was sometimes difficult to convince people that doing so is important, and that it will enable a large group of people to do work they couldn’t otherwise do, or to do work they could otherwise do only from a specific location. The Coronavirus is forcing us to take a closer look at the accessibility of our systems, and not as a favor to the few employees who use them, but as a vital part of getting the job done even if we all end up quarantined.