Accessibility must be part of your COVID-19 response

Hundreds of millions of people have transitioned to conducting their lives through remote digital systems. The need for accessibility has never been greater and our responsibility to provide equal access has never been more clear.

We work, learn, and teach on the Internet. We rely on the web to shop for groceries and other essentials and to participate in social, civic, and cultural events. As institutions scramble to create policy and process around remote participation for workers and students. the needs of those with disabilities are too often being ignored.

With so much at stake, this cannot continue. At-risk people with disabilities – from K-12 students to working adults and vulnerable seniors – are increasingly isolated from people, services, social support, and health information they critically need. Here is a brief look at the associated risks for people with disabilities of all ages and different needs. Some suggestions are included about what you can do to mitigate that risk and provide equal access to all your stakeholders.

General health and connectivity

Even in normal tmes, people with disabilities are often isolated. In these extraordinary times, they are at even greater risk. The online world we now share is more difficult to navigate and comprehend for those who use assistive technology or adaptive strategies to interact with websites and apps. Ordering a pizza from Domino’s may seem like a luxury in normal times, but accessing grocery delivery or health information becomes critically important during a global pandemic. We must urgently address the rights of people with disabilities to have equal access to information, human connection, and social services in these dangerous times.

Staff support for workers with disabilities

It might seem ideal for workers with disabilities to work remotely. At least it solves pesky transportation problems. However, there may be critical productivity supports that are more readily available in an office setting. Without careful planning, these supports may be missing from a remote work environment. The following considerations are needed to ensure that remote workers with disabilities are productive and engaged:

  • Support for collaborative work must include the accessibility of tools. How do your communication tools meet requirements for working well with assistive technology?
  • Shared resources including websites, documents, and videos must be fully accessible. What processes do you have in place to ensure digital resources can be used by all?
  • Does the employee have an accessible workspace at home and sufficient bandwidth?
  • How will the staff member get IT support when needed?
  • If using chat or other features to keep staff in sync, have you asked the vendor for a VPAT or accessibility statement?
  • What about the cultural aspects? Are all staff members oriented to understand the elements that create an inclusive work-from-home environment? For example if a cartoon or other graphic is posted does everyone understand the need for a descriptive text? If a video is posted, are captions required and readily available?

Thinking about these and other accessibility considerations will help staff with disabilities feel welcome and valued in your organization. Include disabled staff members in the planning process to ensure their needs are not overlooked as you move to remote work. The benefits of an inclusive workplace don’t change when the work is done remotely.

Students with disabilities in K-12 schools

The trend toward computer-based learning was well underway long before remote schooling became a critical need. Yet even in normal circumstances, students with disabilities are denied equal access to digital curriculum products and services. This is due to two related issues:

  1. Access to effective assistive technology (AT): Because students with disabilities are required by law to be educated in the most inclusive settings, many – especially those with learning disabilities – attend general education classes. Classroom teachers and aides are mostly untrained and therefore unprepared to identify the assistive technologies that could help students succeed. They often rely on scarce district level resources to make AT assessments and kids go unserved for years.
  2. Lack of accessible educational materials: digital course materials, including interactive activities and video-based teaching modules often don’t meet global accessibility standards. Thus, they are not readable and usable to the assistive technology students with disabilities use.

These two related deficits result in K-12 students being underserved even in the best of times. Despite the fact that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)require equal access to the general curriculum for all students, the overwhelming majority of schools fail to provide that level of access. Now that they are expected to learn from home, these deficits must be addressed more effectively in order to meet legal requirements and fulfill our obligation to educate all kids. Some resources to get started to help you meet distance learning needs of K-12 students with disabilities are provided by the Georgia Tech Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation.

Students with disabilities in Higher Ed

Once students transition into institutions of higher learning, they find themselves in an entirely different educational space. IDEA does not apply to higher ed. Rather, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and Subpart E of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 define what must be provided so that students with disabilities can participate in postsecondary programs. While these laws do not require the specially designed instruction mandated by the IDEA, college students are eligible for academic adjustments, program modifications and auxiliary aids and services. And even though colleges have no obligation to identify students with disabilities, they must be prepared to inform applicants of the availability of auxiliary services, program modifications, and academic adjustments.

Despite these laws, higher education continues to fail students with disabilities, even more now that students and many teachers with disabilities cannot access online learning platforms effectively and equally. Many students report that since leaving campus to learn from home, many of their support systems have been suspended. The rights of students with disabilities are being violated or overlooked and we are losing an entire cohort of bright, capable learners. An excellent analysis and some steps to get started in improving the landscape are found on the Accessibility Switchboard article “Keeping Students Connected from Home”.

What we can do now

Lack of digital accessibility is not a small problem and will not be solved overnight. Every institution, regardless of size and resources, can integrate accessibility thinking into their processes. Many free resources, such as those on the website of the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative, can help you get started. For example, their Planning and Managing Guideincludes a framework with links to specific tutorials and support for various roles related to providing web based services and information.

Here at Knowbility, we have worked for more than 20 years to help create a digital world that works for people of all abilities. We welcome the chance to help you take next steps, wherever you are in your accessibility journey. I have been struck these days by the message “Working Together, We Can Beat the Coronavirus.” Let’s remember that we can only really be together when our systems are accessible to all.

Stay safe, stay accessible. Onward to a more inclusive world!

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