Technology

How Companies Can Make Their Remote Working Inclusive for the Deaf and Blind

Laurence Dutton
  • Technology tools present ways for employers to keep their staff engaged but it's not always a straightforward option.
  • For staff that are deaf or hard of hearing, real-time captioning and subtitles on video calls is still a nascent but advancing technology.

As remote working takes a greater hold amid the coronavirus pandemic, a wealth of opportunities can open up for people that may not have existed before.

For example, less of a focus on the office can draw more people with disabilities into the workforce.

But for companies, there are still a great deal of considerations to take into account when creating an inclusive remote environment for blind and deaf people.

Martin O'Kane of the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the U.K. said in the case of people with sight loss, they may often rely on public transport to get to an office. Remote working may now present a chance for employers, but it will put their commitments to inclusivity to the test.

During the pandemic, video calls became the lifeblood for many companies to keep operations flowing whether in team meetings or for recruitment of new talent.

Organizations like RNIB and the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Center at University College London have issued guidance to employers on best practices for remote working with people that are visually impaired or hard of hearing.

But these guidelines are ever-evolving with the rapidly changing future of work.

"If you've sight loss, you're probably using types of technology that will allow you to read information so that could be magnification or it could be speech reading software," O'Kane said. 

"The key thing for an employer is that you make sure that whatever system you're using is compatible with that software."

A spokesperson for DCAL said the organization is in the process of "working out how we will deal with this blended way of working".

"It is vital that the views of deaf people and their lived experiences are taken into account so that any improvements in tech are actually what deaf people want and need. Not what hearing [people] think they want and need."

Tech tools

Technology tools, especially for communication and video conferencing, present ways for employers to keep their staff engaged but it's not always a straightforward option.

Gilles Bertaux, the CEO of Livestorm, a French video conferencing and webinar platform, said it is currently making tweaks to its platform to better serve the visually impaired.

"In our online room meeting, we're trying to meet the standards for blind people based on the ARIA specifications," Bertaux said, referring to a set of standards for web accessibility from the World Wide Web Consortium.

"It's mainly targeted at people who are visually impaired or blind. In practical terms, it allows anyone to navigate the Livestorm room with their keyboard. We're going to work hard on it next year to improve it again."

He added that its design team is also working on filters to boost the color contrast on calls that will make people and objects more discernible.

For staff that are deaf or hard of hearing, real-time captioning and subtitles on video calls is still a nascent but advancing technology with major platforms like Zoom and Google Meet implementing live audio captioning.

Simon Lau, vice president of product at Otter.ai, a transcription software company, told CNBC that live captions can help reduce so-called "Zoom fatigue" for people that rely on lip-reading while on calls.

Meanwhile, Josh Miller, CEO of video transcription firm 3Play Media, said that while technology in this field is improving, it can be "still pretty clunky," but companies should not be afraid to test the tech out with their employees.

"I think there's a hesitation to engage in these types of services because of the complexity and not necessarily because of the cost. It's that unknown of how does this actually get implemented. One of the things that we're really excited about is simplifying it," Miller said.

Human touch

Technology may bridge certain gaps in keeping a remote team functioning but there are still old school considerations to make by not relying on tech to have all the answers.

RNIB's O'Kane said that companies need to train employees more effectively on disability as part of their diversity programs.

For video conferencing with the visually impaired, this means more considerate etiquette on calls. This ranges from avoiding using too many visual cues to clearly stating your name when you speak on a group call. 

"If you have sight loss and you can't see who's speaking, it can be very confusing to try and work out who is saying what," O'Kane said.

"It comes down to making sure that all staff involved in remote calls have some good information on sight loss that's part of their equality and diversity training." 

Inaccessible web

All of this gets to the heart of a lingering problem with digital services. According to stats from Softbank-backed marketing tech firm Contentsquare, 70% of the web is largely inaccessible to those with visual disabilities.

The company established the Contentsquare Foundation earlier this year, after acquiring French start-up AdaptMyWeb, which makes assistive software. The foundation helps companies identify accessibility issues and bottlenecks on their websites, especially for the visually impaired and has developed a plug-in for users to adjust and improve their reading experience online.

Chief Marketing Officer Niki Hall told CNBC that many companies are still unaware of how inaccessible their sites or digital services are and often need it spelled out for them.

"We give people accessibility issue reports. Some people don't even know that they have issues," Hall said. "They can look at it and see what's wrong with their site and how they can improve it."

Identifying problems in accessible tech is just one step, she added, creating solutions and building services that are mindful of all users needs to be front of mind for companies.

"The bare minimum is to create a level playing field for all. It's everyone's responsibility to ensure that their employees, their customers, everyone is creating the best experience, not a frustrating one."

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