How the focus on Digital Employee Experience is leaving out People with Disabilities

“Digital Experience” and “Digital Transformation” are rapidly trending titles on job boards. But what does that mean? And does the digital employee experience and digital transformation work for people with disabilities or leave them behind?

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Blurry image of man shown from the shoulders down holding a tablet with various types of digital symbols overlaid — mobile, cloud, email, electronic documents, servers, and networks.

James Robertson defined digital employee experience (#DEX) as

…the sum total of the digital interactions between a staff member and their organization.

As organizations focus more and more on cost cutting at least in part by replacing employees with mundane repeatable jobs with automated processes involving software, the number of digital interactions that employees have with their employers is on a steep, upward slope. Here are just a few areas where the race to fully embrace the digital employee experience without consciously bringing everyone along for the ride has become seriously problematic.

I have more than 300 apps available to me on my “work hub” related to everything from tracking potential sales leads, to benefits administration (401K, healthcare, dental, eye glasses), to travel, expense reports, pay checks, email, procurement, training, contract execution JUST to name a few of the different type of digital channels I am encouraged to use rather than picking up the phone and calling someone.

With a handful of notable exceptions, over 95 % of my tools aren’t even close to being fully accessible. Other than Slack, Microsoft, and Salesforce, the best accessibility I’ve seen is bad, and most enterprise tools are downright unusable if you need Assistive Technology to access an equivalent experience.

Root Cause: This issue is a complete Catch-22: These tools largely come from third-parties, they aren’t home grown. The tools aren’t accessible because organizations that are buying them are not DEMANDING they be accessible. Organizations aren’t demanding the tools be accessible, because they aren’t employing enough people with disabilities who need these tools to be accessible.

Solution: The power is entirely in the hands of the purchasing organization to solve this problem. If your organization claims to be inclusive, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. Step up like Bank of America and Microsoft and voluntarily demand your vendors provide you fully accessible tools, or threaten to take your business elsewhere. Having accessible tools will make it easier for people with disabilities to succeed as employees without requiring assistance that honestly we really don’t want to ask for.

Imagine trying to use video conferencing if you are deaf or blind.

  • If you are blind, the visuals from a video call mean squat, unless a) someone describes the graphics to you real-time, which irritates other meeting participants because that slows down the call, or b) sends you accessible files that you can listen to with your screen reader in advance of of the meeting. Trying to participate in a video call when you are blind is effectively the same experience as a sighted person listening to a video call while you they driving. Except in the driving case, you voluntarily chose to participate in a visual channel in a non-visual mode. In the case of someone who is blind, their non-visual mode is not voluntarily and their barrier to full participation is largely the result of bad planning and failure to make the effort that would allow them to participate fully.
  • Being deaf is the opposite — the visual stream is everything, and the sound stream means squat. If the meeting organizer has pre-arranged for CART (Computer Aided Realtime Transcription, basically court reporting for business meetings) and is using a tool which supports CART (such as Zoom), which like the example of the blind employee requires planning and effort, the experience can actually be pretty good. But because of the planning and expense, CART for video calls rarely happens. Usually, at best, the deaf participant is left with incredibly substandard ASR (Automatic Speech Recognition). When you take into account people talking over each other, accents, and technical terms, you generally get an ASR accuracy rate of less than 65 %, when a rate of at least 88 % is required to be considered good enough to be equivalent. Only understanding two out of every three words without knowing who said them is not enough for full participation.

Root Causes: 1) There is too much friction for meeting participants to create accessible files in advance of meetings and arrange for CART. 2) Many people with hearing or vision loss are reluctant to request formal accommodations or enforce them if they have them.

Solution: Self-advocacy is the most effective solution. Affected employees need to articulate how they are impacted when meetings are not accessible to them. Support for staff members in establishing easy relationships with CART vendors and people who can make powerpoint decks accessible helps, as can support from disability ERGs. Finally, as a last resort, sometimes HR needs to get involved with these situations to make it clear to people working with the person with vision or hearing loss that these accessibility steps are necessary, and failing to provide them is discriminatory. If people were rated on their reviews about how well they did at hosting accessible meetings, they would pay a lot more attention.

There are some situations where meeting in person is better than meeting by teleconference, even if it requires a flight. All day conferences and project kick-offs, for example, are incredibly difficult to fully participate in from a remote office, no matter how accessible the teleconference software is.

Root Cause: 1) Most developing nations have little if any accessibility laws pertaining either to software or physical offices. This results in a largely inaccessible infrastructure 2) As high as the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is in the US, it is unimaginably high in developing nations. If you don’t have people with disabilities working, the offices don’t need to be accessible for them.

Solution: Facilities teams should be paying attention to physical building access when building custom campuses or selecting buildings in locations outside of countries with strong disability right’s laws.

Conclusion

One of the goals of the American’s with Disabilities Act was to lower the astronomical unemployment rate of people with disabilities. That is a goal that for the most part has not been met. In fact, according to 2010 census date, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities had increased in the almost 30 years since the passing of the ADA.

People with disabilities in general have lower levels of education, higher rates of poverty, and the stigma associated with disabilities and the requirement to provide reasonable accommodations are some of the reasons cited for the increase in unemployment. I firmly believe that the rapid expansion of the disability unfriendly “Digital Employee Experience” corporate model is also in at least some part responsible.

Where we as humans almost ALWAYS run into difficulties is where our technology ability to evolve surpasses our the ability to government those new technologies in an ethical manner. Digital Employee Experience and Digital Transformation seems to be one of those evolutionary mis-matches. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities in the US is “down” to “only” 250 % of that of people without disabilities. It is no wonder that this continues to be an issue with the rapid transformation of our workplaces into digitally-driven, globally located fortresses that are largely inaccessible.

Verna Myers is often quoted as saying, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” But over the years, “Belonging” has been established as the natural outcome of a successful diversity and inclusion program. Pat Wadors defined the term Belonging to mean feeling as an employee that your authentic self is welcomed and celebrated so one can thrive in the workplace.

Combining these two philosophies, Verna’s quote should be extended to:

Diversity is being invited to the party.

Inclusion is being asked to dance.

Belonging is knowing the lyrics and the music.

If you identify with a marginalized group (such as people with disabilities), working with an organization that keeps procuring inaccessible tools and acquiring inaccessible workplaces is not one where anyone with a disability feels like they belong, regardless of being invited to ever single party and being asked to dance to every song.

Written by

Accessibility Architect @ VMware. W3C Silver, ITI & IAAP GLC committees. Degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter.

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