Jeff: The American Foundation for the Blind AFB started a workplace technology study back in 2020 and then conducted a survey, the Workplace Technology Survey that was completed this year and today, April six, 2022, designated as Assistive Technology Awareness Day. How fitting to have Ariel Silverman, research specialist from AFB in the studio to talk about the Workplace Technology Survey. Hope you enjoy. Welcome to Blind Abilities. I’m Geoff Thompson. And in the studio today we have Ariel Silverman. She’s a research specialist with American Foundation for the Blind. Ariel, thanks for taking the time and coming on to blind abilities.
Arielle: Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff: The Workplace Technology Survey conducted by American Foundation for the Blind. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Arielle: Yeah. So this was a study that we began in 2020 to look at the experiences of workers who are blind or have low vision or are deafblind in the United States with regard to technology. So we know that technology is taking a more and more critical role in all aspects of the workplace. People aren’t just relying on technology to do their work, but also for all of these administrative functions like applying for a job, even applying for a job as a janitor now requires that you go online and fill out an application, completing interviews, completing the onboarding process, getting signed up for benefits, tracking time, completing required training. All those things now are so dependent on technology. And then of course, this project began at the beginning of the pandemic, but people are now using technology for things that for collaboration and other things that did not depend on technology previously. So we wanted to better understand how technology kind of interplays with the workplace environment and what kinds of accessibility challenges or opportunities technology can present.
Jeff: And what were some of the findings that you found out from the study? Were they surprising or did you expect them? And what’s the general feeling?
Arielle: I am a part of the blind community, so I’m very much aware of a lot of the accessibility gaps that occur in the workplace. But I think the findings really document just how prevalent those accessibility gaps are, particularly for things like completing required training, getting on boarded and being able to use new technology that an employer adopts. So a lot of participants talked about how they had access and they could do their work, and then all of a sudden the employer decided to go with a different platform or upgrade the platform, and they experienced significant challenges, delays, gaps in their access to their job functions that they could previously perform without difficulties. So I don’t think that was really surprising, but I think it’s important to document just how far we still have to go in order to ensure the legal rights that workers who are blind or have low vision have in the workplace are being upheld. I guess maybe what was surprising for some of us was that even though our participants were really highly educated and all of them were currently employed, so in many ways our participants were kind of the cream of the crop. They were the people who surmounted the obstacles and were able to maintain employment. But even then it seemed like some of them maybe weren’t as knowledgeable about their rights and responsibilities in the workplace with regard to accommodations as maybe they could be. And so one of our recommendations to call for ensuring that blind and low vision workers are fully educated through the VR process on their rights and responsibilities and the rights and responsibilities and role of the employer in ensuring accommodations.
Jeff: Because it’s okay to ask for accommodations. Yeah.
Arielle: Yeah, of course.
Jeff: Yeah. I’m really glad you did this survey because you think, oh, they’re hired and it’s over. But like you said, the onboarding process, the training that they do when they first start up and sometimes they have sandboxes where they practice their stuff before they’re unleashed to the world out there with their systems or even passing documents from one unit to the other unit or even modules for training. That all is a part of it. And that’s really not something that we really thought about before.
Arielle: Yeah. And a lot of people talked about having difficulty accessing documents from their colleagues, but their colleagues would prepare that would be like PDFs that wouldn’t have images described and things like that.
Jeff: And would that help with the human resources and the if they had an intersection somewhere to help with accessibility of document?.
Arielle: Yeah. I mean, I think many of our recommendations which are all available in the full report, deal with ensuring that accessibility policies are clear and comprehensive so that everyone who’s responsible for implementing them understands what the policies cover, and also so that employees understand how to request accommodations and get them the most timely manner possible.
Jeff: Mm hmm. A lot of our listeners are high school students transitioning to college or college students transitioning to the workplace or presently in the workplace. I was wondering, did the Workplace Technology Survey show any indication that once someone is hired that the lack of accessibility holds them back from moving forward, gaining promotions and or just advancing in their careers?
