Simple Strategies for Providing an Accessible Workplace for Blind Employees
The information systems (IS) department of any company plays a significant role in providing equal access to information. It's important to remember that accessibility solutions need not be complex. The following simple strategies can make a big impact in providing an accessible workplace and equal access to information for all employees, whether sighted or visually impaired.
Information in Alternate Formats
Consider making your company's information available via an employee Intranet. Almost all information can be distributed to employees electronically, by e-mail and the Intranet site. Make sure the interface is clean and follows good principles of accessible web design. Your task will be simplified because, on an Intranet site, you know what browser and assistive technology your employees are using.
Make your Intranet site the central repository for:
- staff directory
- employee handbook
- meeting minutes
- office procedure manual
- job postings
Tip: Include some fun areas, too. For instance, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) has a recognition program called Bravo awards, where employees can formally thank one another for their assistance or contributions. Via the Intranet site, employees can complete a simple Bravo award form. When submitted, a copy of the Bravo appears on a page of the web site and a copy is e-mailed to the recipient with a link to the online award.
Electronic Documents and E-mail
Memos to employees or collaborative documents can be created and distributed electronically. Also, install applications with standard configuration features that aid in developing accessible electronic information, such as sending e-mail messages in text rather than HTML or using "straight quotes" instead of "smart quotes."
Post your company's guidelines for creating accessible documents on the Intranet for quick referral, and include accessible design guidelines in training sessions for all applications. Introduce employees to simple guidelines for creating spreadsheets, tables, and presentations in an accessible manner.
If you have a braille reader on staff, provide braille versions of presentation materials and employee contact lists. For complex documents, train employees in using Duxbury software to format and translate materials for printing on a braille embosser.
For simpler documents, such as meeting agendas, employees can have WinBraille installed on their computers so that choosing Emboss instead of Print will send the document to a braille embosser. This provides a quick and easy way for employees to provide braille agendas or meeting minutes without needing to learn braille translation software.
Tip: In keeping with the spirit of equal access, AFB's employee book club chooses titles that are available in print, audio, and braille formats!
In some cases, audio format may be the preferred method for disseminating information. Teleconferences and voice mail are commonly used tools, particularly in companies with multiple offices.
In some cases, an employee might prefer to listen to a document on audiotape. This choice requires someone to record the information. At AFB, this option is available upon request but, since the wide availability of electronic information, it is used less frequently.
Another attractive option is the ability to send and receive e-mail via telephone. In addition to being accessible to employees with vision impairments, it is a popular option for employees who travel frequently.
The goal of every IS department is to test and configure office desktop and laptop computers in a way that will provide easy computing for all employees. You may find it useful to assemble a rotating group of computer users from across the organization. Look for employees with a variety of skill levels, representatives from regional offices, and employees who use a variety of applications, including assistive technologies. Together, research and test the best solutions for the suite of standard applications to be used at your organization.
Then discuss and test configurations that affect the usability of the software. For instance, AFB's advisory team created a custom global view for the Outlook Exchange calendar that was most usable for individuals using a screen reader. Try to optimize the usability for all employees and make these settings a standard part of the software installation process.
If you are using Microsoft products, try the following tutorials on adjusting the accessibility options:
- Word 2002 Step by Step Tutorials
- Outlook 2002 Step by Step Tutorials
- Resource Guide for People with Visual Difficulties and Impairments
Other configuration solutions:
- computers with dual-channel sound cards, so the screen reader won't interfere with other computing sounds
- speakers with headphone jacks, allowing the user the ability to review work read by the screen reader privately and without disturbing co-workers
- network settings, such as implementing roaming profiles
Tip: At AFB, every personal computer (PC) has JAWS for Windows installed so that a user can either use the software in demo mode to perform short administrative tasks, or can quickly install the JAWS authentication key on that PC for longer-term use. This strategy also provides mobility for employees so that anyone can sit at any PC and have an accessible work space.
Purchasing Accessible Software
Your advisory team can help you evaluate requests for additional software applications that are specific to the needs of particular departments. Create guidelines for departments that wish to request an accessibility evaluation of a proposed software application.
At AFB, a checklist was developed to identify and document the accessibility and usability of an application's interface. Here are some examples:
- Can controls be accessed with keyboard commands?
- Are graphics clearly labeled?
- Can the background and foreground colors be adjusted?
- Does the software have a logical tabbing order for fields in forms?
Training includes both general staff training, provided by the human resources department, and computer training, managed by the IS department. Be sure to make the materials associated with the training available in accessible formats. Supplemental materials, such as tutorials, can also be made available in a variety of formats; many print books have an audio version available.
Make computer training sessions inclusive by conveying information on both mouse-clicks and keyboard commands. If an application will be used very differently with a screen reader, consider offering additional sessions that focus specifically on keyboard commands.
Tip: Don't forget to include strategies for creating accessible materials. For example, the PowerPoint training curriculum at AFB points out ways to create slides that are readable with a synthetic speech program.
A cleanly designed Intranet page, complete with alt tags, is universally appreciated by computer users. E-mail is a welcome and accessible alternative to print. Many of the best standards and practices are not onerous or expensive, but can make a significant difference in making the workplace available and inviting to all employees.