The so-called “remote work revolution” has amplified in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and with it, ushered in a wave of increased accessibility for professionals with disabilities.
Work-from-anywhere policies have mitigated accessibility barriers and created more opportunities for professionals with disabilities to find gainful employment. At the same time, the professional world is elevating its commitment to accessibility and inclusion, as well.
In fact, roughly 30 major investors with more than $2.8 trillion in assets recently signed a joint letter demanding the companies they invest in “create inclusive workplaces built for sustainable, long-term performance by tapping into talent with disabilities,” according to a 2022 article from Disability:IN, a nonprofit resource for business disability inclusion worldwide.
Investment is one thing, but to make a meaningful impact, businesses must transform their remote teams into accessible and inclusive spaces for professionals with disabilities.
Here are several things you can do to make that a reality.
Creating Accessible & Inclusive Remote Teams
Although remote work has been a massive boon for professionals with disabilities, to ensure that increased accessibility translates to your distributed team, you ought to implement several policies and practices to foster a truly inclusive work culture.
It can be daunting trying to adopt all of these at once. If that’s the case, gradually roll them out in a way that is authentic and impactful for team members living with disabilities.
Keep in mind that while these efforts are geared toward addressing the specific needs of professionals with disabilities, you’ll find all of your team members will benefit from increased flexibility and heightened consciousness around accommodations.
Offer Flexible Remote Work Options
The benefits of giving employees the opportunity to work from anywhere can’t be overstated. This flexibility has transformed work life for professionals with disabilities in a few ways.
Removes Transportation Barriers
Commutes impose additional burdens on professionals with disabilities, be it the fact many have to rely on inaccessible public transportation, getting in and out of vehicles, or other precarities associated with vehicular traffic.
Plus, it is frequently more difficult to attend to medical needs when commuting to and from an office, be they planned or unexpected. Remote work eliminates most of these barriers.
Enables Employees to Create More Disability-Friendly Working Environments
Think about it. Of all the places you spend your time, your home is usually the environment best curated to accommodate your disabilities or personal preferences. For instance, someone with a cognitive or learning disability can more easily remove the distractions and disruptions common to an in-office work setting.
When working from home, professionals with disabilities don’t have to prepare as much for unplanned disturbances to their work day and they have much more control over potential obstacles compared to the oftentimes chaotic nature of office spaces.
Reduces Sensory Overload & Other Unnecessary Stressors
If open floor plans are frustrating for non-disabled professionals, they’re tormenting for professionals with disabilities.
The constant barrage of conversations and movements inhibit a person’s ability to focus on the task at hand. The smattering of swivel chairs, backpacks, and people rushing in between cubicles and offices turns the workplace into an obstacle course for professionals with mobility impairments, as well.
Traditional office spaces are especially injurious to professionals with ADHD. Sebastiaan de Man, a Salesforce employee diagnosed with it, articulates why: “The way I can best explain it is that I have no filter or prioritization in my brain. This goes for any external stimuli like sounds, noise, but also internally for any thoughts that ‘swim’ in my mind.”
When working from home, it’s monumentally easier to remove the things that are distracting or triggering for a person.
Minimizes Burdensome or Disruptive Social Interactions
Although your work culture may generally be accessible and inclusive, professionals with disabilities still have to put up with occasional microaggressions or more benign but upsetting social interactions that build up over time.
This could entail the anguish people with speech disabilities sometimes feel in face-to-face interactions, or the need neurodivergent professionals have to “mask” their neurodivergent traits when socializing with team members in person.
This can be draining.
“I pay a price for masking my neurodivergence,” explains Colm McNamee, a neurodiversity activist and community initiatives senior associate at Salesforce diagnosed with autism and ADHD. “It comes in waves of exhaustion. It's like putting on a mask to make other people feel more comfortable. Doing things that do not come naturally to me, because I've had to learn them as an adult. My neural pathways are different.”
Furthermore, most of us—regardless of disability status—are aware of how underproductive we become when surrounded by overly chatty coworkers.
