Hybrid work factors prominently in many organization’s office reopening plans, but the format still raises questions about compliance with federal civil rights regulations. That is particularly so for workers who are visually- or hearing impaired, said sources who spoke to HR Dive.
According to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau data, there are approximately 9 million employed U.S. persons who have a disability. Of that group, 31% have some form of hearing difficulty, while about 22% have some form of visual difficulty.
Reopening physical offices presents an interesting situation for workers who are visually or hearing impaired, according to Terri Rhodes, CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. At home, hearing impaired workers likely already have acquired hearing devices, amplifiers and other tools. Similarly, those with visual impairments likely have computer monitors set to display colors or fonts a certain way. But standard issue, in-office equipment generally takes more time and effort to prepare, Rhodes explained.
Whether employees are returning to the workplace full-time or beginning a flexible work arrangement, it is important for employers to approach each employee individually once a request for an accommodation has been made, Sharon Rennert, senior attorney advisor at the Americans with Disabilities Act division of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, told HR Dive in an interview.
Additionally, employers may need to take into account the fact that support staff for people with disabilities may see their hours change to accommodate facility capacity limits or other scheduling difficulties, Rhodes said. Because of these changes, IT workers, ergonomists and others who support accommodation efforts may not be in the office when needed, and so it may take longer or require more scheduling effort for employers to set up accomodations.
“We hear from lots of employers who [experience] it,” Rhodes said. “Normally you have staff on site who would handle these types of questions, and they’re not there.”
If support staff shortages complicate the timeline for providing an accommodation, Rennert said HR teams can elevate the issue to ensure that it is given the highest priority by support staff, particularly if such staff are unfamiliar with the ADA’s provisions and may need assistance with understanding what the law requires.
Is your Zoom chat accessible?
Equal access to virtual meetings and training has become a pressing issue for visually and hearing impaired workers, Teresa Goddard, lead consultant at the Job Accommodation Network, said in an email to HR Dive.
Video calls are a staple of remote, hybrid and other forms of flexible work. They also factor heavily into modern hiring processes. But both visually and hearing impaired people may encounter difficulties if employers fail to consider their needs when utilizing video, Rhodes said.
What are some example accommodations?
SOURCE: Job Accommodation Network
For example, hearing impaired employees may require closed captioning or a transcription service to be able to participate effectively in remote meetings. Employers also can incorporate chat features.
“Know your audience,” Rhodes said. “If you have a hearing impaired individual who is on this team, make sure you have the proper tools.”
Visually impaired workers, on the other hand, may benefit from the ability to turn their camera off during a meeting. If team members are presenting charts or other graphics in the form of a slideshow, they need to be cognizant of the fact that a visually impaired co-worker may not be able to see it, Rhodes added. Or if the person has an impairment that affects their ability to see certain colors, they may not be able to understand the nuances of what is being presented.
The same goes for spreadsheets and other documents utilizing smaller fonts. Managers and team members can take small steps to help visually impaired co-workers, such as asking whether everyone can see a visual element. “In fact, if a person can not see the graph, I would have a follow-up conversation to make sure that they understand the information,” Rhodes said.
There also may be certain minor technical difficulties to work through. “Employees often report difficulties when using screen magnification software and videoconferencing programs at the same time,” Goddard said. “For example, the computer may do some things more slowly than usual or the screen may look different than they expect. It may be helpful to contact the assistive technology vendor for suggestions or look for a different program.”
Potential problems in hiring
Employers got a wake-up call from federal regulators earlier this month, when the EEOC and the U.S. Department of Justice published a pair of technical assistance documents that cautioned employers about the potentially discriminatory impacts of algorithmic decision-making tools in hiring and other processes.
These tools, which utilize technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, may be particularly problematic for people with disabilities, the agencies said. For example, EEOC said, if job candidates are required to complete an online, gamified assessment, those who have impairments that inhibit their ability to interact with the assessment may be at a disadvantage.
An employer’s efforts to create an accessible job application should begin before the job is even advertised, Rennert noted. For instance, an employer can proactively assess whether anyone with a disability would be shut out from participating in its process. The employer also can directly state in job postings that it welcomes reasonable accommodation requests from people with disabilities; “You don’t hide that fact, you put it out very prominently,” Rennert said.
The ADA has long required employers to provide alternative ways for employers to apply for jobs, but employers “don’t always remember that,” Rhodes said.
Adjustments to virtual hiring processes may be similar to those used for virtual team meetings. If the employer is conducting video interviews and a candidate is hearing impaired, the employer can provide closed captioning so that the applicant can interact with the interviewer. If the applicant is visually impaired, the employer may be able to provide someone who can consent and sign for the applicant. But the important thing for employers is to have alternatives in place for those who request an accommodation and staff who can navigate the interactive process, Rhodes said.
The ADA does limit a covered employer’s ability to ask questions about a candidate’s disability, but when a request for accommodation takes place, the employer does have some room to ask what an applicant or employee needs and why, if reasons are unclear, Rennert said.
“Candidates know the process, and so the individuals doing that initial screening or hiring process should be cognizant that they’re asking people: if we do a video interview, are you able to participate? Are there any tools you need to participate? I think it’s just a good business practice to ask if there’s a tool you need,” Rhodes said.