Arielle: Yeah, it did come up in some of the interviews that participants felt like they couldn’t necessarily advance to the levels that they wanted to because of inaccessible. Or occasionally it wasn’t super common, but sometimes people said that their responsibilities were reassigned, like if the company adopted a new system that they couldn’t use, instead of making the system accessible, the employer would just put them on a different team or give them different assignments. And so that could impact promotion and retention. I think there were also a lot of responses about like the impact of feeling excluded. Like if someone can’t access training, that maybe everyone together is doing this workplace training as a group and then the blind employee who can’t access the training feels really left out. They feel like they’re not full part of the organization because they have to do the training separately or they have to get someone to read it to them and maybe they can’t finish it as quickly as their coworkers do. And not only does that impact their work performance, but then they also feel like they’re not fully included in the group.
Jeff: Yeah, and here we are in the day of working at home or we’re not in the workplace, but in the workplace. Sometimes you could just slide your chair over to another cubicle and ask someone you’d have those resources. But now, working from home, virtually accessibility seems more important today. I mean, not that accessibility is less important on any other day, but virtually to get it to help out with a problem, you might have to wait a longer time because you’re not in the office. You don’t have the benefit of knocking on someone else’s cubicle or having it come down and check something out for you real quick.
Arielle: Yeah. And that’s where having a strong I.T. department that can provide remote technical support is really helpful, because I know you can’t just lean over and ask a person next to you to look at what’s on the screen. Some of the participants said like they had an issue, they would have to email support and they would have to wait for a response instead of just going down the hall and asking for help.
Jeff: Mm hmm. The Workplace Technology Survey is great information to have. How do you see this being distributed? Is it for the human resources at companies to acknowledge and address? Is it for individuals to realize what they’re up against? Or is the Workplace Technology Survey a tool to help bring awareness to the situation that we have in today’s workplace?
Arielle: If you look at the report, there are some recommendations at the end of the report that are meant for specifically for human resources managers, for I.T. departments and for technology developers. Because technology developers also have an important role in ensuring that the technology that’s actually comes out and is marketed to employers is fully accessible. So we’ve drafted some recommendations, but we’re definitely intending to refine those recommendations and make them more targeted to specific audiences, including human resources audiences in the coming months. And I think also for people who are looking for employment, there are some good takeaways in terms of understanding the landscape, terms of how important it is to really research and understand your rights and responsibilities in the workplace. I think also we’ve learned that technology skills are really important to have. And so for transition age students, for example, it’s important to have some knowledge of how to use a computer and not just a Braille device or a smartphone. Because our participants said in the workplace they use many, many different tools every single day on the computer and sometimes also with mobile devices, but certainly on the computer to complete required workplace tasks in pretty much any work environment. So it really underscores the importance of learning to use technology, learning how to problem solve, and also understanding self-advocacy and understanding your rights and responsibilities as well as the obligations that employers have.
Jeff: So as a part of a transition student or employer, it’s nice to have a large toolbox so you can actually switch browsers or switch screen readers or something to access it. It’s nice to have that available. You just spoke at C Sun. Do you feel that the companies, the corporations, the I.T. departments, the human resource departments, do you think they’re listening?
Arielle: I think it’s maybe too early to know exactly what the impact has been because the report did just come out. But it certainly seems like people are asking the right questions and they are wanting to read the report and they’re wanting to get the recommendations out there. And I think we look forward to expanding our efforts in the coming months and years. And getting the word out further than just the blindness community.
Jeff: Exactly is real, promising and exciting to see. Forbes magazine published an article on the Workplace Technologies Survey, and they had links to the full report, which you can also find on AFB org and you’ll find those links in the show notes as well. But that was exciting to see the reach that the survey is getting.
Arielle: Yeah, absolutely. So the report is at WW AFB dot org slash WTS and it’s available as a PDF download. It’s also available online in HTML. So you can quickly move from one section to the next by using the links. And there is an executive summary. So if you just want the highlights and you don’t necessarily want to dive through the entire report, but you just want. The highlights. You can download the executive summary or read it on the website.
Jeff: Oh that’s great. I really want to thank Mary Cook Foundation for the Blind and your team are doing for the blindness community and bring an awareness to the entire corporations out there and their human resource departments, which is going to help all of us in the long run.
Arielle: Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff: It’s always great to have Ariel Silverman with us in the studio and be sure to check out AF Borg and AFB Dawgs WTS so you can find out more about the Workplace Technology Survey. And a big thanks to American Foundation for the Blind for doing what they do for the blindness community and to bring an awareness to assistive technology on this designated day, April six, Assistive Technology Awareness Day. Thanks, Ariel, and thank you, AFB. A big shout out to CheeChow for his beautiful music. You can follow CheeChow on Twitter at LCheeChow.
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