Since remote work redirects team collaboration to more discreet channels such as Slack, email, or texting, it’s often easier for professionals to reduce the number of inaccessible or exclusionary encounters they may experience in person.
Implement Accessible Virtual Meeting Practices
As you go about transforming your work culture to be more accessible and inclusive, it’s important to revisit norms around virtual meetings. This is a great space to reinforce team expectations and ensure everybody experiences inclusion.
Here are a few things to consider integrating into your virtual meeting practices.
Establish Team ‘Access Checks’
This custom is practiced at the beginning of virtual meetings and used to make certain everybody is able to fully participate in the meeting. This means sighted professionals can see everybody who’s on screen, audio is clear for hearing team members, and captions or a sign language interpreter are available for those who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing.
Not only does this ensure your meetings are fully accessible, but it further communicates your commitment to inclusion in the workplace. And that doesn’t go unnoticed by team members with disabilities.
Remain Flexible With Audio & Video Options
It’s worth noting, depending on your team members’ needs, permitting cameras to be off or employees to briefly step away to address medical situations is another way to inject more accessibility into your team practices.
Ultimately, it’s about identifying obstacles and removing them based on employee needs.
For instance, this could mean letting employees with mental health disabilities step away from the camera for a moment, without drawing attention to them.
Use Chat Features Judiciously
Chat can be a helpful tool for many team members, but for those relying on assistive technology or screen readers, it can become very distracting, and even a little bit alienating.
Simultaneous audio from a speaker and chat can clash, creating a confounding experience. It’s even worse when more than one person speaks at a time.
As with any of these recommendations, accessibility is about addressing the accommodation needs of individual team members. Consult with everyone about which practices will create the most optimal virtual meeting experience for them.
Communicate What’s On Screen
This is particularly helpful for team members who are blind or have low vision. When giving virtual presentations with slides or visuals, describing what’s on screen guarantees everybody is included and accessing similar information.
If you have a PowerPoint or slide deck, sharing those with team members beforehand further enhances comprehension and accessibility.
Record Virtual Meetings
Sometimes employees need to step away to take care of a medical need or miss meetings due to their disability. Recording all virtual meetings means everyone can access the information, whether they’re present or not. Plus, generating a transcript of the recorded meeting can increase comprehension for those who don’t process auditory information as well.
Nurture a Sense of Belonging
Forging an accessible and inclusive work culture is just the beginning, however. They are part of a triad of values aimed at guaranteeing everybody is not only able to fully participate in the professional world, but have a sense of community or place.
While accessibility means all professionals have opportunities for gainful employment, it also means they are not prevented from engaging with digital platforms or physical spaces. Inclusion ensures everybody has a way to contribute their perspective or opinion, regardless of their race, gender, disability status, sexual orientation, religion, or country of origin, to name a few. An inclusive workplace is one where all feel heard, seen, or acknowledged.
But building a sense of belonging advances this ethos even further.
Think of how belonging contrasts with tolerance: Tolerating somebody means you’re not explicitly trying to bully, demean, or disenfranchise somebody. You may not express outward disdain, but you’re probably also not trying to wrap your arms around them either.
They have a seat at the table but it’s not a particularly comfortable one.
Alternatively, belonging is about creating a space where your colleagues are supported, welcomed, and valued. In other words, team members feel they can bring more of themselves to work.
One way you can foster belonging on your remote team is to routinely find ways to recognize team members for their accomplishments, celebrate their successes, praise them in genuine ways, or demonstrate interest in their personal lives.
Show that you care. When employees sense they won’t be unfairly criticized or mocked during virtual meetings, they are more likely to enjoy their professional lives–which means they are going to be more effective team members and productive employees, as well.
Salesforce is a founding partner of InclusionHub, a resource for digital accessibility dedicated to helping businesses prioritize accessibility, inclusion, and belonging. To learn more about how to foster a more supportive and accepting remote team, visit Salesforce’s a11y website.